Brigadier Sir Philip John Denton Toosey, 12 August 1904 – 22 December 1975
Brigadier Sir Philip John Denton Toosey, 12 August 1904 – 22 December 1975 was the senior Allied officer in the Japanese prisoner-of-war camp at Tha Maa Kham, also known as Tamarkan; in Thailand during World War II. The men at this camp built the Bridge on the River Kwai which was described in a book by Pierre Boulle and later in an Oscar-winning film in which Alec Guinness played the senior British officer. Both the book and film outraged former prisoners because Toosey did not collaborate with the enemy, unlike the fictional Colonel Nicholson.
Toosey was born in Upton Road, Oxton, Wirral. He was educated at home until the age of nine, then at Birkenhead School to the age of thirteen and then at Gresham's School, Holt, Norfolk. His father forbade him from accepting a scholarship to Cambridge and so he was apprenticed to a firm of Liverpool cotton merchants. In 1927 he was commissioned into 59th (4th West Lancs) Medium Brigade RA of the Territorial Army. In 1929 he joined Baring Brothers, merchant bankers as Assistant Agent. His commanding officer in the TA, Colonel Alan Tod, was the Liverpool Agent at the time. He married Muriel Alexandra (Alex) Eccles on 27 July 1932 and they had two sons and a daughter.
In August 1939 he was mobilized and saw brief action in Belgium in May 1940 before retreating back into France. He was evacuated from Dunkirk. Following a course at the Senior Officers' School, he commanded and trained a home defence battery at Cambridge. In 1941, promoted lieutenant-colonel, he was appointed to command the 1/35th Hertfordshire Yeomanry regiment. In October 1941, his unit was shipped to the Far East. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Order for heroism during the defence of Singapore. Because of his qualities of leadership, his superiors ordered him on 12 February 1942 to join the evacuation of Singapore, but Toosey refused so that he could remain with his men during their captivity.
Toosey and his men were required (contrary to the Geneva Convention) to build railway bridges over the Khwae Yai near where it joins the Khwae Noi to form the Mae Klong in Thailand. The Khwae Mae Khlong above the confluence was renamed the Khwae Yai in 1960. This was part of a project to link existing Thai and Burmese railway lines to create a route from Bangkok to Rangoon to support the Japanese occupation of Burma. About a hundred thousand conscripted Asian labourers and 12,000 prisoners of war died on the whole project, which was nicknamed the Death Railway.
A camp was established at Tamarkan, which is about five kilometres from Kanchanaburi. In the Tamarkan camp, Toosey worked courageously to ensure that as many as possible of the 2,000 Allied prisoners would survive. He endured regular beatings when he complained of ill-treatment of prisoners, but as a skilled negotiator he was able to win many concessions from the Japanese by convincing them that this would speed the completion of the work. Toosey also organised the smuggling in of food and medicine, working with Boonpong Sirivejjabhandu. Boonpong was a Thai merchant who supplied camps at the southern end of the railway taking great risks and was honoured after the war.
Toosey maintained discipline in the camp and, where possible, cleanliness and hygiene. His policy was of unity and equality and so refused to allow a separate officers' mess or officers' accommodation. He also ordered his officers to intervene if necessary to protect the men. For his conduct in the camp, he won the undying respect of his men. He was considered by many to be the outstanding British officer on the railway.
Behind the backs of the Japanese, Toosey did everything possible to delay and sabotage the construction without endangering his men. Refusal to work would have meant instant execution. White ants were collected in large numbers to eat the wooden structures and the concrete was badly mixed. Toosey also helped organise a daring escape, at considerable cost to himself. (In the film the fictional colonel forbids escapes.) The two escaping officers had been given a month's rations and Toosey concealed their escape for 48 hours. After a month the two escapees were recaptured and bayoneted. Toosey was punished for concealing the escape.
The film portrays the Japanese as not being capable of designing a good bridge and so needed British expertise. This is incorrect; the Japanese army had excellent engineers who surprised their enemies by completing the railway within 16 months, albeit at vast human cost — British Army engineers had estimated five years. The Allies were just slave labourers.
Two bridges were built: a temporary wooden bridge and a few months later a permanent steel and concrete bridge which was completed in 1943. At the end of the film the wooden bridge is destroyed by a commando raid. Actually, both bridges were used for two years until they were destroyed by Allied aerial bombing, the steel bridge first in June 1945; there had been seven previous bombing missions. The steel bridge has been repaired and is still in use today.
After completion of the steel bridge the majority of fit men were moved to camps further up the line. Toosey was ordered to organize Tamarkan as a hospital, which he did despite difficulties including minimal food and medical supplies. The Japanese considered it the best-run prisoner-of-war camp on the railway and gave him considerable autonomy. In December 1943 he was transferred to help run Nong Pladuk camp, and in December 1944 he was moved to the allied officers' camp at Kanchanaburi where he was the liaison officer with the Japanese. He and some other officers had been separated from his men at Nakhon Nayok camp and was being held there as a hostage when Japan surrendered in August 1945. At that time, Toosey weighed 105 pounds; before the war he weighed 175 pounds. Despite his weak state, Toosey insisted on travelling 300 miles (500 km) into the jungle to oversee the liberation of his men.
After the war, Toosey saved the life of Sergeant-Major Saito (not a colonel as in the film). Saito was second in command at the camp and was thought to be not as bad as many of the guards. Toosey spoke up for him and as a result Saito did not stand trial. Over 200 Japanese were hanged for their crimes and many more served long prison sentences. Saito respected Toosey greatly and they corresponded after the war.
Saito later said: "He showed me what a human being should be and he changed the philosophy of my life."
After Toosey died, Saito travelled from Japan to visit the grave. Only after Saito died in 1990 did even his family know that Saito had become a Christian. After the war Toosey resumed his service with the Territorial Army and was promoted brigadier. He retired from the TA in 1954, and was awarded a CBE in 1955. Toosey also returned to banking with Barings in Liverpool and expanded their services greatly. He worked for the veterans all his life, and in 1966 became President of the National Federation of Far Eastern Prisoners of War.
The film The Bridge on the River Kwai was released in 1957. In the film, the senior British officer was portrayed as working with the Japanese. This was regarded by many former prisoners of war as a gross travesty of the truth. Toosey initially refused repeated requests by the veterans to speak out against the film, being much too modest to seek any glory or recognition for himself. Eventually he was persuaded to write a letter to the Daily Telegraph, which caused several other veterans to emphasise the injustice that had occurred. Nevertheless the film was highly successful and so formed the public perception of events at Tamarkan. As a result Toosey agreed several years later to be interviewed by Professor Peter Davies, providing 48 hours of taped interviews on the understanding that they were not to be published until after Toosey's death. Eventually Davies documented Toosey's achievements in a 1991 book entitled The Man Behind the Bridge and a BBC Timewatch programme. A book by his oldest granddaughter, Julie Summers, The Colonel of Tamarkan, was published in 2005.
Toosey was a Justice of the Peace, High Sheriff of Lancashire, and raised funds for the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine. In 1974 he was awarded an honorary LLD by Liverpool University and was knighted. Philip Toosey died on 22nd December 1975. The Territorial Army Barracks on Aigburth Road in Liverpool was renamed The Brigadier Phillip Toosey Barracks. His ashes were buried in Landican Cemetery outside Birkenhead.