Obituary: Tom McKie, Second World War veteran

Tom McKie: Courageous veteran PoW who survived the Death Railway
Tom McKie: Courageous veteran PoW who survived the Death Railway
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Born: 22 July, 1920, in Dumfriesshire. Died: 24 March, 2015, aged 94

Tom McKie was a former soldier and prisoner of war of the Japanese who during the Second World War survived the terror of the Death Railway built between Thailand and Burma at an enormous cost in human life.

Born in a small village near Dumfries where his father worked on the railway, Tom and his family moved to a small railway house at Closeburn, near Thornhill, when he was very young. He was second in a family of six and things became difficult when his father died when Tom was only 11.

Leaving school at 15, Tom began work in the forests which surrounded the area and when 19, volunteered for the Lanarkshire Yeomanry, the local territorial regiment. The Yeomanry was a volunteer cavalry unit which recruited from Lanarkshire and Dumfriesshire.

On the outbreak of the war, Tom was mobilised and joined his regiment at Lanark. However, within a very short period of time, he was part of a detachment of the Yeomanry sent to France to assist the British Expeditionary Force. His role was on the ill-famed Maginot Line – a series of fortifications on the French-German Border – where he remained until June the following year when the Wehrmacht swept through the Low Countries, by-passing the fixed defences of the Maginot Line.

Ordered to make his own way home, Tom and some others hitched their way across France until reaching the Channel coast where they persuaded a young French fisherman to ferry them across the Channel. But no sooner was he safely on British soil than he was sent back to sea, this time as part of the escort aboard the SS Arandora Star which was conveying Italian internees and German prisoners of war to Canada.

They were only one day out from Liverpool and in the Atlantic north of Ireland, when they were sunk by a German U-Boat. Tom was among the survivors and returned to his regiment to find that it was now part of the Royal Artillery.

In March 1941, Tom and his regiment, the 155th (Lanarkshire Yeomanry) Field Regiment, RA, were sent to India to prepare for action in the North African Desert against Rommel’s Afrika Korps but the increasingly belligerent attitude of the Japanese resulted in two batteries being ordered to Malaya. Tom’s battery was destined to stay behind in India but on the day the other two batteries were entraining, Tom was at the railway station on other duties when spotted by one of the battery commanders, Major Jock Wilson.

“Come over here, McKie”, Maj Wilson shouted, “we are short a man”.

When Tom protested that he had no equipment he was told:

“It’s men we need, not equipment. Get over here!” And so Tom found himself en route for duty in Malaya and subsequent hell as a PoW of the Japanese. Maj Wilson was later killed by a sniper in January 1942 at the battle of Bata Pahat in Malaya.

Tom fought with his regiment from Jitra in the north of Malaya all the way down the peninsula. In January 1942 they found themselves in “fortress” Singapore.

On 15 February 1942 Singapore fell to the Japanese and Tom was among the tens of thousands of Allied servicemen who, as prisoners of war, trudged their way to Changi. Initially held in Changi Jail, they were taken out on one occasion and marched down to the beach. Believing it to be some sort of work party, the young gunners were happy at the prospect of a possible paddle. However, along the edge of the sea, they saw the bodies of dozens of Chinese men, women and children who had been tied in groups and then shot. Tom recalled: ‘We thought that it was our turn next and I turned to the man beside me and said, ‘Well, all the best, hope to see you up there.’”

But the shocked gunners were handed shovels and set to dig holes in the sand to bury the unfortunate Chinese.

Later sent up country to Siam in crammed metal cattle trucks, Tom and thousands of other PoWs slaved on the evil Death Railway. Half-starved and continually abused by brutal and malevolent guards, the men ­laboured as slaves.

Tom counted himself lucky that he managed to avoid chronic sickness and disease. He was frequently a volunteer on burial parties – except that they did not bury the unfortunate cholera victims… they burned them on funeral pyres. “It was a scene from hell that I will never forget,” said Tom.

Once the railway was completed, Tom and the others were returned down line to the large clearing camp at Non Pladuk in Thailand. Towards the end of the war, the railway was virtually unusable owing to Allied bombings and, as an alternative, the Japanese began to build a road from Mergui in the west of Siam to Burma. Tom was among those selected as labour.

He recalled: “The railway was bad but this was worse.”

Food was non-existent and more than half the PoWs died from disease and malnutrition. Eventually the terror was to end. The first Tom knew was when the Japanese guards disappeared – one minute they were there, the next they were gone.

Making his way on foot down the muddy track of the so-called “Mergui Road” along with the other pitiful survivors, Tom experienced many scenes of horror. “Even worse than the railway”, he said. That he survived, he maintains, was down to his sheer bloody-mindedness and determination to survive. And survive he did.

Once repatriated, Tom was one of the first of the Thornhill contingent of PoWs to arrive back home but each day was a nightmare with relatives of others of the 155th seeking information on their loved ones. Tom could barely endure it and was relieved to be sent to Glasgow where he was discharged as medically unfit for further army service.

Sent to a resettlement centre in Wolverhampton, he initially tried to join the police but was unsuccessful. Walking along the street one day he saw a notice about careers in the prison service and within days was once more behind bars.

He had a long and successful career spending most of his service at Winson Green Prison in Birmingham where he got to know the Russian spy, Konon Molody, better known as Gordon Lonsdale, mastermind of the Portland Spy Ring. In 1964, just before being exchanged for the British businessman, Greville Wynne, who had been arrested by the Russians for espionage, Molody confided in Tom that he did not expect to have a long life. In this he was correct, dying in mysterious circumstances not long after he had been returned to Russia.

After his retiral, Tom concentrated his efforts in the work of the Far East PoW organisations which looked after the interests of former prisoners and their families, an interest which he had begun following his return from the Far East after the war. He was a well-known and popular figure, most prominently as Standard Bearer of the Birmingham Branch of the FEPOW Group.

In recent years, despite his increasing age, he featured prominently in a number of FEPOW related events, not least his 2012 appearance on the TV documentary, Singapore 1942: End of Empire. Only last year he was a guest of honour at the London premiere of the film, The Railway Man where he greatly impressed actor Colin Firth who played the part of PoW Eric Lomax.

In February of this year, Tom was an invited guest at Buckingham Palace at an event to celebrate the birthday of Sophie, the Countess of Wessex, patron of the Java Club, a FEPOW organisation with which Tom was closely involved. He was tickled pink when, on being introduced to the Queen, she addressed him by his first name and chatted with him for some time.

Tom’s wife Jean died four years ago and although they had no children of their own, their god-daughter, Wendy, filled that place for them. Our sympathy is extended to Wendy and all Tom’s friends in the FEPOW world. He will be sorely missed.