Obituary: Captain Kenneth McLeod, businessman and soldier

Scot who helped build the bridge over the River Kwai while he was a prisoner of war

Captain Kenneth McLeod, businessman and soldier.

Born: 20 June, 1918, in Bridge of Weir.

Died: 3 March, 2011, in Erskine, aged 92.

KENNY McLeod was held prisoner of war by the Japanese and helped build the bridge over the River Kwai in the Second World War.

One of the last survivors of the Burma railway, McLeod suffered terribly through illness and starvation and only escaped execution by days due to the dropping of the atomic bomb.

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Despite these hardships, after the war he went on to become a successful businessman, scratch golfer and family man.

McLeod joined the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders as a private in June 1939, became an officer after training and was posted to France.

However, the continental ports were being bombed and so he was sent to Singapore.

When the Imperial Japanese Army launched its initial attack from the north, he was training in the Malaya jungle. The enemy advance was rapid and unstoppable. Leaving regimental headquarters and crossing a football pitch, he was at the penalty area when he saw a Japanese tank behind the goal. He sprinted to a tree and was wounded by a splinter from gunfire.

He went straight into action with the 2nd Argylls at the Battle of Slim River, positioned around Trolak village to protect 12 Brigade HQ. The first four Japanese tanks to arrive were mistaken for retreating Bren carriers from the Punjab regiment, allowing the enemy to split the battalion in two.

McLeod found himself behind enemy lines with a group of stragglers, and decided to make for Singapore. He carried a wounded officer for two days and had covered about 100 miles on foot when they were ambushed.

He escaped into the jungle, but surrendered when his name was called out to prevent the captured soldiers being shot.

The Japanese bayoneted food tins to find out the contents, allowing them to putrify, as a result McLeod became paralysed in both legs through poisoning and was admitted to hospital in Kuala Lumpur.

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After recovering, he went to Siam with No 1 work party, which built two bamboo camps at Tamarkan, before starting work on the wooden bridge on the north bank of the River Kwai. Despite being sick and weak, McLeod and another officer tried to boost morale among the prisoners by successfully carrying a length of railway line over a set course to win a bet. Spirits were also kept up by growing their own tobacco, with pages from their Bibles as rolling paper.

To get medicines from the natives, he exchanged petrol which he obtained by duping the Japanese guards, claiming it was needed for their wood-burning, steam-powered road roller. Such brazen deception, if discovered, would almost certainly have resulted in his being beheaded.

Determined not to help the Japanese war effort, McLeod secretly sabotaged his own work on the wooden bridge by farming termite eggs which he placed at each joint and at the base of every upright. He was nearly killed when Allied aircraft attacked with tracer rounds, spraying him with boiling water from a punctured drum.

Sleeping under canvas or in the open on the 258-mile route to Burma, he laid rails through jungle and mountains, using a six-pound sledgehammer to chisel rock for blasting cuttings. Two PoW army doctors helped him on the way, one pulling out a tooth with pliers and the other attempting to rejoin tendons in his hand, badly injured in action.

As well as enduring beatings, the prisoners had to fight deadly illnesses such as dysentery, malaria, dengue fever, gangrene and jaundice. They barely survived on a diet of rotten vegetables and weevil-infested rice.

The Japanese segregated McLeod and other Allied officers from the ranks when the railway was completed, and marched them away. He later discovered they had been saved from execution by 48 hours with the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima on 6 August, 1945, bringing an end to the war.

McLeod was 6ft 2in and weighed nearly 14 stone when he first enlisted. By the time he returned to the UK he was an emaciated six stones and could barely walk. Some 90,000 Asian labourers and 16,000 Allied PoWs died building the Burma Railway. Speaking at a remembrance service 60 years later, Mr McLeod, a committed Christian, recalled: "Many of my friends and colleagues did not survive but two things helped me to keep going and not give up, and these were faith and hope."

Kenneth Inglis McLeod was born on 20 June, 1918, at the family home in Bridge of Weir. A sporting all-rounder, he was an international boy golfer and represented Renfrewshire and the 12th Province at curling.

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He was a member of the Highland Clan Curling Club and skipped the team which won the Scottish Rink Championship and the Stirling Maxwell, Bull and McLeod cups, among other honours.

He went to Glasgow High School and joined the Glasgow Stock Exchange as a runner before enlisting in the Argylls militia. He trained at Tillicoultry and was selected for officer cadet training. After returning to Argylls Regimental HQ in Alva, he was posted to Auchengate in Barassie, Ayrshire, where he was made Acting Captain and platoon commander. In Singapore, where he had enjoyed the sporting facilities at Raffles Hotel, he was tasked with drawing up a defensive plan for the east coast shortly before war broke out.

Following demobilisation, he became a travelling salesman for a chemical firm and got married. Returning from honeymoon in Skye, he and his new bride were offered a lift by the film star, James Robertson Justice. It was not his first celebrity encounter. While in the army, he and two fellow officers, dressed in their kilts, had gone to the theatre and attracted the attention of performer Evelyn Leigh, who invited them to her after-show party.

McLeod relaunched Katherine Henderson Ltd, joking that he wanted to "get into ladies' underwear". The shops were in Sauchiehall Street and Buchanan Street, Glasgow, and in Paisley High Street. The company office in Glasgow's Queen Street was where McLeod founded the West End Corset Co.

He was the firm's man on the road, and, as a scratch golfer, would take his clubs with him on sales trips to North Berwick, Edinburgh and Nairn, where a game with the local professional would often result. In the late 1960s he sold the shop and office in Paisley and bought Aileen Killin, a dress shop in Kilmarnock Road, Glasgow. He also organised fashion parades before retiring in the late 1980s.

The legacy of his war experiences affected his health, and he suffered bouts of malaria for the rest of his days. However, his positive outlook, along with an ability to separate the past from the present, carried him through.

He enjoyed flyfishing in the wilds, beach picnics with his family, or playing golf. His late brother, Walter, was president of Royal Troon and McLeod would play a game there every Saturday up until last October.

His medals, Glengarry and sporran will be donated by his family to the Argylls regimental museum at Stirling Castle, where he was based nearly 70 years ago.

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McLeod's son, Donald, said: "He would talk about the funny or unusual things that happened to him in the Far East but nothing else. It was only when he was with other former officers from the Argylls, who had also been there, that they would discuss what went on. I was lucky to hear some of it on fishing trips when I was a teenager."

The same eye for distance that made McLeod a success at golf also gave him an advantage with 3in mortar teams.

Donald added: "Ben Hogan, one of the great golfers of his day, could not believe that someone like my father, who had been bayoneted through the hand and was basically disabled, could beat him by three shots."

McLeod is survived by wife Sheila, children Moira and Donald, grandchildren Kim, Iain, Kirsty and Fiona, and great-grandchildren Finley, Ines and Kyle.