Obituary: Fergus Anckorn, ‘the Conjuror on the Kwai’ whose talent kept up morale and saved lives

Fergus Anckorn in 2008 (Picture: Julie Summers)
Fergus Anckorn in 2008 (Picture: Julie Summers)
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Fergus Gordon Anckorn, conjuror. Born: 10 December 1918, Dunton Green, near Sevenoaks, Kent. Died: 22 March 2018, Kent, aged 99.

Fergus Anckorn was serving in the 118th Field Regiment Royal Artillery when he was captured by the Imperial Japanese Army after the fall of Singapore in 1942.

Throughout his three-and-half years in captivity, he endured some of the most extreme conditions imaginable, witnessed unflinching brutality at the hands of his captors, and had a number of brushes with death, but he survived, and used his conjuring talent to perform tricks, thus keeping himself – as well as some of his comrades – alive, and earning him the title Conjuror on the Kwai.

The fall of the “Gibraltar of the East” was a devastating blow to morale, with approximately 80,000 British, Indian and Australian troops captured, adding to almost 50,000 captured weeks before.

Anckorn’s story of almost indescribable suffering, courage and mental strength at the hands of the Japanese, imposed upon Allied PoWs working on the Burma-Siam Railway, coupled with his magic, later inspired Lance Corporal Richard Jones, serving in the Household Cavalry, to re-tell his story by way of a card trick to win Britain’s Got Talent in 2016; Anckorn, the longest-serving Magic Circle member, appeared alongside him in the final.

Aged 18, Anckorn, billed as “Wizardus,” had become the youngest member of the Magic Circle, having performed tricks at parties for well over a decade. Following his capture, he was sent north with tens of thousands of others to work on the notorious Burma Railway, aka the Death Railway.

He worked on the Wampo viaduct, which had been carved by hand into the mountainside. One day, Anckorn was ordered to climb up and apply boiling creosote to the wooden structure. Nearing the top, he suffered an attack of vertigo; this prompted a vicious assault by an enraged guard who emptied the creosote over Anckorn’s head, causing blistering and swelling to his skin. “Fortunately, I had a banana leaf hat on my head,” he recalled, “which protected my face, but I was aware of my shoulders and chest suddenly roasting.”

Despatched to Chungkai Camp’s hospital, in Thailand, to recover, Anckorn performed tricks to keep spirits up and so came to the attention of the camp’s commandant, Osato Yoshio, a fan of magic. Anckorn was summoned by Osato and given a coin. To Osato’s delight, it vanished and reappeared in an open tin of fish sitting on his table. Delighted, Osato let Anckorn leave, along with the precious tin of food as it was now deemed “contaminated”; PoWs were regarded as “verminous”.

With food scarce and working up to 16 hours a day in a loincloth and barefooted, the men survived on a few handfuls of rice a day, but when possible resorted to eating anything, including maggots, scorpions, snakes, mice, cats and dogs, though many thousands starved to death. Anckorn realised that he could supplement his and his friends’ meagre food rations by doing magic using the food as props.

Soon after, Anckorn was ordered to perform for some high-ranking guests. In preparation, Osato wrote him a note in order to obtain an egg from the Japanese canteen. Anckorn used the note, which did not specify that he needed a single egg, to acquire 50, which he distributed among comrades. He saved one for his trick and the performance was a triumph.However, the following day Osato summoned him to explain the whereabouts of the other 49 eggs. Aware he faced beheading, “As quick as a flash – I don’t know where I got the inspiration from – I said, ‘Your show was so important, I was rehearsing all day’,” Anckorn explained. “Osato nodded and let me go,” Anckorn said. “To this day he probably knew that I was lying but it was enough to save his face...”

Fergus Anckorn was born in 1918, one of four children, to Alfred and Beatrice. He took to magic after receiving a magic set for his fourth birthday. He left school at 16 and, after cajoling from his father, enrolled on a two-year journalism course at Regent St Polytechnic, but he never pursued it as a career. Upon completion, he had a couple of temporary jobs, before working as a clerk at the Marley Tile Co in Sevenoaks.

Shortly after the outbreak of war in 1939, he was called up. He completed basic training at the Royal Artillery Barracks, Woolwich, where he joined the 118th Royal Artillery as a gunner. Thereafter, he was deployed around the country but also spent time in Joyce Green hospital, Dartford, following a severe skin condition; here he met Lucille Hose, a nurse, who soon became his fiancée. His regiment was shipped off to reinforce the garrison in Singapore in early 1942. However, upon disembarking they were attacked by Japanese fighter bombers. Anckorn survived after jumping into the sea, though five of his comrades were killed.

Days later, he was driving a munitions truck when he ran into another air raid; his truck was blown up, leaving him with severe head injuries, burns and shrapnel wounds to his leg, and his right hand was almost severed. Scarcely alive, he was taken to Alexandra Military Hospital.

The Japanese now besieged Singapore and, on 14 February, the hospital found itself cut off; soon overrun, Japanese troops then perpetrated one of the worst atrocities of the war. With fixed bayonets, they went from ward-to-ward bayonetting or shooting patients; no-one was spared. Glimpsing the flashing blades approaching, Anckorn pulled a pillow over his face and waited, muttering “poor Mum” to himself. Miraculously, they passed by to the next bed. Upon regaining consciousness, “everyone was dead except for me”. Almost 200, mostly British, were murdered. Captured, Anckorn’s arm was crudely operated on but was then found to be gangrenous; it was “disinfected” with maggots, which ate the rotting flesh and then had to be removed from under the skin without anaesthetic. His hand was saved but it was almost crippled.

Having recuperated from his burns at Osato’s camp, he returned to the railway to find all his comrades had perished. One day in August 1945 Anckorn thought the end had come. He was one of five PoWs driven into the jungle, bound and put against trees, without blindfolds, while a machine gun was prepared. After 10 minutes they were returned to the camp, whereupon they discovered that the war had been over for three days.

After liberation, Anckorn weighed just five stone; of his regiment of 980, only 250 survived, but of those taken prisoner in Singapore, two thirds died there. Initially held in Rangoon because he “looked too horrible”, he returned home after three months convalescence, although still only weighing six stone.

Suffering from nightmares, it took a long time to adjust to civilian life. He led a quiet existence, combining magic with his duties as a Special Police officer and a shorthand teacher in Tonbridge.

Anckorn was not a man for self-pity and even considered himself lucky. “We all came through it – it’s amazing what the human frame can put up with and get away with.”

Despite the horrors he suffered and witnessed, he bore no grudges against his captors, and learned to read and write Japanese from a Japanese lady, who eventually paved the way for him to go over to Japan, in 2005, to give lectures about what actually happened. He donated his fees to the Burma Star Association, which supports veterans of the “Forgotten Army” and their widows.

In 2011, his memoir was published, Captivity, Slavery and Survival as a Far East POW: The Conjurer on the Kwai.

He wed Lucille in 1946, and the couple had two children, Simon and Deborah. She predeceased her husband. Anckorn is survived by his children.

MARTIN CHILDS