Obituary: Jimmy Mowatt, Scottish barber who survived appalling treatment as a PoW on the ‘Death Railway’

An estimated 120,000 lives had been lost in the process of constructing the rail link that Jimmy Mowatt had helped build, the so-called 'Death Railway'. Mowatt survived several other atrocities during his military service.
An estimated 120,000 lives had been lost in the process of constructing the rail link that Jimmy Mowatt had helped build, the so-called 'Death Railway'. Mowatt survived several other atrocities during his military service.
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Born: 16 January, 1919, in St Cyrus. Died: 16 December, 2011, in Laurencekirk, aged 92

FORMER prisoner of war Jimmy Mowatt always regarded himself as having been lucky. Given the litany of horrors that befell him that view seems almost inconceivable today. There is no doubt, though, that he was a born survivor, capable of enduring some of the worst conditions experienced by any troops captured during the Second World War.

Fed starvation rations, he was forced to carve out the notorious Death Railway between Thailand and Burma where he helped build the wooden bridge over the River Kwai. During a subsequent voyage to Japan he almost perished when his PoW ship was torpedoed and sunk. Rescued from the sea, he was packed off to endure a freezing Taiwanese winter before being put to work again in a Japanese lead mine.

After the war he recuperated in Australia, returning to Scotland to resume his old life as a barber in lush Lewis Grassic Gibbon country, at Laurencekirk in the Howe o’ the Mearns – lucky to be there at all.

He was born in the rural north-east of Scotland at St Cyrus, near Montrose, and went to school at nearby Johnshaven, notching up a perfect attendance during his decade of education. When he left school at 15 his mother decided he would become a hairdresser and he learned his trade with an uncle in Inverbervie. By the time he was 16 he was already in business on his own.

He enlisted in the Gordon Highlanders in the summer, 1939, initially for only six months but the country was on the eve of war and soon he found himself training for active service. He sailed for Singapore in 1940 and “mostly mucked about there”, as he put it later, until the Japanese invasion of the Malaya in December the following year when he was sent to Johore on the mainland, to counter the Japanese advance.

As a sniper in B Company, he faced a great deal of small arms fire from the Japanese and after fighting a rearguard action back to Singapore, was part of the last squad to leave Malaya and cross the causeway. When Singapore fell he was taken prisoner and marched to Changi before being sent to Thailand where he worked in No 2 Group, building the 400km railway line to Burma.

Conditions were horrific. Vicious beatings were commonplace, diseases such as cholera and malaria rife and food limited to a portion of rice a day. The work was relentless and backbreaking – hauling tree trunks and carving ledges out of sheer rock on cliffs above a river, often while suffering infected and ulcerated leg wounds. The ordeal – and the courage – of the prisoners was highlighted in a film a decade later, Bridge on the River Kwai, which featured the wooden bridge he had helped build.

Around 60,000 Allied PoWs and 180,000 Asian workers are thought to have worked as slave labour on the route constructed to provide a safe transport link for Japanese supplies between Burma and Thailand. Mowatt worked along the length of the railway.

In 1943 the two sections of the line met and an estimated 120,000 lives had been sacrificed in the effort – one for every sleeper laid, it is said. Like most of the PoWs who survived the construction Mowatt was then taken from Thailand and shipped to Japan. En route, the vessel was attacked in the Philippines by a US force of almost 100 torpedo bombers. It went down in five minutes, killing more than 1,000 prisoners. Mowatt clung to a piece of floating wreckage with a companion. “He gave up and drowned,” he later recalled, “but I told myself that I wasn’t going to give up. I was finally found by a Japanese ship. I saw a light so I shouted and shouted and they threw a rope ladder over the side for me but I hardly had the strength to climb up but I forced myself.”

He was then interned over winter in a freezing PoW camp in Formosa (now Taiwan) before being moved to Japan. It was icy cold and he had virtually no clothes but was put to work underground in a lead mine until the war ended. The Americans, who had previously been on bombing missions above the captive prisoners, then became their saviours, dropping food and clothing. “We were told not to over-eat as we were not used to rich food,” he explained.

After a period in Yass, New South Wales, he sailed home and was demobbed in November 1945. Back in Laurencekirk he returned to life as a barber, still the same patter merchant with a great sense of humour. Over the years he had several shops in the town and, on his half-day, he would go to cut hair in Fettercairn, where he met his wife Jean.

They married in 1951 and had two children, Fraser and Jane. Aside from his work and his family, his interests revolved around racing pigeons, woodwork and his garden where he grew prize-winning vegetables.

It was a return to a life he could barely have envisaged during those dark days in captivity. But, as he explained to his daughter decades later, he had always told himself then: “I’m going home”.

A widower, he is survived by his son and daughter and grandchildren Stuart, Graeme, Alix and James.