From Norway to Singapore and the River Kwai
06:00 11 May 2014
A Harpford veteran’s wartime ‘adventures’ saw him holed-up in labour camps on the River Kwai for much of the World War Two – but he still calls the war the ‘highlight of my life’.
Now 93, Captain Raymond Savage looks back on the excitement of the conflict with fondness, knowing he was lucky to return at all.
He was born in 1919 after his father, a Subalten in the Middlesex Regiment, returned from the Great War, so when conflict broke out in 1939, he and his friends saw it as a grand adventure.
The 18-year-old left his job as a City banker to join the army’s officer producing unit, The Artists Rifles, and was posted to the 5th battalion of the Leicestershire Regiment. They were sent to Norway but faced order, counter order and disorder that put them outnumbered and outgunned against German tanks and planes.
The men skied to safety in Sweden and were repatriated by the Red Cross – after being interned for six months. Raymond was redeployed, this time in the Far East, and his battalion was the first to encounter the Japanese – approaching from the sea and with complete air superiority. He escaped unscathed, by luck, and good fortune saved him again in his role of Brigade Liaison Officer.
The withdrawal continued until the fall of Singapore, when he was captured by the Japanese and taken to Changi, a notorious prisoner camp. For the next three and a half years they were marched from camp to camp, on the River Kwai, where Raymond was in a camp with Colonel Toosey. Raymond described him as a wonderful man, but said he was lampooned in The Bridge over the River Kwai. Col Toosey reasoned with the Japanese, and said if they treated them better, they would get better work.
“Then the bomb fell, and the Japs fell apart,” he said. “It was quite pathetic.”
When they were liberated, the colonel commandeered a train to follow a rumour of a camp nobody knew about near the border of French Indo-China. Another senior officer, a Colonel Smiley, proved a similar inspiration. He was part of the Special Operations Executive and was parachuted in, and when the troops first set eyes on him he was in full military dress, compared to their torn rags.
The colonel was in touch with London, but the capital was out of touch with the realities of the campaign. Orders from home included rescuing the beleaguered French forces across the border – even by rearming the Japanese captives – but it was not a risk he was willing to take.
Raymond sailed back from the Far East via Suez, where he was surprised by meeting his brother, Llewellyn, a Gunner captain, who managed to commandeer a boat from the Cairo hospital where he was recovering from wounds. Raymond arrived back in England soon after, warmly welcomed in Liverpool by his parents, but endured hospital treatment for a litany of tropical diseases and malnutrition. “I was very lucky to come back,” he said. “But in a funny sort of way, I consider the war the highlight of my life.”
He was forced to leave his beloved army, and when life in a bowler hat no longer fitted him he moved to an American company, where he remained for the next 55 years.
Just two years after meeting his first wife the Colonial Office offered him a job as a police inspector in Malaya. Forced separation would have been a real test of their relationship, and it was only at the last minute that he pulled out.
Raymond had one final chance at a Far East adventure in 1992 on the 50th anniversary of the fall of Singapore. A party of former prisoners of war made the trip back and their ‘Return to the River Kwai’ was covered extensively by the Sunday Times.
He now lives by the River Otter in a Harpford home he fell in love with at first sight, and stays healthy with a mile-and-a-half walk every morning, come rain or shine.
He enjoys driving his 1949 MG and is a stalwart of the Sidmouth Probus Club.