My name is Christine Bridges and John Geoffrey Lee, (Geoff) is my dad and I promised him, before he died on 22nd of June 2002, that I would get his book published. Finally, from the 30th of June 2022 his amazing story can now be told.
Geoff joined the RAF on his 20th birthday on 26th June 1941 and trained as ground crew. In November 1941 with his unit, he boarded the Empress of Asia in Liverpool, but no one knew where they were headed. Travelling south, Christmas was spent in Durban and then they were transferred to another ship and onto Egypt. They were then chasing the Blenheim planes which were being flown to the Far East. Eventually Geoff and his compatriots found themselves in Java after being chased from Sumatra by the invading Japanese. In March 1942 the men capitulated to the Japanese, after they over ran Java. Geoff was posted as a deserter to his family back in Nottingham.
For the next two years Geoff was transported around prison camps, somehow surviving four hell ship journeys from Java to Ambon, Ambon back to Java, Java to Changi. From Changi he was transported on a river steamer which blew up. Already suffering from malnutrition, malaria and many other diseases, Geoff and a few survivors were washed ashore twenty-four hours later and recaptured on the island of Sumatra. They were then sent to the Sumatra Railway. Here they were treated as slaves to build a railway across the equator, in appalling jungle conditions with the loss of many lives. Forced to carry heavy rails, man handle train engines, work in searing heat and a flooded river, only scant amounts of food, no medical equipment, bouts of malaria, and extreme cruelty and brutality from the guards – how anyone survived is a miracle. The railway was finished on the 18th of August 1945, and it was common knowledge that all the prisoners were to be executed, although the prisoners didn’t know what the date was. On the 19th all the guards had fled. Geoff was liberated on 20th September 1945 weighing only 6 stone and with a badly infected foot from a bayonet stabbing inflicted by a guard.
Geoff arrived home on the 16th of December 1945 and was sent to hospital at RAF Cosford. Almost straight away, when asked where he’d been in the war, no one believed him. They said there was no such place as the Sumatra Railway and he must have been on the Burma Railway, but this was completed before the Sumatra Railway had started and it was 2000 miles away from Sumatra. They were also told not to talk about their experiences, so he didn’t. He also had to make notes about all that he remembered while at Cosford.
He eventually recovered, although he suffered from Malaria all his life, and just got on with life. Eventually in the 1970’s he started to talk and tried to find out about the Sumatra Railway. He had his paybook (below) which said he’d been in Sumatra, but still no one had heard of it despite contacting the Imperial War Museum, Commonwealth War Graves Commission, and the MOD. The letters and many photos are shown in his book.
Way before computers, he managed to contact three other people who had been on the railway. One in Australia, one in New Zealand and one in Holland. They also were not being believed. As no one believed him, he decided to do something about it and in 1980 he went out to Singapore by Concorde and onto Sumatra, and with the help of the Caltex Oil Company, he found engines in the jungle villages. With the evidence he obtained, he submitted it to the IWM, CWGC and MOD but it was in the mid 1980’s before they acknowledged that he was in fact correct. He received many apologies especially from the FEPOW community as many did not believe him and this also meant a lot more men came forward who had been on the Sumatra Railway. Geoff decided to write a book, using his notes written at Cosford. This took him five years to write on a typewriter with two fingers. When he began to send out articles to newspapers and publishers, they were returned as ‘Just another Burma Railway story’. His book is so much about bravery, grit and determination, not only to survive but to prove that he was right all along, and he has shown the world what has been woefully under reported.
Geoff died in 2002 just before his 81st birthday and I can finally say to my dad, I’ve fulfilled my promise to you.
POW on the Sumatra Railway by Geoffrey Lee and edited by Christine and Eddie Bridges is available now.