The Colonel of Tamarkan

Philip Toosey and the Bridge on the River Kwai

When Alec Guinness won his Oscar for the role as Colonel Nicholson in the film Bridge on the River Kwai nothing could have been further from his mind than the feelings of the real life colonel who, as prisoner of the Japanese in the second world war, was forced to build a bridge over a major river in order to help the Japanese supply route from Thailand to Burma. After all, the role was entirely fictional. It was based on a film which itself was based on a novel by a then little known French writer called Pierre Boulle.

What few knew and fewer still understood was that the story of the Bridge on the River Kwai was loosely based on a notorious episode in the Second World War. The irony was that whereas in the film Colonel Nicholson had had to help the Japanese to build their bridge, in reality the Japanese were skilled engineers and the main role of the real life colonel, Phil Toosey, was to ensure that the men under his command suffered as little as possible at the hands of their unforgiving captors.

Toosey was a merchant banker in civilian life but had been an active officer in the Territorial Army since 1925. When he was caught up in Singapore, the worst military defeat in British history, he refused to take the easy way out and be evacuated to India but chose to remain with his men. His story is one of bloody-minded determination not to give up in the face of an implacable enemy.

Phil Toosey photographed in South America, 1935
© Toosey Family Collection
The ‘real’ Bridge on the River Kwai
© Rod Beattie, TBRC
Cartoon drawn in Ubon prisoner of war camp in August 1945 by Dutch artist Jan Van Holthe and presented to Toosey by the Dutch in gratitude for his leadership
© Toosey Family Collection
Phil Toosey in his study at Heathcote in the early 1970s at a time when he was recording his memoirs
© Toosey Family Collection
Click here to hear an excerpt of the interview

Published in 2005 by Simon & Schuster

ISBN 978-0743263504

“…seldom have I been so impressed and moved by a story. It is the telling that gives him the justice and understanding that he so richly deserves.”
Sir Peter de la Billiere
“It is difficult to quantify what makes a good biography. All I know is that, for me, The Colonel of Tamarkan, by Julie Summers is exceptional. It is well researched, brilliantly written and has insights about its subject, Philip Toosey, that go far beyond most military biographies. I’d even go as far as to say that only Julie Summers could have written it..”
Mary Zacaroli,
Oxford Times
“A gripping narrative and at the same time a highly sympathetic insight into life in the prison camps and then the post war strains of adjustment.”
“This outstanding biography is a necessary corrective to the altered and incomplete character portrayed by Alec Guinness in the film. Julie Summers describes in enthralling detail the life of a man who served the Far Eastern prisoners of war right up until his death in 1975, and whose conduct marked him out as a true British hero.”
Thomas Butts,
Books Quarterly
Related media

Liam Murphy wrote an article about the Captured exhibition in the Liverpool Daily Post in June 2009Click here to read the article.

The article featured a recording of an Interview with Phil Toosey. Click here to listen to the interview.

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