Memories of the Far East – Major Brett Collier

Words by:
Alan Middleton
Featured in:
June 2016

Henry Brett Collier was born in Widnes, Cheshire in 1920 and made his mark in the world as a soldier, walker and writer. ‘Brett’, as he was always known, entered teacher training college on leaving school, but at the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 he volunteered for the Army.
He was posted to a Lancashire regular infantry battalion serving in the Far East which was, at that time, still at peace. Years later, Brett expressed his opinion that the British Army was completely unprepared for tropical warfare, even though they had spent many years supposedly acclimatising; they had in fact spent every afternoon in bed. The truth became brutally apparent when the Japanese arrived.

Singapore was the subject of a Japanese air attack in December 1941 just hours before Pearl Harbour. Brett’s battalion moved up-country into the Malay Peninsula and fought in a desperate attempt to break through to Australian troops who were surrounded at Parit Sulong Causeway. Sadly they did not succeed and all the Australians were massacred.

Next the battalion withdrew to Singapore Island but Singapore fell to the Japanese in February 1942.

At Easter 1942 Brett sailed for Korea with 1,000 other prisoners of war in an old Clyde built tramp steamer. There were 250 men in each of the four holds, the conditions were appalling and many prisoners died. They lived in semi-darkness with just two toilet buckets for each hold and very little drinking water. The voyage took forty days and on arrival they were set to work in quarries and a goods yard.

After a couple of really bad winters the men were literally sold off in batches of 100. Brett and his group went to Kobe in Japan and he worked as a riveter in a shipyard. Every gang were forced to complete a strict daily quota. Early in 1945 Kobe was completely destroyed by American B29 bombers.

Brett’s group were then sold to a mining company in Nagasaki. They worked from 5am to 7pm in a very wet drift mine under the sea. As men died the length of the shift increased to maintain the level of production. One day, halfway through their shift, all power stopped, lights went out and there was no fresh air. The entrance to the mine was blocked, caused, they supposed, by an earthquake. The men were trapped and started to dig themselves out. They emerged after some fifteen or sixteen hours aghast and unable to believe their eyes at the sight of the sea boiling and the indescribable devastation. Later they learned that the second atomic bomb had been dropped on Nagasaki around noon the previous day.

The lives of Brett and his men had been saved by an incredible combination of circumstances. After the war Brett became head of a school in Malaya before moving to Lincolnshire in 1960 to lecture at what was then Bishop Grosseteste College. It was at this time that he took up the leisure pursuit of walking and eventually became the hero of the Lincolnshire walking and rambling community. He held a variety of positions in the Ramblers’ Association and many other related bodies, affectionately known as ‘the Major’. He helped to establish the route of the Viking Way, the first long distance recreational path in the country. He was an avid leader of walks and scourge of path blocking farmers and ineffectual councils. His deep love of the countryside and wide knowledge of public rights of way in the county enabled him to write and have published many books and articles on walking in Lincolnshire, including the ever popular Pub Walks. Brett Collier died in 2005.

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