Obituary: Major Joseph Gordon Smith, 93

Gordon Smith. Picture: SWNS
Gordon Smith. Picture: SWNS
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A FORMER army major who survived being forced to work on the construction of the bridge made famous by the film ‘The Bridge on the River Kwai’ has died aged 93.

Major Joseph Gordon Smith was born in Edinburgh on October 23, 1920 and educated at Melville College before studying medicine at Edinburgh University.

However, in 1939, just two years into his course, he left to enlist and was commissioned in 1941, going to Malaya with 2nd Battalion the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders.

After the Japanese invaded in January 1942, he was injured after being ambushed at the Battle of Slim River and was knocked into a ditch by sniper fire, suffering three bullet wounds in his elbow.

When he recovered consciousness, he found his arm was completely paralysed and that he had become separated from his company.

He then came under fire again as he ran into the jungle and only managed to find 50 men from his battalion after walking for miles.

However, after marching for weeks the men were betrayed and taken to prison at Pudu jail in Kuala Lumpur, where they were greeted with the sight of long boards with the decapitated heads of Chinese prisoners fixed to them.

That September he was crammed into a railway boxcar with 25 others for a four-day journey to Tamarkan, near Kanchanaburi. When he got there he found that prisoners had to sleep in the open until they finished building a hutted camp in preparation for their role in building the notorious Burma-Siam Railway.

Major Smith first worked on the construction of the bridges over the river and was able to put his training to good use when the compound was converted into a hospital camp.

When the camp was closed, Major Smith was transferred to an officers’ camp at Kanchanaburi where the Japanese planned to execute them all by the end of August 1945.

However, he was saved by the dropping of the atom bombs and later liberated at Bangkok.

When the war finished he was transferred to the Royal Army Ordnance Corps and spent several years in Germany working on bomb disposal operations.

When he returned home he married his childhood sweetheart, Sheela Gleeson, in 1946 and when she died in the 1960s he was married again, to Marguerite Delavenay, in 1983. He began working at De Havilland Aircraft Company Limited on the Blue Streak missile in 1959 and, ten years later, served as a safety officer in French Guiana for the Europa rocket project. He spent his retirement in the south of France before returning to Scotland for his final three years.

In 2008 he published War Memories: A Medical Student in Malaya and Thailand.

Major Smith died in Peebles on April 22 and is survived by his wife, now 82, and his two sons and a daughter from his first marriage.