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Siam-Burma Railway P.O.W. Archive with Ronald Searle Drawings

4th June 2021.

An extraordinary Second World War Archive relating to Changi P.O.W. Camp, Singapore and the building of the Siam-Burma Railway along the River Kwai is coming up for auction in Tennants Auctioneers’ Militaria and Ethnographica Sale on 30th June (estimate: £2,000-4,000 plus buyer’s premium). The archive was collected by prisoner Captain Harry Edward Witheford (1912-2008) and includes hand-drawn greetings cards and a calendar by friend, fellow prisoner and renowned illustrator Ronald Searle.

Captain Harry Edward Witheford served in the 45th Brigade of the Indian Army became a prisoner of the Japanese in Malaya after the fall of Singapore in 1942. He was imprisoned in the notorious Changi prison, and forced to work on the Siam-Burma railway. Harry made many friends amongst his fellow prisoners, including Ronald Searle and Australian author Russell Braddon. Braddon later recounted his experiences in a bestselling memoir The Naked Island, a copy of which is included in the archive. The book was one of the first to describe in grim detail the appalling suffering of prisoners, and Harry is mentioned in the book. Braddon recounts the kindness offered by Harry when Braddon arrived at a camp, ‘Though I live to be a thousand, the warmth of that greeting and the gift of that food after the sterile months of want that had gone before will never leave me’.  Harry survived the war, and after a spell working in Kenya during the 1950s, he and his family settled in North Yorkshire. Both Harry and his wife Edna had a long and happy live together and lived well into their nineties.

Alongside a framed group of medals awarded to Witheford, which comprise the 1939-45 Star, Burma Star, Defence and War Medals, the archive includes Witheford’s commission papers, his handwritten journal, much of which he writes to his wife Edna, and a host of sketches presumably by his own hand showing life in camp and photographs of the railway and Burmese jungle. Most notable are the illustrated greetings cards and calendar signed by Ronald Searle. Searle, who is best known as a satirical cartoonist and creator of St. Tinian’s, documented in sketches the brutal conditions experienced by the prisoners, determined to record the brutality even if he didn’t survive. He resorted to hiding sketches under the mattress of a fellow prisoner dying of cholera. Many of his sketches were published in Braddon’s book, and a collection of forty drawings were published by the Cambridge University Press in 1946, a copy of which will be sold with the archive. He later went on to serve as a courtroom artist at the Nuremburg Trials.

The archive is being sold by a friend of Harry and Edna Witheford’s son.

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