DYING at the age of 92, Albert Topping, chorister, hairdresser and gardener, was one of the last survivors of the notorious Burma Death Railway. He was also torpedoed, he escaped death when the aircraft he was supposed to have been on crashed, killing all on board, and much later, survived cancer of the voice box.
Albert was born in York, the fifth child in a family of eight whose father, John, worked as a coach painter in Selby. He went to St Lawrence Primary School and the Model School, leaving at 14, and already his resilient character was in evidence as he went about life in a quiet, determined manner.
He became an apprentice hairdresser in York, returning to the family home in Selby when he was 21, and there he worked as a hairdresser until he was called up that same year.
As a gunner with the Royal Artillery, he did his basic training at Catterick, and was Acting Sergeant with the 2nd Battery, 80th Regiment (Anti-tank), Royal Artillery when it was sent, in 1941, to reinforce the troops in Singapore.
Following the Japanese invasion, he was sent to the front line just as the British forces were making a tactical withdrawal. There he was saved by the quick action of a Gurkha who spotted a Japanese sniper taking aim at him from his hideout in a tree; the Gurkha fired first and brought the sniper crashing to the ground. In gratitude, for many years after the war Albert and his wife Joyce supported the Gurkha Welfare Trust.
Albert's fate was to be made a prisoner of war by the Japanese when General Percival surrendered the Singapore garrison.
Initially he was put into forced labour at the Singapore docks, with the beatings and starvation diet which that entailed. Then he was sent to a new prison camp at Ban Pong in Thailand – the starting point of what was to be the infamous Burma death railway. Scurvy, typhoid and dysentery were rampant throughout the camp, and medical supplies derisory. Albert and his companions heaved baskets of clay and soil to create the railway embankments.
Albert would see eight of his best friends die as a result of privation, disease and maltreatment.
The work and the beatings and the dying continued until the railway was finished in October 1943, and then the survivors were returned to Malay to be shipped to Japan as slave labourers. He was one of the 900 British troops being transported aboard the Kachidoki Maru when she was torpedoed by the US submarine USS Pampanito. Albert, held in the mid-hold, scrambled up to the deck and jumped overboard and was pulled aboard a make-shift raft, already dangerously overloaded. Certain it would capsize, he took his chances and swam to a hatch cover floating nearby and clung to it for the next 14 hours.
Many of the 500 survivors were rescued by American submarines, but Albert was picked up by a Japanese destroyer and landed on Honshu, and still wearing little else than the blanket he had been given when hauled out of the sea, was taken by train to Tokyo and then marched in freezing conditions to a work camp where the PoWs were equipped with wooden boxes strapped to their backs to transfer coal from quayside freighters to a near-by railway sidings.
The hard labour and ill-treatment continued until the Japanese capitulation in August, 1945. It was not until September, however, that Albert was put aboard a hospital ship and taken to the Philippines where his slow recovery began. He was then to be flown to the USA, but there wasn't room for him on the flight and he was assigned to a troopship. The aircraft he would have been on crashed, killing all on board.
He eventually docked at Southampton in November.
A devout Christian, Albert always believed that his faith had given him the strength to survive his wartime ordeals. By May 1946 he had so much recovered that he could resume his career as a hairdresser in Selby.
He married in May 1949. Albert sang with choirs before and after the war at Selby, Market Weighton, and Bubwith where he was eventually choirmaster, and he grew roses and vegetables with great success. He and wife Joyce travelled extensively in Europe, and in 1983 Albert returned to Kanchaburi in Thailand.
He supported York City from the age of 10, and in 1967, his eldest son Chris became City's first apprentice professional, finishing his career as player manager with Northallerton Town.
At a convention at Gunton Hall of the Far East Prisoners of War Association (FEPOW) Albert met George Stevens, a fellow survivor of the Kachidoki Maru, and they nominated each other as members of the South China Sea Swimming Club.
Albert was chairman of the York branch of the FEPOW until reduced membership caused it to close.
In 1990, after it was found he had two tumours in his voice box he received radiotherapy, and 10 years later he was given the all clear.
He is survived by his wife Joyce, their children Susan, Christopher, Peter, John and Janet, nine grandchildren and 13 great grandchildren.