Lyle Hutley: Bermondsey man who was last soldier to work on infamous Burma Railway dies aged 104

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A Bermondsey-born man who was thought to be the last surviving British soldier to work on the notorious Bridge on the River Kwai has died aged 104.

Horace George Hutley, known as Lyle, was a Japanese prisoner in south-east Asia for several gruelling years after being captured in 1942 in Singapore.

Lyle was born in Bermondsey on May 19, 1917. He grew up as the second of four siblings and left school at the age of fourteen to start work as a van boy, later becoming a delivery driver.

He regularly saw a girl called Ivy Simmons as he was cycling home to Lynton Road from his job. One day he plucked up the courage to ask her on a date – and it was “love at first sight: an unconditional love that lasted 60 years,” his nephew by marriage Bill Ripper said.

But in 1940 Lyle was conscripted into the army to serve his country in the Second World War. He joined the Royal Artillery Service Corp aged 22, where he became a gunner and driver.

He was sent across the English Channel to France, where Allied forces were already in retreat with the German army advancing. He asked Ivy if she would wait for him, not knowing what lay in store. She said yes.

Lyle’s time in France was defined by the desperate retreat from Dunkirk. He remembered thinking of Ivy as he waited to be picked up by British boats from the beach while German planes shot at him and his fellow soldiers from above.

At around the same time Ivy and her family had been bombed out of her house twice, with Bermondsey taking a battering from the Luftwaffe in the Blitz. Luckily they survived both attacks.

Lyle made it back to England and had some leave periods where he and Ivy were able to reunite briefly. He was soon told he would be posted to Africa. He asked Ivy to marry him and she agreed. They were wed at St Mary Magdalene, Bermondsey Street on May 4, 1941 and had just two weeks of married life together before he was deployed again.

Little did they know that they would not see each other again for four years. As Lyle’s ship docked in Africa, the orders changed and he was sent onto Singapore, where he arrived on February 5, 1942 in the middle of the fighting with the Japanese army. He was captured just ten days later as Singapore fell to the invading force and taken to Changi Prison alongside thousands of others.

The captors gave all detainees a postcard to fill in to send to loved ones back home to let them know they were safe.

Bill told the News in 2017 that Lyle’s one line to Ivy read: “PoW but safe. Hope you are too. Forever in my heart. My undying Love. Lyle.”

But the prisoners’ postcards were torn up in front of their faces, and they were told they would never see their loved ones again, after the British commanding officer refused to accept that there would be no attempts to escape, citing the Geneva Convention.

What followed was three years of unimaginable hardship as the prisoners were put to work on the Burma Railway, known as the ‘Death Railway’ because of the thousands of prisoners who died building it. The period was later commemorated in the well-known film The Bridge on the River Kwai, starring Alec Guinness.

Lyle suffered torture, a starvation diet and beatings. All his teeth fell out, he was malnourished, he had leg ulcers – and had to bury several friends along the way. But he survived and came home in 1946 after the Japanese had surrendered and the war had been won.

Back home, Ivy had taken on the perilous job of fire warden in Bermondsey, not knowing if Lyle was dead or alive. Incendiaries and bombs continued to flatten the area until the end of the war.

Lyle was just six stone when he came home. Although food was in short supply, Ivy gave Lyle every morsel she could to build up his strength. After a slow recovery he managed to get a job making steel safety doors for dreadnoughts, where he remained until he retired.

They moved to Suffolk in the 1960s when Lyle’s company relocated.

Their marriage was never blessed with a family, but they were happy together until Ivy sadly died in 1997.

Lyle’s funeral is due to take place this Friday, July 9, in Mildenhall in Suffolk.

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