MY FAM­ILY HERO

Cheb Camp­bell’s fa­ther Roy bat­tled in­cred­i­ble odds to sur­vive two of the most har­row­ing episodes of the Sec­ond World War

Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine - - CONTENTS - CHEB CAMP­BELL lives in West York­shire. Lost War­riors: Sea­grim and Pa­gani of Burma by Philip Davies is pub­lished by At­lantic

Cheb Camp­bell re­veals how her fa­ther es­caped Dunkirk and the Death Rail­way

My fa­ther promised that, come hell or high wa­ter, he would come home

When Cheb Camp­bell was a lit­tle girl, her fa­ther Roy was a mys­tery. “I couldn’t un­der­stand why he wasn’t like other dads. He was ab­so­lutely cov­ered in scars, for ex­am­ple,” she says. “There were great big slashes across his back.

“The other thing was, when­ever there was a parade – he was in the army un­til 1959 – my dad was al­ways stuck in the front and al­ways in­tro­duced to dig­ni­taries.”

As she got older, Cheb be­gan to get the sense that all of this was be­cause her fa­ther had es­caped from some­thing called ‘the Rail­way’. But she had no idea what that was un­til she was about 15 and de­cided to take it upon her­self to find out more: “I went to the li­brary and started to read.”

What Cheb dis­cov­ered was that, dur­ing the Sec­ond World War, Roy Pa­gani was the only Euro­pean to es­cape from the in­fa­mous ‘Death Rail­way’, where he en­dured bru­tal tor­ture at the hands of the Ja­panese mil­i­tary.

By as­sum­ing dif­fer­ent iden­ti­ties, and dis­play­ing re­mark­able sto­icism and courage, he was able to cross con­ti­nents and find his way home, a story ex­plored in the re­cently pub­lished book Lost War­riors by Philip Davies.

“It was an amaz­ing story – and it made me un­der­stand more about why my dad had a short fuse, and why he wasn’t as cud­dly as other dads,” says Cheb. “He had shut so much away; suf­fered so much.”

But even more re­mark­ably – be­fore his ex­pe­ri­ence with the Death Rail­way, Roy had es­caped from both the Ja­panese ad­vance on Sin­ga­pore and Dunkirk.

“He had great be­lief in him­self,” says Cheb. “It’s some­thing that he learned early on. When he was about six or seven his mother and fa­ther split up. His fa­ther was Ital­ian and took him off to France with his new French girl­friend, but they later aban­doned him.

“My fa­ther was found by some nuns, steal­ing food from a mar­ket be­cause he was starv­ing, and they took him in. He went to school in a monastery, just out­side Nice. And this was where they taught him all his sur­vival skills: what to eat in the wild, how to nav­i­gate us­ing the stars.”

In the end, his mother did track him down. But by then Roy’s first lan­guage was French. So she let him com­plete his ed­u­ca­tion be­fore he came back to Eng­land, aged about 13.

Later, when he was old enough, Roy joined the Bri­tish Army. In spring 1940 his reg­i­ment was in Bel­gium with the Ger­man forces grow­ing closer and closer. They were told to make their way to Dunkirk and await evac­u­a­tion.

“But my dad thought, ‘I’m not go­ing there to wait for peo­ple to take pot shots at me.’ So in­stead he found a boat and sailed back to Eng­land. When he got home his mother-in-law opened the door and fainted, she was so sur­prised.

“He is a hero to me be­cause of what he did. He made my mother a prom­ise when he went to war that, come hell or high wa­ter, he would come home. When I asked him about it he just said: ‘It’s a sol­dier’s duty to es­cape.’ And he gave us a fan­tas­tic, in­ter­est­ing life – and he al­ways looked af­ter us.”

When he left the army in 1959, Roy Pa­gani had a string of busi­nesses – first a café, then a garage and a farm. He liked to build com­pa­nies up and sell them on when they were prof­itable.

“He al­ways had faith in him­self to do what­ever he wanted,” Cheb says. “That’s what kept him go­ing. In fact he only re­tired be­cause of a heart con­di­tion that re­sulted in a by­pass. But af­ter the op­er­a­tion he be­came the softer, more af­fec­tion­ate fa­ther I had al­ways wanted. When I asked him about it he said that his time had come, but some­how he’d been lucky enough to be given bonus time here on Earth – so he was go­ing to make the most of it.”

How­ever, happy memories are far from the only legacy that Roy left his daugh­ter. “If you ask my hus­band he will say: ‘You are just like your fa­ther!’ I think he means that I’m stub­born. But I also like to plan ev­ery­thing out in de­tail, like my fa­ther did. When I’ve de­cided I’m do­ing some­thing, I do it. And, if I’m hon­est, I don’t suf­fer fools gladly, ei­ther – just like him!” Matt Ford

Por­trait of love: Pri­vate Roy Pa­gani, aged 19, in a photo bear­ing the le­gend ‘ Yours un­til death’

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