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