The Mail on Sunday
17th September 2011
By Emily Hill
In the Chungkai prisoner of war camp in a sweltering Thai jungle, Fergus ‘Gunner’ Anckorn pulled off his greatest ever trick. An egg was the food of fantasy for the skeletal soldiers interned there 68 years ago, who were used to enduring 14 hours of hard labour every day on just a few handfuls of rice.
Suddenly, 50 eggs had been conjured into existence and were being fried into a giant omelette. It may have seemed like a miracle, but this was magic.
‘If you got caught stealing a potato you could have your head cut off,’ explains Fergus. ‘But the guards did like magic and I’d often manage to get food from them by making it “disappear”.
Fergus in a publicity shot taken just after the Second World War
handy: Fergus in a publicity shot taken just after the Second World War
‘One day, the Japanese camp commandant said he had generals coming to visit and that he wanted me to do some magic. He asked what I would need for a trick. I requested an egg. He wrote out a chitty and told me to take it to the cook house. The cook asked me how many I wanted, so I asked for 50. I went straight back to the hut and we had a 49-egg omelette, saving just one for the trick.’
At the age of 20, Fergus was drafted to fight in the Second World War. At the time he was the youngest member of the Magic Circle and, by the time he was 24 and a prisoner, he kept up his spirits – and his comrades amused – by performing endless tricks.
After the war, as a lecturer in subjects including English and economics at West Kent College, Fergus often pepped up his lessons with anecdotes about his extraordinary wartime survival. Now 92, he has decided to record everything in a new book, Captivity, Slavery And Survival As A Far East POW.
‘At the prison camp that night I did the trick for the generals and it all went very well,’ he says.
‘But the next day I was summoned to the commandant’s hut. He was glowering. The chitty was on his desk. He said, ‘You do magic one egg. Where 49 eggs?’ I thought, in ten seconds my head will be rolling across that floor.
‘Out of my mouth came the words, ‘Your trick was so important to me, I was rehearsing all day.’ He nodded and let me go. I couldn’t perform that trick again for 40 years. My knees would knock together even thinking about it.’
On YouTube, you can see Fergus perform the trick. He waves a handkerchief, transforming it into an egg.
The Japanese wanted to know how the trick was done, so Fergus showed the commandant how he made a hole in the back of a second eggshell into which he dextrously stuffed the handkerchief. The hollow egg is switched for an intact egg, which is cracked on a bowl, and out plops – not a handkerchief – but yolk and albumen.
Fergus and his twin sister were born in Dunton Green, Kent, in December 1918. Fergus’s father, Wilfred, a writer on The Hotspur, and his mother, Beatrice, instilled in him the moral code of decency, honesty and kindness that helped him survive the war.
On Fergus’s fifth birthday his father gave him a box of magic tricks and he became hooked on the expressions of amazement his family would feign at his childish conjuring. But as Fergus practised, this wonder became genuine and, at the age of 18, he was admitted to the Magic Circle.
‘For about five years I was the youngest member and now I am the oldest,’ says Fergus. ‘I have joined the Inner Circle of 150 members.’
When war was declared in 1939, Fergus joined the Army.
He served in the 118th Field Regiment Royal Artillery and spent the first two years in Britain, preparing to fight a Nazi invasion.
While stationed in Woolwich, South-East London, he contracted pharyngitis and met the love of his life, a pretty, bespectacled nurse called Lucille.
‘I was lying in a ward for two months,’ he recalls. ‘One day, the fellow in the next bed asked if I was engaged. I said, “Good God, no. I haven’t got time for women.” And then Lucille walked into the ward. I quickly added that if I ever did get married, it would be to her.
‘Lucille and I hit it off straight away. I used to go and talk to her when she was in the sluice cleaning out the bedpans – very romantic.’
When the threat of invasion subsided, Fergus’s regiment was prepared for deployment in North Africa. Before he left England, he asked Lucille to marry him and she accepted.
After the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Fergus found himself heading to the Far East instead. Just before they departed, the colonel of Fergus’s regiment gave him the then huge sum of £30 to buy magic props, declaring: ‘You’re the only man we’ve got to entertain the troops.’
But on arrival, it was the enemy who were full of surprises. ‘We arrived in Singapore 15 days before it fell,’ says Fergus. ‘My war lasted five days.’
On Friday, February 13, 1942, Gunner Anckorn was driving an armoured lorry just outside Singapore when 27 Japanese bombers swooped out of the sky. ‘There were so many of them, there was no escape,’ he says.
By the time the bombing stopped Fergus had taken a severe blow to the head, his right hand was hanging off and he had a bullet in the back of his left knee. He was found in a ditch and taken to a field hospital, where a surgeon told Fergus his damaged hand would have to be amputated.
Luckily, when an orderly came round to administer ether he recognised Fergus and cried: ‘You can’t cut his hand off, Sir, he’s our conjuror and a bloody brilliant one, too!’
The next day Fergus woke up in the Alexandra Military Hospital to find he still had his hand but that the hospital had been taken over by the Japanese, who were taking away the staff and shooting them.
Prisoners working on a railway bridge between Thailand and Burma during the Second World War
Having lost a great deal of blood, he drifted back to sleep. Waking again, he heard thuds. The Japanese were bayoneting the patients.
‘I just lay there and accepted I was going to die,’ he says. ‘But there was so much blood pouring from me on to the bed and the floor that they must have thought they had already done it. When I came round again, everyone was dead except me. I never told Lucille or my mother about that day.’
From hospital, Fergus was transferred to the notorious Changi POW camp in Singapore. Here he was interned with many great men, including the illustrator Ronald Searle and Lieutenant-Colonel Toosey, the real-life model for Alec Guinness’s Lieutenant-Colonel Nicholson in The Bridge On The River Kwai.
Such a talented set of men confined in such a small space was bound to produce an outbreak of creativity and in Changi they set up a theatre, which they dubbed The Windmill. Fergus says: ‘We put on full magic shows, sawing people in half and things like that, and I did conjuring with my good hand.’
Their showpiece was the ‘Professor’s illusion’, a rather macabre trick in which the lights would go down and curtains would be partially opened as ‘the Professor’ stood between them. As the curtains gradually closed he would turn into a skeleton and, as they reopened, back into a man. The skeleton was the handiwork of Searle.
Before long, however, Fergus was dispatched on the next working party to the Chungkai camp on Thai-Burma death railway, made infamous by David Lean’s 1957 film The Bridge On The River Kwai, where more than 12,000 Allied troops died of starvation and beatings.
In 1943, Fergus was working on the Wampo Viaduct when a guard ordered him to climb up the viaduct with a bucket of hot creosote. After pointing out his bad leg and useless arm, which would make it difficult to carry five gallons up a ladder, the guard went off to get a stick with which to beat him. Fergus shimmied up the ladder as best he could.
He recalls: ‘Ever since I’d taken the blow to my head during the bombing, I’d suffered from vertigo, even at low heights. I had to climb 100ft up and when I got to the top the whole world was spinning. A Japanese guard screamed at me but I just couldn’t move. He threw the whole bucket of burning creosote over me.
‘I passed out. And that was my lucky day because I got taken off the railway and sent to a hospital camp to be treated for the burns. All my mates died.’
In Chungkai camp, Fergus continued to suffer the most degrading conditions, as all around him prisoners died from their wounds, cholera or went mad.
But in common with many POWs, Fergus displayed great ingenuity. He says: ‘We still had work to do but the guards were not so driving as those at the rail-head and it was possible to prolong our ten-minute breaks by distracting them with magic tricks.
‘I would pick up stones and make them disappear or turn little ones into bigger ones or make sticks pass through each other.’
Back home, Fergus had managed to train his dog to participate in his magic act. In the camp, his affinity with animals also aided him. He caught and tamed a chameleon which would lie on his chest at night and eat the bed bugs. Then he befriended a monkey, which would climb on to the roof of his hut whenever a guard was in the vicinity – a valuable warning signal.
The Korean guards also started asking him to put on private shows for them, for which he would get food and cigarettes. These could be used as currency in the camp.
Another trick was getting messages home to Britain. ‘I am the only prisoner of war who contacted his mother from the jungle,’ Fergus says proudly, describing how he used shorthand to communicate with her.
Prisoners were given Red Cross postcards to send home but were allowed only to cross out relevant phrases about their health and welfare and sign their names at the end.
‘My family had been told I was dead,’ he recalls. ‘When my mother read the card, she said, “Well, he really is dead. That’s not my son’s signature.”
‘She thought someone else had signed it because my signature had these peculiar flourishes on it.
‘When I was a baby they called me Smiler. And when I went off to the war my mother told me, “Keep smiling.” I signed my name “Ferg”. In shorthand, the ornate bit on the F said ‘Still’ and the squiggle on the G said ‘Smiling’. When she worked it out she screamed the house down.’
Another delighted woman was Lucille, who had turned down five proposals of marriage, hoping that Fergus would be found.
In 1945, just days before the Japanese surrendered, Fergus was savagely beaten by a Korean guard, who knocked out some of his teeth. It was the final, awful act in a brutal four years.
‘When we were told the war was over my friends got hold of the Korean guard and brought him into our hut,’ he says. ‘They gave me a spade and said I could kill him.
‘I knew that if I did that I would be no better than he was. He went out of the hut laughing his head off. He’d always thought we were soft. I just wanted to get home to my mum.’
Fergus arrived back in Dunton Green, still 6ft tall but weighing just six stone, with a disabled arm and leg and too frightened to perform any magic.
After numerous operations he regained the use of his limbs. And with Lucille’s love and care he got his confidence back, too.
Now widowed, the father of two and grandfather of four declares: ‘I am probably the luckiest man alive. Every day is a wonder to me.
‘I’ve been blown up. I’ve been shot. I’ve survived a massacre. And I also got away with that egg trick.’