He has been a familiar face on our televisions for more than half a century, presenting Swap Shop, Newsround and Countryfile.
Now, in his autobiography, Headlines and Hedgerows, John Craven, 79, tells the story of his life, on and off screen.
In this exclusive extract, he tells how his father survived a horrific three years as a Japanese prisoner of war:
A beaming five-year-old rides on the shoulders of a stranger, a hero returning from fighting tigers in distant lands.
For weeks, the boy has longed for this moment – because the man is the father he could not remember, who left home for life in the jungles when the boy was just a few months old.
When the man had stepped from the train on to the steam-shrouded platform at Leeds station, he had picked up the boy, embraced him long and hard and placed him on his shoulders.
But how can this little boy understand the reality of the situation; that his hero, emaciated and worn out by illness and ill-treatment, barely has the strength to lift him the short distance to the taxi that will carry them home.
What his father has fought, and miraculously survived, is the monstrous inhumanity of an enemy who has held him captive for three-and-a-half years.
That stranger was my dad, Private Willie Craven, coming back to his native Yorkshire in 1945, with no thanks at all to the Imperial Japanese Army.
In the taxi home our little family – my mother Marie (pronounced Marry), Dad and I – were together again, for the first time in four years.
For most of that time my mother had lived in hope, with me as a reminder of their love, because she had no idea if he was alive or dead.
Dad had a conventional working-class upbringing in Leeds until the Second World War broke out.
Two years earlier he had married his childhood sweetheart and been promoted to manager of the Ideal Dividend grocery store on Kirkstall Road.
I was born on the busiest day of the Battle of Britain and two months later Dad enlisted with the Royal Army Ordnance Corps as a motor mechanic.
A few months after, he was posted to Malaya. It was from Singapore he sent me a telegram on my first birthday. The message said simply, “Loving Birthday Greetings. I wish we were together on this special occasion. Fondest love and kisses. Daddy Craven.”
When Singapore fell six months later, my dad was one of 80,000 British, Australian and Indian troops taken prisoner by the Japanese.
While most of his unit tried to escape to Java, he and a few others were ordered to stay behind, told to disable vehicles and destroy whatever ordnance they could to prevent the Japanese from making use of them. With bombs exploding all around, he drove lorries into the harbour, had a few beers and then waited for the inevitable.
What followed was three-and-a-half years of hell, the first eight months of it spent in Singapore’s Changi Jail, the last 21 months or so in PoW camps in Thailand, and the 13 months in between slaving on the infamous Death Railway.
The line ran for nearly 260 miles through inhospitable jungle terrain to carry supplies from Thailand to Japanese troops in Burma, and every inch of it was built by forced labour.
As many as 100,000 local South East Asian workers, known as coolies, died laying rails and sleepers and building several hundred bridges – as did nearly 13,000 Allied prisoners of war.
With no medication, sparse food, little rest and tropical diseases scything through the weakened workforce, the railway lived up to its awful nickname.
I know from the War Office questionnaire my dad had to complete after he was freed that on November 3, 1942, that he was among the first to travel north from Singapore by train, crammed into locked metal goods wagons for three days and nights with no rest stops, no latrines and little food.
The heat and smell was appalling and those who died were thrown out of the wagons by the guards. When they arrived at what they had been led to believe would be a Red Cross camp, it was in fact Won Rum, the first of three work camps Dad would be posted to along the Death Railway. Like many of his compatriots who eventually came home, he refused to talk in any detail about those times, no matter how much I tried to persuade him.
There was a compact of secrecy among the survivors, and when it was broken most dramatically by the film The Bridge on the River Kwai, my dad felt outraged and betrayed.
When he received an invitation to the film’s premiere, he turned it down.
The reason for this silence, I have always suspected, is that he and thousands of others suffered beyond our comprehension at the hands of their brutal captors.
I wonder how on earth my dad – always slightly built and smallish – managed to survive.
It must have been down to good luck and a big helping of Yorkshire grit, but survive he did and lived until he was 80.
He told me only a handful of stories from his long internment.
Like the night he collapsed by the side of the railway line after laying sleepers all day and hit his head on what he thought was a rock. Daylight revealed his “pillow” was an unexploded bomb!
After the Death Railway was completed, he spent nearly two years in Tamakan, a so-called “hospital camp”, although it had no medical supplies or facilities. Not the best place to have appendicitis, which Dad did. It threatened to turn into peritonitis and hasten his end.
Fortunately, one of his fellow prisoners was a Harley Street surgeon and, despite the lack of any of the equipment, he decided to operate.
Amongst his crude instruments were knives made from sharpened bamboo and for an anaesthetic/antiseptic the surgeon used saki, a potent rice wine secretly brewed by the PoWs.
Dad was so weak that after a few swigs he was out cold and the surgeon got to work successfully.
PoWs in the camp had to constantly repair the bridge over the River Kwai after it had been targeted by Allied bombing. The guards used to yell “Speedo! Speedo!” when orders went out to up the pace, a word which, years later, my dad would call out to me with some irony if I was dallying!
My dad told me they were not allowed to move from their positions on the bridge until the Japanese gave the order, putting them at real risk of being killed by the RAF.
He was in Longshi in Burma on the very day that I was five when he heard unofficially from local workers that the war was over. Then on September 5, 1945, he wrote his first letter home:
“Dear Marie. I hardly know where to start. It has been a terrible time. I have been lucky and got through with the help of God and your love and prayers.
“The latest letter I had from you was written on July 10, 1944 (with three photos of John). I can hardly realize I have a boy as old as he is. When I left home he was only a baby though I am glad that he came along and I have great plans for him when I come home.
“I missed his baby years but I will make up for that in the future.
“What I want is a really good English dinner, Yorkshire pudding, roast beef and all the trimmings. All my love. Yours forever. Bill. To John. A little message to say be good to your mammie always and look after her until I come home. Love from your Dad.”
Back in Leeds, that letter brought an end to years of suspense and heartache for my mother – the agony of not knowing whether Dad was alive.
Every bedtime Mum used to sing to me You Are My Sunshine – and we would imagine Dad singing it along with us somewhere in the jungle.
Dad wrote of his homecoming: “It was a weekend I shall never forget. I had arrived back in Liverpool. There was a dock strike, but the dockers came in to get us safely tied up at the quay.
“Just before lunch we were allowed to disembark and taken to an Army camp. It was about eleven o’clock at night before we were seen by doctors, they were mostly interested in getting the POWs away as soon as possible.”
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