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A civil engineer at Colditz: William Anderson's amazing story


BRIGADIER William Faithfull Anderson, who has died aged 94, was a Royal Engineer who showed in Colditz just how resourceful a civil engineer can be. Confined to the famously hard to escape from German castle with other WW2 aces, Anderson forged documents and passport stamps and made uniforms to be used by escapees. When his captors found a camera used for passport photos, Anderson fashioned a replacement from an old pair of spectacles.

Anderson was commissioned into the Royal Engineers in 1925 and went on to win a military cross as a junior sapper officer on the North West Frontier of India. Building roads and bridges on the Khyber Pass, he was, at one point, put in charge of 128 inexperienced and temperamental tribesmen to build a road from Sararogha to Bahari through hostile tribal territory, under sniper fire from surrounding hills.

In WW2, Anderson was attached to the Royal Engineers' 61 Company. Their task after the German invasion of France was to support the Welsh Guards at Arras, Northern France, in resisting the German advance. The allied forces initially held out, and even managed to counter attack against the German 7th Armoured Division, commanded by Rommel. But as Rommel's forces advanced, Anderson ordered his sappers to go to a huge locomotive yard in the town and shift train carriages into a line three deep to fortify the town. His company got the barrier in place for it to hold for a few critical hours, while they mined the approach roads and blew the bridges. Anderson was awarded a second military cross.

During the final withdrawal to Dunkirk Anderson refused to leave a wounded man which slowed his party down. Travelling by night and hiding by day, they reached a farmhouse near Dunkirk, but here they were surrounded and captured.

Anderson was confined to a prison camp at Laufen but after various tunnel escape projects had failed, he was sent to Colditz. He shared a room with the legless flying ace Douglas Bader and carried out regular repairs to his artificial leg, developing skills as a blacksmith. Anderson had a special dispensation to take Bader's leg to a local forge for repairs, and returned with contraband, bartered from red cross parcels, smuggled in the hollow leg.

A talented artist, Anderson was encouraged to paint by the camp commandment after two failed attempts to escape. He sent home the water colours to his wife Kathleen, who put them on exhibition to raise awareness of the plight of POWs. Anderson's paintings are now on permanent display in the wine cellar at the castle.

Military postings in India and Tanganyika after the war did not recapture earlier excitement. But in 1953, Anderson, by now a brigadier, was made Chief Engineer Malaya Command, Kuala Lumpur. The British were attempting to flush out Chinese communist terrorists from their jungle hideouts. Anderson's sappers cut down clearings and constructed airstrips to which the short take off and landing aircraft could lift troops. Most of the terrorists were captured and Anderson was made a CBE.

After retiring from the army in 1959, he spent his later years as a soil mechanic for Prospecting International and then Costain. In retirement in Farnham, Surrey, he masterminded the building of an art centre from a derelict building and persuaded the council to abandon a flyover scheme in the town by constructing a scale model showing environmental damage which would be caused.

Anderson, who was a Member of the Institution, was the last living survivor of Colditz, and is survived by his wife Kathleen, three sons and two daughters.

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