IT WAS the moment they feared they would never live to see.

After years at the mercy of their Japanese captors, struggling to cling on to life in prisoner of war camps while watching their friends perish beside them, their arrival in Southampton was the miracle they had all been praying for.

As they stepped off the ships and took their first footsteps of freedom on the city’s soil, they knew their nightmare was over and they were just hours away from being reunited with the loved ones they feared they would never see again.

Now the bravery of the thousands of survivors of the Far East captivity is set to be honoured with a special Second World War memorial in the city centre.

But before that can become a reality, £5,000 needs to be raised to pay for the granite plaque which will proudly stand in the city’s Town Quay Park.

It will commemorate the arrival back to Britain, in the autumn of 1945, of the thousands of servicemen and civilians, including many children, who survived captivity under the Japanese.

The first ship home, the SS Corfu, docked in Southampton on October 7, 1945, with 1,500 prisoners of war (POW) on board.

During an eight-week period from that date until December 11, more than 17,000 disembarked in the city, eager to get back to the lives they had left behind so long ago.

One of those lucky enough to make it home was Robert “Bob” Hucklesby, 92, who returned to Southampton on the Princess Giovanna, which landed at 106 Berth in the New Dock on November 19, 1945.

Bob still has vivid memories of the day.

He said: “I shall never forget it. There on the quayside was a band to welcome us home and one tune I particularly remember was the Cole Porter hit, Don’t Fence Me In.

“The people of South-ampton could never know what that welcome meant. We had all been away at least four years, some as long as seven.

“I am pleased that finally this piece of Second World War history, relating to the war in the Far East, is to be recorded in Southampton. “Unfortunately, almost a quarter of those taken prisoner did not return.”

For Walter Tuttlebee from Romsey, this memorial is personal as his father, Bill Tuttlebee, was one of the 17,000 to arrive in the city.

He said: “My father rarely spoke of his time as a Far East POW – it’s only this past year that I’ve learned that he returned from Singapore to Southampton on the Almanzora on October 17, 1945.

“From a report in the Southern Evening Echo it appears that he would have camped overnight on the Common, before travelling to London to be reunited with his family, including my three-and-a-half-year-old brother, born whilst he was in captivity.

“This memorial represents a little-known but significant part of Southampton’s history and I encourage people to support the appeal.

“There must still be people in Southampton who remember Far East POWs returning, perhaps men who worked in the port or on the ships? “I hope this appeal prompts them to come forward to share and record their recollections before their eye-witness accounts are lost forever.”

The Researching Far East POW History Group has already succeeded in getting a repatriation memorial in Liverpool, where thousands more docked and now they are determined to do the same in Southampton.

Meg Parkes, chairman of the group, said: “We need to raise around £5,000 and if the funds come in quickly we will be able to unveil the memorial in October in the company of a few of the surviving Far East POWs and internees.”

More than 50,000 British servicemen were captured by the Japanese in South East Asia and the Far East between December 25, 1941 and the end of March 1942.

An estimated one in four of them died in captivity, mainly due to gross neglect by their captors.

Prisoners struggled to survive and many worked as slave labourers, living in constant fear.

All were isolated from their families in Europe for over three-and-a-half years but incredibly approximately 37,500 of them survived and, together with several thousand civilians, returned home to Britain.