Soldier’s satire helped him stay sane

SPEAKS VOLUMES ... this was entitled just 'Heigh Ho.' Below, Des Bettany as a young serviceman, and more of his work.
SPEAKS VOLUMES ... this was entitled just 'Heigh Ho.' Below, Des Bettany as a young serviceman, and more of his work.

THE pictures, reckons his son, were his defence against madness.

“He painted to keep his sanity,” says Keith Bettany of his dad Des’s sometimes humorous, at other times chilling, depictions of life as a prisoner-of-war of the Japanese.

At times, it’s thought, only some quick talking saved him from execution, when some of his more political cartoons were discovered. Today, his family can only guess at what their father, who later taught art at Redwell School in South Shields and became head of the town’s Art School, went through.

“He was warned that if he ever painted like that again, he would get a ‘short haircut,’ that is, be beheaded.

“We are sure he was punished but he was like so many other PoWs who chose not to share the horrors they went through. I guess in telling of them, they just re-lived them again,” says Keith.

Instead, Des’s testimony was to be a hitherto hidden and astonishing collection of paintings of his time as one of thousands of Allied prisoners held on the Changi Peninsula after the fall of Singapore, the 72nd anniversary of which fell at the weekend.

The pictures were discovered after 70 years, in a cupboard, by his family.

They have now placed them online for others to see how, out of misery, starvation, exploitation and brutality that resulted in so much loss of life and serious injury – physical and mental – the paintings helped Des and his fellow prisoners survive their ordeal.

Says Keith from his home in South Australia: “The website has been put together by us to help raise awareness of what the PoWs went through, as seen through the eyes of one man.

It also gives a rare insight on how others kept sane by looking forward to things, like theatre or musical events, or by working to help others by making things like limbs for amputees, or by just getting up to mischief.”

Des Bettany was born in Burnley, in Lancashire, in 1919 and, after school, trained as an analytical chemist.

He joined the Royal Artillery in 1939 and served in France and Belgium with the 88th Field Regiment, RA, taking part in the evacuation from Dunkirk.

After a spell back in England, he and his regiment sailed in the Empress of Canada, bound for the Far East, where he fought in the Malayan campaign against the Japanese, until the fall of Singapore in February 1942.

His first task as a prisoner, like that of others, was salvaging equipment around Singapore for the Japanese war effort.

Later he was moved to Changi jail, which had been built by the British administration as a civilian prison in 1936.

The Japanese used the prison and nearby barracks as a PoW camp, although there would ultimately be 12 camps spread across the peninsula.

As a PoW, Des kept spirits up by producing a series of cartoons, some of which satirised his captors. He also became part of a production line creating programmes for the many theatre and music productions which took place in the camps.

His family believe that, in contrast to much of the PoW art which survives from this period, their father’s work finds uplifting humour in the prisoner’s day-to-day life. “The spirit of much of the work is light-heartedness.”

Des was eventually repatriated and arrived home in September 1945. He afterwards studied art at Lancaster and Leeds Colleges of Art, and was appointed to the staff of South Shields Art School – the building, off Mowbray Road, eventually became part of South Shields Girls’ Grammar School – in 1949, becoming principal the following year,

By the late 1950s, he was art master at Redwell School – where he painted a large mural is the assembly hall – but a new life on the other side of the world was beckoning,

In 1958 he and his wife and their young family – Graham, nine, Keith, six, and three-year-old Ruth – left their home in Sunnirise in the town for Australia, where Des eventually became acting principal of the South Australian School of Art in Adelaide.

He seldom spoke about his wartime experiences. His children were aware of the album of sketches and theatre programmes which he kept in his wardrobe, but it was only in 1995, on the 50th anniversary of the end of the war, that he spoke in more detail about his experiences.

Des died in 2000 but his extraordinary legacy of pictures, which show the triumph of the human spirit over adversity, live on at www.changipowart.com

* Since the website was set up, Des’s family have received numerous other images which he painted and gave away to his mates.

 If anyone out there has any of Des’s artwork, the family would love it if you could contact them through the website. They don’t need the original work, just a scan, for inclusion on the site.

If you haven’t a computer, photocopies can be posed to Keith at 30 Glenwood Drive, Bellevue Heights, South Australia 5050.