The horrors of a notorious Japanese prisoner-of-war camp provided a haunting inspiration for a gifted Burnley soldier’s defiant artwork.
Lance Bombardier Des Bettany, who had fought in France and Belgium with the 88th Field Regiment, Royal Artillery, was captured during the disastrous fall of Singapore in February, 1942, and imprisoned in the infamous Changi POW camp on the island.
Before and during his incarceration, Des found time to draw – artwork which would maintain his own and his comrades’ morale during their darkest hours.
His sketchbooks, which he carried everywhere, documented the brutal life of a POW in Changi and satirised his captors in cartoons – small acts of defiance that kept spirits high among his comrades.
Pencil, ink, watercolour and pastel recorded everything from camp guards to the back-breaking, sometimes deadly, work at the camp.
Des, who survived the horrors of Changi, emigrated to Australia after the war, becoming an art teacher before he died aged 81 in 2000.
His children Graham, Keith and Ruth Flaherty, have produced a website containing his sketches that capture the life of a POW in equally humorous and harrowing detail.
The second of four children, Des developed an interest in art and music while attending Burnley Secondary Boys’ School and Technical College.
After joining the Territorial Army shortly before war broke out in 1939, Des fought in Europe before being shipped to the Far East.
In the company of the Australian 8th Division and the Indian 9th Brigade, he saw most of the major actions in Malaya until the fall of Singapore.
From his first camp at Towner Road, Des was among many POWs working around Singapore to salvage equipment for the Japanese war effort.
On arriving at Changi, he joined working parties required to clear swamp country to build an airfield.
One work party had the task of breaking up damaged vehicles into spare parts, sometimes with totally inappropriate tools.
In the face of such brutality, Des’s sketches, which often poked fun at their Japanese captors in the form of caricatures, stood alongside minor acts of sabotage, as the prisoners’ token acts of defiance.
At Changi, he met Australian war artist Murray Griffin, and Ronald Searle, who continued to produce works of art undercover, sometimes with primitive materials. Paints were manufactured from coloured earth from various depths. The colours were dried, ground with bottles and mixed with rice water.
On the website his children say: “In contrast to much of the POW art which survives from this period, Des’s work finds uplifting humour in the day-to-day existence of the POW. There are serious works documenting incidents which occurred during the various campaigns, but the spirit of much of the work is one of light-heartedness, helping Des to keep a sense of optimism in the face of a brutal captor. There are also touching works of nostalgia.”
Des’s survival was in no small part due to his not being sent to work on the notorious Burma railway, which claimed the lives of some 16,000 allied POWs and many more forced labour Asian workers.
Des finally arrived home in September 1945 to find that his only brother had perished when the submarine HMS Vandal sank off Scotland. It was finally discovered in 1994 and designated an official war grave.
The website can be viewed at www.changipowart.com.