Artist Des Bettany was born in Burnley, Lancashire, in 1919, and trained as an analytical chemist. He worked in the chemistry lab of an artificial silk factory, but in 1939 joined the 88th Field Regiment, RA, TA on 25-pounder guns, where he saw action in Europe. In 1940, he was evacuated from Dunkirk, and then re-mobbed to the Far East, eventually becoming a Prisoner Of War (POW) under the Japanese in Changi, Singapore.
When he was first imprisoned in Changi, he worked on repairing the war damage in Singapore and the dock area, and later joined the working parties clearing the swampland to build the Singapore Changi Airport. But he had an unusual artistic gift and he used it to keep up the spirits of fellow POWs. He drew a series of satirical cartoons about prison camp life, and caricatures of their prison guards as well as documentary sketches and colourful programmes for the theatre productions put on by the POWs.
The Fall of Singapore occurred on 15th February 1942, and on this date Des painted a number of watercolours of the last gun position he was on. After the war, he painted an oil painting, The Last Gun Position at Singapore, which is currently on display in the Lancaster Maritime Museum.
As readers may be aware, on 15th August 2015 we celebrated 70 years since Japan surrendered. This event saw the release of hundreds of thousands of POWs, however, unfortunately, many tens of thousands died in captivity, and those who lived carried horrid memories with them. Des was able to capture the celebrations, and, as they say, a painting says a thousand words, as can be seen by his watercolour from the event, 'Oh Boy' Liberation.
After the war, he returned to England but didn’t return to the mills, instead he studied at Leeds School of Art, and taught tertiary art for the rest of his life. He married in 1946, and then in 1958, with his wife and three children, he immigrated to Australia from the UK where he took up a teaching post in Whyalla. He eventually became Acting Principal of the South Australian School of Art in Adelaide, Australia's oldest art school.
He rarely spoke of his experiences but in 1991 he was persuaded by the Singapore Tourist Promotion Board to write down a few of his thoughts:
'What remains clear is that throughout the period of privation, starvation and slavery, hope faith and confidence in our eventual release remained optimistically constant. There was ingenious use of material and primitive resourcefulness shown in building accommodation, chapels, theatres and essentials. Many miracles of surgery occurred under very trying conditions. My personal worst moments came when I had to appear before the Japanese Commandant and an assortment of interpreters to try and explain away, to humourless Japanese Officers a book of political cartoons I had drawn. I had lent the book to a careless person who allowed it to fall into the hands of Japanese guards. This was at a time when the war was going badly for Germany and Japan and this was reflected in the cartoons.' Des told those close to him that he narrowly escaped being given a 'short haircut', POW slang for being beheaded.
He died in Adelaide, Australia, in 2000 aged 81. Since then, his family have received over 70 additional pieces of art by Des from families of ex POWs. These have been scanned and emailed to Keith Bettany, Des Bettany's son, who adds them to the ever-growing treasury of artwork on the website of now well over 300 pieces of art painted during the Second World War. Des gave so many sketches away to fellow prisoners of war to assist them to stay alive by having a bit of humour in their lives.
Keith Bettany (artist's son), Adelaide, Australia