Des Bettany was a Lance Bombardier in the Royal Artillery during World War 2. Early in 1939 he and a number of friends joined the Territorial Army (Royal Artillery) and was mobilised in August of that year. Lance Bombardier Bettany fought in France and Belgium with the 88th Field Regiment, Royal Artillery, manning 25 pounder field guns, and after evacuation from Dunkirk, served in various locations in southern England, in preparation for the anticipated German invasion.
He was then re-equipped and shipped to the Far East, travelling on the troopship ‘Empress of Canada’ via Freetown (West Africa), Cape Town and Colombo, Ceylon (Sri Lanka). In the Malayan campaign he fought the Japanese at Ipoh and Alor Star. He was at Kuantan on the east coast, off which the ‘Prince of Wales’ and the ‘Repulse’ were sunk. In the company of the Australian 8th Division and the Indian 9th Brigade, he saw most of the major actions in Malaya until capitulation in Singapore in February 1942.
From his first camp at Towner Road, Des was among the many POWs working around Singapore to clear up and salvage damaged equipment for the Japanese war effort. Later moved to Changi gaol, Des joined working parties which among other tasks were required to clear swamp country to build an airfield, on the site of the current Changi International Airport. One work party had the task of breaking up damaged vehicles into spare parts, sometimes with totally inappropriate tools. Acts of minor sabotage were carried out at great risk, and some cheeky but risky activities undertaken which, to the benefit of the prisoners, took advantage of the perceived gullibility of poorly-educated Japanese guards, such as obtaining petrol from stores for use in a steam-powered road roller, then trading the petrol on the black market for food. They also managed to sabotage a Japanese war memorial by seeding the timber flagpole with termites.
Des had carried small sketch books with him, and recorded aspects of the voyage out, the actions in Malaya and Singapore, in various media including pencil, ink, water colour and pastel. He continued his artistic endeavours during his new life as a P.O.W. As well as documentary sketches, he kept spirits up by producing a series of cartoons, some of which satirised his captors. He also became part of a ‘production line’ producing programmes for the many theatrical and musical entertainments which were produced during the years of captivity, as well as assisting with designing and building theatrical sets for plays, Christmas revues and pantomimes. Des met Murray Griffin (Australian war artist) and Ronald Searle, who both continued to produce works of art undercover and sometimes with primitive materials. Paints were manufactured from coloured earth from various depths, sometimes as deep as 12 metres. Colours ranged from white, ochre and brown to Indian red. These were dried, ground with bottles and mixed with rice water, and worked very well. Sets for theatre productions were old tents, made into flats and backdrops. Wood was scrounged or stolen and ingenious uses were made of old army lockers and equipment.
Des Bettany’s artwork shown below is reproduced with kind permission of his family. To see more images go to http://changipowart.com/.