Les Dennison

Burma railway survivor


Leslie Willet Brannen (Les Dennison), plumber: born London 19 June 1915; married 1938 Vera Painter (three sons, one daughter, and one son deceased); died Coventry 10 April 2006.

Brutality suffered at the hands of others marked the life and psyche of Les Dennison - illegitimate son of a Mayfair skivvy; coal-miner and plumber; class warrior and Communist cell leader; and war prisoner of the Japanese on the infamous Burma railway. Yet Dennison was to find redemption from unlikely sources: a fellow building worker and a repentant Japanese general. Thereafter he refused to cast himself in the victim role, and he became known, in his home city of Coventry and internationally, as a force for reconciliation, particularly towards Japan.

Les Dennison, born Brannen, never knew his wealthy father. When he was six months old, his mother took him to Tyneside where she married a miner, Bill Dennison. Humiliated as the "bastard" son, Les felt himself the whipping boy and drudge to his stepbrothers and stepsisters, his anger driving a wedge between them.

He was sent down the mines, aged 13, terrified of the dark. They lived in grinding poverty and, aged 19, he went in search of work in the Midlands, soon moving the whole family to Coventry. There he joined Keresley pit and the Communist Party. He met Vera Painter and they were married in 1938.

At the outbreak of war he joined the Army Service Corps as a fitter. He was captured by the Japanese at the fall of Singapore in 1942. A 19-day forced march through the jungle took him and his fellow POWs to the Burma railway, where they were employed as slave labour. The work included building the last stretch of one of the bridges over the River Kwai between Burma and Thailand.

Cholera and dysentery were rife and none of his friends survived. He worked there for three years and seven months in appalling conditions, and witnessed the decapitation of 14 of his fellow prisoners. Seizing a chance for revenge, he killed a Japanese guard at the edge of the river, throwing him into the rocks and water below. Forced to carry his dying comrades, Dennison was one of only 400 survivors out of a group of 1,600 POWs. On liberation he weighed just 5st 4lb.

Anger burned in him, and his young wife, Vera, whom he had treated with violence, was hardly glad that he had survived the war. On his return to Coventry he donated part of his war gratuity to the local Communist Party, trained as a plumber and was an agitator at the Standard Motors car plant before joined the building industry. He became convenor of shop stewards on a site, in charge of nearly 400 men.

In 1959 a plasterer and fellow shop steward, Stan Peachey, confronted him about his family life. The "brotherhood of man" didn't work there, and he was a dictator in his home, Peachey said. The men on the site feared him. Peachey and his friends, of Christian faith, spoke to Dennison of revolution beyond Marxism - building a "hate-free, fear-free, greed-free world".

Their care for him seemed sincere and this so shook Dennison - by now disillusioned with Communism following the Soviet suppression of the Hungarian uprising in 1956 - that he began a search to "find God". With diffidence he approached a local vicar and, in an empty church, the two men prayed together. "I had talked about peace all my life, but I'd never known what inner peace was till then," commented Dennison, who later converted to the Roman Catholic faith.

Thus began a transformation in Dennison's family life. He had thrown his eldest son Karl, named after Karl Marx, out of the home for wanting to marry a major's daughter, which Les had seen as a class betrayal. Now he apologised to his son and they were reconciled. Vera, who had been about to leave home with their three other children, could hardly believe the change in her husband, who now began to cherish her.

At work, too, he found a new motivation in meeting the housing needs of Coventry citizens rather than observing strict demarcation lines. He began insisting from his fellow workers on "a moral day's work rather than a legal day's work". Productivity, and wages, shot up. Brickies who had been laying 400 to 500 bricks a day now laid 1,200. The then Coventry South MP and Housing Minister, Richard Crossman, commented on the "dynamic force" of building trade workers, at a dinner hosted by them for him. In 1966, Dennison's story was dramatised in a youth production, It's Our Country, Jack!, which toured Britain for nine months.

In 1962, Dennison encountered a Japanese group at the Moral Re- Armament centre for reconciliation in Caux, Switzerland. A retired Japanese general, Ichii Sugita, who had been at the surrender of Singapore in 1942, bowed low before Dennison, telling him: "I don't ever expect you to forget what happened. I beg you to forgive me and my nation." The encounter, described in Michael Henderson's book Forgiveness: breaking the chain of hate (2002), deeply touched Dennison, who commented that Sugita

was genuine and that was the beginning of a remarkable change in my attitude. For a long time I felt bitterness and hatred but I don't want that to be passed on to the second generation.

Dennison, a member of the British veterans' Burma Campaign Fellowship Group, subsequently visited Japan in journeys of reconcilation. In a BBC interview broadcast from Japan marking the 50th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima, he was asked what he would say to the Japanese nation. He replied:

I would bow low in humility and just beg their forgiveness for my callousness at the time when I heard of the bombs being dropped on the cities of Japan and I would humbly ask their forgive-

ness for the years of my bitterness, resentment and hatred against the people of Japan.

In 2002 Dennison took part with the then Japanese ambassador, Masaki Orita, in a ceremony of healing in the ruins of the old Coventry Cathedral. Dennison told the local paper:

Quite a few of my comrades try to hang on to their twisted bitterness, but if you want a decent world the only way forward is reconciliation.

The following year, he was in a second reconciliation ceremony, alongside Ambassador Orita, at the city's inauguration of a Hiroshima Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Exhibition. Orita wrote to Dennison:

It is through the efforts of brave people like you that British and Japanese people are able to grow closer together in the spirit of peace and friendship, without forgetting the past.

Last year, the Royal British Legion poppy day appeal featured Dennison, sitting in his wheelchair in a field of poppies, on their poster campaign.

"He was a warrior," remembers the journalist Graham Turner, who wrote a chapter on Dennison in his book More than Conquerors (1976):

The idea that the world could be remade absolutely gripped him. He was always looking for the big idea. He had no time for chips on his shoulder or anyone else's shoulder.

Michael Smith

Sport
The giant banner displayed by Legia Warsaw supporters last night
football
News
i100(and it's got nothing to do with the Great British Bake Off)
News
news
Sport
footballPremiership preview: All the talking points ahead of this weekend's matches
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
News
Angelina Jolie with her father Jon Voight
people
Arts and Entertainment
Tulisa as a judge on the X Factor in 2012
tvLouis Walsh confirms star's return
Life and Style
fashionClothes shop opens on Bill Clinton Boulevard in Pristina
Voices
The Ukip leader has consistently refused to be drawn on where he would mount an attempt to secure a parliamentary seat
voicesNigel Farage: Those who predicted we would lose momentum heading into the 2015 election are going to have to think again
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012
film Cara Delevingne 'in talks' to star in Zoolander sequel
News
i100
Life and Style
life
News
Melissa and Joan Rivers together at an NBC event in May 2014
peopleDaughter Melissa thanks fans for 'outpouring of support'
Life and Style
tech
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SAS Developer - DI Studio - Banking

£450 - £500 per day: Orgtel: SAS Developer, Chester, Banking, DI Studio, £450-...

Recruitment Consultants - Banking & Finance

£20000 - £30000 per annum + OTE £40 - £50K first year: SThree: SThree Group an...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £30000 per annum + uncapped: SThree: Do you feel you sales role is li...

Nursery Room Leader

Negotiable: Randstad Education Plymouth: JOB DESCRIPTION - NURSERY ROOM LEADER...

Day In a Page

Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

The phoney war is over

Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

Salomé: A head for seduction

Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

British Library celebrates all things Gothic

Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

In search of Caribbean soul food

Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
11 best face powders

11 best face powders

Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

America’s new apartheid

Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone