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

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Life and Style
A monstrous idea? Body transplants might no longer be science fiction
Science An Italian neurosurgeon believes so - and it's not quite as implausible as it sounds, says Steve Connor
Sport
Demba Ba (right) celebrates after Besiktas win on penalties
footballThere was no happy return to the Ataturk Stadium, where the Reds famously won Champions League
Arts and Entertainment
Natural beauty: Aidan Turner stars in the new series of Poldark
arts + ents
News
Mia Freedman, editorial director of the Mamamia website, reads out a tweet she was sent.
arts + ents
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
The write stuff: masters of story-telling James Joyce, left, and Thomas Hardy
arts + ents...begging to differ, John Walsh can't even begin to number the ways
News
Image from a flyer at the CPAC event where Nigel Farage will be speaking
news
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

Recruitment Genius: Bookkeeper

£23000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This small, friendly, proactive...

Recruitment Genius: Photographic Event Crew

£14500 - £22800 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developers - .NET / ASP.NET / WebAPI / JavaScript

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Software Developer is required to join a lea...

Austen Lloyd: Corporate Tax Solicitor - City

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: A first rate opportunity to join a top ranking...

Day In a Page

HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

Time to play God

Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

MacGyver returns, but with a difference

Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

Tunnel renaissance

Why cities are hiding roads underground
'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

Boys to men

The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

Crufts 2015

Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
10 best projectors

How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

Monaco: the making of Wenger

Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

Homage or plagiarism?

'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower