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

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
News
Ian Thorpe had Rio 2016 in his sights
people
Arts and Entertainment
Original Netflix series such as Orange Is The New Black are to benefit from a 'substantial' increase in investment
TVHoax announcement had caused outrage
Life and Style
Swimsuit, £245, by Agent Provocateur
fashion

Diving in at the deep end is no excuse for shirking the style stakes

News
One Direction star Harry Styles who says he has no plans to follow his pal Cara Delevingne down the catwalk.
peopleManagement confirms rumours singer is going it alone are false
Voices
Mrs Brown's Boy: D'Movie has been a huge commercial success
voicesWhen it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor
Arts and Entertainment
Curtain calls: Madani Younis
theatreMadani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
Arts and Entertainment
'Deep Breath' is Peter Capaldi's first full-length adventure as the twelfth Doctor
TVFirst episode of new series has ended up on the internet
Life and Style
Douglas McMaster says the food industry is ‘traumatised’
food + drinkSilo in Brighton will have just six staple dishes on the menu every day, including one meat option, one fish, one vegan, and one 'wild card'
Sport
Mario Balotelli, Divock Origi, Loic Remy, Wilfried Bony and Karim Benzema
transfersBony, Benzema and the other transfer targets
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
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

Web Developer (C#, ASP.NET, AJAX, JavaScript, MVC, HTML)

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Web Developer ...

C# R&D .NET Developer-Algorithms, WCF, WPF, Agile, ASP.NET,MVC

£50000 - £67000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# R&D .NE...

C# Developer (Web, HTML5, CSS3, ASP.NET, JS, Visual Studios)

£40000 - £50000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Developer (...

C# Developer (ASP.NET, F#, SQL, MVC, Bootstrap, JavaScript)

£55000 - £65000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Developer (...

Day In a Page

Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country

How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over northern Iraq

A speech by an ex-MI6 boss hints at a plan going back over a decade. In some areas, being Shia is akin to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, says Patrick Cockburn
The evolution of Andy Serkis: First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

The evolution of Andy Serkis

First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial: Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried

You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial...

Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried
Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

Refugee children let down by Washington's high ideals

Democrats and Republicans refuse to set aside their differences to cope with the influx of desperate Central Americas, says Rupert Cornwell
Children's books are too white, says Laureate

Children's books are too white, says Laureate

Malorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...

Blackest is the new black

Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

The US Ambassador to London holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence – it's all part of the job, he tells Chris Green
Meet the Quantified Selfers: From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor

Meet the 'Quantified Selfers'

From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
Madani Younis: Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

Madani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

When it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish – among others – know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor
Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy: Was the otter man the wildlife champion he appeared to be?

Otter man Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy

The aristocrat's eccentric devotion to his pets inspired a generation. But our greatest living nature writer believes his legacy has been quite toxic
Joanna Rowsell: The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia

Joanna Rowsell: 'I wear my wig to look normal'

The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef gives raw ingredients a lift with his quick marinades

Bill Granger's quick and delicious marinades

Our chef's marinades are great for weekend barbecuing, but are also a delicious way of injecting flavour into, and breaking the monotony of, weekday meals
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014 preview: Why Brazilians don't love their neighbours Argentina any more

Anyone but Argentina – why Brazilians don’t love their neighbours any more

The hosts will be supporting Germany in today's World Cup final, reports Alex Bellos
The Open 2014: Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?

The Open 2014

Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?