Leo Rawlings (1918-1990) was born in Birmingham but moved to Blackpool with his family, aged 13. Whilst working as a sign writer, Rawlings achieved formal art qualifications during evening classes and set himself up as a scenery and display artist at the age of 17. At the outbreak of war in 1939, Rawlings signed up as a signaller for the newly formed 137th Royal Artillery, Blackpool Regiment. His real ambition though was to be a war artist, and as a result he spent as much time as possible drawing and painting what he saw.
And the Dawn Came up Like Thunder was originally published in 1972. Containing a collection of Rawlings' artwork and a narrative of his experiences; the book is both a memoir and a record of the horrific suffering endured by Prisoners of War interned by the Japanese.
Rawlings skips briefly over his early wartime experiences. His excitable naivety is shattered as the Blackpool Regiment is mobilised to the Far East for a jungle warfare campaign; they are untrained and ill-equipped to fight. As they leave Liverpool by boat, he movingly notes: “As the much loved Blackpool Tower came in sight a hush settled on the ships company and literally frozen, emotionally, we stood in silent prayer that we would all see it again soon”. The fighting in Malaya and the Fall of Singapore are also moved over swiftly, for Rawlings had little interest in giving a detailed account of this disastrous military campaign.
The bulk of the text and its most gripping and heart-breaking aspect, is Rawlings’ account of the regime of brutal, dehumanizing and almost unimaginable mistreatment POW’s suffered. He was one of thousands of POW’s forced to work on the construction of the Burma-Siam Railway, often called the ‘railroad of death’ and made famous by the film Bridge on the River Kwai. He describes in vivid detail the physical and mental decline of the men as the jungle environment, illness, starvation and back breaking work transforms them into ‘matchstick men’.
Again, this is not a detailed history of the life in the camps or their wider context in the war; nor is it a meditation on the motives or behaviour of the Japanese forces. Instead this is a record of Rawlings’ experiences, and those of his comrades. It is more of a sensory memory of his existence as a POW – full of the sights, tastes, sounds and smells; some of which require a strong stomach to tolerate. Particularly hard to read are the detailed descriptions and illustrations of the various tropical diseases that tore through the camps and killed so many.
Rawlings was not a writer, and he makes it clear in the preface that he never set out to write an authoritative history of the war in the East. He wrote the book “because he damn well had to”. The loss of Singapore and the surrender of over 80,000 troops to a smaller Japanese force, was seen to be a national disgrace and was swept under the carpet by those in power. Rawlings sought to address such unfair criticism and tried to gain some recognition for the bravery and dedication of both the British and Commonwealth troops who fought in the campaign and the suffering they endured afterwards.
These traumatised and wounded men were, he felt, badly let down by the authorities and were ‘expected to drop back into normal habits again, to pick up the threads of their former lives at the drop of a hat’. Rawlings movingly describes his own struggles with alcohol and mental health caused by the torment of what he endured as a POW. To him, the process of writing this book was about trying to make sense of what happened and it became a vital part of his recovery. As such, Rawlings insisted that the book was published unedited – what we get are his words, his experiences, unpolished and completely unfiltered. It should be noted that it contains some language which may be offensive.
The illustrations are, of course a vital part of this story and in many ways reflect the changing tone of the narrative. The early images Rawlings created of men, ships and planes in combat could be from a boys-own adventure - in fact, Rawlings had a successful post-war career as an illustrator for The Victor comic. However, as the story moves to the camps the images become more personal. His depictions of men in every stage of captivity, illness and suffering are tragically lifelike and therefore more poignant, provocative and visually haunting.
Rawlings bravely risked execution by documenting the atrocities he saw to scraps of salvaged paper with ink made out of plant dyes and clay. He felt it his moral duty keep a pictorial record of events, and ensure they survived the war. Ironically, it seems like his sense of purpose was what gave him the will to stay alive. In fact, this book is testament to the power of art and its capacity to keep the mind alive and the soul intact when the body is close to surrender.
Likewise, his writing was clearly a healing act. At the end Rawlings writes: ‘I have written the book for one reason only. To tell humanity the truth about humanity. Not to assume the role of judge or even advocate. Nor to stir up a hate campaign against the Japanese people. To this day I do not hate the Japanese’. Thus, he ends his tale with a passionate plea to end the cycle of prejudice, violence and brutality that has marred human existence.
It is pleasing to note that not only did Rawlings achieve his desire to become a renowned war artist, but that this book also helped him to make his own peace with the Japanese. After his story was translated into Japanese in 1980, he befriended Japanese veteran Nagase Takashi, with whom he worked to promote peace and reconciliation.
For anybody interested in delving deeply into the POW experience, or seeking to understand the mentality of this amazing war artist, this book is a gripping and evocative read. More importantly, it serves to remind us of a horrifying aspect of history and human suffering which has often gone overlooked in our memories of the Second World War.
Written by Tom, Heritage Assistant