How Len's speedway dream kept him alive in wartime hell
PUBLISHED: 09:24 11 November 2017
As we remember the fallen, Derek James pays tribute to a former Far East PoW who survived the slave camps to become "The Mighty Atom" of Norwich Speedway and who will be celebrating his 100th birthday in January.
It is at night when Len often thinks about his time in hell... a savage and brutal place where so many of his comrades lost their lives.
“You never forget. It was a long time ago but you never forget,” said Len Read, a gentle and modest Norwich man, who became known and loved on speedway tracks across the country as The Mighty Atom and The Pocket Rocket.
He was a shoemaker who was a soldier before becoming a Star, a Devil and a Chad, being cheered on by thousands of people across the land.
There will never be another like Len, a hero in wartime and peacetime who is now looking forward to being 100 years old on January 8.
“I had a poor start in life but I am still here,” he smiled.
He was the guest of honour at the annual speedway lunch organised by Pam Hedge at Bawburgh Golf Club recently when riders and others, including five-times world champion Ove Fundin and another Norwich favourite Olle Nygren, paid tribute to Len.
“We had a good time. It was nice to see them all again,” said Len, who received a gift from speedway historian and author Jeremy Jackson who was representing the Plymouth club where Len was dubbed The Mighty Atom.
As a member of the Plymouth Devils he was an overnight sensation scoring a total of 989 points in his first three seasons. How the people loved this rider from faraway Norfolk.
Today he is the elder statesman of the speedway world - and how it loves and respect him.
Len was born in rough-and-tumble Barrack Street, Norwich, back in 1918. His father, who fought in the First World War, died of TB aged 32, leaving his mother Blanche to bring up her four sons on her own. She went to work at Batson & Websters shoe factory in Fishergate.
Times were tough, and for little Len life was a particular struggle. He went to Bull Close Infants School and then Clare House which took children with health and physical problems who needed special attention, leaving at 14, weighing less than seven stone and with no qualifications.
He worked as a heel maker at F J Andrew’s factory before moving to Caley’s chocolate factory.
Len met the love of his life Doris, also a shoemaker, and they married in 1939. When war broke out Len joined the Norfolk Regiment while Doris worked as a bus conductor.
Then he, and so many other soldiers from Norfolk, ended up in Singapore where they were ordered to surrender to the Japanese.
Len and his comrades were forced to work on the Death Railway in the jungles of the Far East. “It was tough. Discipline was medieval. It is difficult to explain to others what it was like. The Japanese were cruel.”
While his friends and comrades died around him Len survived cholera and malaria. Clad in filthy rags he was working 12 hours a day in appalling conditions, being forced to march an average of 20 miles a day.
When Len looks back to those terrible times he remembers up to 30 battered and emaciated bodies being removed from the camp each day.
“It was heartbreaking. We lost so many. It was terrible but for some reason I thought I would survive and I did. So many others didn’t and I still think about them – especially at night,” he said.
In those days he dreamed of becoming a speedway rider – it seemed to keep him going - and that’s just what he did when he made it back to Norwich and his beloved Doris.
He did odd jobs at The Firs before getting his chance to ride from manager Dick Wise.
Little Len rode like the wind, and how the crowds loved his style. He was part of the Norwich Stars in the 1946 season before crashing and being injured.
Unable to get enough rides at The Firs he signed for Plymouth where he became a hero. From the Devils he later moved to be a Chad with the Liverpool team before moving back to Plymouth.
Former world champion speedway rider Peter Collins knew Len when they were at Liverpool together.
He said: “Len’s experiences during his tough upbringing and throughout his terrible ordeal during the war gave him the added thrust to fulfil his ambition to become a speedway rider. A remarkable man.”
And all the while in Len’s busy career he lived in Norwich. Not moving away.
When he finally retired Len ran The Red Lion in Magdalen Street, then went back to working in the shoe trade before setting up his own driving school. Fancy being taught to drive by The Mighty Atom...
Len lost his wife Doris but has a son Len, in Australia, and daughters Jenny and Penny. He is a proud grandfather and great grandfather.
And today his thoughts are with his comrades in arms who never came home.