Adventures in a pill box

3 08 2011

Sifting through some old photographs, I found one of a machine gun pill box that I had as a young boy had many adventures in. The pill box, was one of many that were scattered along the southern coastline of Singapore and one that has all but disappeared (save for the one at Labrador Park) from the southern shores – most having been demolished in the early part of the 1970s. The particular pillbox that is the subject of the photograph, was one that was located close to the fishing village of Mata Ikan, in the days before land reclamation work commenced which added the extension to our southern shores which provided part of the land on which Changi Airport is built on.

The Pill Box at Mata Ikan in 1970.

Mata Ikan, of which I have mentioned in previous posts on the holiday bungalows my family used to frequent, and also in a post on Somapah Village which I always saw as a gateway to Mata Ikan, was for a while a playground for me, having spent many holidays by the sea in and around the area. It was where I first used a fishing rod – a simple bamboo one with a fixed length of line and a hook at its end, fishing for catfish by tghe stream which ran to the west of the holiday bungalows. What the photograph of the pill box evokes is a few memories I have of playing in the pill box with friends, pretending to be soldiers with a piece of drift wood picked up from the beach serving as a rifle, peeping out towards the sea through the openings at the front. There is also that memory of the stench one got from the pillboxes, the stench that probably came from the litter that lay rotting on the ground within the pill boxes. It is a stench I will never forget, but one that brings with it the memories of my adventures in another lost part of Singapore’s past.




6 responses

4 08 2011
peter long

I used to live near Teluk Kurau/East Coast Road. A shoirt walk brought me to the beach where there was a pill-box. I was then around 16 and almost everday I would walk mt dog to the beach and this pill-box which, after one entrance, I avoided because of the stench there and the left over faceas inside the structure.
One day, it started to rain heavily and I aought shelter under the pill-box. I heard a small noise coming from above me, and looking in, I saw a young Indian man, fully dressed in white clothes lying on the floor. He was cutting his throat with a knife! There was blood around his neck and he seemed to be quite still. As a young boy then, I was so frightened at what I saw, that I ran as fast as I could with my dog following me to the nearest shop along East Coast Road. I got the proprietor to call the police. Of course, by the time they arrived, the man was dead.

I avoided that pill-box for years until it wass demolished to makle way for reclamation works.


7 08 2011
Francis Lai

During my childhood days in 1960, there was a pill-box right in our kampong at Chin Lye Street ! The concrete structure was exactly opposite the then Gate 1 Singapore Harbour Board (SHB) Tg Pagar area. I remember at the side there was a steel door and one of our kampong resident was actually living inside the pill box. Since we could not access through the locked steel door, we kids would climb up (w/o ladder) to the top of the pill box to play. Unfortunately, the SHB wanted back the land and all the villagers were then resettled in around 1963. The site of our kampong is now a Tg Pagar Container Port. This is one of my most truly memorable days as a young kid in the kampong days.

8 09 2011
Dr. Siew Jolin Kuek

I used to live in Mata Ikan but my family was too poor to have pictures of the old village so I am glad I found your post. Thank you for sharing your pictures. The Pill Box that you mentioned was located within the grounds of old British officers’ quarters, some of them bungalows. There was also a playground within the fenced off compound with the biggest slide I have ever seen (from a then child’s point of view). The playground was not accessible to the villagers. Now that I think of it, this (keeping out the villagers) is rather interesting. It begs many questions. Singapore Telecoms was apparently managing the place and was renting out the bungalows. Occassionally a church group would show a film (outdoors, bring your own stool) about Jesus, for free! The free entertainment was often welcomed because it was so magical to see a film. We were not sophisticated enough to understand the greater implications of such showing. We were simple folks.
I remember the GP’s clinic. His name is Dr. Ng and he would often see poor villagers for free when the situation was critical (no one went to see…at least those that we knew… “Ah Ng” unless the situation was really dire). I have often wondered what happened to him. Sometimes my siblings and I still talk about him and the compassion that he had shown to folks like ourselves. Thank you again for sharing.

5 03 2012
Changi Ten Miles

I used to stay in Somapah. The telecom bungalows was at siak kuan road.Good for you. It is out of bound to us. We can only see, cannot touch.

18 01 2013

Hi there! Does anyone have any old photos of pill boxes they would like to share? I am doing an online webisode featuring the remnants of WW2, which is in conjunction with a documentary, History From The Hills. Thanks!

22 08 2016
Wong Hoong Hooi

There are not many posts or comments from the military angle. I don’t pretend to be a military expert but will give views from what I know and have observed:

1. This type of pill box was far more common than the one at Pasir Panjang Road. There were 2 copulas on each side of semi circular shape and with semi circular firing embrasures. Old film cuttings showed that each housing a Vickers medium machine gun. The semi circular embrasures enabled a fairly wide traverse of each gun.
2. If you had gone (notice the past tense – impossible now because all remaining examples buried or sealed) inside one of the cupolas you would have seen a deep pit with vertical sides running along the inside of the semi circular firing embrasure. Above this semi circular pit, further into the cupola, was the platform on which the Vickers MMG would have been mounted. The sides of the platform were made of concrete and deliberately sloped to the vertical of the pit. NSmen who were machine gunners will tell you that the pit was a grenade sump. A grenade lobbed into the embrasure would likely hit the slope and roll into the deep pit with vertical sides that directed the blast and shrapnel up (relatively) harmless into the roof of the cupola. Additionally the gunners may have put up tamped sandbags on the platform for added protection. The noise from such explosions within the confines of the cupola would have been something else. (And too bad if you hung your packet of the-C above the pit.)
4. Between the cupolas was a relatively small rectangular façade (all reinforced concrete, of course) that had a rectangular aperture higher off the ground than the semi circular embrasures of the cupolas. The space behind the aperture would have allowed standing room for about 2 riflemen only, firing from standing position. Behind that space was a wall that protected the internal space of the pillbox (presumably the stand down area.)
5. Above the rectangular façade and set a little further back was a semi circular tower with a smaller semi circular aperture than the ones in the cupolas. I wondered about its purpose and figured that when the gun crews were standing down, a observer would have been posted in the tower to spot for activity in the area covered by the pillbox.
6. These pill boxes were sometimes cited in pairs facing away from each other so that the embrasures from each covered the breach and water on opposite sides. If you had seen, for example, the pair of pill boxes that had been on stilts near Katong Convent, you would have noticed the pairs facing away from each other in opposite directions. Some distance down the beach would have been another pair. So a stretch of beach (and its water) would have been covered by fire from one pill box on each side. The stretch of breach (and its water) covered by the x MMGs was the kill zone.
7. In the Japanese landings (by a regimental group from 18th Division IJA) at Kota Bahru on 8 December 1941, a large number of Japanese casualties from the first 2 waves were said to have been caused by Indian troops of the British India Army (think it was the Dogra Rifles) manning 2 pillboxes. Wonder if they were the same design as the one being discussed? The pillboxes found protecting Alor Star airfield were of a different design, again, from the one being discussed and the one at Pasir Panjang.
8. Nowadays such pillboxes would be smashed by precision guided munitions or radar sighted naval gunfire. The landing forces would, if well-equipped enough, be ferried in huge air-cushion vehicles that would “float” above the mines, booby traps and other beach obstacles, discharging the invaders inland who can then attack the remaining beach defenders from behind. The advantage has passed, once again, to the offense.

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