The last days of Empire

6 02 2017

On the afternoon of Chinese New Year’s day, 75 years ago in 1942, Singapore fell to the Japan. It was to bring three and a half years of hardship on Singaporeans and a shift in power that would bring about the end of the once mighty British Empire. The capitulation of the Empire’s “impregnable fortress” had come swiftly, in a manner nobody might have expected. Just two months had elapsed since the Japanese Imperial Army launched its invasion of Malaya, and in a matter of one week since making landfall on Singapore’s northwest coast, the jewel in the crown was firmly in the hands of Japan.

On the ground, the poorly equipped, ill-trained and demoralised troops defending Malaya and the island were no match for the experienced, efficient and motivated fighting force Japan had committed to the task. With their back to the walls in Singapore, the defenders – British, Australian and Indian troops and members of the Malay Regiment, plus those of volunteer units such as the Chinese organised Dalforce, fought gallantly but there was little that could be done to stem a tide that had already turned against them.

In the less threatening environment we live in today, it is probably difficult to appreciate what these desperate defenders would have been put through. While it will of course not be possible to fully appreciate that, we can attempt to have some sense of it through the testimonies captured of those who have fought – what the National University of Singapore’s Southeast Asian Student’s Society hopes to do in putting together “The Last Days of Empire: Japanese Advance along Bukit Timah Road, 1942”. The guided tour, is one of 12 to look out for this February and March (see also: The ruins on Sentosa and a rare chance to visit), as part of the National Heritage Board’s (NHB) commemoration of the 75th Anniversary of the Fall of Singapore.

The trail starts at the University Cultural Centre (UCC). The UCC stands where the assault on the strategic Pasir Panjang Ridge commenced on 13th February 1942. A vicious battle would be fought over the ridge over two days, which culminated in the Malay Regiment’s last stand on Bukit Chandu and the taking of the British Military Hospital, Alexandra Hospital today, at which a massacre occurred.

Dr. Effendy at the foot of Bukit Timah Hill.

Dr. Effendy at the foot of Bukit Timah Hill.

From the UCC, the trail backtracks the Japanese advance north along Clementi Road – then Reformatory Road, a main thoroughfare that links with Bukit Timah Road and thereby connects north and south of the island. Stops along the way include the site at Dover Road at which the Rimau Commandos were executed. The rather strange spot at which the 10 of brave commandos lost their lives – just a couple of months before Japan was to surrender, was selected by the Japanese apparently for the view to honour the bravery of the men, who were said to have gone to their deaths laughing (see: http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/newspapers/Digitised/Article/straitstimes19600228-1.2.63). Operation Rimau, mounted by a total of 23 British and Australian commandos and intended as a sequel to the highly successful Operation Jaywick, was aborted with 11 commandos being captured alive.

Marker for the Rimau Commando execution site at Dover Road.

Marker for the Rimau Commando execution site at Dover Road.

Participants are also brought to the sites near the Buona Vista Battery, where a couple of monster 15 inch guns were mounted. More on these guns can be found at Peter Stubbs’ FortSiloso.com. It is though that remnants of the emplacement for No.1 Gun, tunnels serving the guns as well as an underground Battery Plotting Room for the battery are still intact – below what had previously been Mowbray Camp. Some remnants of No. 2 Gun are also thought to exist in the area of Pine Grove, which was also where a POW Cemetery, the Ulu Pandan Cemetery existed until 1975.

A view down Ulu Pandan Road, to the areas on both sides of the road where the 15" guns of the Buona Vista Battery were mounted.

A view down Ulu Pandan Road, to the areas on both sides of the road where the 15″ guns of the Buona Vista Battery were mounted.

Dr Effendy speaking on the Buona Vista Battery.

Dr Effendy speaking on the Buona Vista Battery.

The former Mowbray Camp - remains of No. 1 Gun emplacement, tunnels and a battery plotting room are thought to still exist.

The former Mowbray Camp – remains of No. 1 Gun emplacement, tunnels and a battery plotting room are thought to still exist.

Other sites that will be visited are the area close to Bukit Timah Village, where participants hear of the use of bamboo tyres by Japanese troops on bicycles; the foot of Bukit Timah Hill where the little known contributions of Dalforce is spoken about; and the POW built stairs that once led to the Syonan Chureito – a memorial to the fallen. The memorial, which contained the ashes of 10,000 Japanese who perished in the Pacific war, also included a small memorial for allied soldiers. Some of the local population will be mobilised during special occasions, such as the New Year, to attend ceremonies at the memorial (see also : my entry on Syonan Jinja). The Syonan Chureito was destroyed by the Japanese prior to their surrender for fear of its desecration and the remains of the Japanese war dead moved to the Japanese Cemetery at Chuan Hoe Avenue.

POW built steps leading up to the Syonan Chureito at Bukit Batok as seen during the Occupation.

POW built steps leading up to the Syonan Chureito at Bukit Batok as seen during the Occupation.

Dr. Effendy and students at the steps of the Syonan Chureito.

Dr. Effendy and students at the steps of the Syonan Chureito.

The tour will end off with a guided tour at the Old Ford Factory’s newly revamped Syonan Gallery. The old Ford Factory was where the surrender of Singapore to the Japanese Imperial Army took place on 15 February 1942. The tour will be led by Dr Mohamed Effendy and at the Old Ford Factory, by Syonan Gallery docents. More information on the tour and other tours can be found at:

A view towards the area where Bukit Timah Village was.

A view towards the area where Bukit Timah Village was.

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The ruins on Sentosa and a rare chance to visit

3 02 2017

Sentosa, or the island of peace and tranquility and now also of posh homes, fancy boats and overpriced hotels, was once the rather sinister sounding Pulau Blakang Mati – the island of death at the back. No one seems quite sure of the origins of the name, although there have been several suggestions including one that is tied to the legend that Pulau Tekukor to Blakang Mati’s south had once seen duels to the death pitting Bugis warriors against ones from the Malay world.

Ruins on Mount Serapong.

It was in putting up a deference to violent confrontation that was to be Blakang Mati’s purpose for a large part of British rule. Strategically positioned, it served not only as a natural breakwater for the new harbour. Endowed with high points, it was only a matter of time before guns to protect the harbour from seaward attack were positioned on the island. The idea was in fact already mooted by William Farquhar, Singapore’s first resident, as early as 1820 – a year after the British arrived.

The first military installations would however only come up in the late 1800s. Undeterred by outbreaks of malaria and “Blakang Mati fever”, fortifications requiring extensive use of concrete – then newly introduced to Singapore, were constructed at the end of the 1870s on Mount Serapong – Blakang Mati’s highest point. It would only be in 1885 that work started on the installation of coastal artillery on Serapong. Two 8 inch guns were installed with supporting infrastructure such as casemates built into the terrain, which contained magazines, accommodation and other working spaces.

By 1912/13, the guns at Serapong Battery would be upgraded to 9.2 inch calibre guns and a separate Spur Battery, also equipped with a 9.2 inch gun added. These guns would be decommissioned in the later half of the 1930s when 9.2 inch guns at Fort Connaught were installed. Two 6 inch guns would however be placed on the spur (renamed Serapong Battery) after a review in 1936 and this was operational up to the final days before the fall of Singapore. Both guns were spiked and destroyed, No. 2 on 14th and and No. 1 on 15th February 1942.

With the development of Sentosa today, it may perhaps be surprising that extensive remnants of the installations scattered over Mount Serapong – just a stone’s throw away from the luxury developments at Sentosa Cove – can still be found today. The remnants include a underground magazine built for the 9.2 inch spur battery that was converted for use for Serapong Battery’s 6 inch No. 1 Gun, the battery’s gun emplacements, as well as several other support structures built in the 1930s for the battery. What may be more surprising are casemates, thought to have been built around 1885 can be found along with mountings for the 9.2 inch guns and best of all, a bunker 20 metres under the casemates that served as the Blakang Mati Command Centre. The bunker, with several chambers is in a damaged condition and has a vertical escape shaft at the top of which is a hatch.

The National Heritage Board, through a series of guided tours to mark the 75th Anniversary of the Fall of Singapore, offers an excellent opportunity to learn more about and see these remnants. One tour, Fort Serapong @ Fort Siloso, for which 3 sessions on the 25 February, 4 and 11 March (from 9.30 am to 12 noon) will be held. Places are limited. More  on the tours and other programmes can be found below.

For more on the guns at Serapong, on Sentosa and also across Singapore, do visit Peter Stubbs excellent FortSiloso.com site.


Photographs of the ruins on Mount Serapong

On the spur, the Gun No. 1 Gun duty personnel rooms and gunners’ shelter.

On the spur, the Gun No. 1 Gun duty personnel rooms and gunners’ shelter.

The collapsed structure of the 6 inch Gun No. 1 emplacement on the spur.

The collapsed structure of the 6 inch Gun No. 1 emplacement on the spur.

The underground 6-inch Gun No. 1 magazine on the spur, converted from that for the 9.2 inch spur battery.

The underground 6-inch Gun No. 1 magazine on the spur, converted from that for the 9.2 inch spur battery.

Inside the Other Ranks shelter in the magazine.

Inside the Other Ranks shelter in the magazine.

In the 'courtyard' of the magazine.

In the ‘courtyard’ of the magazine.

Inside the magazine.

Inside the magazine.

The 1936 kitchen complex.

The 1936 kitchen complex.

More of the kitchen complex.

More of the kitchen complex.

Another view.

Another view.

The 1936 bathroom.

The 1936 bathroom.

Fort Connaught's Battery Command Post (BCP), positioned on the highest point.

Fort Connaught’s Battery Command Post (BCP), positioned on the highest point.

Another view.

Another view.

9.2 inch gun mounting studs.

9.2 inch gun mounting studs.

A close-up.

A close-up.

The 9.2 inch shell hoist.

The 9.2 inch shell hoist.

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Nature reclaiming the space.

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Stairs at the casemate.

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Space inside the casemate.

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Part of the casemate.

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Inside a casemate space.

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Another collapsed structure.

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A underground reservoir.

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Magazine inside the casemate.

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Another view.

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The Blakang Mati Command Centre.

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Another view.

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The view up the escape shaft.

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The hatch at the end of the escape shaft.



Commemoration of the 75th Anniversary of the Fall of Singapore

This 15 February will mark 75 years since the Fall of Singapore, an event that brought about 3½ years of occupation by the Japanese and a period of immense hardship.  The National Heritage Board is commemorating the anniversary with  “Battle for Singapore – Years under the Sun Empire: Tales of Resilience” that will see guided tours, talks and activities organised by various Museum Roundtable museums from 16 February to 12 March.

There would be 12 different tours with a total of 49 tour runs to look out for. These will cover 11 World War II related sites and structures, including some rarely opened places such as the former Fort Serapong and the former Command House. There is an opportunity to also hear accounts of battle and survival and learn about the contributions and courage of the local population to the effort to defend Singapore.

Also to look forward to is the re-opening of the Former Ford Factory, which has been closed for a year-long revamp. This will reopen to the public on 16 February 2017 and see a new exhibition gallery with never-been-seen-before archival materials, There is also an interactive component offering a more immersive account of the days of war and suffering. Special exhibitions and programmes are also being put up by the Army Museum, Battlebox, the Singapore Discovery Centre. the Eurasian Heritage Centre, and Reflections at Bukit Chandu. More information is available at  www.museums.com.sg. Sign-ups for the Battle for Singapore 2017 programmes can be made at this link: https://www.eventbrite.sg/o/national-heritage-board-9384989257 (available from 6 February 2017 at 10.00am onwards). Slots are limited and will be allocated on a first-come first-served basis.






Still in the dark, where the darkness began this Sunday, 73 years ago

8 02 2015

In the darkness of a Sunday night, 73 years ago today, the end was to begin for Singapore. Just after 8 pm on 8 February 1942, the first wave of landings were made by Japanese troops  along the poorly defended and mangrove lined northwest coastline of the island.

In the dark: WWII landing site at Sarimbun Beach today with its fence to prevent a new invasion of  illegal immigrants and goods.

In the dark: WWII landing site at Sarimbun Beach today with its fence to prevent a new invasion of illegal immigrants and goods.

Defended by the ill prepared and poorly equipped Australian Imperial Forces’ 22nd Brigade, who were spread out thinly over a long stretch of the coastline, coupled with Percival’s misjudgement in focusing the defence of the island in its east, the area, the mangroves proved to be no barrier and the coast was very quickly overrun. The defence of Singapore was to fail miserably just a week later, a defeat that was to plunge Singapore in more than three years of darkness as the light of the Japanese Empire’s south.

“Sarimbun battle” by Unknown; original uploader was Grant65 at en.wikipedia. – Lionel Wigmore (1957) “Defence of Western Area” in Australia in the War of 1939–1945: Volume IV – The Japanese Thrust (PDF), Canberra: Australian War Memorial, pp. 310 Transferred from en.wikipedia by Gorbi. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Much of the area today is still shrouded in darkness. Cut-off from the rest of Singapore by its relative inaccessibility and isolation – much of it is off limits as a large part of it lies within the Live Firing Area (and even where it isn’t, there is a fence intended to keep the new invasion of illegal immigrants and goods out that also cuts us off from our seas), it is an area seemingly forgotten even if there are markers in place to commemorate an event that should remain in the minds of all of us in Singapore.

A page from the Australian Imperial Forces 2/20 Battalion unit diary. The 2/20 Battalion was defending the sector where Sarimbun Beach is at the time of the landings.

A page from the Australian Imperial Forces 2/20 Battalion unit diary. The 2/20 Battalion was defending the sector where Sarimbun Beach is at the time of the landings.

Japanese forces landing on Singapore on the night of 8 February 1942 (Australian War Memorial – Copyright Expired).


Related:

Japanese footage from the Romano Archives, 1942 The Taking of Singapore, which includes some landing scenes:

Another landing site, The Pier: A lost world in Lim Chu Kang









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