The monster guns of the east

10 07 2015

Tucked away in a forgotten corner of Changi is a reminder of one of three monster guns of the east installed as part of the coastal defences to protect the island’s naval base from an attack by sea. The reminder, the No. 1 gun emplacement of the Johore Battery and its underground network of support structures, topped by a replica of the 15 inch gun that once stood proudly over it, is in an area today dominated by the high fences of the area’s prison complexes that make it seem an unlikely site for a coastal defence gun.

A photograph of one of the monster guns from the Imperial War Museums collection ©IWM (K 758) (Captioned as: A 15-inch coast defence gun at Singapore, November 1941).

A photograph of one of the monster guns seen in November 1941 [Imperial War Museums collection ©IWM (K 758)].

The terrain and its surroundings would of course have been very different in the days when the guns were installed. The considerations for locating them in the area go back to the 1920s, when the British were in the midst of planning on turning Changi into a military base. How it came to be chosen is already well documented by Peter Stubbs on his Fort Siloso website (see: Johore 15-inch Battery) in which there is a wealth of information also on the battery and other coastal defence sites across Singapore.

The replica gun at the site today.

The replica gun at the site today.

Named in honour of the then Sultan of Johor who had donated a substantial sum of money (in the order of £500,000) – much of which was used to set up the battery, the Johore Battery was one of several batteries of the Changi Fire Command, established to protect the entrance to the Tebrau Strait and the Naval Base. These also included 6 and 9,2 inch guns that were set up around the eastern tip of Singapore in an area that extended to Pulau Tekong and Pengerang in southeastern Johor. The 15-inch guns, installed in 1938, had a range of 21 miles.

Gun No. 2 of the Johore Battery being fired in November 1941 [Imperial War Museums collection ©IWM (K 755)].

Gun No. 2 of the Johore Battery being fired [Imperial War Museums collection ©IWM (K 755)].

Besides the Changi Fire Command, the coastal defences also included a Faber Fire Command to protect the port and the city of Singapore and a total of 29 large gun batteries were distributed between the two commands. The Faber Fire Command also included a Buona Vista Battery with two 15-inch guns.

The labyrinth above ground.

The labyrinth above ground.

Much has been discussed on the effectiveness of the guns in the days that led up to the Fall of Singapore. It could be suggested that the coastal defences did served their intended purpose in deterring an attack by the sea. What is quite certain however, was that although the flat trajectory of the guns and their ammunition made them unsuitable for use over land, two working guns of the Johore Battery were trained to the north and west and fired a total of Johore Battery (Infopedia) in the defence of the island. An account of one of the gun’s use is found in a paper “The Story of the end of Johore Battery during the Battle for Singapore” based on interviews with Malcolm Nash, the son of Gunner William Nash:

Once the Japanese had commenced their attack my father stated that his gun was turned around so that it could fire to the north. I believe that he said that turning it round took 12 hours. My father was the gunner responsible for firing the gun and thought the firing to have been merely a morale booster to frontline troops, as the shells available had been designed to pierce ships’ armour. During his time at Changi Prison he said that fellow soldiers had commented that the shells had sounded like a train going overhead when they were fired.

After eighty shells had been fired it was noticed that the rifling had started to protrude from the barrel and a member of the Royal Engineers was consulted. His view was that the gun was no longer fit for action and if fired again would not have his named attached to it. The gun was fired once more which caused its destruction, and the oil tanks around my father to explode and bathe him in oil.

An 800 kg shell on display at the Johore Battery site.

An 800 kg shell on display at the Johore Battery site.

The same paper describes an account of a Japanese Colonel, who recounts the guns’ armour piercing shells producing craters 15-16 metres in diameter and 5-6 metres deep and that the guns most intense phase came during 10-12 February 1942 when they were used to shell the centre and west of the Singapore. The guns were said to have been destroyed on the night of 12 February 1942. Following the end of the war, the remains of the 300 ton guns (the barrel alone was thought to have weighed 100 tons) were sold for scrap.

A soldier loading a shell into the lift below the 15-inch gun [Australian War Memorial, copyright expired].

Loading a shell into the lift below the 15-inch gun [Australian War Memorial, copyright expired].

Besides the emplacements, a labyrinth of underground structures – a trace of which can now be seen above ground, were also built in an around the guns, in part to allow ammunition to be fed to the guns – the shells were loaded to the guns using a hydraulic lift. It was these tunnels and the emplacement of the No. 1 gun of the Johore Battery that was rediscovered in April 1991 in an area that became the Prisons’ Abington Centre and was then turned into the Johore Battery historic site and unveiled on 15 Fenruary 2002.  The underground structures are currently unsafe and access to them is not possible.