Serendipity in the garrison church

8 11 2018

Places take on a greater meaning when we are made aware of the associations they have had; with people who have passed through them, or with their connection with significant events of our past.  Knowing these, and the stories that can be told of them, adds a new dimension to spaces and buildings to aid in our appreciation of them.

Saint George’s Church – the former Tanglin garrison church, one of the sites visited during November’s edition of #SLASecretSpaces.

Through the conduct of the series of guided State Property visits, “Discovering Singapore’s Best Kept Secrets“,  many of these associations have come of light. The series, which is supported by the Singapore Land Authority, provides an opportunity for members of the public to visit usually closed-off State-held properties and often sees the participants with connections that may not otherwise have come to light. Examples include the much misrepresented Old Changi Hospital, the also much misrepresented former View Road Hospital, Kinloss House, and 5 Kadayanallur Street – just to name a few.

Inside Saint George’s Church.

The first Saturday in November, when a visit to the former Tanglin Barracks took place, threw up a connection, albeit of a different kind, that was established quite by chance. That would never have been possible if not for a series of coincidences that culminated in a guest, Garth O’Connell, making a discovery that he might not otherwise have known about. This serendipitous find was made inside Saint George’s Church right at the end of the visit and is perhaps best summed up in Garth’s own words:

“Just had a superb heritage walk around the former Australian and British Army base of Tanglin Barracks … at the end I had a huge serendipitous event relating to Bob Page DSO1 which freaked me and our tour group out! 😮

Those on the tour were given a free hard copy of the church centenary book at the end of tour. I put it my half full plastic bag which had bottles of water, tissues, map and umbrella. As I’m walking around the church taking pics the bag broke after a few minutes so sat down right away as the contents are all about to spill out and cause a scene. I sit down on the pews at the closest seat and it’s the only one dedicated to Bob Page DSO. I’ve given talks on him at work, I met his widow before she died about 2 years ago and every time I come to Singapore I visit his grave at Kranji War Cemetery. Bloody huge coincidence me just sitting down next to him in that big church.”

1Capt. Robert Charles Page, DSO, an Australian war hero who was executed by the Japanese in July 1945 for his involvement in Operation Rimau.

Garth with the kneeling cushion on which a dedication to Capt. Robert Page DSO is found. The book and the broken plastic bag is seen next to him (photo courtesy of Simone Lee).

This all seems rather uncanny, especially when one considers some other coincidences. Garth, who is with the Australian War Memorial (AWM) and based in Canberra, would not have been able to participate if not for a stopover he was making en-route to Kanchanaburi (where he will be attending a Remembrance Sunday event). It also turns out that the event, on 3 November, came just two days after what would have been the Pages 75th wedding anniversary –  Capt. Page and his wife Roma married on 1 November 1943. The first day of November also happens to be the day in 1945 that Mrs. Page received the telegram with news confirming her husband’s death.

A close up of the dedication on the kneeling cushion of the seat.

The wartime exploits of Capt. Page as a member of ‘Z’ Special Unit, are well recorded. The outfit, set up to carry out operations behind enemy lines, made a daring raid into the waters of Singapore in September 1943. Six very brave men including the then Lt. Page, paddled in teams of two through Japanese held waters in and around the harbour in canoes to sabotage Japanese shipping. This operation, Operation Jaywick, the 75th anniversary of which was commemorated recently, met with great success and resulted in the sinking or the disabling of 7 ships.

Capt. Robert Charles Page’s headstone in Kranji War Cemetery.

While the operation was went smoothly for the members of ‘Z’ Special Force, it was not without any fallout. One consequence of it was the so-called “Double Tenth Incident” that saw 57 civilians, who were wrongly suspected of having aided the operation, arrested and tortured. Among those arrested was Elizabeth Choy. While Mrs. Choy lived to tell the horrendous tale, 15 of her comrades did not, perishing at the hands of the Kempeitai.

Group portrait after the completion of Operation Jaywick, “Z” Special Unit, Australian Services Reconnaissance Department, showing the personnel who carried out the operation. (Source: AWM, Copyright Expired).

Following on the success of Jaywick, a second operation, Operation Rimau, was planned and in September to October 1944, executed. This operation turned out quite differently and had to be aborted during its execution and 23 men lost their lives as a result. Twelve were killed in the attempt to escape through the islands of what had previously been the Dutch East Indies. The 11 who survived initially were hunted down and eventually captured in the islands of the Riau and moved to Singapore. One succumbed to malaria after being brought across, while the remaining 10, Capt. Page included, were tried, convicted of spying, and sentenced to death.

Then Lt. Robert Page, Major Ivan Lyon, MBE, and Lt Donald Montague Noel Davidson, seen after the successful completion of Operation Jaywick. (Source: AWM, Copyright expired – public domain).

The 10 were beheaded on 7 July 1945, just over a month before the war would end. The very courageous manner in which they met their deaths is captured in a headline of a 1960 Straits Times article, which read:  “The men who went to their death laughing“.

The historic marker at the Rimau Commandos execution site.

A historical marker now stands at the execution site and provides a grim reminder of the sacrifice that the men made. This marker can be found close to U-Town,  at the Clementi Road end of Dover Road. The remains of the men, which were located after the war, were transferred to a collective grave in Kranji War Cemetery. The grave is marked by a row of 10 headstones, each with a name of one of the executed men.

The 10 headstones at the grave of the ten executed commandos.

Another view of the headstone of Capt. Robert Charles Page DSO.


More on Capt. Robert Charles Page DSO, Jaywick and Rimau, and Mrs. Roma Page:


LEST WE FORGET
Remembrance Sunday 11 November 2018

Remembrance Sunday, which falls on the Sunday closest to 11 November – the anniversary of the end of the Great War, provides an opportunity to pay our respects  to and remember the Rimau heroes and the many, many more who made the ultimate sacrifice in the name of peace and freedom. The commemoration this year coincides with the 100th anniversary of the end of the Great War.

Services will be held at various locations in Singapore on the day, including at Kranji War Cemetery. More information, provided by the British High Commission (which is co-hosting the Kranji commemoration with the Singapore Armed Forces Veterans’ League) can be found below.


 

The British High Commission in partnership with the Singapore Armed Forces Veterans’ League will be hosting the annual Remembrance Sunday service at Kranji War Cemetery on Sunday, 11 November 2018. The service starts at 7.30am, guest should arrive and be seated or in position by 7.15am.

The 30-minute ceremony will be attended by members of the diplomatic corps; Singapore and foreign military representatives and religious leaders and is held to pay tribute to all who died in wars so that the generations after them could live in peace.

In the UK, Remembrance Sunday is held on the Sunday nearest to Remembrance Day on 11 November; the date marks the official end of the First World War on 11 November 1918. This year, the dates also marks the 100th Anniversary of the end of World War 1.

Event details

Date : Sunday, 11 November 2018

Time : 7.30 am – Please arrive by 7.15am.

Venue: Kranji War Cemetery, 9, Woodlands Road, Singapore 738656

Dress code: Smart casual.

To note:

– Please carry an umbrella as shelter is limited in the event of rain.

– There are no restrooms on the cemetery grounds


 






The very grand house that Brewer built

2 04 2015

Perched on a small hill just south of hills given to the those who have passed on at Bukit Brown, is a place built as a dwelling for the living, so grand, that it has had members of royalty, a president as well as many powerful military men, find shelter within its walls. The dwelling, Command House, is well hidden from the public eye. It only is on the incline of its long driveway, well past the entrance gate at Kheam Hock Road, that we get a glimpse of its scale and appearance; the drive in also provides an appreciation of the expanse of the sprawling 11.5 acre (4.5 ha.) estate the house is set in.

Command House at 17 Kheam Hock Road.

Command House at 17 Kheam Hock Road.

The scale of the mansion, built in 1938 with six bedrooms with bathrooms attached, a huge wine cellar as well as servants quarters and other service buildings laid out over its grounds, must impress. It however is its simple but aesthetically pleasing design that catches the eye. Said to have been inspired by the Arts and Craft movement of which its creator, the well respected Singapore based architect Frank W. Brewer, once of Swan and MacLaren, was a keen follower of, the mansion features elements of Brewer’s interpretation including the distinctive exposed brick voussoirs that is also seen in other Brewer designed houses (some examples: 5 Chatsworth Park and 1 Dalvey Estate).

Many of Brewer's work feature very distinctive exposed brick voussoirs.

Many examples of Brewer’s work feature very distinctive exposed brick voussoirs.

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Several recognisable architectural contributions have been attributed to Brewer. In Singapore, these include the Cathay building and St. Andrew’s School. Visitors to Cameron Highlands would not have missed another of his works, the Tudor style Foster’s Smoke House, a landmark in the popular Malaysian mountain resort.

A Google Maps satellite view of the grounds and the surrounding area.

A Google Maps satellite view of the grounds and the surrounding area.

Built as Flagstaff House, the residence of Malaya’s most senior military commander, the importance placed on its intended occupants can be seen in the house’s grand appearance, as well as in its expansive setting and its somewhat lofty position. Flagstaff House’s completion had come at the end of decade in which the emphasis was on building Singapore up militarily to support its role as an outpost for the British in the Far East.

Command House after refurbishment in 2007 (photo courtesy of Singapore Land Authority).

Command House after refurbishment in 2007 (photo courtesy of Singapore Land Authority).

The back of the mansion.

The back of the mansion.

Laid out on a “butterfly plan”, commonly seen in the architecture of the early Arts and Crafts movement, the mansion and its beautiful grounds must be as perfect a spot as any in Singapore for a dream wedding. While that may not be possible today given the current use of Command House, playing host to a grand wedding reception was in fact what Flagstaff House’s very first act was, shortly after its completion. In September 1938, Flagstaff House played host to a reception for a wedding described in this Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Adviser article of 8 September 1938 as being “the biggest military wedding yet seen in Singapore”.

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The wedding was of Lieutenant O C S Dobbie and Ms Florence Mary Dickey, held just a month or so before the house’s intended occupant, the General Officer Commanding (GOC) of Malaya, was to move in. This was possible as the groom, Lieut. Dobbie, was not only the GOC’s aide-de-camp, but also his son. Lieut. Dobbie’s proud parents, Major General W G S Dobbie, had then still not moved from the older Flagstaff House at Mount Rosie.

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Two other GOCs were to occupy the house before the Japanese made nonsense of the illusions the British held of their invincibility. The last before the inglorious event was Lieutenant-General Arthur Percival, the unfortunate face of what has been described as “the worst disaster and largest capitulation in British history”. Based on an account by an eyewitness, Herman Marie De Souza, an officer in the Straits Settlements Volunteer Force, at his interview with the National Archives, the last time Percival set foot in the house would have been on Saturday 14 February 1942:

“On a Saturday afternoon, I was at Flagstaff House ground when I saw a large car approaching. I jumped to the road and stopped the car. And there was Percival in the car. I recognised him, I had met him before. And I said, I don’t think you place is very safe, because the shells are flying all the time. You hear the whizzing over. But he said he had something to do there.  He went in there, and I didn’t realise he was burning his papers. And there I was holding, looking after him, sort of, until he finished what he had to do and went off. He wished me goodbye and went back to Singapore.”

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Following the fall, the mansion is thought to have been used to accommodate Japanese troops. The British military commanders returned to live in the house after the occupation ended. Lord Mountbatten, the uncle of the future Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Philip, was one, he stayed in the house in his capacity as the Supreme Allied Commander, South East Asia Command, in 1946. Prince Philip, the consort to the Queen, was also to stay as a guest later, doing so during a visit to Singapore in February 1965, by which time, the property was already referred to as Command House.

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In all, Flagstaff / Command House was to see some fifteen commanders pass through its doors as residents; Commanders-in-Chief of the British Far East Land Forces in the post-war period. The pull-out of British forces in 1971 gave the Singapore government possession of the property and it continued its distinguished service when it became the official residence of the Speaker of Parliament. Dr Yeoh Ghim Seng, who held the position from 1970 to 1989, was the only speaker to have taken up residence at Command House. Dr Yeoh’s successors, Mr Tan Soo Khoon in 1989 and Mr Abdullah Tarmugi in 2002, decided against using the official residence.

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It was during Mr Tan’s tenure as Speaker that Command House was briefly made the official residence of the President of the Republic of Singapore, who was then Mr Ong Teng Cheong. The move was necessitated by the extensive renovations to the Istana that took place between 1996 and 1998.

Command House, when it was used as the official residence of the President. Here, we see the then High Commissioner-designate of Zambia at his ceremonial welcome in 1997 (Photo: National Archives of Singapore online catalogue).

Command House after refurbishment in 2007 (photo courtesy of Singapore Land Authority).

Command House after refurbishment in 2007 (photo courtesy of Singapore Land Authority).

Today, Command House, stands not as a residence, but as a place of learning, the UBS Business University. Its tenancy was taken up in 2007 by UBS, a Swiss based financial services company, who initially used it as the UBS Wealth Management Campus-Asia Pacific, before relaunching it as the Business University. Command House was gazetted as a National Monument on 11 November 2009.

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An view of the interior after refurbishment in 2007 (photo courtesy of Singapore Land Authority).

An view of the interior after refurbishment in 2007 (photo courtesy of Singapore Land Authority).

An view of the interior after refurbishment in 2007 (photo courtesy of Singapore Land Authority).

An view of the interior after refurbishment in 2007 (photo courtesy of Singapore Land Authority).

An view of the interior after refurbishment in 2007 (photo courtesy of Singapore Land Authority).

An view of the interior after refurbishment in 2007 (photo courtesy of Singapore Land Authority).

 





A light where there was only darkness: The Changi Murals

20 09 2013

It an air of quiet calm that greeted me as I stepped into a room where the ghosts of a time we may otherwise have forgotten continue to haunt us. The room, bathed in the glow of light painted gold by the ochre of the walls the light reflected off, seemed to extend a warm welcome which it would have in the cold dark days when it offered hope when there might only have been despair.

The Chapel of St. Luke on the ground floor of Block 151.

The Chapel of St. Luke on the ground floor of Block 151.

The room, converted into the makeshift Chapel of St. Luke (dedicated to St. Luke the physician) during the Japanese Occupation, was where a Prisoner-of-War (POW) by the name of Stanley Warren who held the rank of Bombardier in the Royal Artillery, weakened by a severe bout of renal disorder and dysentery, drew on whatever reserves he had left in strength, to decorate, remarkably, two of the chapel’s walls with five paintings of biblical scenes from the New Testament which along with the chapel became a light in the darkness of days uncertain.

The chapel and murals were a light in the darkness of captivity during the dark days of World War II.

The chapel and murals were a light in the darkness of captivity for prisoners during the dark days of World War II.

The chapel which occupies a room in what was Barrack Block 151 in Roberts Barracks, which together with the neighbouring barracks and nearby Changi Prison became an extended gaol that the Japanese forces used to hold the large numbers of POWs they held. Block 151 was made part of the gaol’s hospital becoming part of a dysentery wing which included several other surrounding buildings.

Block 151 is one of a few structures from WWII which remain in the area.

Block 151 is one of a few structures from WWII which remain in the area.

Another view of Block 151.

Another view of Block 151.

Even if not for the weakened state of the painter, putting the paintings we now know as the ‘Changi Murals’ on the walls would have required an incredible effort. Based on information provided by the expert guide Mr. Vickna, we were told of how paints, pigments and even brushes were in extremely short supply, and they had to be procured through whatever means available – some which may have even put the men involved at risk.

A photograph of the late Stanley Warren who passed away in 1992.

A photograph of the late Stanley Warren who passed away in 1992.

There was also a huge degree of improvisation involved – the colour blue for example, was obtained from crushing chalk used on billiard cues.

A map of the POW camp sketched by Stanley Warren.

A map of the POW camp sketched by Stanley Warren.

Too ill to be sent to work on the Death Railway in Siam, which he is said to have said probably saved his life, Warren found himself recuperating in a ward above the chapel in 1942, Warren and many around him drew on the comfort provided by what could be heard of the strains of Merbecke’s arrangement of the Litany being sung in the chapel.

Mr Vickna the guide.

Mr Vickna the guide.

It was hearing the voices in song throughout his slow recovery which was to serve as an inspiration for Warren who was approached by the chaplain who knew of his artistic background to decorate the makeshift chapel. He struggled through the first, The Nativity, for over two months, managing to complete it in time for Christmas in 1942. Warren was to complete four more works – the last, a mural of St. Luke in Prison, was completed in May 1943.

The Nativity was the first mural painted. On a copy painted on a wallboard in 1963, Warren painted an albatross in place of the horse's head.

The Nativity was the first mural painted. On a copy painted on a wallboard in 1963, Warren painted an albatross in place of the horse’s head.

A feature of the murals is how Warren also used it depict what he did see around him – many of the faces were those of his fellow POWs and in the third mural, The Crucifixion, which I thought was the most moving, we do also see slaves dressed in loincloths in the same way the men around him were dressed in their rags. The words found above the mural “Father forgive them for they know not what they do” were we were told also a reference to his captors and the slaves crucifying Christ being the “slaves” many of his captors were to authority.

The Ascension - the second mural.

The Ascension – the second mural.

The murals were initially thought to have been destroyed – the Japanese later converted the room into a storeroom and were thought to have broken down walls as well as painting over the remaining murals. They were thought to have been discovered by Royal Air Force (RAF) personnel in 1958 and a search was made through the press in the UK for the painter – the name Stanley Warren cropping up only when a short description of the chapel and a reference to the murals was found in a book “The Churches of Captivity in Malaya”, which was discovered in the Far East Air Force Educational Library in Changi.

The Crucifixion, the third mural which was partly damaged by a doorway made in the wall - the evidence of which can still be seen.

The Crucifixion, the third mural which was partly damaged by a doorway made in the wall – the evidence of which can still be seen.

Then an art teacher in London, Warren was invited to restore the murals, first refusing to do so on the fear of having to confront the demons of the dark days in which he executed the work. He did eventually return after much soul searching – first just before Christmas in 1963, and then again in 1982 and 1988. One of the murals does remain unrestored – the last, the lower part of which was destroyed when the wall was knocked down by the Japanese.

The Last Supper - the fourth mural.

The Last Supper – the fourth mural.

It was one for which Warren did not have a copy of his original sketch of (which was found in the possession of a fellow prisoner later in 1985), and decided to leave what remains of in its original condition. Warren did paint a copy of it, a photograph of which can be seen below the mural in which he replaced one of the figures he orginally painted.

The unrestored upper portion of the fifth mural, St. Luke in Prison.

The unrestored upper portion of the fifth mural, St. Luke in Prison.

The Crucifixion is also one which was partly destroyed when a doorway was made in the wall – the evidence of which can still be seen.

A copy of the copy of the fifth mural which Warren painted.

A copy of the fifth mural which Warren painted.

Another interesting fact was one that we did learn about The Nativity mural – it was thought to have been destroyed and a copy was painted on a wallboard which was eventually removed by the RAF. The copy was one on which Warren replaced the head of the horse found on the original work with an albatross to as a symbol of flying men of the RAF which was using the barracks at the time. A part the original mural – that of the horse’s head, was found by one of the boys from the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) Boys School (which occupied the building in the 1980s) tasked with helping Warren to restore the murals in 1982.

A view of the chapel.

A view of the chapel.

The work, which is said to have offered solace and hope to the many prisoners who used the chapel, is today a reminder not just of a event we should never again want to find ourselves confronting, but also one of the triumph of the human spirit in the face of adversity. The building which houses the chapel, lies today in a restricted area within the Republic of Singapore Air Force’s (RSAF) Changi Air Base (West) and I am grateful to MINDEF’s NS Policy Department and the RSAF for the opportunity to be moved by the murals in its original setting. A copy of the murals to which members of the public have access to, can be found in the Changi Museum.

The chapel offered hope where there seemed to have been none.

The chapel offered hope where there seemed to have been none.

Mr Vickna speaking about The Ascension.

Mr Vickna speaking about The Ascension.

The corridor outside the chapel.

The corridor outside the chapel.


Information on Stanley Warren and the Changi Murals

* with photographs of it in the condition it when it was originally uncovered