A beautiful campus by the sea

20 04 2021

A peek into the beautiful BNP Paribas Asia-Pacific Campus. Established in 2014, the campus occupies two beautifully restored former barrack blocks of the former (Royal Engineers) Kitchener Barracks in Changi. The two blocks, currently Block 34 and 35 and formerly B an C Blocks, were among the first to be built in the Changi Cantonment that was developed from the end of the 1920s into the late 1930s and provide an excellent example of how such buildings could be restored and repurposed in the light of the recently announced Ideas Competition for Changi Point and old Changi Hospital (see also: Ideas sought to repurpose Old Changi Hospital, enhance surrounding Changi Point area).

The former B-Block, together with the former H-Block (now Block 24, which in 1947 was repurposed as RAF Hospital, Changi), were in fact the first barrack blocks to constructed in Changi and were completed by 1930. The cantonment also included barracks for the Royal Artillery at Roberts Barracks — now within Changi Air Base (West) and for the infantry at Selarang Barracks, as well as smaller camps for various Indian Army units.

In the 1920s, Britain had moved to establish a large naval base in Sembawang to defend its Far East interests in the face of rising Japanese ambition. The setting up of the cantonment followed this decision and was carried out to install, maintain, man and secure coastal artillery being placed around the eastern mouth of the Tebrau or Johor Strait to protect the naval base against naval attack.

The cantonment, which sustained some damage in the lead up to the Fall of Singapore but remain largely intact, was evacuated on 12 February 1942. Singapore fell on 15 February 1942 and with Japanese forces overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of surrendering Allied troops in Singapore, they found a solution to accommodating some of these troops in the emptied barracks in Changi. On 17 February 1942, close to 50,000 British and Australian Prisoners-of-War (POWs) were marched to Changi and placed in the various camps. The troops forming the last line of defence in Singapore, the Singapore Fortress Southern Area troops, which included some volunteer units, were allocated Kitchener Barracks. The Australians were kept separately in Selarang. POW hospitals, which were set up in former field hospitals in Roberts and Selarang, were consolidated at Roberts Barracks — this is where the Changi Murals were painted.

The POWs would initially have little contact with their captors, who got them to wire themselves into the various camps. Discipline was maintained by the officers among the POWs, who also took it upon themselves to keep the morale up. Sports, theatrical performances and even university classes were organised — there were several professional sportsmen amongst the ranks and also lecturers from Raffles College who were with the volunteer units and in Kitchener Barracks, the Southern Area College operated. With the Fortress troops — who were not involved in the retreat down Malaya — being amongst the fittest of the POWs, the men of the camp at Kitchener were among the first to be picked for the Japanese organised work teams, many of which would be sent to provide labour in places like the Thai-Burma ‘Death’ Railway. The numbers in Kitchener dwindled to the point that it could be closed as a POW camp in May 1943, followed by Roberts in September 1943. In May 1944, the POWs, which included those who had survived the Death Railway, were concentrated at Changi Prison, which had previously been used as a civilian internment camp (the civilians were moved to Sime Road Camp).

The two camps would then be occupied by Japanese units involved in the construction of the Japanese airstrip at Changi (operational at the end of 1944), around which the Royal Air Force would establish RAF Air Station Changi (RAF Changi) in 1946. The blocks of the former Kitchener Barracks were then used by the RAF, with RAF Hospital Changi being established in 1947. Among the renumbered blocks, Block 35, housed HQ Far East Air Force (FEAF) Command. The various roads within the former Kitchener Barracks were renamed after RAF Air Stations. Following the British pull-out in October 1971, the barrack buildings (except for Block 24 and 37), were used by the Singapore Armed Forces as Commando Camp. Of the various barrack developments, only the former Kitchener remains largely intact today.





Escape from Tanglin Barracks

16 04 2021

Tanglin Village or Dempsey Hill, a spacious and joyous site on the fringes of Singapore’s city centre, has a history that goes back more than a hundred and fifty years. Established as Singapore’s first purpose-built military camp, Tanglin Barracks, it is a place with stories abound. There are quite a few that I find especially intriguing, including one which has as its leading protagonist a rather flamboyant German mariner by the name of Julius Lauterbach, whose exploits on and off the high seas make for quite an interestIng read.

Tanglin Village today

Lauterbach’s chapter in Tanglin’s history is set against the backdrop of the First World War, a conflict which pitted his native Germany against Singapore’s colonial master, Great Britain. Almost overnight, friends found themselves on opposing sides and even if the war may have been raging far from Singapore’s shores, its fallout extended to the island in one way or another. On 24 October 1914, some three months into the conflict, nationals of Germany and Austria in Singapore received an order to report to the P&O Wharf. There were a number of prominent members of the mercantile community amongst the group. Initially interned on St John’s Island, the group would be moved into Tanglin Barracks‘ vacant blocks and were joined by internees who had been detained in Malaya.

St. John’s Island.

The choice of Tanglin Barracks as a place of internment was only possible as the British infantry units who would have normally be quartered at the barracks were most — in Europe. This arrangement however, would leave Singapore with threadbare defences, although there seemed to be little of concern with the main threat to the island’s security having been ascertained as internal rather than external. The responsibility for maintaining order was placed squarely on the shoulders of the officers and men of a British Indian Army infantry regiment — the 5th Light Infantry, which was quartered at Alexandra Barracks.

The former Gillman Barrack’s officers’ mess – close to the site where the first shot was fired to signal the start of the mutiny.

At Tanglin Barracks, a total of about 250 civilians were held, accommodated in a cluster of barrack buildings which had been ‘wired in’ with scaffolding used as watch towers. The 5th Light Infantry provided the camp’s security details together with a handful of men from the volunteer units. Within the confines of the camp boundary was also a ‘small bungalow’ that was converted for use as a hospital for internees. Tanglin Barracks’ Teutonic flavour was also to be enhanced by a group of about sixty Prisoners of War (POWs) from the German naval cruiser, SMS Emden, which brought the total number of internees at the camp to 309. The POWs were housed separately within the confines of the camp in a barrack block that acquired the name ‘Emden Villa’.

The cricket field and P-Block.

The Emden must have been quite well known in Singapore, having gained notoriety for the damage and disruption to Allied shipping in the Indian Ocean and the China Sea that it had inflicted in the early months of the war. Among the cruiser’s exploits was a daring raid on Penang harbour during which two ships — a Russian cruiser and a French destroyer — were sunk. The Emden, as did many naval vessels on both sides, also employed tactics that could be compared to pirate ships in sending boarding parties to storm merchant ships, either to scuttle them, or if the cargo was valuable enough, to commandeer these vessels as a ‘prize’. The men of the Emden who had found their way to Tanglin were in fact members of ‘prize crews’ of three ships that were recaptured by the Allies, the most senior of whom was Reserve Lieutenant Julius Lauterbach. Lauterbach was taken along with the prize crew of the collier, Exford, which was carrying a cargo of 6000 tons of coal when it was recaptured by the armed auxiliary cruiser, HMS Empress of Japan, off Sumatra on 11 December 1914.

Postcard, S.M.S. Emden, circa 1914, Germany, maker unknown. Te Papa (GH002110)

Lauterbach was already well known in many circles in Singapore in his days as a master mariner who was based at the port of Tsingtao (Qingdao), which Germany held as a concession port from 1898 to 1914. He had been an established fixture on the merchant marine scene and many among the civilian internees had made the passage on ships that Lauterbach had captained. His arrival at Tanglin was said to have been greeted with a loud cheer because of his fame. Being the highest ranking officer among the POWs, Lauterbach was afforded with a degree of respect by his captors, who put him in a three-room house on his own within the camp perimeter and close to the Emden Villa.

Julius Lauterbach at Tanglin

As soon as Leuterbach arrived in Tanglin, he set out plotting an escape and after having observed security arrangements at the camp, he determined that a tunnel would best serve his purpose. On 27 January 1915, with help from a group of trusted men he started on his dig right under the noses of the camp guards, under the guise of doing gardening. It could also have been that the members of 5th Light Infantry who were guarding the camp and who were free to interact with the internees, was under Lauterbach’s influence. Lauterbach was also able to have the company of a French-Chinese Eurasian admirer during his internment, albeit with a locked gate in between them. The young lady, according to a boast that Lauterbach made, had come to Singapore to see to his wellbeing having made her way from her native Shanghai once she got wind of his plight and was also able to hand information such as maps to him to aid in his intended escape.

A very special ward.

Mutiny

All this while, unhappiness was fermenting (some say fermented by Lauterbach and company) among members of the 5th Light Infantry. In January 1915, a decision was made to deploy the 5th to Hong Kong. The destination was however not communicated to the troops. There were rumours abound that the destination was not East, but West in Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq). With it large Muslim contingent, many among the rank and file were incensed by the prospect of having to fight fellow Muslims. In a move to quell the growing sense of unease, the transfer was brought forward. With the 5th due to be sent out on 16 February 1915 — the day after the three day Chinese New Year holiday weekend, the unit stood down from its duties at Tanglin on 14 February 1915 and camp security was left in the hands of one British and three native officers and twelve men of the Johore Military Forces, who were without ammunition, and a deployment of volunteers.

Remembering the victims of the Mutiny – a plaque at the Victoria Concert Hall.

The growing sense of unhappiness and the impending move to what was rumoured to be Mesopotamia provoked members of the 5th Light Infantry into action and just after 3 pm on the afternoon of 15 February 1915, members of the regiment’s Right Wing — numbering just over 400 men, mutinied (infantry regiments were then split into two wings, each with four companies). A group of about eighty rebels headed to Tanglin, intent on freeing German prisoners in the hope that they would lend support to the rebellion. At 3.45 pm, the mutineers reached Tanglin with a group among the eighty laying siege to Tanglin Military Hospital and firing into its administration building. In spite of coming under fire, Staff Sergeant Vickers, RAMC, managed to make his way to the medical officers bungalow some 300 yards away (270 metres). Finding the Medical Officer out, he was able to raise the alarm to the police, Fort Canning and a Dr Fowlie. A group of fifteen men reached the POW camp about half an hour later around 4.15 pm and also fired on the guards. The lock to the gate was then blown up. In the chaos of the attack, four officers were killed along with ten men. One German prisoner was also fatally wounded.

Buildings of the former Tanglin Military Hospital.

An eyewitness, Corporal J F Bray, RAMC, who was stationed at the prisoner hospital recalled being roused by the firing. German prisoners then told him that a mutiny had broken out. He then rushed to the POW hospital’s dispensary to get dressings in order to attend to the wounded, one of whom was a prisoner in W-Block (now Block 17). Inside W-Block, Bray witnessed six to seven members of the 5th freeing German prisoners before moving them into Y-Block (Block 26). Bray also witnessed the leader of the mutineers shaking hands with the German prisoners. Unsuccessful in their attempts to enlist the help of the Germans, the mutineers then left, promising to return with arms and ammunition. The bulk of the German prisoners, including Lauterbach, had in fact refused to take up arms; some went on to help in attending to the wounded, and transport the more seriously hurt to Tanglin Military Hospital.

Block 17 – a block that many who served National Service in the army will remember as the Enlistment Centre

Lauterbach’s Epic Escape

In the commotion of the disturbance at Tanglin, Lauterbach made a final push to finish the tunnel that he had been working on. Determined to get away unnoticed, he decided against walking out the open camp gate and use the tunnel he had worked on. Selecting a handful of prisoners to go with him for their ability to speak English made the escape as the darkness fell, having to making a vault over a final set of barbed-wire that lay beyond the tunnel exit. Leaving at around 8pm, the group decided that the main roads were to be avoided and took a route through grass, lallang and rubber plantation — a decision that got their guide and themselves lost. With some further help obtained through a handsome bribe, the group eventually found their way to the coast, some five hours after leaving Tanglin. There the scene was set for a voyage to Karimun. The long twelve hours that it would take them to get to the islands, which lay on the neutral Dutch side of the Melaka Strait, would only be the first leg of what was to become an epic journey of escape. The journey was to involve trudging through the jungles of Sumatra, a journey from Padang to Batavia (Jakarta) to Surabaya, a passage on a Dutch steamer to the Celebes (Sulawesi), a five day passage across the Celebes Sea to Mindanao in a leaking boat that required water to be bailed out by hand continuously, a voyage disguised as a Dutchman from Manila to China’s north coast where he made his way down to Shanghai. From Shanghai, he would head east to Japan, then Hawaii, and San Francisco from where he boarded a train for New York. At Hoboken — across the Hudson from Manhattan, Lauterbach signed on to a Oslo bound Danish ship as a Swedish stoke. Making landfall in Europe, he made his way to Copenhagen before finding himself on German soil on 10 October 1915 — some eight months after his escape from Singapore and ten months after his capture onboard the Exford.





History Misunderstood: Changi Point

5 04 2021

Set in scenic surroundings in Singapore’s rustic north-eastern corner, the area we refer to as Changi Point, is one in which I have found great joy in. It is an area of much beauty with much of its natural geographical features intact and wears a charm that is little changed from the time I first interacted with it more than half a century ago. Over the years, I have also discovered that the area is one with quite a history; a history that is even recorded in maps of a 17th century battle off Changi. Also as fascinating is Changi Point and its more recent past, one that goes back to the early decades of Singapore as a British East India Company trading port.

Changi today – with a view towards Pulau Ubin

Remote and inhospitable and with its surroundings dominated by mangrove and terrestrial forests in British Singapore’s earliest years, Changi Point’s charm must have already been in evidence then; so much so that several adventurous souls amongst the gentry recognised its potential as a spot for a retreat.  Among the first to see this was Mr Gottlieb, who put up Fairy Point bungalow on what could be thought of as the prime of prime locations on the seaward side of an elevation he christened Fairy Point Hill.

Fairy Point – the site of Mr Gottlieb’s Bungalow

In addition to Mr Gottlieb’s place of escape, the government had also had a bungalow built. Besides serving as a stay-over location for officers sent to the remote area for surveys, its use was extended for leisure purposes.  By the mid-1840s, Changi Bungalow – as it had come to be known, had gained the reputation of being a “fashionable resort for picnic parties”. Constructed of wood, the bungalow had to be rebuilt several times over the years with its last iteration being demolished in 1965. The expansive grounds of the bungalow is an area that until today, has been in the hands of Singapore’s successive governments and amongst the structures now found on it is the 1950 built Changi Cottage, as well as several other holiday facilities.

Changi Cottage

One holiday home from Changi’s past that is still standing is a bungalow that belonged to Mr Ezekiel S Manasseh, who is often confused with Sir Manasseh Meyer. A founder of Goodwood Park Hotel, Mr E S Manasseh is better known for his mansion in Tanglin, Eden Hall, which is the British High Commissioner’s residence today. Mr Manasseh also maintained a holiday home in Changi Point. Located on the left bank of Changi Creek, he often extended its use to newlyweds for their honeymoon early in the 1900s. The bungalow stands today as the CSC Clubhouse.

Muslim graves at the foot of Batu Puteh Hill – a reminder perhaps of Kampong Batu Puteh.

Around this time (the early 1900s), a Japanese owned hotel also made an appearance along the beach just east of Fairy Point in the area of a Malay kampung named Kampong Batu Puteh.  The wooden hotel, which was perched on stilts that extended across the foreshore, was rumoured to have offered more than a getaway and was rumoured to have been a place of ill repute. Whatever the hotel may have offered, time would soon be called on it with events on the world’s stage setting a new course for Changi Point.

While the Great War of 1914 to 1918 did not affect Singapore directly, its impact was and would be felt in many ways, not least through the fluctuations in the price of rubber through the war. There was also that episode of the insurrection that began at Alexandra Barracks during Chinese New Year in 1915 that was founded partly on a rumour being spread among the Sepoy Muslim mutineers  that they were being sent to Mesopotamia to fight fellow Muslims. Among Britain’s allies who responded to calls for help were some 190 Japanese resident volunteers, and another force of 142 from two Japanese naval ships.

Memorial to the victims of the 1915 Mutiny at Victoria Concert Hall

The Imperial Japanese Navy had been on the rise for a number of decades. Having acquired knowhow to build its own naval hardware as well as in naval tactics from Britain and France, by the time the war started, the Japanese navy was in a good position to support its allies in the Entente. Japan actions in the naval arena would also however lay its ambitions bare, especially in regard to German held territory in China. The sense of discomfort in Britain grew in the post-war period with Japan having the third largest navy in the world after the United States and Britain. By 1921, a decision had been taken by Britain to protect its Far East interests through the construction of a huge naval base in Singapore.

HMS Bulwark off the northwall of the Naval Base in the 1960s – the northwall is where the far end of the shipyard is today (source: http://www.acig.org/artman/publish/article_203.shtml).

A consequence of building the naval base in Singapore, and having it sited in Seletar – as the Sembawang area was also known as, was in the placement of coastal artillery around Changi to defend the base against naval attack. Changi, located at the eastern entrance to the Tebrau or Johor Strait, was hence, strategically sited at the entrance to the naval base. With the need to install, man, maintain and protect the guns, Changi was also developed as a military cantonment.

An extract from a 1935 map showing positions or intended positions of Defence Electric Lights at the eastern entrance to the Straits of Johor (including those at Pengerang) and their coverage (National Archives of Singapore online).

The first section of the cantonment was built at Changi Point. Work progressed in in a stop-start manner, first from 1927 to 1930 and again from 1933 to 1935, due to the evolving political situation in Britain.  Being the first barracks on site and located in a prime location, this section became the home of Royal Engineers’ units as Kitchener Barracks. There would also be barracks constructed for the Royal Artillery at Roberts Barracks and for infantry units at Selarang Barracks. In addition to these, a few other camps were also established for the rank and file among the British Indian Army troops protecting the area.

Selarang Barracks Officers’ Mess

The huge investment in the base and in facilities at Changi and elsewhere across the island did little in terms of doing what it was meant to do and on 15 February 1942, the “impregnable fortress” that Singapore had been touted as, fell into the hands of Japanese forces – a mere two months after Japan launched its invasion of Malaya. Except for the feint assault on Pulau Ubin on the eve of the Imperial Japanese Army’s 8 February 1942 invasion of Singapore, and the firing of Changi’s huge coastal guns against advancing Japanese troops, Changi would see little in terms of military action in the lead up to this inglorious fall. Contrary to popular belief, the guns were used with at least one of the monster guns of the Johore Battery firing about eighty rounds before its rifling started to protrude. Although the guns were fired, they did little to stop the advance. The armour piercing rounds that they were supplied with in anticipation of a naval assault, were ineffective against ground forces. On 12 February 1942, with Japanese forces made rapid progress coming down the down and west, the order was given to units defending Changi to pull back to Singapore’s urban centre. The cantonment and its lightly damaged buildings were left empty, and Changi’s guns destroyed. It would be some days later, on 17 February 1942, that Changi would come into the spotlight.

The spiked No 2 Gun, one of three 15″ guns of the Johore Battery.

The Fall of Singapore left the Japanese invasion forces with quite a big headache. With tens of thousands of surrendering British and Australian led personnel from units that made the retreat down Malaya and troops defending Singapore, they were overwhelmed. There was the need to accommodate, secure and maintain the discipline among the Prisoners of War (POWs) and a solution provided by Changi and its abandoned cantonment. On 17 February 1942, some 50,000 prisoners-of-war or POWs, were made to march to Changi to occupy its various barracks and camps.

Barrack Hill in Kitchener Barracks – part of the POW camp for Southern Area forces from Feb 1942 to May 1943.

The former Kitchener Barracks was used to accommodate members of the Southern Area forces with some 15,000  Australian POWs occupying Selarang.  The POW hospital was also to be centralised in Roberts Barracks on 26 February 1942, one of two sites – the other being Selarang – at which hospitals were established prior to the Fall of Singapore and immediately after the POWs were moved to Changi.  It would be in the chapel at Roberts Hospital that the famous Changi Murals would be painted. The murals still exist today. Found in Block 151 in Changi Air Base West, they are quite unfortunately out of bounds to members of the public. In the early part of camp life, there had apparently been minimal contact with their captors, with prisoners being tasked with wiring themselves into the various barrack areas as well as taking care of their own discipline.

Block 151. Now in Changi Air Base West, this was one of the Roberts Barracks blocks that served as the POW Hospital from February 1942 until September 1943.

Life as a POW in Changi, and in Kitchener Barracks was tough for many reasons and not least through the lack of food and nutrition as well as the diseases that the POWs were exposed to due to conditions in captivity. Still, many found the strength to go on through the activities that were organised. Sports became a means to provide distractions to the routine of life as a POW – at least in the first year of captivity. Among the ranks were several professional sportsmen, including Johnny Sherwood, a footballer who played in the war time FA Cup final.  The sports fields and facilities that the barracks in Changi had been provided with proved useful with cricket and football matches being played on them. Theatrical performances were also organised and college level courses. In Kitchener, classes of the Southern Area College were taught by academics, some of whom were from Raffles College. Several were members of volunteer units which had been placed under the Fortress Singapore command.

The Changi Padang – it was used for sporting activities during the first year of POW captivity.

In the many comparisons that were made by POWs at Changi, there is a consistent theme of how life may have been hard, but was in fact “heaven” compared to what many were to face elsewhere. Throughout the initial period of captivity starting in April 1942, work teams were organised and sent to various of Singapore to work on building and construction projects. Teams would also be sent to the Thai-Burma Railway, which the Japanese were constructing to provide a supply line to support their push into Burma and towards the Indian subcontinent. Often described as the “Death Railway” it was where the POWs really suffered, being put to hard labour. Besides an extreme lack of nutrition, POWs also suffered from deliberating diseases, with many succumbing to them.  

River Kwai, Kanchanaburi in Thailand in Dec 1984, the area was where many POWs were sent from Singapore to work on the Death Railway .

Kitchener Barracks, being where the bulk of the troops defending Singapore were being held – as opposed to troops that had made the retreat down Malaya – had the healthiest POWs and hence, was where many of the members of the first working teams were drawn from. By May 1943, POW numbers had dwindled to the point that Kitchener Barracks was closed as a POW camp and in September 1943, Roberts was similarly closed, with the POWs and the POW Hospital being concentrated at Selarang Barracks. Both Kitchener and Roberts Barracks were taken over by Imperial Japanese Army units who were involved in the construction of an airstrip at Changi. This started with POW labour in September 1943 and by the end of 1944, the airstrip was operational.

While all this was happening, returning POWs from the Death Railway were placed at Selarang Camp and also at Sime Road Camp. A change in POW administration would however see the POWs concentrated in Changi Prison and its grounds from May 1944. Civilian internees, who were being held at Changi Prison from February 1942 to May 1944 were moved to Sime Road to make way for the POWs.

The main Changi Prison gate – one of the structures of the prison that has been kept. The prison was a site of civilian internment from Feb 1942 until May 1944, following which POWs were moved in.

One of the myths that have been spread about Changi and the POW experience is that of the hospital in Kitchener Barracks being a place of torture by the Kempeitai. There is however no basis for this myth. Not only was there no functioning hospital in Kitchener Barracks during the period of captivity, there are certainly not reports or accounts that exist. Instances of torture by the Kempeitai did however take place in the wake of Operation Jaywick, which involved a commando raid on Japanese shipping in Singapore harbour. During what has been termed as the “Double-Tenth Incident”, civilian internees at Changi Prison were suspected of aiding the commandos through radio transmissions. Several were interrogated and executed in exercise that would involve the arrest and subsequent torture of Elizabeth Choy at the YMCA in Orchard Road.

Changi would find a new purpose after the war. The Royal Air Force (RAF) found the airstrip that the Japanese had added particularly useful in landing transport aircraft bringing in much needed supplies. This would lead to the strengthening and subsequent use of the runway for the RAF’s heavy aircraft and the setting up of RAF Changi, an air station that would become the RAF’s principal air station in the Far East. The former Kitchener Barracks, would become the headquarters of the Far East Air Force (FEAF) command, with Barrack Hill, renamed FEAF Hill. The roads in the area, were also renamed after RAF air stations.

A view from FEAF Hill

To support the new air station, more accommodation was also added across the area, starting with several single floor bungalows. A number of semi-detached accommodation would also be added. Many of these buildings can still be found. In addition to this, a hospital was set up for the RAF on FEAF Hill. This initially involved the former sick quarters on top of the hill (renamed Block 37) and the former H-Block – a three-storey barrack block of Kitchener Barracks which was turned into a ward block 24. Separated by a flight of 91 steps, transfer pf patients between the two blocks required an ambulance. The construction of a third block – the six storey Block 161 (with four usable floors) – with lifts and walkways to connect the two older blocks in 1962, helped ease that burden.    

Blocks 161 and 24 of the former Changi Hospital.

Following the pull-out of British Forces in 1971, the former barracks were put to use in several ways with the barrack blocks along Hendon Road accommodating Singapore’s Commando Unit and several of the accommodation units being turned into holiday facilities for civil servants. Sports and recreation clubs, such as the Changi Swimming Club, the Beach Club and the Sailing Club were also established using existing facilities left by the RAF. One outcome of the development of the air base, is the idea of developing Changi also for civil aviation. There were in fact plans announced in 1948 to develop a world class airport in Changi . That did not quite happen, but the idead came up once more in the 1970s leading to the development of Changi Airport.

One of the post WW2 semi-detached additions, seen in September 1987. These served as married quarters during the RAF days and were converted for use as government holiday chalets in the 1970s.

Today, much of the area of the former Kitchener Barracks and the RAF camp is still intact. Many of the sites and structures completed from 1928 to 1935, including barrack blocks and residences are still standing. Some, such as have gain prominence having been used by Raintr33 Hotel and Changi Hospital. There are also some still in use, such as BNP Paribas APAC Training Centre, Coastal Settlement, and the recreational spaces such as the former Officers’ Club – now the Beach Club and the Yacht Club – now Changi Sailing Club. There are also the oldest structures – the officers’ residences at Batu Puteh Hill and Fairy Point Hill, including one, that sits on the site of Mr Gottlieb’s demolished bungalow. The collection of barrack structures of the former Kitchener Barracks, are perhaps the last, almost complete set of structures from the interwar militarisation of Singapore that is still around, structures which tell a story of Changi’s development, of war, and of how through a series of twists and turns, it became a key aviation staging ground for the RAF and then for Singapore.





Colonial Changi – a virtual tour

8 11 2020

Join me on a virtual tour of Colonial Changi (including Old Changi Hospital) during Temasek Polytechnic’s Global Community Day, from 9 to 15 November 2020 (public virtual tours available on 15 November at this link).

The former RAF Hospital Changi – a point of interest on the virtual tour.

Changi, a promontory at the eastern tip of the main island of Singapore is marked in maps that date back to the early seventeenth century. It is however, its development during the colonial era that is perhaps most significant. That saw its transformation from a remote, forested and swampy corner of the island into one of Britain’s most important air bases after the second world war.

Pagar Beach

While a large portion of the area is today used by the air force as an air base, for leisure and recreation, there is much that exists that tells us the story of colonial Changi development. A wealth of information does in fact exist in structures still around such as former barrack blocks, former holiday homes, and purpose-built military residences as well as objects, sites and geographical features.

Married Soldiers’ Quarters – developed as part of Changi’s militarisation

The virtual tour will trace Changi’s development from a village and recreational retreat through the 1800s into the early 1900s into a military cantonment — that featured in the early part of the Japanese Occupation during the Second World War as an Prisoner-of-War camp — and beyond that into a principal air base and the aviation hub that is well-known today.

More information can be obtained at this link.






Discovering the former View Road Hospital (2019)

15 07 2019

Registration for the event has closed as of 7.40 pm on 15 July 2019.

More on the series, which is being organised in collaboration with the Singapore Land Authority (SLA): Discovering Singapore’s Best Kept Secrets.


No. 10 View Road is perhaps best known as the former View Road Hospital, a branch of Woodbridge Hospital (now the Institute of Mental Health) until the early 2000s. The hospital housed and treated patients undergoing rehabilitation with many finding employment in the area.

sh_01

The complex, which sits on a hill close to Woodlands Waterfront, does have a much longer history. Completed in late 1941 in the western side of the Admiralty’s huge naval base, its grounds also contains a unique above-ground bomb-proof office. The building also provided accommodation for the Naval Base Police Force’s Asian policemen and their families from the late 1950s to 1972, during which time the Gurdwara Sabha Naval Police – a Sikh temple that has since merged with the Gurdwara Sahib Yishun – was found on its grounds. The building has also been re-purposed in recent times as as a foreign workers dormitory.

IMG_2006

The visit, which is supported by the Singapore Land Authority (SLA), provides participants with the opportunity to learn more about the site through a guided walk through parts of the property.

IMG_2008


When and where:
27 July 2019, 10 am to 11.30 am
10 View Rd Singapore 757918

How to register:

Do note that spaces are limited and as this is a repeat visit, kindly register only if you have not previously participated.

Participants must be of ages 18 and above.

A unique registration is required for each participant. Duplicate registrations in the same name will count as one.

Registration shall be made using the form at this link (closed as of 7.40 pm 15 Jul 2019).

A confirmation will be sent to the email address used in registration to all successful registrants one week prior to the visit. This email will confirm your place and also include instructions pertaining to the visit. Please ensure that the address entered on the form is correct.


 





The STD hospital at Tanglin and a world renowned allergist

11 01 2019

The relative isolation of Loewen by Dempsey Hill within the former Tanglin Barracks is a clue to how its buildings might originally have been used, as a military hospital that was known as Tanglin Military Hospital. Established at the end of the 1800s in what were attap roofed barrack-like buildings, it served as the military’s main medical facility for its European contingent of troops on Singapore’s main island until Alexandra Military Hospital was opened in mid-1940.

No. 32 Company, RAMC at Tanglin Military Hospital c. 1930 (source: Wellcome Library via Wikipedia).

With British units involved in the Great War in Europe, Tanglin Military Hospital was manned by members of the Singapore Volunteer Field Ambulance Company during that period.

The hospital, which has certainly had a colourful past, was among the locations where the Singapore Mutiny of 1915 was played out. That incident saw a party of Sepoy soldiers raiding Tanglin Barracks. Among the locations the mutineers entered was the hospital. Patients were driven out and personnel shot at. The mutineers succeeded in scattering guards and liberating Germans prisoners. The hospital staff were reported to have “displayed great resource and bravery in attending to the wounded and in remaining within the vicinity of their post” during the incident.

Block 72 during days when the Ministry of Defence occupied Tanglin Barracks. Buildings within the cluster at Loewen was put to use by the SAF Medical Corps, HQ 9 Division and also the Music and Drama Company.

The opening of the new military hospital at Alexandra, saw the hospital’s role reduced to one used primarily for the care of soldiers afflicted with skin conditions and diseases of a sexual nature. A significant part of the hospital was in fact already dedicated to this even before the move. Infections of the nature were apparently quite common among the troops and as a main hospital, one of Tanglin’s two large ward buildings was already given to this use.

The former military hospital’s general ward.

It was in its days as a hospital for skin diseases and STDs that a young doctor, Dr William Frankland, was posted to it. Now 106 (and still working!), Dr Frankland has since acquired the reputation of being the “Grandfather of allergy” – for his pioneering work in the field. His remarkable life and accomplishments has been celebrated in many ways, including through the publication of his biography “From Hell Island To Hay Fever: The Life of Dr Bill Frankland” in October 2018. This biography would probably not have read very differently, or not have been written at all, if a toss of a coin not long after he had arrived in Singapore late in 1941 had not been in Dr Frankland’s favour.

The building where the hospital’s dermatology and venereal diseases wards were located.

The toss decided who would take on the seemingly more appealing role of treating patients with dermatological conditions and venereal disease and involved Dr Frankland and another newly arrived colleague with the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC), Captain R. L. Parkinson. A choice had been offered to both and it was either to have been this, or an Anaesthetist at Alexandra, which neither doctor fancied. Quite sadly for Parkinson that toss would seal his fate. He was killed on the 14th day of February 1942 during the Alexandra Hospital massacre, while administering anaesthesia to a patient on the operating table.

Another view of the buildings used by the military hospital at Loewen by Dempsey Hill.

The long career of Dr Frankland, who is now considered to be Britain’s oldest doctor, has been especially eventful. He is best known for the introduction of pollen counts in weather reports. He also has had the privilege of working under Sir Alexander Fleming and counted among his patients, a certain Saddam Hussein. More information on Dr Frankland can be found at the following links:


This story was shared during the Discovering Singapore’s Best Kept Secrets State Property visit to Dempsey Hill “Healing in the Garrison” in November 2018. The visit was supported by the Singapore Land Authority, Dempsey Hill and Saint George’s Church.



				




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


 






Parting glances: the “mini cantonment” with a view

25 09 2018

The time has come to bid farewell to Normanton Park, a housing estate with a military past in more ways than one. Built on part of the site of the Admiralty’s former Normanton Oil Depot, the estate initially housed regular military officers and their families in an attempt to build camaraderie.

HDB built private estate with a view – Normanton Park.

Completed in late 1977, Normanton Park offered a total of 488 “low-cost” housing units; 440 of which were in its five 23-storey high point-blocks. Another 48 were found in eight 3-storey walk-up apartment blocks. Prices ranged from $36,500 to $39,500 for the 122 square metre point-block units, which were laid out in the same fashion as HDB 5-room point-block flats of the mid-1970s). The larger 153 square metre walk-up apartments were sold at $65,000. These were offered to regular officers of the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) with the thought that a cantonment like environment could be created to foster bonding among military officers in the same way officers’ messes did for the British military and also bring wives and families of military officers together.

Residents are in the midst of moving out (one of the eight 3-storey walk up apartment blocks is seen in the background).

Designed and built by the HDB, the estate was also provided with a community hall, space for a supermarket and kindergarten, a multi-storey car-park and recreational facilities such as a swimming pool and tennis courts. It was privatised in 1993 and that was the point when curbs on the sales of its units to non-military personnel were lifted. What made it an attractive prospect was its location and the wonderful views that the estate’s point-blocks offered of the lush green spaces around Alexandra Park and Kent Ridge.  It was sold under a collective-sale arrangement a year ago. Its residents have begun the exodus out of the estate with some saying goodbye to four decades of memories.

The swimming pool.
Plaque
Plaque unveiled by Dr Goh Keng Swee at the official opening of Normanton Park in April 1978 – being removed for safekeeping (photo: courtesy of a resident).

Parting glances …

Playground with the initials of the Normanton Park Residents Association (N.P.R.A.).
The entrance to Normanton Park.

Goodbye….Normanton Park (1978 – 2018) – a video made by an ex-resident


The Admiralty’s Normanton (Oil Fuel) Depot

The Normanton Oil Depot was set up on the grounds of Normanton Barracks and a rifle range in the 1920s to serve as fleet fuel reserves, just as the Naval Base was being established in the north of the island. The depot was set on fire on 12 February 1942 in the final days before the Fall of Singapore. This was to prevent the oil reserve falling into the hands of the enemy.

The Admiralty’s burning Normanton Fuel Oil Depot. The depot was set on fire on 12 February 1942 in the final days before the Fall of Singapore to prevent the oil reserve falling into the hands of the enemy (photo: Queenstown – My Community).

What could be remnants of the Oil Depot …

What may have been a valve pit belonging to the oil depot. Two can be found on the grounds of Normanton Park and one just beyond the perimeter fence.
A peek into the pit.





Discovering 10 Hyderabad Road

20 07 2018

Update (20 Jul 2018, 12.30 pm)

Registration has closed as all 40 slots have been taken up. Do look out for the next visit in the series – registration will open on a Friday two weeks before the visit date.  More information at Discovering Singapore’s Best Kept Secrets is back.


The third visit in the 2018 “Discovering Singapore’s Best Kept Secrets” series of State Property Visits, which the Singapore Land Authority is supporting, is to No. 10 Hyderabad Road. The property, which is now wonderfully repurposed as the Singapore campus of the S P Jain School of Global Management (who are also hosting and supporting the visit), features a set of buildings that may seem vaguely familiar to some. The buildings, the oldest on the campus, feature tropicalised classical façades and can be found replicated across several former British military camps across Singapore dating back to the 1930s. Built as officers’ messes as part of the wave of military barracks upgrading and construction works of the era, this one at Hyderabad Road was put up for the same purpose by the officers of Gillman Barracks.

The British military pull-out in 1971 saw the building handed over to the Singapore government. The Dental Health Education Unit moved in in 1973 and then the Institute of Dental Health (IDH) – when the Dental Education Unit was incorporated into it in 1975. It was during this time that the campus’ six-storey learning centre and hostel was put up for use as a central facility for the training of dental therapists, nurses, dental assistants and technicians. Outpatient dental health clinics were also set up in the building.

The buildings of the former officers’ mess is now used by S P Jain as an administration building as well as as “hotel” for visiting faculty and features 20 very comfortable rooms as well as a beautifully decorated lounge and banquet hall.  There are also staff rooms, discussion rooms, a music room, a chill-out lounge and a library in the buildings – which participants can hope to see.



Details of the visit and registration link:

Location : 10 Hyderabad Road, Singapore 119579
Date : 4 August 2018
Time : 10 to 11.45 am
Registration : https://goo.gl/forms/goZZravHJk4hDrnx1

Back to Top


More on 10 Hyderabad Road:

More on Discovering Singapore’s Best Kept Secrets:






A voice from View Road’s past

2 11 2017

A voice from the former View Road Hospital’s past: an ex-resident Roszelan Mohd Yusof from the days when it was the Naval Base Police Asian Quarters, revisits the units in which he lived from the 1960s up to 1972 (see video below).

Best known as a former mental hospital (used as a rehabilitation centre from 1975 to 2001 for long-term schizophrenia patients as well as to allow them to work, reintegrate and return to society), the building had prior to that been used as a quarters for Asian Naval Base Policemen and their families.

A large proportion of the residents of the quarters were Sikhs and Malays. There was also a Pakistani family, and a Bangladeshi family living there, as well as one Nepali family.  The lower floor of the north wing, which  housed the Chart Depot, was out of bounds to the residents, as well as the observation tower and the bomb-proof office.

The last Naval Base Police Force residents were allowed to vacate their flats in 1972, following the disbandment of the Naval Base Police Force a month after the British Pull-out.  More of what is known on the building’s history is also seen in the video.


More on the former View Road Hospital and the visit that was organised to it:

 





Discovering Singapore’s Best Kept Secrets : Visit to View Road Lodge

9 10 2017

See aslo : A Voice from View Road’s Past


The Singapore Land Authority (SLA) has kindly granted permission for a series of guided State Property visits, “Discovering Singapore’s Best Kept Secrets”, the seventh of which will be to the former View Road Lodge – best known perhaps for its time as the View Road (Mental) Hospital.

IMG_3515sa

View Road Lodge in January 2011.

As a branch of Woodbridge Hospital (now the Institute of Mental Health) that operated from 1975 to 2001, View Road Hospital was used to house and treat recovering patients from Woodbridge. Many of View Road’s patients were in fact well enough to find work in day jobs outside of the hospital, which also operated a laundry, a cafe and a day-care centre with patients’ help.

IMG_5376Thought to have been completed just prior to the outbreak of war in late 1941, it is also known that the building was put to use as accommodation for Asian policemen (with the Naval Base Police Force) and their families from the end of the 1950s to around 1972. During this time, the Gurdwara Sabha Naval Police – a Sikh temple, operated on the grounds. As View Road Lodge, the building was re-purposed on two occasions as a foreign workers dormitory.

IMG_5359

The visit will also include a rare opportunity to have a look at an above ground bomb-shelter that had been constructed as part of the complex in 1941.

Rimau “Bomb-Proof” Office, 1941 (National Archives UK).

The details of the visit are as follows:

Date : 21 October 2017
Time : 10 am to 12 noon
Address: 10 View Road Singapore 757918

Participants should be of age 18 and above.

Kindly register only if you are able to make the visit by filling the form in below.

Registrations will close when the event limit of 30 registrants has been reached or on 14 October 2017 at 2359 hours, whichever comes first.

More on the property : Rooms with more than a view


Further information on the series / highlights of selected visits:





The gun battery set up for the defence of Singapore at Pengerang

1 11 2016

Hidden in the vegetation on a knoll just by the Tanjung Pengelih Jetty in Pengerang is the little that remains of a 6″ gun battery that was set up for the defence of Singapore in the 1930s. The battery was one of several that came under the Changi Command. Positioned at the southeastern tip of the Malay Peninsula, the battery, along with others at Pulau Tekong and Changi, protected the eastern approach to the Straits of Johor and thus the Naval and Air Bases constructed up the strait at Seletar. All that now seems left of the battery – the guns were destroyed by the British just before Singapore fell, at least from their accessibility to the public, are the positions where Defence Electric Lights or DEL’s were placed.

Structures belonging to a DEL position at Tanjung Pengelih in Pengerang.

Structures belonging to a DEL position at Tanjung Pengelih in Pengerang.

One of the DEL positions, with part of its roof collapsed.

One of the DEL positions, with part of its roof collapsed.

DEL’s, powerful searchlights,  supplemented coastal artillery. They could be used to search for and pick out targets, a practice that apparently had been used by the Royal Artillery since the late 1800s. These searchlights would be mounted in fortified positions closer to the coast and housed in concrete emplacements . Essential electrical power would be provided by generators housed in well-protected engine rooms, often built deep into the terrain.

A view from the inside of the DEL emplacement.

A view from the inside of the DEL emplacement.

Singapore's Defences, 1937 (Source: Between 2 Oceans (2nd Edn): A Military History of Singapore from 1275 to 1971 by Malcolm H. Murfett, John Miksic, Brian Farell, Chiang Ming Shun.

Singapore’s Defences, 1937 (source: Between 2 Oceans (2nd Edn): A Military History of Singapore from 1275 to 1971 by Malcolm H. Murfett, John Miksic, Brian Farell, Chiang Ming Shun).

Such would have been the case with the searchlight positions in Pengerang. Its remnants include both searchlight emplacements and an engine room, as well as supporting infrastructure such as accommodation blocks and storage rooms. These are all placed on the small hill that lies in the shadow of Bukit Pengerang or Johore Hill, on which the two 6″ guns of the battery were positioned.

A 1935 map showing positions or intended positions of Defence Electric Lights at the eastern entrance to the Straits of Johor (including those at Pengerang) and their coverage (National Archives of Singapore online).

An extract from a 1935 map showing positions or intended positions of Defence Electric Lights at the eastern entrance to the Straits of Johor (including those at Pengerang) and their coverage (National Archives of Singapore online).

An observation post above the DEL emplacement.

An observation post above the DEL emplacement.

I managed to join a visit to the site over the weekend orgainsed by a grouping of urban exploration enthusiasts who collectively brand themselves as the Temasek Rural Exploring Enthusiasts or TREE. For the visit, the group had tied up with guides and representatives from several Malaysian organisations and groups. These were the Muzium Tentera Darat (Army Museum) in Port Dickson, the Yayasan Warisan Johor (Johor Heritage Foundation), the Malaya Heritage Group and the Jabatan Warisan Negara (National Heritage Department). We were also joined by a Soko Jampasri,  a Japanese researcher who is based in Bangkok. Soko brought with her a Japanese military account of the war, contained in a book published by the now defunct Imperial Japanese Army Academy.

Kapten Zuraiman of Muzium Tentera Darat.

Kapten Zuraiman of Muzium Tentera Darat.

Information provided by Kapten Muhd Zuraiman Abd Ghani of the Muzium Tentera Darat as well as members of the Yayasan Warisan Johor (Johor Heritage Foundation) and the Malaya Heritage Group, point to Pengerang, a remote and isolated corner of the Malay Peninsula, being among the last positions in Malaya to have been surrendered to the Japanese Imperial Army. The army’s arrival coming a week or so after Singapore’s 15 February 1942 fall and this allowed several members of the forces based there to attempt an escape to Batam, where they were to be rounded up by the Japanese. Those that remained at Pengerang were captured and sent over to Changi.

Soko Jampasri, the Japanese researcher and Zafrani Arifin from the Malay Heritage Group.

Soko Jampasri, the Japanese researcher and Zafrani Arifin from the Malay Heritage Group.

Zafraini showing a map of the Japanese invasion of Singapore from Sako's book.

Zafrani showing a map of the Japanese invasion of Singapore from Soko’s book.

There was a little uncertainty if the guns at the position were fired at all in anger. Information provided in the Karl Hack and Kevin Blackburn’s “Did Singapore have to fall? Churchill and the impregnable fortress” point to them being used to fire at a junk on 11 February 1942. The guns might not have been used again and were destroyed on 14 February 1942 along with those at Sajahat, Ladang, Calder, Sphinx and Tekong as the loss of Singapore seemed imminent. The gun positions on Bukit Pengerang are now within the confines of the TLDM KD Sultan Ismail, the Naval Base now at Tanjung Pengelih, and it is not known if any traces of their emplacements are still around.

Another observation position,

Another observation position,

An accommodation block.

An accommodation block.

One of the structures that remain is one that greets the eye just around the bend in the road from the jetty – a machine gun pillbox. The pillbox, which is now decorated will Johor state flags and a strange collection of old items, is quite readily accessible and is one that takes me back to the days of my childhood. There were many such pillboxes found across the southern shores of Singapore up to the early 1970s and several at the Changi area, including one at Mata Ikan where I would have the holidays of my early childhood at, served as places of play and adventure despite the strong smell of rotting matter that accompanied an entry into them. Most were removed as the coastline was being pushed out during the reclamation efforts of the 1970s. One that is left, at Labrador Park, now has its openings sealed and there no longer is a possibility of an adventure in them.

The machine gun pillbox by the coast and at the foot of the knoll on which the battery's searchlights were positioned.

The machine gun pillbox by the coast and at the foot of the knoll on which the battery’s searchlights were positioned.

Inside the pillbox.

Inside the pillbox.

Several other gun emplacements and positions remain intact, including the publicly accessible No. 1 gun emplacement at the Johore Battery in Changi, now topped by a replica 15″ gun as well some substantial remnants of the Faber Command positions in Blakang Mati. However, what is left now at Pengerang is especially of interest, as it is a reminder that the protection of the garrison island, even if it was to prove ineffective in the entire scheme of things, involved positions outside what we see today as the boundaries of Singapore.

The naval base at Tanjung Pengelih, with Bukit Pengerang in the background.

The naval base at Tanjung Pengelih, with Bukit Pengerang in the background.


More photographs of the structures associated with the DEL position:

A water tank.

A water tank.

Another view of the inside of the block.

Another view of the inside of the block.

Nature has taken over some of the spaces.

Nature has taken over some of the spaces.

The corridor of another block.

The corridor of another block.

Inside the block.

Inside the block.

A gun post near what appears to be a cookhouse.

A gun post near what appears to be a cookhouse.

A wash basin.

A wash basin.

Chimneys and what was a stove.

Chimneys and what was a stove.

The entrance to the Engine Room built into the knoll.

The entrance to the Engine Room built into the knoll.

An escape shaft from the Engine Room.

An escape shaft from the Engine Room.

A trunk in the Engine Room.

A trunk in the Engine Room.

A more recent addition, a Yeo's soft drink bottle next to the structure intended to support the generators.

A more recent addition, a Yeo’s soft drink bottle next to the structure intended to support the generators.

More trunks.

More trunks.

A tunnel.

A tunnel.


Further information on the Pengerang Battery and the Coastal Defences of Singapore:


 





A wander through old Changi Hospital

17 10 2015

Changi is an area of Singapore still riddled with many reminders of its past. The site of an artillery battery and an army garrison before the war, Changi was also where tens of thousands of prisoners-of-war were held during the dark days of occupation. The end of the war brought the Royal Air Force (RAF) to Changi with the establishment of the RAF Changi. Changi then served as the Headquarters of the Far East Air Force (FEAF) and its predecessor until the pull-out of British forces in 1971.

The cluster of buildings reminding us of the former RAF Hospital Changi.

The cluster of buildings reminding us of the former RAF Hospital Changi.

A corridor into the past - a corridor along Block 161 as seen from Block 37.

A corridor into the past – a corridor along Block 161 as seen from Block 37.

Several reminders of these episodes in Changi’s history can still be seen today. Buildings from the various barracks from the 1930s and the remnants of the Johore Battery tell us of its garrison days. The air base is still around and although this is hidden from the public eye, a part of the former RAF Changi isn’t, including a cluster of buildings which served as the RAF Hospital Changi. With the permission of the Singapore Land Authority, I managed to wander through the old corridors of the old hospital, which despite what has, in more recent times, been said about it, isn’t what it is made out to be.

The casualty entrance and the operating theatre at Block 37 on top of the hill at the end of Hendon Road.

The casualty entrance and the operating theatre at Block 37 on top of the hill at the end of Hendon Road.

The operating theatre area.

The operating theatre area.

Perched on the northern slope of the former FEAF Hill overlooking the eastern Johor Strait and surrounded by a sea of greenery, the site of the hospital does seem as ideal as any as a one given to the care and recovery of the infirmed. Standing somewhat forlornly since they were vacated in 1997, the three buildings of the former hospital, now painted by many in a somewhat negative light, a sad reminder of the hospital that was very well thought of by many of its would be patients.

The greenery that surrounds the former hospital site.

The greenery that surrounds the former hospital site.

A view towards the Johor Strait from the roof of Block 161.

A view towards the Johor Strait, Pasir Ris and Punggol from the roof of Block 161.

The hospital’s origins lie with the establishment of the RAF’s Changi Station, or RAF Changi. The construction of an airfield by the Japanese in 1943 in the former army cantonment with the help of labour provided by prisoners-of-war (POW) had unlocked the potential of an area initially deemed unsuitable for an air base. The returning British wasted no time and with help from Japanese POWs built on the initial effort and had Singapore’s third principal RAF station set-up around it in 1946.

An aerial view of the Changi Airfield, the construction of which was initiated by the Japanese in 1943. The coastal end of the east-west intersecting strip was where the Beting Kusah area and Kampong Beting Kusah was located. The kampong was cleared in 1948 to allow an RAF expansion of the airstrip.

An aerial view of the Changi Airfield, the construction of which was initiated by the Japanese in 1943.

RAF Hospital Changi during its time had a reputation of being modern and well equipped. The large maternity ward it boasted of was an indication of the presence of many young military families stationed in Singapore, not just with the RAF, but also in the other armed services. By the time the RAF vacated Changi and the hospital in 1971, the ward was responsible for more than a thousand new arrivals.

What would have been a women's ward in Block 161.

What would have been a women’s ward in Block 161.

Another view of the ward.

Another view of the ward.

The hospital’s own arrival came with its setting up in two former barrack buildings. The buildings on Barrack Hill (later FEAF Hill), Blocks 24 and 37, had originally been a part of the pre-war Kitchener Barracks (Block 37 may originally have been a medical facility serving Kitchener Barracks).

RAF Changi 1950. The relative positions of the original Blks 24 and 37 of RAF Hospital Changi and the Chalet Club can be seen (lkinlin18 on Flickr).

RAF Changi 1950. The relative positions of the original Blks 24 and 37 of RAF Hospital Changi and the Chalet Club can be seen (lkinlin18 on Flickrlicense).

Blocks 161 and 24.

Blocks 161 and 24.

The third building we see today, Block 161, was added in 1962. It was constructed to allow the expansion of the hospital after an attempt to consruct a new hospital at Selarang ran into difficulty and was abanadoned. The new building also provided a link over the steep incline that separated the hospital’s original blocks.

A view from Block 24 towards Block 161.

A view from Block 24 towards Block 161.

A passageway along Block 24.

A passageway on the top level of Block 24.

Named after Lord Kitchener, an officer in with the Royal Engineers who perished in service during World War I, Kitchener Barracks was home to the Royal Engineers and was one of four barracks that made up the army garrison. The hospital’s original buildings, the three storey Block 24 in particular, bear resemblance to many other barrack blocks that were built in the same era found across Singapore.

Block 24, which resembles many of the British built barracks blocks from the same era.

Block 24, which resembles many of the British built barracks blocks from the same era.

The are suggestions that the hospital may have been established before the war, in 1935, around the time the barrack buildings were constructed. This however does not seem to have been likely. The evidence points to RAF Hospital Changi’s being established around 1947 based on records and also mentions of the hospital in newpaper articles.

Another ward in Block 161.

Another ward in Block 161.

Sanitary facilities.

Sanitary facilities.

No mention is also made of the hospital in late 1930s articles reporting to the intention to set up and the opening of the British Military Hospital at Alexandra. These point only to a Military Hospital at Tanglin as having been the only functioning hospital within the British military establishment in Singapore. The first reference to an RAF Hospital was in 1946 when that was set up temporarily in part of the mental hospital at Seletar (what became Woodbridge Hospital).

The bathroom inside the women's ward.

The bathroom inside the women’s ward.

A corridor in Block 161 leading to Block 37.

A corridor in Block 161 leading to Block 37.

One of the notable contributions of the hospital was the role it played in responding to medical emergencies hundred of miles offshore. The participation of the hospital extended to the deployment of “flying” surgeons and other medical personnel, one of whom was S/Ldr Agnes Bartels – who had the distinction of being the RAF’s only woman surgeon stationed in the Far East.

An air-conditioning cooling unit outside Block 161.

An air-conditioning cooling unit outside Block 161.

On the ground level of Block 24.

On the ground level of Block 24.

The hospital would also called into service during the Korean War. A “Flying Ambulance” service, which was organised by the RAF to repatriate wounded UN Command troops from Japan via the UK to their home countries, used Singapore as a stopover. A ward specially set up at RAF Hospital Changi, allowed the wounded to be cared for whilst in transit. During the period, the hospital saw troops from several countries, which included the likes of Turkey and France.

Rooms in Block 24.

What seems to be a kitchen in Block 24.

The entrance area at Block 24.

The entrance area at Block 24.

The end for RAF Hospital Changi came in 1971 when the British pulled their forces out, at which point it was one of the three military run hospitals on the island. While the other two, the British Military Hospital (now Alexandra Hospital) and the Naval Base Hospital, were handed over to Singapore, Changi was retained for use as a military hospital to serve the smaller force being deployed under the ANZUK arrangement. On 1 October 1971, the then 150 bed hospital became the ANZUK Military Hospital.

A corridor on the second level of Block 24.

A corridor on the second level of Block 24.

A view towards Block 24.

A view from Block 161 towards Block 24.

The withdrawal of Australia from the ANZUK arrangement (which saw a pullout in 1975), placed the hospital once again under the command of the UK military. It was then renamed the UK Military Hospital for a short while before it was handed over to the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) on 1 December 1975 when it became the SAF Hospital.

A WC in Block 24.

A WC in Block 24.

The roof structure of Block 161.

The roof structure of Block 161.

Another corridor in Block 161.

Another corridor in Block 161.

Intended to serve SAF personnel and their families, the hospital was also to open its doors to the public. This was in early 1976, prior to it being transferred to the Ministry of Health who merged it with the nearby 36 bed Changi Chalet Hospital and it became Changi Hospital on 1 July 1976.

Changi Chalet Hospital at Turnhouse Road seen in the mid 1970s (since demolished). The field in the foreground is the former RAF Changi's Padang Sports Field and is where the former SIA Group Sports Club was built in the 1980s (photograph: Edmund Arozoo on On a Little Street in Singapore).

Changi Chalet Hospital at Turnhouse Road seen in the mid 1970s (since demolished). The field in the foreground is the former RAF Changi’s Padang Sports Field and is where the former SIA Group Sports Club was built in the 1980s (photograph: Edmund Arozoo on On a Little Street in Singapore).

The decision to set up the 36 bed Changi Chalet Hospital, which was opened in the converted former Chalet Club (between Turnhouse Road and Netheravon Road) in August 1974, only for it to be absorbed into Changi Hospital less than two years later seems rather strange. Opened with the intention to serve “residents in the area”, rumour has it that the well equipped hospital, was set up to serve a certain group of holiday makers in what had been a well protected area.

A view from the old Sergeants Mess towards the area where Changi Chalet Club was.

A view from the old Sergeants’ Mess towards the area where Changi Chalet Club was.

The death knell for Changi Hospital was sounded when it was announced in 1988 that a new site was being sought for a new Changi Hospital, which was “poorly located and not designed orginally to operate as a high activity acute hospital”. That was eventually found in Simei and the new Changi Hospital, which merged the operations of the old Changi Hospital, which closed in January 1997, with that of the former Toa Payoh Hospital, was opened in February 1997.

More views of Block 24.

More views of Block 24.

The connection between Block 24 and Block 161.

The connection between Block 24 and Block 161.

A corridor at Block 37.

A corridor at Block 37.

Block 37 as seen from Block 161.

Block 37 as seen from Block 161.

Block 37.

Block 37.

The eventual fate of the buildings is not known. A tender exercise conducted in 2006 saw the award of site for interime use on a lease period of three years (extendable to an additional three plus three years) to Premium Pacific Pte Ltd. The intention to convert it into a Spa & Resort Development by 2008 however did not materialise and the property was returned in early 2010. Further attempts to find interim uses for the site have proved unsuccessful and the buildings have, since the hospital’s move, been sadly been left unused.

An artist’s impression of the proposed spa resort (it would be Block 37 depicted).

Block 37.

Block 37.

Block 37.

Block 37.

A room in Block 37.

A room in Block 37.

Block 37 towards Block 161.

Block 37 towards Block 161.

Block 37.

Block 37.

The staircase down from the second level of Block 37.

The staircase down from the second level of Block 37.





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.





The vermilion bridge in the naval base

19 05 2015

The vermilion bridge, of a style and colour that is distinctively Japanese, stands almost garishly out of place in the expansive garden of an equally generously sized colonial house. Set in an area whose flavour is overwhelmingly one of the days of the empire, the bridge, and the landscaped area it arches across, is said to have been constructed through the efforts of Japanese Prisoners-of-War (POWs). It is one of at least two structures that the POWs built in an area that was at the heart of the huge British naval base, the other being a swimming pool on the grounds of Old Admiralty House.

JeromeLim 1574

The house with the bridge, is one of many in the “black and white” style, commonly employed in the construction of homes for the colony’s senior administrators and military men, to be found in the area. Along with several residences with red-brick faces influenced by the arts and crafts movement, the “black and white” houses, in lush green and spacious surroundings, served as married quarters for the base’s senior officers. The house, the largest in its cluster and located so that it commanded a view of the base’s former stores basin and dockyard, was reserved for the dockyard’s most senior officer, the Commodore Superintendent.

An aerial view of the former Commodore Superintendent's residence.

An aerial view of the former Commodore Superintendent’s residence (posted in the Old Sembawang Naval Base Facebook Group).

The dockyard passed into the hands of the then newly formed Sembawang Shipyard in 1968 and the base saw its last days in 1971 with the British pullout, and the ownership of the house was transferred to the State, but with an arrangement that it, along with several other similar property be made available for use to the United Kingdom and also to Australian and New Zealand Forces deployed in Singapore under the Five Power Defence Arrangement. It perhaps is due to this that the house, which subsequent to the pullout, served as the residence of Commander of New Zealand’s Force SEA, and the brightly coloured bridge, set in an area that the the URA’s 2014 Masterplan tells us is “Subject to Detailed Planning”,  still stands today in a part of Singapore in which the winds of change are now blowing ever stronger.


See also: History rich Sembawang, gateway to Singapore’s WWII past (Sunday Times 19 June 2016)