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 mystery of Bukit Gombak

13 03 2014

An area of Singapore that does seem to have an air of mystery about it is Bukit Gombak. The location of what reputedly was one of Singapore’s most haunted places, Hillview Mansion, which once stood high on its eastward facing slope, the hill and its environs has also gained a somewhat sinister reputation for other ghostly encounters, some of which seem to have been attributed as the cause of several unfortunate incidents that have taken place in the hill’s disused water filled quarries.

A mysterious collapsed structure on the one of the western slopes at Bukit Gombak.

A mysterious collapsed structure on the one of the western slopes at Bukit Gombak.

The rainwater filled former Gammon Quarry, now part of a park known as Little Guilin, is one that seems to hide much in terms of mystery.

The rainwater filled former Gammon Quarry, now part of a park known as Little Guilin, is one that seems to hide much in terms of mystery.

Besides the supernatural, a mystery that is of a less sinister nature is that of a concrete structure. Now in a state of collapse, the structure stands at the top of a steep incline that runs up from a cut leading to the former Seng Chew Granite Quarry. The structure is one that was documented by my friends from the One° North Explorers, who had first stumbled upon it sometime in 2005 when it was in better shape and was being used to house a makeshift shrine (see: The Forsaken Quarry of the West And the Mysterious Shrine).

Little Guilin is an area of much beauty that some suspect hides several secrets.

Little Guilin is an area of much beauty that some suspect hides several ghostly secrets.

It was in the company of James Tann, a long time resident of the area, and Andrew Him and Chris Lee of One° North Explorers, that I was to  pay a visit to the structure over the weekend, with the intention to search for further clues as to what it may have been.  From James, we were to learn quite a fair bit that wasn’t just confined to the area’s history, but also to the area’s geology. It was from the depths of his vast local knowledge that I was to discover that the rocky ground on which I had been standing on was in fact one of the oldest rock formations that I could stand on in Singapore (see: Singapore Landscapes: the secret lake).

Gombak norite formations seen at Little Guilin.

Gombak norite formations seen at Little Guilin.

With the area being one that had a strong connection with the military – the British having maintained a military installation and radar station on the ridge line that ran from Bukit Gombak to Bukit Panjang, and the Japanese having set up camp on the hill during the occupation, James had suspected that the collapsed structure might have been a Japanese built pillbox from World War II. There was also a suggestion from the One° North Explorers that it could have been a blasting shelter, as one might have expected to find on the grounds of the quarry.

More of the structure.

More of the structure.

Part of the collapsed roof.

Part of the collapsed roof.

The former Seng Chew Granite Quarry.

The former Seng Chew Granite Quarry.

Bashing through.

Bashing through.

Standing on its foundation of Gombak norite and in its collapsed state, there wasn’t much more that the structure did give away. What did seem like its flat roof, had completely caved in, burying whatever clues that might otherwise have been discovered under it. The only remnant of the structure that seemed to be left standing was a wall of concrete bricks with little else but a semi-corroded steel backing plate that might have been used to act as a support for a mounting inside the structure.

Remnants of the concrete structure on Bukit Gombak.

Remnants of the concrete structure on Bukit Gombak.

A view of the wall through the trees.

A view of the wall through the trees.

A close-up of the wall.

A close-up of the wall.

Built into the contours of the slope on the side of the quarry, there was also evidence of what did seem to be a substantial concrete structure. That might possibly been erected to act as a blast barrier – supporting the suggestion that what was there may have been that blasting shelter, along with the fact that the collapsed structure had its entrance on the slope away from the quarry. Kim Frost, a WWII vehicle expert,  did also unearth a grove on the top of the thick layer of concrete that does resemble a drain – possibly to provide drainage from runoff flowing down the slope.

Another look at the wall.

Another look at the wall.

The substantial concrete structure built into the quarry side of the slope.

The substantial concrete structure built into the quarry side of the slope.

From another angle.

From another angle.

Kim Frost digging for further evidence.

Kim Frost digging for further evidence.

While all does seem to point to the structure being a blasting shelter, that is still this lingering suspicion that the structure could still be a military one, including it being an entrance to a tunnel – similar to what we do see of the tunnels at Marsiling that was recently in the news, especially so when a newspaper report I came across does give evidence of their construction at Bukit Gombak.

Kim Frost working on the top of the quarry-side concrete barrier.

Kim Frost working on the top of the quarry-side concrete barrier.

What appears to be a drain that Kim unearthed.

What appears to be a drain that Kim unearthed.

The report, in the 17 November 1953 edition of The Straits Times that was headlined “$50 MIL. OIL PIPE PLAN IS ABANDONED“, relates to the abandonment of  what it called a “top-secret project”, that is spite of half the budgeted sum already expanded in the twelve years of effort, interrupted by the war, put into carving out tunnels and oil storage tanks under Bukit Gombak. That was all part of an attempt to build what would have been a hidden storage facility, capable of holding “hundreds of thousands of gallons of petrol [sic]” to fuel the Far East Fleet based at the Naval Base.

A concrete block.

A concrete block.

The project would have seen some fourteen underground oil tanks built along with access and maintenance tunnels and a pumping station, and with a network of pipelines laid. From the report, we can surmise that work would have started in 1941 with the Japanese continuing with it during the occupation. The Royal Navy recommenced work on it in 1946 before abandoning the project in 1953. The report does mention that the tunnels and tanks were filled up after the project was stopped as well as “several miles of underground pipes” dug up.

The entrance to a service tunnel at what is believed to be an aviation fuel storage facility at Marsiling.

The entrance to a service tunnel at what is believed to be an aviation fuel storage facility at Marsiling, which may have been similar in construction to the Gombak storage facility.

This certainly is an interesting parallel to set of tunnels that have been found at Marsiling that was the subject of a recent WWII related tour organised by the National Heritage Board. While that, located on what was fringe of the Naval Base, is thought to have been built as an aviation fuel storage facility, the one at Bukit Gombak located away from the Naval Base, was being built to serve as a fuel storage for the naval fleet.

Pipelines inside the service tunnel at Marsiling.

Pipelines inside the service tunnel at Marsiling.

Pipelines at the boundary wall of the service tunnel at Marsiling.

Pipelines at the boundary wall of the service tunnel at Marsiling.

With the military presence continuing at Bukit Gombak and the developments that have taken place around the hill, there is little more evidence that can be found of what the structure might once have been. It may also not be long before the structure disappears completely – survey markers seen in the area do show signs there is recent interest in perhaps the redevelopment of the area, which does mean that we may never unravel the mystery of what the collapsed structure was.

Developments in the area mean little else is left that can be found.

Developments in the area mean little else is left that can be found.

Part of the slope is now a secret garden - probably planted by some of the nearby residents.

Part of the slope is now a secret garden – probably planted by some of the nearby residents.

More evidence of the secret garden.

More evidence of the secret garden.