When the region’s naval ships were being built at Tanjong Rhu

11 01 2020

Tanjong Rhu – the cape of casuarina trees and once known as “Sandy Point“, has had a long association with the boatbuilding and repair trade. Captain William Flint, Raffles’ brother-in-law as Singapore’s first Master Attendant, established a marine yard there as far back as 1822, for the “convenience of the building and repair of boats and vessels”.  That association would come to an end when the last shipyards relocated in the early 1990s, not so long after one of the larger establishments Vosper Pte. Ltd. Singapore, went into voluntary liquidation in 1986.

High and dry. A Point class U.S. Coast Guard WPB (left) used in Vietnam by the U.S. Navy, being repaired at Vosper Thornycroft. A Royal Malaysian Navy Keris class patrol boat is seen on the right (Kim Hocker Collection, 1969).

With links to Vosper Thornycroft (VT) – an established name in naval shipbuilding, Vosper Singapore was a major player in the domestic and regional naval market. It also had a long association with Tanjong Rhu that began with John I. Thornycroft and Company setting up its Singapore shipyard there late in 1926. Among Thornycroft’s successes were the construction of motor launches in 1937 for the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, a series that included the very first Panglima, a name that would acquire great meaning with the naval forces of a sovereign Singapore some three decades later.

A 1927 ad for Thornycroft Shipyards at Tanjong Rhu.

Thornycroft morphed into Vosper Thornycroft (VT) in 1967, following a merger the previous year, of Vosper Limited with Thornycroft’s parent company in Britain. VT would also merge with neighbouring United Engineers here, another long-time shipbuilder based at Tanjong Rhu, the same year. The expanded VT would find great success, especially in the regional naval market, obtaining contracts from the Ceylonese Navy, the Bangladeshi Government, and the Royal Brunei Navy – for which it built three Waspada class Fast Attack Craft.

A view towards a bakau laden Bugis pinisi on the Geylang River from Vosper Thornycroft (Kim Hocker Collection, 1969).

Locally, VT also supplied and serviced the Royal Malaysian Navy, as well as the fledging Singapore navy. A contract for six ‘A’ and ‘B’ Class 110 foot Patrol Boats with Singapore’s then Maritime Command in 1968 involved the lead vessel being constructed in the parent company’s yard in Portsmouth. This arrangement set the tone for how large naval procurement would be conducted here, although VT would play little part in the subsequent naval construction for what became the Republic of Singapore Navy, in the years that would follow.

The launch of the ‘A’ Class 110′ Patrol Craft at VT for the Maritime Command in 1969. Interestingly, the main deck of these steel hulled vessels were constructed from aluminium alloy (photo source: National Archives of Singapore).

The yard was also involved in commercial ship construction and repair, and naval repair and upgrading work. The U.S. Navy, which was involved in the conflict in Vietnam, sent several small patrol boats to the yard during this time. One of these boats was brought over from Danang by a Kim Hocker late in the fall of 1969. An officer with the U.S. Coast Guard, Kim was seconded to the US Navy. An extended stay in Singapore permitted Kim to put his camera to good use and his captures included bits of Raffles Place, the Meyer Road and Katong Park area close to where he was putting up, and also ones of the shipyard that are used in this post. One thing that is glaringly clear in Kim’s photographs of the yard is the absence of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) such as hard hats, safety shoes and safety belts – a requirement in the shipyards of today.

Kim Hocker with the author.

No hard hats or safety shoes! (Kim Hocker Collection, 1969).

VT Singapore became Vosper Pte. Ltd. Singapore in 1977 following the nationalisation of its parent company. Despite contracts from Oman and Kuwait, and an investment in a Glass Reinforced Plastic (GRP) production facility that was partly motivated by a Marine Police Patrol Boat contract,  the next decade would see Vosper Singapore fall on hard times. This saw to its eventual demise as a yard here in 1986.  The closure of the yard came a a time when plans for the redevelopment of the Tanjong Rhu for residential use were being set in motion. The shipyard site was purchased by Lum Chang Holdings the following year for the purpose, and was in turn resold to the Straits Steamship Company (now Keppel Land). Together with DBS Land, the site, an adjoining site as well as land that was reclaimed, were redeveloped into the Pebble Bay condominium complex in the 1990s.

A view towards what would become the Golden Mile area from Vosper. The naval vessel seen here looks like one of the Keris class Royal Malaysian Navy Patrol Boat (Kim Hocker Collection, 1969).

At the time of Vosper’s demise, there were also several shipyards that were still in operation, including privately held ones such as Kwong Soon Engineering and another long time Tanjong Rhu shipyard, Singapore Slipway. Located at the end of the cape since the end of the 1800s, it was by that time owned by Keppel and would come to be part of (Keppel) Singmarine. The last yards moved out in the early 1990s allowing Tanjong Rhu’s redevelopment into what was touted a waterfront residential district, which incidentally, was where the first million dollar condominium units were sold.

More on Tanjong Rhu and its past can be found at “The curious ridge of sand which runs from Katong to Kallang Bay“.

More photographs taken at Vosper Thornycroft from the Kim Hocker Collection:

Painting the old fashioned way (Kim Hocker Collection, 1969).


One more … (Kim Hocker Collection, 1969).


The security guard or jaga … wearing a Vosper uniform (Kim Hocker Collection, 1969).


It was common to see pushcart stalls outside the gates of shipyards and factories in those days (Kim Hocker Collection, 1969).


A store? (Kim Hocker Collection, 1969).


Shipyard workers – again no hard hats (Kim Hocker Collection, 1969).


Welders at work (Kim Hocker Collection, 1969).



A milestone in Singapore’s shipbuilding history: the launch of the RSS Fearless in 1995

24 02 2010

This eighteenth of February marks the fifteenth anniversary of a milestone in Singapore’s naval shipbuilding history: the launch of the Fearless Class Patrol Vessels. The 55 metre waterjet propelled vessels were launched by the wife of the then Deputy Prime Minister, Mrs Lee Hsien Loong, better known to us as Madam Ho Ching in 1995 at the Singapore Technologies Shipbuilding and Engineering (STSE) shipyard (now known as ST Marine) in Benoi Road. The then state-of-the-art vessels represented a breakthrough in Singapore’s naval ship design and shipbuilding – these were the first missile equipped combat vessels that were designed and constructed indigenously. I suppose there isn’t much fanfare these days about the Patrol Vessels, possibly because they have been somewhat overshadowed by the acquisition of the larger and more heavily armed Stealth Frigates, and perhaps they have intentionally been forgotten so as not to remind us of the tragic events surrounding the third vessel in the class – the RSS Courageous.

Cover of the ST Marine Brochure for the Patrol Vessel.

The Fearless class vessels, which are still in operation, and are equipped with a naval gun and surface-to-air missiles, and feature a locally designed round bilge hull form fitted with a twin engine propulsion system, were one of the first naval combat craft to feature waterjet propulsion, providing the vessel with excellent manoeuvrability. A total of twelve units were built by STSE, the first six of which were equipped with anti-submarine warfare (ASW) capabilities being fitted with torpedoes and a hull-mounted sonar [Fearless (Pennant No. 94), Brave (95), Courageous (96), Gallant (97), Resilience (98) and Unity (99)]. The remaining six vessels in the class were not fitted out with ASW capabilities [Resilience (82), Unity (83), Sovereignty (84), Justice (85), Freedom (86) and Independence (87)].

RSS Fearless off Horsburgh Lighthouse/Pedra Branca in 2003, during search and rescue operations following the collision of RSS Courageous (Source: http://www.mindef.gov.sg).

Sunday Times report dated 19 Feb 1995 on the launching of the RSS Fearless.

The champagne bottle that did not break …

Traditionally, the naming (or christening) of a ship is done by breaking a bottle of champagne, and in the case of Naval tradition, the naming usually is carried out during the launching of the ship (when the ship is launched or lowered into the water for the very first time). This can be a spectacular event, as in the case of where the ship is side launched. In the case of RSS Fearless, the launching was only carried out ceremonially by lowering the vessel slowly in a syncrolift (a lift that lifts and lowers ships in and out of water), and the momentous event was to be remembered not for this, but for the fact that the champagne bottle refused to be broken. It finally yielded after several attempts, but as superstition would have it, it is bad luck if the champagne bottle does not break the first time. Perhaps this held true for the superstitious as the RSS Fearless was the lead ship of its class, and the third ship in the class, the RSS Courageous was meet with an accident which resulted in a tragic loss of lives.

Mdm. Ho Ching lets fly with the Champagne bottle ... but it doesn't break!

A second attempt at breaking the bottle - that failed too! The bottle finally broke after several repeated attempts.

Collision of RSS Courageous with ANL Indonesia on 3 January 2003

The RSS Courageous was involved in a collision with a container ship the ANL Indonesia off Pedra Branca on 3 January 2003. The collision sheared-off the stern section of the Courageous, and of the 44 crew onboard, eight were injured and another four, servicewomen resting in the aft section which was sheared-off, lost their lives. Two officers in command of the vessel at the time of the collision were subsequently found negligent, as their decision to steer the vessel to port and across the bow of the ANL Indonesia contravened Regulation 14 of the navigation rules of the road, the International Regulations for the Prevention of Collisions at Sea (COLREGS).

Chart showing location of collision and the path taken by RSS Courageous (Source: Wikipedia).

The sheared-off stern section of the RSS Courageous being lifted off the seabed onto a barge on 14 Jan 2003 (Source: http://www.mindef.gov.sg).

That the vessel was able to remain afloat despite the loss of buoyancy of the sheared-off stern section and the breach in the watertight integrity of several other compartments (albeit with the quick action taken by the crew and supporting Police Coastguard officers in damage control) is a testament to the survivability of the vessel.