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.

Another look inside.

 


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Liberation, 70 years ago, remembered

2 09 2015

It was on 2 September 1945, 70 years ago today, that Japan formally surrendered on board the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay, bringing an end to the most devastating of armed conflicts the world had seen. It was a war that “impregnable fortress” that was Singapore found itself drawn into, having been bombed and subsequently occupied by Japan over a three and a half year period that counts as the darkest in modern Singapore’s history.

JAPANESE SURRENDER AT SINGAPORE, 12 SEPTEMBER 1945

The surrender ceremony in the Municipal Chamber, 12 September 1945, source: Imperial War Museums © IWM (A 30495).

The formal end of the war and occupation came to Singapore a little after the surrender in Tokyo Bay, an end that was commemorated in a simple yet meaningful ceremony held in City Hall Chamber (now within the National Gallery Singapore)  last Thursday, 27 August. Held in the very hall in which the war in Southeast Asia was formally brought to an end on 12 September 1945, the two hundred or so guests were reminded not only of the surrender, but also of the otherwise unimaginable pain and suffering of those uncertain days. Speaking during the ceremony MAJ (Retired) Ishwar Lall Singh, of the SAF Veterens League, revisited the trauma of war; his experienced echoed by the distinguished poet Professor Edwin Thumboo through a recital of verses recalling the days of Syonan-to.

City Hall Chamber, during the commemoration of the 70th Anniversary of the end of the war.

City Hall Chamber, during the commemoration of the 70th Anniversary of the end of the war.

The short ceremony was brought to a close by the sounds of a lone bugler filling the hall with the poignant strains of the Last Call and and then the Rouse on either side of the customary minute-of-silence, just as the call of the bugle on the Padang might have been sounded at the close of the events of 12 September, 70 years ago. Then, the surrender of forces under the command of Field Marshal Count Hisaichi Terauchi, whose grave can be found at the Japanese Cemetery in Singapore, had just been sealed in the Municipal Chamber, an event that was witnessed by scores of jubilant residents freed from the yoke of war.

The Last Post.

The Last Post, 27 August 2015.

JAPANESE SURRENDER AT SINGAPORE, 12 SEPTEMBER 1945

The Instrument of Surrender signed on 12 September 1945, source: Imperial War Museums © IWM (IND 4818).

SIGNING OF THE JAPANESE SURRENDER AT SINGAPORE, 1945

General Itagaki and the Japanese contingent being escorted up the steps of the Municipal Building fro the surrender ceremony, source: Imperial War Museums © IWM (CF 719).

The steps of City Hall today, now a wing of the soon-to-be-opened National Art Gallery Singapore.

The steps of City Hall today, now a wing of the soon-to-be-opened National Art Gallery Singapore.

The war had in all reality come to an abrupt end four weeks prior to the former surrender in Singapore, through the announcement by Emperor Hirohito broadcast to the people of Japan at noon on 15 August of Japan’s acceptance of the terms of the Potsdam Declaration. That had called for the unconditional surrender of all Japanese forces, a surrender that was to be formalised on the USS Missouri. The impact of the announcement was however only to reach the shores of Singapore on the morning of 5 September, some three weeks later, when troops from the British-led 5th Indian Division made landfall to begin the reoccupation of Singapore.

BRITISH REOCCUPATION OF SINGAPORE, 1945

Reoccupation troops from the 5th Indian Army on landing craft headed into Singapore, source: Imperial War Museums © IWM (SE 4636).

It may be thought of as fortunate that the end of three and a half years of darkness came with little of the violence that had accompanied its beginning. It could have been very different. The 5th Indian Division were poised to launch an invasion of Singapore (and Malaya), which would have taken place on 9 September 1945, if not for the surrender.

MAJ (Retired) Ishwar Lall Singh greeting Minister Lawrence Wong, the Guest of Honour.

MAJ (Retired) Ishwar Lall Singh greeting Minister Lawrence Wong, the Guest of Honour at the commemorative event.

Even with the surrender, there were many in the ranks of the occupying forces who were prepared to carry the fight on to the death. One was General Seishiro Itagaki, the most senior officer after Field Marshal Terauchi. It was Itagaki who would later sign the Instrument of Surrender on the bedridden Terauchi’s behalf, having accepted the Supreme Commander’s orders with some reluctance.  This however did not stop some violent deaths from taking place. Some 300 Japanese officers chose death over surrender and took their own lives after a sake party at Raffles Hotel on 22 August. A platoon of troops had reportedly chosen the same end,  blowing themselves up with hand grenades.

JAPANESE SURRENDER AT SINGAPORE, 4 SEPTEMBER 1945

General Itagaki onboard the HMS Sussex signing the terms of Reoccupation on 4 September 1945, source : Imperial War Museums © IWM (A 30481).

By and large, the first British-led troops to land late in the morning on 5 September, encountered none of the resistance some had feared. The terms of the reoccupation were in fact already laid out during an agreement on initial surrender terms that was signed on board the HMS Sussex the previous day. The first flight, which included a contingent of pressmen armed with typewriters alongside fully armed troops, made the two-hour journey on the landing craft from the troop ship HM Trooper Dilwara, anchored twenty miles away out of gun range, bound for Empire Dock “a few minutes after nine o’clock”. An account of this and what they encountered is described in a 5 September 1946 Singapore Free Press article written for the first anniversary of the reoccupation. The same account tells us how the flight had come ashore to “docks that were almost deserted, except for one or two small crowds of Asiatics, who cheered from the water’s edge”.

BRITISH REOCCUPATION OF SINGAPORE, 1945

A view down Bras Basah Road during the reoccupation on 5 September 1945, source: Imperial War Museums © IWM (IND 4817).

Among the 200 guests at the ceremony were survivors of the war, who were accompanied by family members.

Among the 200 guests at the commemorative event were survivors of the war, who were accompanied by family members.

The streets of Singapore had apparently been well policed in the interim by the Japanese. In maintaining sentry at major intersections, the Japanese troops also kept the streets clear to receive the anticipated reoccupation forces and it seems that it was only after word spread of the returning British-led forces that the large cheering crowds seen in many photographs circulated of the reoccupation, began to spill onto the streets.

BRITISH REOCCUPATION OF SINGAPORE, 1945

Crowds lining the streets of Singapore to greet the reoccupying forces, source: Imperial War Museums © IWM (SE 4659).

For most part, the horrors of war, and the liberation that came, are now quite forgotten. While the dates were remembered as Liberation Day and Victory Day in the first years of the return to British rule, 5 September and 12 September have all but faded into insignificance in a nation now obsessed with celebrating it most recent successes. While the initial years that followed may not immediately have fulfilled the promise that liberation seemed to suggest, we are here today only because of what did happen, and because of the men and women who lost their lives giving us our liberation.

THE BRITISH REOCCUPATION OF SINGAPORE

Japanese troops being put to work rolling the lawn of the Padang during the reoccupation, source: Imperial War Museums © IWM (SE 4839).

The same roller spotted at the Padang sometime last year.

The same roller spotted at the Padang sometime last year.

SINGAPORE: SIGHTSEEING. 8 AND 9 SEPTEMBER 1945, SINGAPORE.

Joy and hope on the streets. Children following a trishaw carrying two sightseeing British sailors from the reoccupying forces down High Street. Source: Imperial War Museums © IWM (A 30587).

City Hall and the Padang, where the Surrender and Victory Parade took place against the backdrop of a thriving and successful Singapore 70 years on.

City Hall and the Padang, where the Surrender and Victory Parade took place against the backdrop of a thriving and successful Singapore 70 years on.





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.





Still in the dark, where the darkness began this Sunday, 73 years ago

8 02 2015

In the darkness of a Sunday night, 73 years ago today, the end was to begin for Singapore. Just after 8 pm on 8 February 1942, the first wave of landings were made by Japanese troops  along the poorly defended and mangrove lined northwest coastline of the island.

In the dark: WWII landing site at Sarimbun Beach today with its fence to prevent a new invasion of  illegal immigrants and goods.

In the dark: WWII landing site at Sarimbun Beach today with its fence to prevent a new invasion of illegal immigrants and goods.

Defended by the ill prepared and poorly equipped Australian Imperial Forces’ 22nd Brigade, who were spread out thinly over a long stretch of the coastline, coupled with Percival’s misjudgement in focusing the defence of the island in its east, the area, the mangroves proved to be no barrier and the coast was very quickly overrun. The defence of Singapore was to fail miserably just a week later, a defeat that was to plunge Singapore in more than three years of darkness as the light of the Japanese Empire’s south.

“Sarimbun battle” by Unknown; original uploader was Grant65 at en.wikipedia. – Lionel Wigmore (1957) “Defence of Western Area” in Australia in the War of 1939–1945: Volume IV – The Japanese Thrust (PDF), Canberra: Australian War Memorial, pp. 310 Transferred from en.wikipedia by Gorbi. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Much of the area today is still shrouded in darkness. Cut-off from the rest of Singapore by its relative inaccessibility and isolation – much of it is off limits as a large part of it lies within the Live Firing Area (and even where it isn’t, there is a fence intended to keep the new invasion of illegal immigrants and goods out that also cuts us off from our seas), it is an area seemingly forgotten even if there are markers in place to commemorate an event that should remain in the minds of all of us in Singapore.

A page from the Australian Imperial Forces 2/20 Battalion unit diary. The 2/20 Battalion was defending the sector where Sarimbun Beach is at the time of the landings.

A page from the Australian Imperial Forces 2/20 Battalion unit diary. The 2/20 Battalion was defending the sector where Sarimbun Beach is at the time of the landings.

Japanese forces landing on Singapore on the night of 8 February 1942 (Australian War Memorial – Copyright Expired).


Related:

Japanese footage from the Romano Archives, 1942 The Taking of Singapore, which includes some landing scenes:

Another landing site, The Pier: A lost world in Lim Chu Kang






The magazine under Talbot’s Hill

7 02 2015

An area of Singapore that still has much history buried under it is the area where the former British Naval Base was. Under parts of the former base, which covered an area stretching from the Causeway in Woodlands to what is today Sembawang Park, lies several underground structures, one of which is a the so-called Attap Valley bunker that has recently been brought to light.

The entrance to the Attap Valley bunker.

The entrance to the Attap Valley bunker below Talbot’s Hill.

Worshipping a new religion? Participants on a heritage tour to the site examining part of a ventilation system.

Worshipping a new religion? Participants on a heritage tour to the site examining part of a ventilation system.

The bunker, opened to the public for the first time today, is the last surviving structure of an armament depot constructed by the British within the huge Naval Base in the Talbot’s Hill and Attap Valley area. A ammunition and armament storage magazine, specifically Magazine No. 4, it was one of seven other bomb-proof magazines that were built into Talbot’s Hill by the British before 1942.

An extract of a 1945 map of the Naval Base showing the area and the layout of the ammunition depot, including the seven magazines under Talbot's Hill.

An extract of a 1945 map of the Naval Base showing the area and the layout of the ammunition depot, including the seven magazines under Talbot’s Hill (click to enlarge).

The National Heritage Board (NHB), which has been studying the site since April 2014, has also established with the help of a 1945 map of the Naval Base, that the magazines were part of a network of eighteen bunkers, warehouses and workshops spread over the Attap Valley site, that formed the Royal Naval Armament Depot.

The tour group being led into the bunker.

The tour group being led into the bunker.

The passage to the storage area.

The passage to the storage area.

Evidence points to the magazine, which is the size of two 5-room HDB flats, being used by the Japanese during the occupation – a cache of Japanese weapons and ammunition was found by MINDEF when they used the site for the Sembawang Ammunition Depot.

The storage area where  corrugated ceiling reinforcements can be seen along with a gantry hoist.

The storage area where corrugated ceiling reinforcements can be seen along with a gantry hoist.

What appears to be a light fitting from the time of the bunker's construction.

What appears to be a light fitting from the time of the bunker’s construction mounted on the ceiling.

According to NHB, part of the floor of the bunker, now a mess of mud and water, would have had rail tracks running over them to allow the ammunition to be moved in and out, accounting for the rusty colour of the mud and water in the bunker. While there is nothing left of the tracks to be found, there are several fixtures and fittings that might have originally been there at the time of its completion. This includes vents from an all important ventilation system, light fixtures, and pipes. A travelling gantry hoist, complete with a sign giving its Safe Working Load rating, can be seen in the inner chamber where the ammunition would have been stored. Access into the inner chamber is via a curved passageway designed so as explosions could be contained.

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Talbot’s Hill and the surviving magazine under it now lies well within a fenced up area of land, which was returned to the State by  MINDEF when the depot was decommissioned in 2002. Access to it is only via the NHB tours, being organised as part of a Battle of Singapore commemoration that coincides with the 73 anniversary of the Fall of Singapore and also the 70 anniversary of the liberation in September 1945. More information on this, including the Case Files from the Singapore War Crimes Tribunal Exhibition scheduled to open next week at the National Museum of Singapore, can be found at the NHB website.

More photographs of the bunker and its surroundings

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Postscript
An account relating to the last days of the Royal Naval Armament Depot before the Fall of Singapore: A Singapore Story – 1942.


 





A Changi well hidden from sight

18 10 2013

Looking across a sun baked tarmac during a rare opportunity I had to pay a visit to Selarang Camp, it was quite difficult to imagine the square decorated by the shadows of rain trees along its its periphery, cast in the dark shadows of the war some 71 years ago.

The sun-baked Selarang Camp Parade Square decorated not by the shadows of yesterday, but by those of today.

The sun-baked Selarang Camp Parade Square decorated not by the shadows of yesterday, but by those of today.

Surrounded not by rain trees, by the buildings of Selarang Barracks, the shadows of yesterday were ones cast by the events of the early days of early September 1942, events for which the barracks completed some four years before to house a battalion of the Gordon Highlanders, would long be remembered for.

A model of the barrack buildings around the square as seen on a sand model in the Selarang Camp Heritage Centre.

A model of the barrack buildings around the square as seen on a sand model in the Selarang Camp Heritage Centre.

Little is left physically from the days of darkness in today’s Selarang Camp. One of the oldest camps still in use, it is now occupied by HQ 9th Division of the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF). There is little resemblance the tarmac and its surroundings bear to the infamous barrack square now half the size of the original where scenes, possibly descending on chaos from the thousands of Prisoners of War (POWs) – estimates put it at some 13,350 British and 2,050 Australian troops, a total of 15,400 (some estimates had its as high as 17,000) who were made to crowd into a square which measured some 800 by 400 feet (244 x 122 metres), and the seven buildings around it – each with an floor space of 150 by 60 feet (46 x 18 metres) – a density of 1 man for every 2.3 square metres not counting the kitchen tents which had to also be moved into the square and makeshift latrines which had to also be dug into the square!

The original square seen in a 1967 photograph.

The original square seen in a 1967 photograph.

The event, referred to as the Selarang Barracks Incident, is one which is well documented. What had triggered it was an escape attempt by four POWs, two Australian: Cpl Rodney Breavington and Pte Victor Gale, and two British: Pte Harold Waters, and Pte Eric Fletcher. To prevent similar attempts in the future, the Japanese captors, under the command of the newly arrived Major General Fukuei Shimpei (under whose charge the internment and POW camps in Malaya had been placed under), tried to persuade the men in captivity to sign a non-escape statement.

The barrack square during the incident (photograph taken off an information board at the parade square).

The barrack square during the incident (photograph taken off an information board at the parade square).

This was on 30 August 1942. The statement: “I, the undersigned, hereby solemnly swear on my honour that I will not, under any circumstances, attempt escape” – was in contravention to the Geneva Convention (of which Japan was not a signatory of) and the POWs were unanimous in refusing to sign it. This drew a response from the Japanese – they threatened all who refused to sign this undertaking on 1 September with “measures of severity”.

The Non-Escape Statement (Selarang Camp Repository).

The Non-Escape Statement (Selarang Camp Repository).

It was just after midnight on 2 September, that orders were given for all British and Australian POWs (except for the infirmed), who were being held in what had been an expanded Changi Gaol (which extended to Selarang and Roberts Barracks which was used as a hospital), to be moved to the already occupied Selarang barrack buildings which had been built to accommodate 800 men.

From Australia in the War of 1939–1945, Series 1 – Army, Volume IV – The Japanese Thrust (1st edition, 1957).

From Australia in the War of 1939–1945, Series 1 – Army, Volume IV – The Japanese Thrust (1st edition, 1957).

There was little the POWs could do but to make use of whatever space that was made available, spilling into the non-sheltered square around which the barrack buildings stood. The space was shared with kitchens which the captors insisted had to also be moved into the area. Conditions were appalling and access to water was restricted and rations cut (some accounts had it that no food at all was provided), and were certainly less than sanitary. With water cut-off to the few toilets in the barrack buildings rendering them unusable, trenches going as far down as 16 feet had to be dug into the hard tarmac of the parade square to provide much needed latrines.

The ‘Selarang Square Squueze’ as sketched by a POW, John Mennie, as seen on an online Daily Mail news article.

To put further pressure on the POWs to sign the statement, the Japanese had the four recaptured men executed by an Indian National Army firing squad. This was carried out in the presence of the POWs’ formation commanders on the afternoon of 2 September at the Beting Kusah (also spelt Betin Kusa) area of Changi Beach (now under an area of reclaimed land in the vicinity of the Changi Airport Cargo Complex). The execution and the escape attempt by the two Australians is described in detail in Australia in the War of 1939–1945, Series 1 – Army, Volume IV – The Japanese Thrust (1st edition, 1957), Chapter 23 (see link):

The four men executed included two Australians—Corporal Breavington and Private Gale—who had escaped from a camp at Bukit Timah on 12th May, obtained a small boat and rowed it about 200 miles to the island of Colomba. There in a semi-starved condition they had been rearrested, and at length returned to Singapore where Breavington was admitted to hospital suffering from malaria. At the execution ground Breavington, the older man, made an appeal to the Japanese to spare Gale. He said that he had ordered Gale to escape and that Gale had merely obeyed orders ; this appeal was refused. As the Sikh firing party knelt before the doomed men, the British officers present saluted and the men returned the salute. Breavington walked to the others and shook hands with them. A Japanese lieutenant then came forward with a handkerchief and offered it to Breavington who waved it aside with a smile, and the offer was refused by all men. Breavington then called to one of the padres present and asked for a New Testament, whence he read a short passage . Thereupon the order was given by the Japanese to fire.

Map of the Changi area in 1942.

Map of the Changi area in 1942.

Another account of the execution which also highlighted the bravery of Cpl Breavington was given during the trial of General Fukuei Shimpei in February 1946 at the Singapore War Crimes Court:

All four prisoners refused to be blindfolded, and 16 shots were fired before it was decided that the men were dead. One of the prisoners, Cpl Breavington, a big Australian, made a vain, last-minute plea to be allowed to bear alone the full responsibility and punishment for the attempt to escape. He dies reading the New Testament. The first two shots passed through his arm, and as he lay on the ground, he shouted: “You have shot me through the arm. For God’s sake, finish me this time.”

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. 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 (photograph taken off a display at the Changi Air Base Heritage Centre).

After holding out for a few days, the fast worsening conditions became a huge cause for concern due to the threat of the disease and the potential it had for the unnecessary loss of lives. It was with this in mind that the Allied commander, Colonel Holmes, decided to issue an order for the POWs to sign that the non-escape document under duress. With the POWs signing the statement on 5 September 1942 – many were said to have signed using false names, they were allowed to return to the areas in which they had been held previously.

POWs signing the non-escape statement (Selarang Camp Repository).

POWs signing the non-escape statement (Selarang Camp Repository).

The incident was one which was certainly not forgotten. It was on two charges related to the incident that General Fukuei Shimbei was tried in the Singapore War Crimes Court after the Japanese surrender. The first charge related to the attempt to coerce the POWs in his custody to sign the documents of non-escape, and the ill-treatment of the POWs in doing so. The second was related to the killing of the four escapees. General Fukuei was sentenced to death by firing at the end of February 1946 and was executed on 27 April 1946, reportedly at a spot along Changi Beach close to where the four POWs had been executed.

A photograph of the executed General Fukuei Shimbei from the Selarang Camp Repository.

A photograph of the executed General Fukuei Shimbei from the Selarang Camp Repository.

Walking around the camp today, it is an air of calm and serenity that one is greeted by. It was perhaps in that same air that greeted my first visits to the camp back in early 1987. Those early encounters came in the form of day visits I made during my National Service days when I had been seconded to the 9th Division to serve in an admin party to prepare and ship equipment and stores for what was then a reserve division exercise in Taiwan. Then, the distinctive old barrack buildings around the square laid out on the rolling hills which had once been a feature of much of the terrain around Changi were what provided the camp with its character along with the old Officers’ Mess which was the Division HQ building.

The former Officers' Mess - one of two structures left from the original set of barrack buildings.

The former Officers’ Mess – one of two structures left from the original set of barrack buildings.

Another view of the former Officers' Mess.

Another view of the former Officers’ Mess.

It is in the a heritage room in the former Officers’ Mess, only one of two structures (the other a water tank) left from the wartime era that the incident is remembered. The Selarang Camp Heritage Centre is where several exhibits and photographs are displayed which provide information on the incident, as well as how the camp had been transformed over the years.

The Selarang Camp Heritage Centre.

The Selarang Camp Heritage Centre.

Pieces of the old barrack buildings on display in the former Officers' Mess.

Pieces of the old barrack buildings on display in the former Officers’ Mess.

Among the exhibits in the heritage room are old photographs taken by the POWs, a sand model of the barrack grounds and buildings which came up between 1936 to 1938, as it looked in September 1942. There are also exhibits relating to the camps occupants subsequent to the British withdrawal which was completed in 1971. The camp after the withdrawal was first used by the 42nd Singapore Armoured Regiment (42 SAR) before HQ 9th Division moved into it in 1984. It was during the HQ 9th Division’s occupancy that the camp underwent a redevelopment which took place from July 1986 to December 1989 which transformed the camp it into the state it is in today.

An exhibit - a card used by a POW to count the days of captivity.

An exhibit – a card used by a POW to count the days of captivity.

An exhibit from more recent times at the heritage centre.

An exhibit from more recent times at the heritage centre.

A photograph of a parade in the infamous square at the heritage centre.

A photograph of a parade in the infamous square at the heritage centre.

A view of the parade square today.

A view of the parade square today.

One more recent relic from the camp before its redevelopment is a bell which belong to a Garrison Church built in 1961. The church was built as a replacement for what had been a makeshift wartime chapel, the Chapel of St. Francis Xavier, which was, as was St. Luke’s where the Changi Murals were painted, a place which offered solace and hope to many POWs in extremely trying times.

The Garrison Church bell.

The Garrison Church bell.

The bell, now supported by a structure – said to resemble a 30 foot bell tower which originally held it up, can be found across the road from the parade square. The bell was transferred to Sungei Gedong Camp by 42 SAR before being returned to Selarang by HQ Armour in July 1999. It is close to the bell, where a mark of the new occupants of the camp, a Division Landmark which features a soldier next to a snarling panther (a now very recognisable symbol of the 9th Division) erected in 1991, is found standing at a corner of the new square. It stands watch over the square perhaps such that the dark shadows and ghosts of the old square do not come back to haunt us.

A sketch of the makeshift St. Francis Xavier Chapel.

A sketch of the makeshift St. Francis Xavier Chapel.

The division landmark.

The division landmark.

While there was a little disappointment I felt on not seeing the old square, I was certainly glad to have been able to see what’s become of it and also pay a visit to the heritage centre. This has certainly provided me with the opportunity to learn more about the camp, its history, and gain greater insights into events I might have otherwise have thought very little about for which I am very grateful to the MINDEF NS Policy Department who organised the visit.  It is in reflecting on events such as the Selarang Barracks Incident that I am reminded of why it is important for us in a world we have grown almost too comfortable in, to do all that is necessary to prevent the situations such as the one our forefathers and their defenders found ourselves in barely two generations ago.

Another photograph of the Chapel of St. Francis Xavier from the Selarang Camp Repository.

Another photograph of the Chapel of St. Francis Xavier from the Selarang Camp Repository.





The Gemencheh Bridge

6 12 2010

One of the main attractions around the railway junction of Gemas would be the site of the Gemencheh River Bridge, a wooden bridge that was blown up by Australian Forces as they desperately attempted to stem the tide of the Japanese invasion through Malaya in the final days of the Battle of Malaya. Those were dark days as the relentless Japanese advance arrived close to Singapore’s doorstep. Gemas was perhaps where any final resistance could be offered being the entry point into what must have been the psychological final buffer to Singapore, after which only the state of Johore stood in the way. It would probably not have come as a surprise that it was at Gemas where an ambush was planned, one that could and perhaps might have had influenced a very different outcome if events had worked in the favour of the defending forces. That it did not, brought the Japanese invasion forces closer to their goal both physically and psychologically, and within two weeks of the battle, the Japanese had arrived at Singapore’s doorstep at Johor Baharu.

The Gemencheh River, near Gemas, was the site of an ambush in January 1942 that saw a heavy loss of life amongst the Japanese troops.

The ambush was mounted at 4 pm on 14 January 1942, launched by “B” Company of the 2/30th Battalion. Ignoring the advance party of Japanese scouts on bicycle, the Australian unit blew the bridge up as the main party crossed resulting in a heavy loss of life by the Japanese. Estimates range from 600 to 1000 fatalities on the Japanese side and a handful suffered by the Australians. While the initial ambush was a huge success, reports suggest that fighting continued south of the bridge for two days, in part due to a lack of artillery support due to communication lines being cut by the Japanese advance party, with the Australian forces withdrawing south through Gemas.

Possibly the bridge that was rebuilt by the Japanese as seen in 1945 - Caption on Photograph at the Austrlian War Memorial (http://awm.gov.au) site: Gemencheh, Negri Sembilan, Malaya. 1945-09-25. The bridge (middle distance) over the Gemencheh River where, on the 1942-01-14 members of the 2/30th Australian Infantry Battalion supported by No. 30 battery, 2/15th Australian Field Regiment and the 4th Australian Anti-Tank Regiment ambushed and killed some 600 Japanese soldiers (57 mile peg.) (source: Austrlian War Memorial http://awm.gov.au).

Today, a memorial can be found at the site of the ambush. Referred to as the Tugu Sungai Kelamah or Kelamah River Memorial, the memorial appears to be named after a tributary of the Gemencheh River. The site of the memorial is on the southern bank of the part of the river where the Gemencheh River Bridge had stood (coordinates 2° 35′ 43.66″ N, 102° 31′ 8.22″ E), with wooden stumps – remnants of the bridge’s columns still very much in evidence in the river itself. The site lies some 11 kilometres north-west-west from the Gemas Railway Station and within sight of a road bridge to the east along Federal Route 1 – probably the one built to replace the destroyed bridge, and can be reached by taxi from Gemas (about a 15 minute ride).

The remnants of the original wooden bridge that was blown up by the Australian Forces - wooden stumps of the supporting columns, is very much in evidence at the site.

The new bridge just east of the site - part of Federal Route 1.

Sign at the entrance of the Sungai Kelamah Memorial along Federal Route 1.

Sign at the Memorial Site - unfortunately the date is wrong and the ambush occurred on 14 January 1942 rather than in 1941 as the sign suggests.

The same sign in Bahasa Melayu.

At the site, there is a Memorial that has been erected to remember the Australian troops that fought in the battle – this fortunately has the correct dates on it as indicated on a tablet at the foot of the memorial. Pausing to take in what was around us, surrounded by the air of silence that permeated the air, it is hard to imagine the ferocious battle that was fought close to sixty years ago … it possibly makes us think of the futility of war and the unnecessary pain and suffering it inflicts. I am certainly most grateful to those who fought for our freedom in battle, some losing their limbs, some a lot more psychologically and the many that paid the ultimate sacrifice – with their lives.

A memorial probably erected by the Australians with a tablet at the bottom indicating the correct dates of the ambush and subsequent battle.

The tablet at the bottom of the Memorial.

Another view of the new bridge.

Resources on the ambush at the Gemencheh River Bridge / Battle of Malaya:

Sungei Gemencheh Ambush, Gemas Area – Malaya, 14 January 1942,`B’ COY 2/30 BN AIF, Report by Captain D.J. Duffy OC `B’ Coy (Later Lt. Col. D.J. Duffy MC, ED)

On ABC: Sequence of events in the Japanese campaign leading to the fall of Singapore

Wikipedia stub on the Gemencheh Bridge during the Battle of Malaya

Australian War Memorial WWII Site (Australian Government Site)