The abandoned beauty of Canfranc

30 09 2019

For more photographs, please visit:

https://jeromekg.wixsite.com/flymetothemoon/post/the-abandoned-beauty-of-canfranc


Set against a backdrop of snow-capped Pyrenean peaks and in a quiet village in Spanish foothills of the range that forms much of the Franco-Spanish border, the majestic and long-disused Canfranc International Railway Station looks well out of place. Often described as Europe’s most opulent station, it is as much its Beaux-arts styled appearance as is the scale in which it was built that has earned it this reputation.

The beautiful and somewhat mysterious Canfranc International Railway Station seen against the backdrop of the Pyrenees.

Built from 1921 to 1925, it was as much a symbol of Franco-Spanish cooperation at is opening in 1928 as it was to have been the terminal building of an elevated railway line that triumphed over the challenging Pyrenean terrain that separated the two countries. This required, among other efforts, the digging of a tunnel – the Somport tunnel that took six years to complete. It was in use until March 1970 when a train accident, which damaged the Estanguet bridge beyond repair, closed the Pau-Canfranc line for good.

The station has been abandoned since an accident in March 1970 closed the line.

Much intrigue and mystery has surrounded the station since its closure. Over the years, details have emerged of the station having been a transit point for Nazi loot, including some 86 tons of gold stolen from Jews to obtain much needed tungsten in the Iberian peninsula. Tungsten was need to as an alloying element in steel used in tank armour. Details have also emerged of how a French Customs Officer based at the station, Albert Le Lay, posed as a double agent and in doing so, facilitated the escape of hundreds of refugees – many of them Jews into Spain from 1940 to 1942. Dubbed the “Spanish Schindler”, Le Lay, was part of a spy network based at the station that also helped in the transmission of messages and equipment for the French Resistance.

A view through one of the station’s 365 windows.

The station, which measures 241 metres in length, is 12.5 metres wide and has a total of 150 doors – 75 one each side. It also has 365 windows – one as they say – for each day of the year. Operated jointly by France and Spain, it contained a restaurant, a hotel, post and telegraph offices and the offices of the railway operators and immigration and customs officials for both countries.


For more photographs, please visit:

https://jeromekg.wixsite.com/flymetothemoon/post/the-abandoned-beauty-of-canfranc





The formal surrender of Japanese forces in Southeast Asia in photographs

17 09 2019

The end of the Second World War came with the announcement made by Emperor Hirohito of Japan on 15 August 1945, it would take a few weeks for Japan’s formal surrender – first on 2 September 1945 on the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay and in Southeast Asia at the Municipal Chamber of Singapore’s Municipal Building (City Hall and now the City Hall Wing of the National Gallery Singapore) on 12 September 1945.

A wonderful set of photographs of the surrender in Singapore – plus a couple from the arrival of a delegation of Japanese senior officers to discuss the surrender in August 1945 in Mingaladon Airfield in Rangoon, popped up on On a Little Street in Singapore. The photographs, which were posted by Ian Hepplewhite and were part of his father’s collection, are shared here with his kind permission.


Formal Surrender of Japan in Southeast Asia, 12 September 1945

(Lord Louis Mountbatten, Supreme Allied Commander of South East Asia Command, received the formal surrender of the Japanese forces in Southeast Asia from General Seishirō Itagaki on behalf of Field Marshal Count Hisaichi Terauchi, the Supreme Commander of Southern Command of the Japanese Imperial Army)

“This is the series of pictures I have of my father’s showing the Japanese surrender to Mountbatten. I do have other images of Singapore from that time people may have already seen” – Ian Hepplewhite, on On a Little Street in Singapore.

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Shared with the kind permission of Ian Hepplewhite.

Shared with the kind permission of Ian Hepplewhite.

Shared with the kind permission of Ian Hepplewhite.

Shared with the kind permission of Ian Hepplewhite.

Shared with the kind permission of Ian Hepplewhite.

Shared with the kind permission of Ian Hepplewhite.

Shared with the kind permission of Ian Hepplewhite.

Shared with the kind permission of Ian Hepplewhite.

Shared with the kind permission of Ian Hepplewhite.

Shared with the kind permission of Ian Hepplewhite.


Mingaladon Airfield, August 1945

Japanese senior officers arriving at Mingaladon airfield in Rangoon (Yangon) Burma (Myanmar) to discuss surrender – shared with the kind permission of Ian Hepplewhite.

Japanese senior officers arriving at Mingaladon airfield in Rangoon (Yangon) Burma (Myanmar) to discuss surrender – shared with the kind permission of Ian Hepplewhite.


 





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.

 






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:


 





Not all Black and White at Mount Pleasant

1 11 2015

In a Singapore now overrun by the clutter of the modernised world, there is nothing that better celebrates the Singapore we have long abandoned better than the “Black and White” houses we still see scattered across the island. Characterised by their whitewashed and black trimmed exteriors and set in lush green surroundings, the houses – built in the early decades of the twentieth century to house the colony’s administrators, carry themselves with a poise and elegance that is sadly lacking in the architecture of the modern world.

The 'black and white' house at 159 Mount Pleasant Road.

The ‘black and white’ house at 159 Mount Pleasant Road.

The rear of the house - with the kitchen and servants quarters arranged in typical fashion behind the main house.

The rear of the house – with the kitchen and servants quarters arranged in typical fashion behind the main house.

I am always grateful for the opportunity to have a look into one of these houses, a good number of which are today leased out for quite a tidy sum by the Singapore government. One that I recently got to see – thanks to arrangements made by a friend and fellow blogger James Tann and with the kind permission of the house’s occupant, was at 159 Mount Pleasant Road. Laid out in a style typical of the early “Black and White” house – of single room depth and with a carriage porch arranged under a projecting second storey verandah, the house at #159 is one of a cluster of similar houses built in the 1920s along the north facing slope of Mount Pleasant to serve as residences for the fast developing municipality’s Municipal Councillors.

The carriage porch and projecting second storey verandah.

The carriage porch and projecting second storey verandah.

The projecting second storey verandah.

The projecting second storey verandah.

Located close to the top of Mount Pleasant, one of the high points in the series of undulations that extend to the burial grounds to its northwest at the area of Bukit Brown, there is much to admire about the house and its expansive grounds. I was to learn from James that what was most interesting about the house was however neither its architecture nor the beauty of its setting but a secret it held for some seventy years.

From the porch one steps into an entrance hall and the stairway - again typical of an daly 'Black and White' house design.

From the porch one steps into an entrance hall and the stairway – again typical of an early ‘Black and White’ house design.

The dining room on the ground level, as seen from the entrance hallway.

The dining room on the ground level, as seen from the entrance hallway.

James, who was photographing the house for a book on the Adam Park Project, shared what had been learnt about #159 and about some of the houses in the vicinity from piecing together evidence found in history books, maps and also what had quite recently been uncovered on the grounds. The project, which is led by battlefield archeologist Jon Cooper, seeks to establish what did go on in and around Adam Park in the dark days of the first half of February 1942 from archaeological evidence.

The area in the foreground was where both spent ammunition and a cache of unused British ammunition was recently uncovered.

The area in the foreground was where both spent ammunition and a cache of unused British ammunition was recently uncovered.

Jon Cooper paints a picture of the events of the last days leading up to what does seem to have taken place on the morning of 15th February 1942, the day of the surrender, in a video that relates to a dig carried out at #159 early this year. Meeting with stiff resistance from the Cambridgeshire regiment who held the ground for three days at Adam Park, the Japanese forces move slightly to the north. On the evening of 14th of February, the Japanese break through positions held by 4th Battalion of the Royal Suffolks at the Singapore Island Country Club and at Bukit Brown. The Suffolks retreat, falling back across a valley (which would be the low ground at Jalan Mashhor / Gymkhana Avenue), to positions on Mount Pleasant. Here, a mixed of units including the 125th Anti Tank Regiment, the Royal Engineers and elements of the 9th Northumberland Fusiliers, have the area fortified for a Japanese attack, with the “Black and White” houses there serving as defensive positions.

Cooper tells us also of two well documented attacks on Mount Pleasant that follow. One comes from an account recorded by Henry Frei, who once taught at the NUS, based on interviews with Japanese veterans. This account makes mention of an attack on “Hospital Hill” which wipes out a whole company of Japanese troops.

The house that was thought to be used as a hospital on the top of Mount Pleasant.

The house that was thought to be used as a hospital on the top of Mount Pleasant.

Another account Cooper refers to speaks of attempts on the morning of 15th February to retake a house that had been infiltrated by the Japanese. The house, on the north side of Mount Pleasant Road, is described as as hard to take due to its elevation below the road. Following two failed attempts to retake it, the house is hit with 12 anti-tank shells fired from a gun positioned at the junction of Mount Pleasant Road and Thomson Road. The house catches fire, is cleared of Japanese troops, and eventually burns down. Evidence provided by 1948 aerial photographs point to the house being one with a new roof at #160. This lies right across Mount Pleasant Road from #159 and seems also to be confirmed by a Singapore Free Press article of 25 June 1948 reporting the discovery of the remains of 8 soldiers on the grounds of a “bombed house” at 160 Mount Pleasant Road.

160 Mount Pleasant Road, which was infiltrated by Japanese troops and subsequently bombed.

160 Mount Pleasant Road, which was infiltrated by Japanese troops and subsequently bombed.

The far end of #159’s garden, was also where one set of remains was located, that of a British officer whose remains were subsequently moved to Kranji. One of the aims of the dig at #159 was to find any other evidence related to the officer that may have possibly been left behind.

A view towards the far end of the garden. The remains of a British officer killed in the course of fighting, was buried.

A view towards the far end of the garden. The remains of a British officer killed in the course of fighting, was buried.

While no evidence of that was found, the main focus of the dig, which took place at the near end of the huge garden, did meet with success. With some of what had lay buried in this area having been exposed following the removal of a tree and the gradual washing away of the topsoil by rainwater, the dig there managed to uncover thousands of pieces of ammunition. The find, which includes both spent cases and a cache of unused ones that had deliberately been buried, confirms that there had been fighting in the garden of #159, which would have been used as a staging point for the attack on #160. The large quantity of unused ammunition of British origin, provided evidence of the final positions of British troops as they made their preparations prior to surrender.

Mount Pleasant Road served as the final battle line before the capitulation.

Mount Pleasant Road, seen here running between #159 and #160, served as a final battle line before the capitulation.

There is probably a lot more that currently lies buried on the grounds of #159 and the other “Black and White” houses in the vicinity. It may be that the grounds of these houses may never reveal their secrets. Based on what’s seen in the Urban Redevelopment Authority’s 2014 Master Plan, it does seem that the area will be the subject of future redevelopment, perhaps as part of the intended Bukit Brown estate on the evidence of the two MRT stations in the vicinity. It would be a shame if and when this happens as not only will we lose a green part of Singapore with its “Black and White” reminders of a forgotten age, we will lose a link to a chapter in our history that must never be forgotten.

The URA Master Plan 2014 indicates that the area will be redeveloped in the future.

The URA Master Plan 2014 indicates that the area will be redeveloped in the future.


More photographs of 159 Mount Pleasant Road

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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.





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.

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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)





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.


 





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.





A walk along the ridge: Commemorating the Battle of Pasir Panjang

4 02 2014

A walk that is well worth the 4-5 hours, offering a peek into a part of Singapore many of us would never think of exploring on our own. This year, it will take place on 15 Feb at 7 am. To sign up for it, visit this link: http://habitatnews.nus.edu.sg/index.php.

(see also: Lost on the Ridge)

Also happening around the same time is a series of National Heritage Board Battle for Singapore Heritage Tours on 8/9 Feb and 15 Feb. More information can be found at the I Love Museums website

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The Long and Winding Road

I took a walk with a group of about 50 yesterday morning, along a part of Singapore that I frequent only because of visits I make from time-to-time to the National University of Singapore (NUS) in the course of my work, and in doing so, I learnt quite a lot about the area where one of the fiercest battles took place as the impregnable fortress that the colonial masters of Singapore had thought the island was, capitulated to the invading Japanese Imperial Army in the dark days of the February of 1942. The walk had in fact been one that takes place on an annual basis to commemorate the battle, the Battle of Pasir Panjang, with took place over the 13th and 14th of February, in the final hours before General Percival did the unthinkable, being made to take a march of shame up the hill on which General Yamashita…

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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.





Adventures in a pill box

3 08 2011

Sifting through some old photographs, I found one of a machine gun pill box that I had as a young boy had many adventures in. The pill box, was one of many that were scattered along the southern coastline of Singapore and one that has all but disappeared (save for the one at Labrador Park) from the southern shores – most having been demolished in the early part of the 1970s. The particular pillbox that is the subject of the photograph, was one that was located close to the fishing village of Mata Ikan, in the days before land reclamation work commenced which added the extension to our southern shores which provided part of the land on which Changi Airport is built on.

The Pill Box at Mata Ikan in 1970.

Mata Ikan, of which I have mentioned in previous posts on the holiday bungalows my family used to frequent, and also in a post on Somapah Village which I always saw as a gateway to Mata Ikan, was for a while a playground for me, having spent many holidays by the sea in and around the area. It was where I first used a fishing rod – a simple bamboo one with a fixed length of line and a hook at its end, fishing for catfish by tghe stream which ran to the west of the holiday bungalows. What the photograph of the pill box evokes is a few memories I have of playing in the pill box with friends, pretending to be soldiers with a piece of drift wood picked up from the beach serving as a rifle, peeping out towards the sea through the openings at the front. There is also that memory of the stench one got from the pillboxes, the stench that probably came from the litter that lay rotting on the ground within the pill boxes. It is a stench I will never forget, but one that brings with it the memories of my adventures in another lost part of Singapore’s past.





The Bridge over the River Kwai

22 12 2010

It might have been because of the nursery rhyme “London Bridge is Falling Down”, that I have held a long fascination with bridges, having many doses of it throughout my early childhood. It was a fascination that was also fed by my regular encounters with the two railway bridges from my childhood journeys through the Bukit Timah area, and of those with the magnificent Anderson and Cavenagh Bridges that sets our Civic District apart from much of the rest of Singapore, and maybe by the picture of the red oxide coated Forth Rail Bridge on the back of a postcard that my mother had for much of my childhood displayed on her dresser. There were of course bridges of significance that I encountered in my diet of war inspired movies and novels that might also have fed that fascination: one being “A Bridge Too Far” over Arnhem that was the subject of Cornelius Ryan’s novel which was adapted by William Goldman for the movie of the same name; and the so-called “Bridge on the River Kwai”, part of the infamous Death Railway, that was made famous by the 1957 David Lean movie based on a novel entitled “Bridge Over the River Kwai” by French writer Pierre Boulle, which I had watched many times on TV.

Poster for the movie "Bridge on the River Kwai".

The bridge over the River Kwai in Dec 1984.

The bridge in 2006.

That I guess was what compelled me to visit the bridge that stands over the River Kwai today, or the River Mae Khlung as it should rightly have been (the river has since been renamed as the “Kwai Yai” for the tourists). The bridge that stands today isn’t the wooden bridge built in 1943 that was the subject of the movie, but a second more sturdy bridge of concrete and steel built by the Prisoners of War (POW) also in 1943. It stands as a powerful symbol of the pain, suffering and death that was inflicted on the POWs who were put to work on the infamous Siam to Burma rail supply line that the Japanese intended to use on their push towards India. Estimates vary but at least 100,000 POWs and labourers died in the construction of the railway due to the harsh conditions, starvation and malaria.

A view of the bridge from the far bank. The two straight-sided spans were transported from Japan after the end of the war as part of Japanese war reparations, to replace the two original arched spans which were brought over from Java by the Japanese which were destroyed.

Another view of the bridge.

Information plate on one of the replacement spans.

One of the original arched spans which the Japanese brought over from Java.

My first visit to the bridge which is about 5 kilometres out of Kanchanaburi , which is located 130 kilometres west of Bangkok was in December 1984 – back then I was struck by the surreal calm that taking a walk on the bridge provided despite the presence of the tourists (not the hordes that one encounters these days) and the vendors trying to hawk a few souvenirs. I did return some twenty years later – dismayed to find that the bridge had been overrun by hordes of tourists and the area now dominated by the tourist shops that have somehow destroyed the peace that I had first encountered in 1984. Still, taking a walk on the bridge provides a wonderful experience, and certainly once across the bridge, the far back does provide that sense of calm absent on the near side.

Taking a photograph of the bridge in 1984.

On the bridge in 2006.

Around the bridge, there is the River Kwae Bridge railway station which is certainly worth a visit. The station in fact provides an gateway for rail passengers coming from the south who can make a connection at Nakhon Pathom, and also directly from Bangkok. The line itself runs over part of the original Death Railway route to Nam Tok. The line which was assessed to be too poorly constructed to support commercial use was sold by the British in 1946 to Siam for a sum of ₤1.5M which included 65 locomotives, 1125 wagons and other stock, and revived in 1948. The train also runs through and stops at the town of Kanchanaburi.

Ticket counter at the River Kwai Bridge Station.

River Kwai Bridge Station.

An old steam locomotive (#719) on display at River Kwai Bridge Station.

Beyond the area where the bridge is, it makes sense to also pay a visit to one of the war museums to have a sense of what went on, as well as the Kanchanaburi War Cemetery. The museum I visited was the JEATH (Japan, England, Australia Thailand, England) War Museum, which is housed inside the grounds of the Wat Chai Chumphon temple and is built around huts meant to replicate those that the POWs had been housed in and contains graphic images showing the conditions the prisoners had lived in.

Kanchanaburi War Cemetery in 1984.

Kanchanaburi War Cemetery.

Plaque at the entrance of the War Cemetery.

Plaque at the War Cemetery.

The JEATH War Museum.

Exhibit at the JEATH War Museum in 1984 with photographs of the bridge destroyed in 1945 by allied bombings.