Tracing the War History of Singapore

Saturday 6 May 2017- The Battle Box

Several hours after leaving NZ out of Christchurch on Friday morning I realised we were tracking across Australia. From the air it looked a lot more attractive than it does on the ground. Large, what looked like, salt lakes fed rivers running north to the sea.

Cloud formations up through the pacific are always pretty spectacular. One could wonder if North Korea has fired that nuclear missile as the mushroom clouds form in the sky.

After a sleep in on Saturday Sylvia and I took a stroll down to the other end of Orchard Road to visit Fort Canning Park, home of the now famous Battle Box. Previously there was a fort on top of the hill of which only the gate is still standing.

Built into the hill with about ten meters of overhead cover and with one meter thick walls separating most of the 20-22 rooms the Battle Box was primarily designed as a communications HQ for the military in Singapore prior to WWII. Located a few meters from the new Fort Canning HQ with its two entrances on opposite sides of the hill plus a vertical escape shaft it gave good cover during bombing raids. It had its own air filtration system in case of gas attacks along with a ventilation system, generator and 6 dunnies, three each for officers and OR’s (other ranks).

The Japs landed in the north east of Malaya on 8 December 1941 with a large number of battle hardened troops from the China campaign, lots of tanks and six thousand bicycles so the infantry could keep up with the tanks. Although in the early stages the combined British forces put up a good fight it didn’t last long.

The superior Jap aircraft soon started annihilating the Aussie, Brit and some Kiwi planes, who before being all shot out of the sky withdrew to Indonesia.

Jap aircraft also sunk the battleships Prince of Wales and Repulse along with a number of destroyers on the 10th December, the same day Pearl Harbour was attacked on the other side of the Pacific. These were the only serious British naval assets in the area leaving no navy to come to the rescue. The British withdrew down the peninsular. By the 31 January the Japs had taken Malaya.

Intense bombing and artillery fire rained down on Singapore. Yamashita, the Jap general in charge, with about thirty thousand troops and running low on ammo and supplies decided to attack Singapore with its over one-hundred thousand strong army. On the 8 February they crossed the strait.

During this time around 500 people crammed into the Battle Box. Oblong pieces have been cut from the tops of steel doors, obviously to increase air circulation. In spite of all the rooms the place is quite small. In one of these rooms Percival, the Brit General in charge, and his senior team of seven made the decision to surrender on 15 of February.

The headquarters opposite the hill still stands but now as Fort Caning Hotel. A stroll down the nearby river revealed some nice sights.

Sunday 14 May 2017 – The Old Ford Factory

Taking a stroll through the Botanic Gardens and north along Bukit Timah Rd, around 10km later we arrived in a very sweaty state at the Old Ford Factory.  This was where the Japanese General Yamashita set up HQ during the invasion of Singapore.

Part of this building, including the room where the surrender was signed, is still there. Winston Churchill called it “The worst disaster and largest capitulation in British History”.

The museum walks one through from the pre-invasion to the occupation and a little of the rebuild after the Jap surrender in 1945.

Massive atrocities were committed by the Japs during the occupation, particularly by the Kempeitai (secret police) who beheaded people and stuck their heads on stakes around town complete with notes about how not to behave. Singapore’s name was changed to Sayonan-to, meaning “light of the south”. The Japs introduced an occupational currency, the locals referred to as “banana money”. At the beginning of the occupation 60g of rice was $5.00 ???? at the end $5000.00 ????. School classes were taught in Japanese.

By the end of the occupation what had once been a well off country was left in state of disarray and poverty. I must say from what I have seen so far they have done a great job of rebuilding the place. Interestingly there was no mention here about what happened to the captured British forces or civilians.

After the surrender the Jap general made all the hundred thousand plus captured troops line up on both sides of a main road and drove down the middle, cameras rolling to show off his victory.

Sunday 21 May – Changi Prison Museum

We took the MRT east out past the airport to Tampines. The station has a massive bus terminal clearly sign posted with stainless almost like stock yards to handle the queues. A bus took us through HDB (Housing Development Board) areas the 4 kms to the Changi Prison Museum.

Last week we received some cultural training as part of Sylvia’s assignment here. They explained how the HDB system works. People actually buy an apartment in these huge, well-kept apartment blocks. There is no graffiti, the buildings are clean and well maintained. There is a manager or two in each block. One of their tasks is to ensure that the welfare of the tenants is maintained. An example of this is if a family with kids is found not to have a computer and internet it will get sorted. If people are sick they will seek help for them. Privacy is not a big deal here so the people that count get to know what’s going on and who needs help. There are thousands of the blocks in this area.

The Museum is again like the previous two places a no photo area.

We grabbed an audio set and commenced the tour. This place is well laid out with a short section on the pre-invasion period, then it gets into detail on the captivity of both the military and civilian personal.

After the surrender most of the captured military people were marched east to Changi and imprisoned there. The Japs didn’t really know what to do with them for a start but soon realised they had a massive source of free labour. Many were sent to Burma to work on the railroad.

Initially men and woman were both kept at Changi however later the woman were taken to Sime Road prison. Originally designed to house 500, 5000 were kept there 10 plus to a cell. Changi was basically administered by the British officers with records kept. Many supplies were manufactured in the prison: sandals were made from car tyres; sunglasses from discarded X-ray film; radios were made and concealed in matchboxes. In one case one guy had a valve radio in a broom with the aerial integrated into his mosquito net. He would listen to the BBC through a rubber tube and write notes. His bunk was situated by the door and each morning he would place the notes in a hand that appeared round the door for distribution to the senior officers.

There are many stories of brave women and men that came to the prison each day to pass medical and other supplies through the wire in spite of often being beaten and or tortured. There was a very moving interview with a Dutch woman captured in Indonesia and shipped off to be used as a “comfort woman” (sex slave) by Jap officers when she was only 19.

Many of the prisoners taken to Malaysia, Thailand and Burma as slave labour died through beatings, starvation, malaria and other diseases.

There is an outside chapel which came from the prison situated in the internal courtyard.

Thanks Google for the pics.

There is also a covered but outdoor cafe set alongside the museum.

Just down the road there are the men’s and woman’s Changi prisons. The death penalty is mandatory in Singapore for drug traffickers, consequently drug addiction is rare here. Well done Singapore.

Saturday 27 May – The Bridge over the River Kwai

Leaving the hotel at 7.30 we headed northwest towards Burma. Our first stop some three hours later was Kanchanaburi War Cemetery. Here the remains of thousands of military personnel from the UK, Australia, Holland and USA are buried. 

Located across the road is a museum dedicated to both the survivors and the deceased. Another ‘no photo’ place it walks on through the whole horrible project. The Japs wanted access to Burma and Malaya through Thailand so the Thais who have never been colonised or conquered signed an accord with Japan allowing them access. At the same time the Thais declared war on the US and U.K. Japan had invaded Burma and wanted to use it to launch an attack on India and into Southern China. Their ships were getting bombed and sunk as they came up the west coast of Burma with Brit planes coming out of Calcutta. Hence it was decided to build a 485km railway through the mountains to link Thailand and Burma. 

With 80 odd thousand free labourers sitting in Singapore the project went ahead. Not only did they use 60 thousand plus prisoners, but  also over 150 thousand civilians, mainly from Burma and Malaya, were forced into slave labour.  Great promises were made by the Japs of good food, pay and medical facilities to entice them to work on the rail. One man tells how he was in town in Malacca one day as a sixteen year old when Jap soldiers approached him and offered him this great job with great pay etc. up north on the railway. He declined as he thought his parents would not let him go. They tied him up ant took him anyway. 

Figures are sketchy as the Japs destroyed most of the records at the end of the war but they reckon over 80 thousand of these people perished. 

One interview with an old British army guy talks about the song they used to whistle (made famous by the movie). “It was a bit rude really as it meant bollocks to the Japanese! We walked along whistling away and the Japs would often smile and wave!”

The museum takes one through how they blasted their way through cuttings by twisting and hammering steel spikes into the rock to hack holes for explosives. They built the wooden viaducts, some of which are still in use today. The conditions were terrible with many suffering from malaria, dengue fever and cholera. The Japs had a policy of minimising food for the sick as they thought this would encourage people to get well and go back to work for better food. They did let funerals be held so the British prisoners often buried records and diaries with the bodies as they knew the Japs had some respect for the dead and would be reluctant to dig them up. Many of these records were recovered when the bodies were exhumed to be re buried at the war grave and have helped piece together the story. 

We then continued our journey to the bridge itself. For some reason it was completely different than I imagined, located on the northwest edge of the town with lots of souvenir shops on the east bank and the ground around it flat. When we arrived the bridge was full of tourists with a sign at the beginning of the bridge warning “be careful taking selfies when train coming”. We crossed the bridge and heavy rain arrived. We sheltered in a hut as the rain cleared the bridge of tourists.

On the east side of the bridge there are some old engines and a truck displayed.


Originally a wooden bridge spanned the river while this one got built. When this bridge was bombed they reinstated the wooden bridge while repairs were made to this one. Next time they bombed both bridges with a very early version of guided bombs. 

We then headed further north, the plan being to to take a train ride. With a couple of hours to spare we headed to a cave. With the first section full of bats it was a bit stinky. Sylvia clung to me as the bats flew around reacting to the camera. 

After the bats the cave extended some 200m into the hill with some interesting stalagmites and tites among other formations. 

We than drove to Nam Tok Railway station, boarding the very old, on-time train at 3.30pm for an around 25km journey down the line. This is as far as the line goes now days although there is some talk of rebuilding it through to Burma. 


The train seemed to run out of ergs at one point, stopping and rolling back down the slope, but eventually got going again. Lots of houses have a lot of junk lying around the back of them. 

 We disembarked at a tourist resort type town where the rail went on a viaduct on the river edge. People stood on the edge to watch the train go past and others floated down the river in their matching life-jackets. Our driver was there to meet us for the three plus hour drive back to Bangkok. 


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