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On Singapore's Battlebox at Fort Canning

Looking back (Clockwise from above) Then the Command headquarters, now a boutique hotel; entrance to the bunker; and a tableau inside

Looking back (Clockwise from above) Then the Command headquarters, now a boutique hotel; entrance to the bunker; and a tableau inside  

The Battlebox at Fort Canning, Singapore, lay forgotten for decades till it was rediscovered and developed as a museum. Today, it tells the story of the unconditional surrender of the British to invading Japanese forces

Fort Canning is not off the beaten track in Singapore. Most Singaporeans have heard of it. And travel advisories will talk of the house Raffles built on a small hill and where later Governors lived on what became Fort Canning Hill. They’ll know of Hotel Fort Canning, a boutique heritage property in what was once the British Far East Command’s headquarters. They will also know Fort Canning Arts Centre, once headquarters’ barracks but now an events space. A few other old buildings put to new use and several trails to follow may not be well-known but will be on offer. One thing, however, most Singaporeans don’t know about Fort Canning, and which only the most history-minded travel advisor does, is The Battlebox, a secret of World War II that a fellow history buff led me to, to join a group with not an Asian, but ourselves and an eloquent guide in it, and made up entirely of Europeans who all seemed of World War II vintage.

War in the air

The moment the Japanese invaded China in 1937, the British began preparing for war. Hong Kong’s defences were strengthened, but what was made “impregnable” was Singapore, guardian of the natural wealth of Southeast Asia. Heavy, sea-facing guns with armour-piercing shells to ward off attack from the sea were considered the strongest deterrent. Troop strength was improved manifold in Malaya and Singapore. The naval flotilla was to be made a powerful force, with the addition of two of the biggest battleships in the world, the Repulse and the Prince of Wales. And the Air Force was reinforced, though the number of fighter aircraft rose only to 150 against the asked-for 550.

On Singapore's Battlebox at Fort Canning
 

Despite all this — and you can’t help wondering whether it was some sixth sense or foreboding — Lt Gen Arthur Percival, Officer-Commanding, Malaya Command, had a secret, highly reinforced bunker, like Churchill’s in Britain, built into Fort Canning Hill as an emergency headquarters. Very few knew of this 45-metre-by-50-metre warren of 29 rooms built 9 metres below the surface. Work went on on it till 1940, by when it was fully equipped as a command centre. This was The Battlebox. Only those on Fort Canning Hill knew even vaguely what lay behind those innocuous steel doors, with an equally unimpressive lock, before which stood two Sikh sentries round the clock.

After the War, The Battlebox was virtually forgotten. Initially it was looted, then left derelict and, in time, unnoticed. That was till 1988 when my friend Doraisingam Samuel, whose Singapore Heritage is to Singapore what my Madras Rediscovered is to Madras, wrote to The Straits Times urging it to ‘re-discover’ the Fort Canning bunker and get the authorities to develop it as a museum. A cub reporter on the paper got interested in his assignment to locate the bunker and, once found, began research on its history. Seventeen years later, he had many of the answers to the story he first wrote, putting it all down in a book. The most significant answer of all was that it was in a room in the bunker that Percival and his 10 senior officers decided on the morning of February 15, 1942, to — unconditionally, as it turned out — surrender, the biggest defeat in British military history.

Reliving history

The whole story is told during a two-hour-long walk-through, that offers films of the Japanese march down the Malay Peninsula, the surrender at the Ford factory to Lt Gen Tomoyuki Yamashita, and the aftermath, life-sized dioramic scenes of activities in the bunker, including the fateful February 15 meeting, and a smooth, fact- and anecdote-filled narration by tour leader Jerome.

On Singapore's Battlebox at Fort Canning
 

What stood out at the end of the tour are the unanswered questions… and that to me was the significance of The Battlebox, as much memorial to Japanese success as to British defeat. That victory was won the moment Japan decided to attack Singapore from Malaya and not the sea, landing on two Thai beaches and neighbouring Kota Bahru beach (now a resort) the same day they attacked Pearl Harbour, December 8. The Japanese may have had only 40,000 soldiers against the 1,20,000 of the combined British, Indian and Australian force, but they used them ingeniously. British defences were along the highways, the Japanese, led by tanks — which the British thought could not traverse the secondary jungle roads — mechanised artillery and fast-moving foot-soldiers on bicycles hedge-hopped and kept cutting off British avenues of retreat before using their firepower to take a toll of nearly 30,000 Allied troops. Why were jungle roads thought impenetrable?

Using 600 aircraft, the Japanese not only quickly knocked out air support for the British, by taking out the airfields, but they were also able to dive-bomb the two battleships and several other warships into eternity, leaving Malaya’s east coast beaches defenceless. The Japanese aircraft were also able to take out the water mains and other utilities in Singapore. They may have lost 200 aircraft, but by then the British had virtually none. Why did not Britain commit more, and more modern, aircraft to the Malayan skies?

As the British retreated into their ‘impregnable fortress’, whose heavy guns had virtually none of the necessary ammunition to do much damage to advancing troops, they blew up Johore Causeway. Why was such a shoddy job done, making it repairable in less than 24 hours?

And on the island it linked, as Percival and his team prepared for an assault from Singapore’s northeast, toward which Yamashita feinted, the Japanese attacked, on February 8, from the northwest, where the British had the least defences. Why was the northwestern territory thought impassable?

Finally, even though the surrender option was given by Churchill and his Southeast Asia and Southwest Pacific Supreme Commander Gen Archibald Wavell, they nevertheless urged Command Malaya, in the bunker from February 11, to fight to the last. Percival too urged counter-attacking, on the grounds that Japanese ammunition supplies would be as low as that of the British forces who outnumbered them almost three to one. But with virtually no water, very little food and minimal ammunition, soldiers exhausted after 70 days of fighting were no longer willing to fight, said Pervical’s commanders, particularly Lt Gen Lewis Heath of the 3 Indian Corps and Maj Gen Gordon Bennett of the 8 Australian Division. The others at the table were silent, suggesting non-commitment. And so Percival and his escort, with white flag and Union Jack, went to the Ford factory later that February 15 day, and, after hemming and hawing for a while, agreed to unconditional surrender of 90,000 troops and the whole of Singapore.

Factfile: After the War ended, it was Percival who was present at the unconditional surrender of Yamashita and his forces in The Philippines!

PS. The Battlebox tells it all brilliantly in word and picture. I have only two regrets. One, the toilet in The Battlebox still remains, but verboten; I couldn’t use it despite the need. The second is our own bunker in Royapuram, Chennai, that the authorities want to destroy. Let’s move it to the ample space in the Egmore Museum, visit The Battlebox and discover how we too can make the shelter into a small World War II museum as interesting.

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Printable version | Apr 8, 2020 12:29:53 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/life-and-style/travel/the-battlebox-at-fort-canning-singapore-lay-forgotten/article22677460.ece

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