Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Army heritage tour.

It was an invitation out of the blues, from MINDEF no less!
Would you be interested to visit a few old SAF camps that we are planning for a group of history bloggers?

To say I was delighted would be an understatement, especially when they mentioned that it would include the Changi Murals and the old Selarang Barracks.

This event was specially organised for a small group of heritage bloggers that included my old friends, Lam Chun See (Good Morning Yesterday) and Peter Chan, online familiars like Jerome Lim (The Long and Winding Road), Char Lee (Second Shot), Mok Ly Ing (bukitbrown) and Andrew Him (One NorthExplorers). It also gave me the chance to meet other bloggers whom until then we had only known virtually online.

The visit began at the SAF Selarang Camp in Changi.
The Selarang complex was built in 1936 by the British forces and was then called Selarang Barracks. The Singapore Armed Forces took over the camp after 1971. The camp has been upgraded and modernized to SAF’s new requirements but sadly most of the original pre-war buildings had to be torn down as it was found unsafe or unsuitable for today needs.

The Parade Square at Selarang camp today.
Inset: The British barracks surrounding the same square during the pre-SAF days.

Selarang Barracks and the old Parade Square. 

The Officers Mess is the only pre-war building surviving today at Selarang Camp.

During the Japanese Occupation from 1942 to 1945, Selarang Barracks was used as a POW internment camp to house the Allied soldiers captured in WW2.  Its notoriety was cemented during this period by an event known as the “Selarang Incident”

The Selarang Incident

On 30 Aug 1942, four escaped POWs were recaptured by the Japanese. 
The Japanese camp commander, Gen Fukuei, then demanded all POWs sign a declaration that they would not try to escape. This was in contravention of the Geneva Convention, so all the POWs refused to sign. 

In retaliation, Gen Fukuei ordered all 15,400 POWS, mainly from the Australian Imperial Force, to be confined within the Barracks until they signed. Selarang Barracks could only house 1,200 men. Thus the majority spilled over into the Parade Square. As punishment, water and food were strictly rationed and there were no sanitary facilities available, even in the barrack buildings.
Seeing that the Allied soldiers were not budging by the 3rd day, Gen Fukuei had the 4 escapees publicly executed as an example.  He ordered that all the sick soldiers be brought from the hospitals and also confined to the Parade Square. On seeing that their men were starting to die of illnesses like dysentery, the British commanders permitted their soldiers to sign the declaration “under duress”. Thus ending the Selarang Incident on 5th  Sep 1942.

Latrines dug into the parade square ,
Photo source: Australian War Museum
The Selarang Barracks Parade Square today in silent testimony to the events in 1942.

After the war, Gen Fukuei was tried at a war crimes tribunal and was sentenced to death by firing squad, specifically on the charge of ordering the 4 escapees executed. Ironically, he was executed on the very same spot where the four Allied soldiers were executed at Changi Beach.

The execution of Lt-Gen Fukuei at Changi Beach.

For security reasons, we were not allowed to photograph any of the existing SAF facilities.
However, I have compiled some photographs taken at Selarang Barracks where we were allowed to.
The photographs are in my album here.

The Changi Murals

For me, the highlight of the morning's tour was to the Changi Murals.
The Changi Murals are a set of five painting done by an English POW, Bombardier Stanley Warren.
Bdr Warren was ill with severe dysentery and was warded at the military hospital at Roberts Barracks. Roberts Barracks was another camp within the Changi military area housing captured POWs.

Roberts Barracks at Changi.
When the hospital superintendent discovered Warren's artistic talent, he requested that the walls of the St Luke's Chapel in the Dysentery Ward be painted by Bdr Warren. Stanley
Warren, despite being close to death at one stage, undertook the arduous task of painting the murals, despite lacking supplies like paints and brushes, which he managed to scrounge around to complete his task.

The Nativity was the first mural painted by Stanley Warren and was completed in time for Christmas 1942.

Five murals were completed by the time the war ended and Stanley Warren was released and returned to England. The murals were soon forgotten when the barracks were used for other military purposes. The murals were painted over with whitewash over time and one wall was even taken down to create a passageway destroying part of the hidden mural unknowingly.

Only in 1958, the significance of the murals were 're-discovered' and efforts were made to find the artist. Stanley Warren was located in London but was hesitant to return to Singapore to do a restoration due to the trauma he underwent during the war.

It was not until 1963 that he finally found courage to return to do a restoration of the five murals. He returned a further two times in 1968 and 1988 to finalise the restorations, of which only four could be completed. The final mural, which was partially damaged by the creation of a passageway, could not be done as hZtanley Warren didn't have a sketch of the original painting he titled "St Luke the physician in prison". When finally a sketch was discovered, Warren  was too frail to return again to Singapore and so he did a small oil paint facsimile of the work.

The original murals as discovered in 1958 before restoration.

The murals as discovered under the distemper in 1958 before restoration.

Today the restored murals are still housed in the original Chapel of St Luke in the old Roberts Barrack. The building, known as Block 151, the last remnant of Roberts Barracks, was kept intact due to the historical significance of these murals.
However, access to it is strictly controlled and even then, viewing is normally permitted only through a partitioned glass panel. This is to avoid contamination and degradation of the murals.

The murals restored by Stanley Warren in 1963, 1982 & 1988.
The oil painting of "St Luke the Physician in prison" done by Stanley Warren after a sketch was re-discovered.

Blk 151 Roberts Barracks, Changi

Chapel of St Luke at Roberts Barracks.

I was extremely lucky to have been able to enter the Chapel itself on this visit.
For a full photo display of the visit, please see my photo blog of the murals here.

Due to numerous requests to visit the murals, a replica of the Changi Murals was created at the new Changi Prison Museum and Chapel  located at Changi Road North just Selarang Barracks. The Changi Museum is open to public at no charge.

The Changi Prison Museum and Chapel contains a replica of the Changi Murals. 

Old Changi Camp
The tour rounded off with a visit to the old Changi Camp, conducted by the Camp Chief, RSM Yip of Changi Airbase. It was very personal for me as I enlisted for NS and was based at Changi Camp as a recruit.

Seeing all the old buildings including the old Medical Centre brought a rush of memories back for me.
Sadly though, most of the old pre-war buildings that were around in my time are no longer there.

ME4 Yip explaining the various aspects at Changi Airbase

Changi Airbase Heritage Hall

The old Changi Road that ran to Changi Village. Tangmere Road led to Changi Camp and misery as a NS recruit. 

Building 494, an old pre-war metal sheet walled building.

Commemorative plaque at the old Medical Centre. a reminder of its heritage.

This tree was there when I was a recruit in 1975!
The old AETI buildings at Changi Airbase where early aircraft mechanics trained.

The old Changi Road, now locked within the airbase.
Changi Airport Tower can be seen in the background.

Camp security. Pulau Tekong and Johor at the rear,

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Fort Pasir Panjang & the Labrador Battery.

Fort Pasir Panjang was one of the coastal artillery batteries that ringed the southern coast of Singapore from colonial days. Built in tandem with the forts at Pulau Blakang Mati (Sentosa) in 1878, Fort Pasir Panjang was located at Tanjong Belayar; more specifically on Labrador Hill.

Fort Pasir Panjang was decommissioned in 1912 but was revived as the Labrador Battery in 1939 due to fomenting crisis that would become World War II.

Join me on a short guided tour of old Fort Pasir Panjang. (Tips and gratuities gladly accepted!)
Enjoy and please do leave me some comments.

Thursday, June 06, 2013

The ruins of Fort Connaught

Fort Connaught was built in 1878 by the British Army and was one of the four artillery batteries located on Sentosa Island, or Pulau Blankang Mati, as it was known then.

Built to defend Singapore from enemy invasion, it was completely destroyed by the British military the day before the Fall of Singapore on 15 February 1942. This was to prevent the weapon from getting into the hands of the invading Japanese Army.  From that day on, the fort was never ever rebuilt or re-used, and for all intent, abandoned and forgotten.

Where Fort Connaught was sited in relation to day's Sentosa Cove which is built on reclaimed land..

Fort Connaught was located at the eastern tip of Sentosa on the Serapong Ridge and comprised a battery of three huge 9.2" guns capable of hitting targets up to 25 km away. It was to protect the eastern seaward approach to Singapore.

The No. 3 gun of Fort Connaught before its destruction.

During a recent visit to another nearby former military post called Berhala Reping on Sentosa, I was offered an opportunity to see the ruins of Fort Connaught.
I was aware that parts of the former fort grounds had been converted into a golf course. But I also knew that some ruins still existed, so this was an opportunity not to be missed!

Going into the forest to see the ruins is only for die-hard fanatics, or as in my case, being out in the sun for too long visiting Berhala Reping.
In fact, my companion Peter Chan who came along with me, expressed incredulity when after bashing through the undergrowth, getting scratched by thorns and bitten by ants and mosquitoes the size of elephants, he said..."What! we came all this way to see this pile of rocks ???"

Of the former 3 gun positions on the hilltop of Fort Connaught, Gun Emplacements Nos. 1 & 2 were covered over on which the half-way rest house of the Sentosa Golf Club's Tanjong Course now lies.

The only visible remnant was Gun Emplacement No 3, but this was well-locked within the forest that grew around it after being abandoned 71 years ago.
Even though it lies less than a 100 metres into the forest, getting to it was difficult given that it is located on a hillside.

Aerial photo of the No 3 Gun Emplacement taken in 1947.

These photos show what remains. There was supposed to be an observation tower further on but due to the thick undergrowth, we could go no further than the gun platform itself.

Bashing through the thicket.

The ruin wall of Gun Emplacement No. 3.
Comparing to the WW2 photo above, this would be just beside the steps leading up.

On the top of the emplacement, beside the gun pit (on the right).

The magazine hatch and recesses inside the gun pit. This led to the magazine store.

I was wondering what these were. Some sort of hinge?
These were beside the stairs leading up to the turret.  Then I found the answer in the old photo above

Peter Chan, king of the hill.

Golf tee built over the No.1 Gun Emplacement.
The circular-shaped Tee follows the original gun emplacement shape.

The view from top of the former Fort Connaught.
It would have looked out to sea in its days.

Wednesday, June 05, 2013

Re-discovering Berhala Reping

Pulau Berhala Reping is a place most people would not even have heard of; much less know where it is. It was a small tiny island off the coast of Sentosa in the Sengkir Straits.

Photo of Sentosa taken in 1950 when it was still Pulau Blakang Mati.
Pulau Behala Reping is connected to Blakang Mati by a footbridge.

In its history, there were only 2 significant things that were ever associated with this island.
First was that it was part of the chain of coastal gun batteries that was built by the British colonials to protect the island fortress of Singapore.  One of the infamous “guns that pointed the wrong way”.*

The other was that it was one of the burial grounds of massacred Chinese civilians during the Japanese Occupation of World War II.

It was mainly for the second reason that I had some recent interest in visiting Berhala Reping.
In 1995, the National Heritage Board had erected a marker to commemorate this massacre that occurred during the “Sook Ching” or ethnic cleansing operation carried out by the Japanese secret police, the Kempeitai, in 1942.

I had already photographed all the other 19 heritage markers in Singapore and the Berhala Reping marker was to be the last; for the simple reason that access to it was somewhat restricted.
It is within an exclusive private property, the Sentosa Golf Club, and I had to ooze every bit of charm I could call upon to secure a visit to the site.

Luckily for me, my host Mr Sylvester Yeo, was also quite keen to know more about Berhala Reping and was game enough to explore the hidden former artillery battery site with me.

Today, Berhala Reping is actually no longer an island. 
Land was reclaimed from the sea around it and it was incorporated into the golf course that was created there in the 1980s.
Fortuitously, the old artillery structures on the island were untouched by the reclamation and is one of the very few intact remnants of the British military legacy left in Singapore.

The British forces left in 1968 and the island was returned to the Singapore government, who at that time had no plans for it and so it was left untended and became overgrown.

Berhala Reping in the late 1970s after being 'abandoned' and neglected.
Photo was taken through the military pillbox across the channel. (see picture below)

In the 1980s, land around Serapong beach was reclaimed and leased to the Sentosa Golf Club, who built their Serapong golf course in the area. 

Pulau Berhala Reping was spruced up and incorporated into the landscape of the new golf course. 
The old military structures on the former island were basically left intact and untouched. 
Only a couple of pillboxes were demolished in building the new course.

Berhala Reping now landlocked within the Serapong Golf Course.

Here are some pictures, courtesy of Sentosa Golf Club, which shows the island and the military structures as it was just after the reclamation and building of the golf course in the 1980s.

Today, it’s a bit different after almost 30 years. The ‘jungle’ has grown and reclaimed the entire island back. In a way, this is fortunate as it helped to preserved the ruins and kept it hidden from perhaps some who might think of building over it! A natural mangrove swamp had also grown around the shoreline of the former island where it is thriving in the brackish waters of the newly formed Serapong lake.

Because it contains an historical relic with a unique mangrove eco-system, save none in Singapore, I do hope that the SGC will continue to preserve the island as it is for a long time to come.

Here are some pictures I took during my visit to Berhala Reping and of the monument to the massacred victims.

The former island of Berhala Reping today beside Serapong lake

The overgrowth has completely covered the military post.

The Searchlight Post is still accesible quite easily with a bit of determination.

This was the No. 1 Director Observation Tower of the No 1 Gun Emplacement.

The concrete bridge is much shorter today due to the land reclamation.

The original concrete bridge that carried the ammunition trolley track is slowly crumbling away.

The National Heritage Board marker to the massacre victims on Sentosa Island side.
To know what's written on the plaque, please go to this link.

A new mangrove eco-system has formed around the shoreline.

My host Sylvester bashing his way through the undergrowth.

Historical facts about Berhala Reping

Sentosa Island (or Pulau Blakang Mati as it was then known), was used as a military station since the late 19th century. Four major forts were built on the island essentially to protect the city and harbour from invaders.

The four forts were Fort Siloso and Fort Imbiah on the western side, with Fort Serapong and Fort Connaught on the eastern side of Sentosa. These forts were manned with heavy artillery guns of various calibres capable of hitting ships as far as forty kilometres from Singapore.

Berhala Reping was established in the 1890s basically as a shoreline forward defence shield. It's main task was to protect the entrance to Keppel Harbour. This was the Sengkir Straits and where Pulau Brani had its main refuelling coaling station as well as a tin smelting factory.

As such, Berhala Reping was fitted with smaller guns at various times. By 1942, just before the Japanese invasion, the island base was equipped with two 6-pounder guns. These were small, quick to load and fire and was used mainly for shooting at small vessels approaching the shorelines.

A typical 6-pounder Hotchkiss gun that was used by the Royal Artillery. Location Sentosa Fort Silos.

These guns were fixed into what are called Gun Emplacements of which there were two on Berhala Reping.

Along with the two 6-pounders, the island was also equipped with four Searchlight Posts.
These searchlights were powerful arc-light lamps which would scan the waters and sky as well for enemy movements. They were mounted on the roof top of the searchlight posts.

These searchlights would have been positioned on the Searchlight Post rooftop.

During my recent visit, we managed to locate and enter two of the existing Searchlight Posts. We were unable to locate the other two due to the thick undergrowth or perhaps it is no longer there being destroyed during the war.

Searchlight Post No. 1 which is easily accesible as it is beside the golf cart track.
I wonder how many golfers actually notice it?
The searchlight would be mounted on the roof top.
The inside of the Searchlight Post with 2 slit windows for observation.

The No 2 Searchlight Post which is located about 30 metres on the left from No 1 Post.

The No. 2 Post had 3 observation slits and was slightly larger than the No. 1 post.
We found lots of graffitti but these had dates from the 70s,
The walls were blackened with soot as apparently campfires were built inside once.

Next, we tried entering the No. 1 Gun Emplacement and Tower but the emplacement was completely covered by thick undergrowth and we were not prepared for this.
However, we managed to penetrate through towards the No.2 Gun Emplacement and behold...

Gun Emplacement No 2 on the hilltop with its Tower and ancillary structures intact.

Entrance to the Gun Emplacement Tower

The Gun Emplacement corridor leading to the ammunition store and hatch.

The circular feature (centre pit) is the actual Gun Emplacement where the 6-pounder cannon would be mounted, pointing out to sea.

At the bottom of the hill, we found a sealed tunnel entrance.
From the rails leading in from the concrete bridge, presumably this is the tunnel to the underground ammunition store. 

Overall, I can say that the condition of the ruins are still in pretty good shape, although they were partially demolished on orders just before the surrender on 14th Feb 1942. The Berhala Reping relics deserve to be preserved as part of our historical heritage.

Here are two trivial items as told to me by Sylvester about the golf hole beside Berhala Reping.
This is a replica of the Dragon's Tooth of Tanjong Belayar (Longyamen).
It is at the head of a dragon which is laid out along the fairway beside Berhala Reping.

This is the Club's resident pet Heron who lives at the lake beside Berhala Reping.

Following our visit to Berhala Reping, my host Sylvester asked if I would like to see the ruins of Fort Connaught?
Would I ???  There's no way that I would miss another golden opportunity like this despite the fact that the ruins are deep within the forest at Mount Serapong!

But that will be covered in another article....soon....   (here it it)

* In that we do not dishonour the valiant soldiers who actually manned the guns, the phrase "the guns that pointed the wrong way" is a myth. The coastal artillery guns were capable of traversing 360 degrees, though not all of them, and they were used to fire onto the invading Japanese forces contrary to some popular misconceptions.

By the way, if anyone is really interested in detailed information about Berhala Reping or the military forts at Sentosa, please visit the acknowledged Master of Siloso, Peter Stubbs' website at this link here.

Related posts:
The ruins of Fort Connaught
NHB WW2 Heritage markers around Singapore