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In Search for the World War Two history in the Pacific :
Visit to Changi POW Chapel &
Labrador Park Battery
By Kim Frost Fuglsang
This is the story about visits to two historical sites in Singapore following the World War Two Trail. The trail takes us to visit a replication of one of the historical chapels build by POWs to a visit of the impressive gun position at Labrador Park, overlooking the coast of Singapore.
Changi POW Chapel and museum
The parking lot is empty except for one car, which is parked in a remote corner. I park my car, get out and move towards the entrance to ChangiPrisonMuseum. It is scorching hot and the only thing you can hear is the birds merrily singing, cicadas and the noise from the nearby ChangiInternationalAirport.
Through the entrance at the museum, you can see the famous chapel, which is a replica of the chapel, that British and Australian POWs built during their Japanese captivity. Since there was not much distraction in the prison, any religious ceremony was a welcome employment in the small and primitive chapels in the prison and a natural hubs for prisoners.
I walk into the small enclosed courtyard where the small chapel is located. There are placed rows of small primitive wooden benches in front of the altar under the open sky. From time to time, memorial services are held for the many young soldiers who were killed either in the fierce fighting in the region or from different diseases, which flourished in the tropical climate. Although the number is decreasing every year, veterans and their families are often participating in these commemorations. The chapel and altar is built of coarse untreated boards and available materials.
In the middle stands a cross, which was drawn up by one of the prisoners and is made of materials from one of their discarded vehicles.On both sides are greetings and badges from the various associations and army units. Next to the cross are lots of Origami paper cranes made by Japanese school children over the years and symbolize the desire for peace and understanding and does represent an evidence that there actually is an awareness of the atrocities imposed by Japanese soldiers among certain groups of people in Japan.
After the short visit to the chapel I now move into the associated museum, which is shaped like a horseshoe around the chapel. The museum shows many good and informative displays about the Allied surrender of Singapore, occupation, and of course how life was lived in the Changi prison. Many inmates were transferred to various projects in the region, including the infamous "death railway", which among other things include the bridge over the River Kwai. Not many survived these projects and this was of course not only the hard work, malnutrition and regular executions, but also because of the many different jungle diseases. .The museum displays many artifacts and stories that are described in many other books, documentaries and museums, however it is certainly worth visiting. I leave the museum and chapel full of thoughts and am especially grateful that I was not among the many adults and children who happened to be in the region during the time when World War II really took hold in this region. In addition to the fine displays the museum also has a very good selection of literature, which are sold at acceptable prices.
A visit to Labrador Park Batteries
"It is LabradorPark you must visit" ... I have just discussed the impact of WW2 with one of my senior colleagues who parents where both Chinese. He had mentioned Labrador Park as the place to visit to see some of the on-site remains from the war and was not the only one to recommend that as the place to go.So now I had decided to visit Labrador Park as the last point of visit on my "WW2 Singapore Trail".
It is a sunny and warm Saturday morning. I am on the way to Labrador Park in the light morning traffic. I pass the mighty Marina Bay sands of shopping centers and beautiful hotels on the left side and on the right side the impressive towers of the Singapore Finance Center. To a large extent a beautiful image of a young nation, which in many ways has performed impressively well thanks to a hard-working post-war generation. After passing yet another impressive shopping center, Vivo City, which is located immediately adjacent to the Sentosa Island which besides Universal Studios, beaches, golf courses, hotels, aquariums and other sort of entertainment also has Fort Siloso, which today is a museum. It was deemed to be a major guarding measure of Singapore's port. Stories and myths tell that a secret tunnel was dug between Fort Siloso and the Labrador batteries on the other side of the little strait. There are plenty of good stories here in Singapore about the WW2 though not always true they are a part of the folklore. However, it is certain that there is a network of tunnels on either side and most of them are sealed for security reasons.
I have now turned off and am heading up a little road towards Labrador Park, which is a dense and overgrown, but still well maintained park near the city center. I now see one of the old classic houses in front of me, which is converted into an exclusive Thai restaurant and I spin down and park directly in front of the impressive driveway. I am now walking past the great gate to the restaurant opposite another restaurant, which should be known for its delicious brunch. This restaurant has a small terrace designed in front of the first major military installation, which will allow you to make an “attack a delicious brunch” in an appropriate setting.
After a few minutes, I reach the real beginning of the series of gun emplacements, which Labrador Park consists of a list and map of the complex has been put up so you can see the complex scope. I'm impressed. You can choose various small paths that lead through the jungle vegetation, which connects the various bunkers and gun and observation posts. I choose one of the paths that will take me past all positions and can see that it is a tough battle to keep these areas free of the heavy vegetation. The strong roots slowly raises the tiles covering up and you have to tread carefully so as not to fall into the dense forest. I now reach the first position, which is well maintained and gives a good idea of the decor. This is exactly what I've been searching for and I am both pleased, impressed and especially happy because I finally found a well-kept WW2 facilities on site in Singapore, which is presented in an appropriate manner. This first position is well maintained, but without guns and with all accesses to the associated tunnels and storage rooms locked or sealed. Oddly enough a large tree grows up through the foundation of the cannon, almost to show posterity that this is not going to be a gun position again. After having taken a few photos I am venturing myself to the next position. On the way I pass an observation post, though they do not allow much overlooking the fairway in front of Labrador Park. In general, the forest has grown up and covers the entire field of vision in front of all positions. But with a little imagination you can well imagine how one could see and observe an enemy who wanted to penetrate from the sea side.
I have now reached the next gun position which are largely designed in the same way, except that here a historic cannon has been installed with a full crew made of black cast iron. Beneath it there has also been placed a stack of shells in the caliper, which was used. Beside each installation are information boards on both the position, but also with stories of relevance to both this and other historical installations in Singapore. Pretty interesting and instructive. I have now taken some more photos and inspected the other positions and easily pick up the historic atmosphere.
At each location there are various tunnel entrances and at one of them, they have chosen to simply set up a door of bars, so you can get a feel for the interior. I have now migrated from one gun position to the next and reached the initial entrance from the sea side. This appears as the original defensive position, namely in red bricks. This was later changed to heavy concrete.
I have now walked down to the water's edge where there is a clear view of Sentosa and Fort Siloso on my left side on the other side of the narrow strait. On my right side, hidden behind dense vegetation, is the part of the old observation towers and defense positions that due to security reasons, are not open to the public. With a little effort and by moving into the thicket, one can however easily find old overgrown stairs and tunnels leading into the large complex. Some tunnels are simply filled up with earth and rubble others with sealed doors. The various installations can be seen up the steep slopes. Close to a potential point of invasion, below the closed part of the whole complex, is today a machine gun bunker, which would cover the coast against an invader trying to reach the shore.
It is now late morning and this coastline seems to attract local fishermen who stand side by side with their fishing rods, so not only is this a lovely peaceful place, but can also help a little on the food budget in the form of local fresh fish. On the various displays is, as mentioned, various short stories. Among other things, the story of how they found exhibited cannon buried close to another installation.
The Discovery of a 6-inch gun barrel
In March 2001, an old six-inch gun barrel was found one meter below the ground at the site of the former Beach Road Camp. It was meant to be part of a 6-inch Quick Firing (QF) gun as it had similar features. It was probably part of the pre-war arsenal used by the Singapore Volunteer Artillery (SVA), that was part of the Singapore Volunteer Corps (SVC). The SVC was housed at the Beach Road Camp and a 6-inch QF gun was used for training from 1912.
Such guns were first put into service on 13 September 1894 and were used for coastal defense duties. With a maximum range of 10,900 yards (9967 meters), a maximum elevation of 20 degrees, and traverse of 360 degrees, these guns were formidable anti-ship weapons. Each shell weighed 100 lbs (45kg), and the gun weighed 6.5 tonnes (6,604 kg). The 6-inch QF gun was also illustrated in the two 6-inch rifled Bridge Loading (RBL) guns deployed to Labrador during the war, and the Beach Road Discovery is an apt reminder of the role played by the Labrador Battery under the Battle of Singapore in February 1942. The Labrador Battery, under Faber Four Command, was manned by the 7th Coast Artillery Regiment. The guns were used in conjunction with those of Fort Siloso, against enemy targets at sea. On 12 February 1942 it fired on and sank a Japanese ammunition ship that was traveling west near St. John's Island. They also fired on and sank both empty lighters and some full of ammunition, that had come loose from its moorings
in Keppel Harbour nearby. This was in order to avoid them falling in to enemy hands. The traverse of the guns was hampered by protective walls behind the Emplacements, but they were Capable of being traversed up to 270 degrees and were used to assist the land forces. They only had a limited number of high explosive shells, but used them to some effect on destroying oil tanks on Pulau Bukom and notably to assist the 1st Malaya Brigade in its epic two-day battle against the Japanese 18th Division on Pasir Panjang Ridge. This action, that ended in hand-to-hand fighting, checked the Japanese in its intention to march down Pasir Panjang Road towards Keppel Harbour.
One of the displays at the site also helps to remove some of the more persistent myths about Singapore during WW2 that can be read in the following.
Singapore - An Impregnable Fortress- this idea hatred er perpetuated for so long by British propaganda and the world press that when Singapore was captured by the Japanese in barely a week, there was great shock and bewilderment. The need-to-explain Britain's worst military disaster context to many myths about the defense of Singapore, especially surrounding the guns. Many Singaporeans grew up believing in these myths - they have become part of the folklore in explaining the British loss of our country. A closer scrutiny of the British defense plans and strategies, help getting the facts right.
MYTH 1: The British did not expect an attack from the north
The presence of big guns in mainly the southern and eastern parts of the island naturally led many to believe that the British expected the Japanese to attack from the sea. This was initially true, for the fixed defences were planned in the 1920s where it was assumed that a modern army could not cross the thick jungles of the eastern coast of Malaya to attack Singapore. Roads to Singapore had not been developed in these areas yet.
However, economic development in the 1930s led to the building of roads and railway lines that linked the east coast to Singapore. By then the British were aware of an overland threat from the Japanese. They carried out military exercises in 1937 and 1939 to prove it. In fact, in 1940, a plan code-named "Operation Matador" was drawn up for pre-emptive strike against Japanese landings in southern Thailand an northern Malaya. Unfortunately, the British failed to execute it when the Japanese attacked in 1941.
MYTH 2: The guns pointed the wrong way and could not be turned landwards
After the defeat it was rumored that the guns of Singapore could not be turned to fire northwards. Although the guns were situated at coastal fortifications to repulse attack from the sea, they could and did turn landwards. As early as 1924-25 the War Office had suggested that the guns should have an all-round traverse. This would allow them to fire northwards at sites in Johore, where the enemy may land or operate from. When the guns were installed (except for the two 15-inch guns at Buona Vista battery, which had insufficient cables) all guns had mountings that allowed them a 360 degree traverse.
MYTH 3: The guns did not contribute to the defence of Singapore
While it is true that they did not play an effective role in the Battle for Singapore, it would be inaccurate to say that the guns remained silent. Japanese troops were attacked by a number of the coastal batteries throughout the battle. For example, the batteries at Labrador and Siloso fired at the Japanese along Pasir Panjang Road, giving much needed support to the Malay Regiment defending the area.
Tengah Air Base was taken by the Japanese early in the battle and it became Yamashita's HQ. Connaught and Johore Batteries fired several rounds to create massive holes in the runway in an attempt to make the airbase useless. In fact the Connaught guns rifling was worn smooth by the incessant bombardment.
For counter battery purposes, observers were placed on top of tall buildings such as the CathayBuilding or on hill tops. They were to locate enemy artillery positions by spotting the flashes of their guns. This information was then relayed to FortCanning, which would assign the nearest battery to turn and fire their guns at the enemy. The greatest contribution the guns made for the men in the field, was to boost the morale. The Indian, Australian and Malay troops defending the western area testified that they received encouragement from hearing the continuous firing of the Connaught Battery. To them the shells passing over their heads on their way to the enemy sounded like express trains. The thought of these rounds crushing into enemy positions must have given satisfaction and hope to the beleaguered troops.
LEFT: Staircase down to one of the casemates below the gun positions. RIGHT: The closed entrance to the section of the battery that is not for the public.
LEFT: One of the observation towers in the closed section. RIGHT: The initial seaside entrance with the original red bricks.
LEFT: One of the entrances facing Fort Siloso filled with rubble. RIGHT: The typical British War Department arrow on one of the walls.
LEFT / RIGHT: Gun positions both with a tree planted in the center of the actual gun foundation as a symbol of "no more guns here".
LEFT: Some sections of the bunker installations have never been rebuild after the war and is slowly being taken over by the undergrowth. RIGHT: One of the sealed entrances.
LEFT: Some closed entrances allow to have a glimpse of the tunnels under the battery. RIGHT: One of the sealed tunnels seen from the outside.
LEFT: A staircase to one of the viewing points. RIGHT: The view from the viewing point, where the view has been reduced to nil thanks to the expanding rainforest.
LEFT: One of the sealed entrances to the ammunition room. RIGHT: The tiled jungle path between the positions with one of the information signs.