Singapore was significantly impacted by Japanese invasion in 1942 during WW2. At that time, the British Empire was so extensive around the world that the sun never set on it. Singapore was the jewell in the crown of the Empire.
Today, we hired a car and driver tø take us on a tour of three places that are significant in the war history of Singapore. This tour took us across many parts of the island.
Our first stop was at the newly renovated Changi Museum and Chapel. It is near the site of the old Changi Prison where prisoners of war and civilian internees were imprisoned by the Japanese.
The original prison was built to accommodate 600 prisoners. It had two main four-storey buildings, each comprising two blocks. Work rooms were on the ground floor, while cells were located above. There was a separate block that could hold 24 European prisoners, a hospital block as well as punishment cells and cells for recalcitrant offenders.
Shortly after the fall of Singapore in January 1942, civilians, including men, women and children, were rounded up and interned at Changi Prison. Though only equipped with a capacity for 600 prisoners, the jail had about 2,8009 civilian internees by August 1945 and this figure continued to grow over the span of the occupation. In 1945, there were about 4,500 civilian internees, Allied prisoners-of-war (POWs), on the other hand, were held at the nearby former British military barracks – such as Selarang, Roberts and Kitchener – also located in Changi.
The museum has 114 artefacts on display, including paintings, sketchbooks, photographs and personal effects, many of which were donated by former POWs and their families.
Artefacts on display include a 400-page diary and a Kodak Baby Brownie camera, which were painstakingly hidden by some of the internees. The diary belonged to Mr Arthur Westrop, who wrote every entry as a letter to his wife, who was in Africa. The camera belonged to Sergeant John Ritchie Johnston and was given to him by his wife. Johnston managed to bring the camera with him to Changi and hid it from his captors during the entire period of his incarceration.
A re-created Changi Gaol cell gives visitors a glimpse into how the internees were housed and a sense of the cramped living confines of the internees. The re-created cell includes historical recordings of conversations between the internees which offer a glimpse into their living conditions and daily experiences.
In 1988, Singapore built a museum and replica chapel next to Changi Jail. When Changi Prison was expanded in 2001, the chapel and museum were relocated to a new site 1 km away and the Changi Chapel and Museum was officially established in 2001. A brass cross is placed on the altar of the replica chapel. It is known as the Changi Cross, and was made during the occupation by Harry Stogden out of a 45 mm howitzer shell.
The Japanese formally surrendered on 2 September 1945 and the POWs held at Changi Prison were liberated a few days later. The prison was then used to detain Japanese war criminals and suspects, and was where most of the executions – either by hanging or firing squad – were carried out for those convicted with a death sentence.
Our second stop was to the Kranji War Cemetery in the far north of Singapore Island. This is the final resting place for the Allied soldiers who died in the Battle of Singapore.
The Kranji area was previously a military camp. At the time of the Japanese invasion of Malaya, the area was used as an ammunition dump. After the fall of Singapore, the Japanese established a prisoner-of-war camp at Kranji. After the war, In 1946, it was decided that Kranji would be designated as Singapore’s War Cemetery so the small cemetery there was developed into a permanent war cemetery with bodies from other smaller cemeteries removed and re-interred at Kranji.
The memorial honours the men and women from Britain, Australia, Canada, Sri Lanka, India, Malaya, the Netherlands and New Zealand who died in the line of duty during World War II. There are more than 4,400 white gravestones lined up in rows on the cemetery’s gentle slope.
I found this grave of a British member of there Army Service Corps who was killed in September 1942. It shows that even drivers were vulnerable and risked death in war.
Our final stop was at the Former Ford Factory where the British surrendered in 1942. It is now part of the Government of Singapore Archives.
After the British surrender, Singapore was renamed Syonan, or ‘Light-of-the South’ by the Japanese invaders. They ruthlessly screened local people who were suspected of being anti-Japanese and killed them mercilessly. While foreigners were interned at Changi, Singapore’s native population suffered harrowing experiences and severe challenges. This museum explains just what life was like under Japanese occupation.
World War II ended in Singapore on 12 September 1945, with the Japanese surrender to British forces at the Municipal Building of Singapore (now known as City Hall).
Throughout the day, my old friend Colin Haley was in the forefront of my mind. Colin was a POW on the horrific Burma Railway. He died earlier this year at the age of 99 (although the army thinks he was 102 as he put his age up in order to enlist). Colin actually didn’t spend any time in Singapore after he was captured but went straight to Thailand and on to the Burma Railway (as did many prisoners from Changi) after his capture in Java. Many POWs from Singapore suffered the same fate and hardships on that Railway. You can read all about that dreadful railway here.