World War II Museums in Singapore – Photo Essay
The "impregnable fortress" of Singapore fell to Japanese forces on February 15, 1942. It was the worst defeat for the British Army since its surrender at Yorktown, Virginia, that virtually ended the American Revolutionary War in 1781; possibly, it was the worst defeat in British military history. Author Hans Johnson takes readers on a visit to the city’s museums that preserve the memory of that bleak time in World War II. Some of the photos appear blurry because the exhibits are behind acrylic safety glass. In an accompanying piece on Armchair General about the fall of Singapore, Johnson recounts what happened and examines how much blame Prime Minister Winston Churchill should bear for the catastrophe.
Singapore has seen massive changes since the Second World War. New townships of apartment towers have replaced overcrowded tenements. Once a poor colony, Singapore is a vibrant, independent state with its own sovereign wealth fund.
In spite of its transformation, Singapore has done a good job preserving its World War II heritage. There are numerous sites, from remaining fortifications to cemeteries and prisons that remind the visitors that the suffering did not end with the surrender. Indeed, the suffering was just beginning.
Visitors will find two museums directly connected with the surrender. The first is Fort Canning. This is a misnomer. Canning is first and foremost a hill, 60 meters worth of high ground dominating the old city. The first British fort here dates back to 1859. By World War II, Canning was a headquarters buried in the hill, rather than a fort with walls, emplacements, and guns.
The main British headquarters had to be abandoned a few days before the surrender, as the Japanese approached its position. The commander of British forces in Singapore, Lt. Gen. A. E. Percival, relocated his HQ to Canning at that point. It was here that Percival made his decision to surrender, after a counsel of war. The headquarters is billed today as "The Battle Box." Guided tours are offered several times a day and a visit starts with an orientation film.
Singapore is hot, sitting almost on the equator. The Battle Box has a modern air conditioning system today, but when the British were there they cut the tops off some of the steel doors in an attempt to improve the air circulation.
The Box uses talking figurines to depict various aspects of the operations that took place within it. A radio-telephone operator tries in vain to connect with various posts. The air defense center prepares for an incoming air raid. The counsel of war is re-enacted: each subordinate details a difficulty facing the British defenders—no water, for example—and suggests surrender. Percival reluctantly agrees.
The other outstanding room is that of the Commander of Fixed Defences, Brigadier A. D. Curtis. A picture was found that shows exactly what this room looked like at the time, and the museum has faithfully recreated that picture.
A small museum and bookshop rounds out the tour.
After the surrender, the Japanese took over Fort Canning. Japanese script is still found on some of the walls. But the Japanese found it just as hot as the British had and stopped using it after a few weeks.
Percival’s sad walk with the Japanese brought him to what is now the second historic site connected with the surrender. The Ford Factory was located to the west of Fort Canning and had only been producing cars for a few months. During the campaign, Royal Air Force replacement aircraft arrived as parts in crates and were assembled here.
The site is now known as "Memories at the Old Ford Factory." An orientation film starts the visit. The museum shows additional films on other facets of the campaign, such as the Indian National Army or the sinking of the Prince of Wales and Repulse. The focus here is on memories and details of what it was like to live under Japanese occupation.
The room the surrender took place in is behind glass with a replica table. It is a relatively small part of the exhibition. The largest table in the world could not convey the magnitude of what happened here.
Click here to read Hans Johnson’s article on Winston Churchill and the fall of Singapore.
About the author
Hans Johnson is a freelance writer who lives in Florida.