Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Singapore Blogging: The Battle Box

Just north of the city centre in Singapore is a park on a hill. The hill is the site of Fort Canning, the first seat of British colonial power there. In that park is the place where the biggest military defeat in British history was mismanaged, the Malaya Command Battle Box. This headquarters was created shortly before the second world war, as a secure command centre for both the Malaya Command and (more importantly, as the staffs of the time thought) the fortress of Singapore. It is to British military engineering as Vauban's forts are to the French - something of a masterpiece. Everyone involved with the fortress was the top of their profession - the Commander, Fixed Defences was the former head of the school of coast artillery, the chief antiaircraft gunner was something similar as was the chief engineer. However, the connotations are different and grim.

These days, the interior of the headquarters is pleasantly cool compared to the hot car-exhaust soup outside on Clemenceau Avenue, but although the place could be sealed off from the outside world and maintained with recycled air for weeks, it could not be airconditioned at the time and the presence of several hundred staff officers, signallers and clerks must have made it barely tolerable. The tops of the steel doors inside have been crudely hacked away by its inhabitants, apparently to improve the ventilation. The levels of paranoia and cabin-fever can only be guessed at. It can hardly have helped that draconian security regulations ruled, forbidding eating, smoking or talking and confining everyone to their post of duty whether on watch or not. This Kafkaesque universe didn't last long once the Japanese artillery bombardment began, though, as it speedily became obvious that sending men outside to the mess hall defeated the point of the bunker. Instead, soldiers without other duties were permitted to enter the tunnels in order to keep under cover - which can only have added to the claustrophobia.

After the surrender, the extensive telephone switching facilities were used for a while by the Japanese - characters scrawled on the concrete walls show that the lines were temporarily rerouted to serve various locations including several division HQs and the secret police. But they did not stay - instead, they sealed the facility's doors. When the British reoccupied Singapore, nobody opened them again although the headquarters of British Forces Far East moved back into the gracious, colonnaded white building about twenty yards away and stayed there until 1968. After the British moved on, first of all out to one of the RAF bases in the suburbs and then off the island for good in 1976, neither did the Singaporeans, whose army staff college had meanwhile moved into the buildings above it.

Something about the place - the genius loci - seems to have kept everyone away, even though it was the Fort Canning headquarters building with its decorous architecture that hosted a small version of the Wannsee conference not long after the surrender, at which various kempeitai bigwigs discussed a plan to "extirpate undesirable elements of the Chinese population". A more honest description would have been to shoot them, which is what they did (as many as 5% of them, some estimates say). It wasn't until 1993 that anyone was sufficiently curious to crack open the great iron blast doors and peer inside. It occurs to me that the last Australian and New Zealand troops to be stationed in Singapore were withdrawn a year or two before that, which might be significant or might not.

The bunker has since been turned into a museum. Much is original, although the dummy British and Australian officers are not (although such a description might not have been too far off the mark). You are led down from the road outside into the dank bunker by a park ranger, who points out with dispassion the cipher room, the phone exchange (really, of course, the whole structure's raison d'etre) where, as well as the Japanese signs, the words LAST DAY 15/2/42 were found chalked on the door when the bunkers were opened. Then you are led to General Percival's office and told that he was briefed by "Major General F. Keith Siemens" - eh? - ah, Simmons - on the morning of the surrender. The next stop is an air operations room, of exactly the layout familiar from Battle of Britain films.

Then, finally, you come to the conference room where the decision for surrender was taken. The dummy-makers have tried to represent all the dramatis personae. After various supposed contributions have been played back on tape, you are left alone with your thoughts.

I don't know if that's a particular feature for British visitors or not. I suspect not - the tone is mournful, and I wonder what the numerous Japanese names in the visitors' book made of it?

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