The Guns of Singapore

Among those with a passing knowledge of military history, there are an amazing number of falsehoods that “everybody knows”: Catherine the Great died during sex with a horse. The Waffen SS were just soldiers. Napoleon’s gunners shot the nose off the Sphinx. Very few Germans knew about the Holocaust. And, one that’s odd for its level of detail, Singapore’s giant coastal defense guns could not be turned to face the landward side.

The origins of that last are hard to trace; it certainly appears in many places. Singapore indeed had large naval guns that did little to stop the Japanese from taking the island in February 1942. Of the five 15-inch coastal guns, four of them had all-round traverse. What they lacked was high-explosive ammunition.

Singapore only became a major factor in British war plans in 1921, when the Committee on Imperial Defence chose the island as the site of a new naval base. The Singapore base would have to accommodate a large battle fleet and provide supply and repair facilities. No potential foe was mentioned in any of the official documents, but everyone understood it to be Japan. The new base would also have to be secure from enemy attack.

Singapore offers a number of advantages in this regard. Sitting astride the Malacca Strait, it dominates one of the world’s key commerce routes. On a map, Singapore bears a striking resemblance to the Isle of Wight, which shelters the key British naval base of Portsmouth. During wars with the French and the Dutch, English fleets in Portsmouth had two possible exits into the English Channel. Any fleet blockading Portsmouth needed at least twice the strength of the English fleet sheltering there to keep it trapped. So it would be with Singapore, as the Royal Navy chose a site almost halfway along the Johore Strait separating Singapore and the Malayan mainland.

A 15-inch gun of the Johore battery.

Forts with coastal artillery had existed on Singapore since the 1830s; the island was, after all, one of the Far East’s greatest commerical entrepots. In 1927, Army engineers began selecting sites for new, modern batteries of coast-defense guns.

At the eastern end of the Johore Strait, the Changi Peninsula (site of today’s Singapore-Changi airport) would get three 15-inch guns in full-traverse armored mounts, with ammunition magazines buried deep beneath them. There would also be four 6-inch rifles. A narrow-gauge railway connected the batteries to further stores of ammunition. Heavy anti-aircraft protection was provided for the batteries, plus barracks for a battalion of infantry (2nd Battalion, Gordon Highlanders). Work began in late 1927, but halted due to the Great Depression. A 1935 grant by the Sultan of Johore, alarmed by signs of pending Japanese aggression, allowed the work to proceed and it was substantially complete by 1938.

Directly covering the western entrance to the Johore Strait was a battery of two 6-inch guns. A few miles down the coast, the battery at Buona Vista had two 15-inch guns, but one of them was sited with an arc of fire of only 180 degrees, though the other had full traverse.

Several batteries dotted Keppel Harbor and Blakang Mati Island at the southern tip of Singapore. Eight 6-inch guns and three 9.2-inch guns were sited here, mostly in upgraded coastal forts dating from the late 19th century. Finally, on Puland Takau Besar (an island in the Johore Strait just off the right edge of the map below) two 6-inch and three 9.2-inch guns were sited.

Singapore in 1942. Naval base is top center, Changi Peninsula
at the eastern end of the island. Australian government map.

When the Japanese began their artillery bombardment of Singapore, the big naval guns at Changi replied. But lacking high-explosive shells, they could do little against the Japanese landings and the rapidly moving Japanese forces suffered few casualties from them. While the armor-piercing shells would explode, they were designed to do so only after penetrating a ship’s steel hide and so when used against land targets they would bury themselves deeply in Singapore’s soft ground before detonating.

That changed when infantry from the Japanese 18th “Chrysanthemum” Infantry Division overran Tengah airfield at the opposite end of the island but still well within range. The big guns rained down 194 shells on the airfield, and the hard surface detonated far more of them than any other location. But this appears to have been their only real successful fire mission. They never fired on a naval target during their existence.

Remains of a magazine under the Changi battery.

On 12 February Lt. Gen. A.E. Percival — who as a colonel on the pre-war staff of Malaya Command had warned that the coastal guns might need to fire on land targets — ordered the Changi batteries abandoned. Engineers destroyed all the guns, so thoroughly that the underground bunkers beneath them were not discovered intact and unearthed until 1991.

The battery site became the new Japanese military prison, and over 50,000 Australian and British prisoners of war were jammed into the barracks, workshops and other inadequate shelter. The nearby beaches became the site of the Sook Ching massacres: For at least two weeks after the British surrender, every day the Japanese marched hundreds of Chinese civilians to the Changi area. At low tide they ordered them to the water’s edge and machine-gunned them, counting on the strong tides of the Johore Strait to sweep the bodies out to sea. During the 1947 trials held at Singapore, Japanese war criminals admitted to killing 5,000 Chinese they picked at random; postwar estimates range as high as 50,000.

Singapore’s coastal artillery could not protect the island from the Japanese, but did accomplish its mission: The Japanese did not attempt a landing on or naval bombardment of Singapore.

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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and award-winning journalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects. He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold. Leopold can face in all directions.