Deep beneath a hill in Singapore, in a series of musty corridors and cramped rooms, there is a powerful sense of history.
A wartime bunker known as the Battlebox, forgotten for decades before it was rediscovered in the 1980s, is potent memorial to the turmoil of World War II on the tropical island nation.
Reached through a hillside door in Fort Canning Park, it was where British and Allied military leaders desperately tried to hold off attacking Japanese troops.
In less than 70 days, Lieutenant General Tomoyuki Yamashita’s forces swept through the Malayan Peninsula and into the British military stronghold in February, 1942.
Nine metres below ground, lit by an emergency generator and no doubt sweltering given the poor ventilation, the bunker must have been a bleak as it was tense when Lieutenant General Arthur Percival, the British commander in Singapore, was forced to surrender. It remains one of the British military’s worst defeats.
Our guide at the newly reopened Battlebox, Gabriel Tay, outlines what a dramatic time that was as we examine the bunker, room by sparse room.
The tour is aimed at explaining to both tourists and Singaporeans – many of whom grew up knowing little about the country’s wartime history – just what happened and why the British surrendered.
With only limited air and naval defence, Japanese planes, artillery and advancing tanks battered Allied troops and civilians, causing heavy casualties and leaving the island’s defenders exhausted and, in many cases, demoralised.
Amid communications breakdowns, there was confusion as the Japanese landed and advanced inland. Water, fuel and ammunition supplies were low. Telephones barely worked.
As Romen Bose writes in Secrets of the Battlebox, which sells in the visitor centre, part of the problem was that Singapore was thought to be relatively safe from Japanese invasion.
“It was the immense bureaucracy and red tape of the civil administration and their lack of willingness to prepare fully for the war that led to the huge suffering of the local population and the total unpreparedness for the Japanese bombings and attacks,” he writes.
Inside the bunker, historic signs on the walls give a sense of the drama: “Hitler will send no warning so always carry your gas mask,” one reads. Others say “Keep it under your hat! Careless talk costs lives” and “Smash Japanese aggression”.
Maps, old typewriters and an ancient air filtration plant all give a strong sense of the times. In one corner is a secret escape hatch that leads to the surface. Giving perspective to the fall of Singapore are photos on the walls of great wartime battles in the Pacific.
It’s easy to imagine the tension as more than 500 officers and troops crowded into 29 rooms, without airconditioning in the tropical heat.
There is a telephone exchange that, no doubt to the frustration of operators needing urgent communication, had no dedicated military phone lines. A life-sized model of one of those operators, sits at a mocked-up exchange.
There is a signal room that was linked to bases in Hong Kong, India, Indonesia and London. And a cipher room where messages were decoded.
The most striking room in the Battlebox though is what is now known bleakly as the “surrender conference room”, where the pain of defeat became a reality. Models of Percival and other senior military figures are hunkered over a table, planning their next grim move.
Once they had decided to surrender, a delegation was sent to the Japanese headquarters on the island carrying a Union Jack and a white flag. Then Percival met Yamashita to hear the terms of the surrender.
Shortly afterwards, a Japanese flag was raised on Singapore’s tallest building. A reputed 80,000 to 100,000 British, Indian and Australian troops became prisoners of war. For 3½ years, the Japanese occupied what they called Syonan-To.
Following the Japanese surrender at the end of the war, the Battlebox was looted by civilians. It was sealed then forgotten.
Only in 1988 was the underground communications centre rediscovered. After partial restoration, it was opened as a museum in 1997.
After further work, what’s now considered a national treasure was officially opened for tours this year, with newly discovered artifacts being added. Already evocative, it will be even more so when it is upgraded with more interactive exhibits within the next year.