Fort Canning Bunker
The Battle Box or Fort Canning Bunker was built in 1936 to serve the Headquarters of the British Strategic Command as the nerve-centre for British Military operations in the Far East during World War II. It was here that Lieutenant General Percival and the allied forces made the decision to surrender to the invading Japanese forces on 15 February 1942. It was reopened on 31 January 1992 as the Battle Box, serving to recreate events that occured here during World War II for visiting members of the public and tourists.
As early as 1936, the idea of a Combined Services Operations Headquarters was conceived, and accordingly, work on the bomb- and flood-proof bunker at Fort Canning Hill were begun in 1936 and completed in 1938. Sited below the Old Fort Gate, the underground labyrinth is 9 m deep and had 30 rooms. These included a cipher room where messages were decoded, a signal control room, a plotting room, a gun operations room and an electricity generator. It even had its own telephone exchange and a ventilation system that recycled the air. It has two entrances, one from Cox Terrace and another from Dobbie Rise. In design and size, the bunker was unique in Asia as other bunkers were merely simple tunnels used to store ammunition. The purpose of the Singapore bunker was however for the British Military operations in the Far East to conduct strategic planning in the event of war and thus its elaborate design as a self-contained nerve-centre.
The bunker was used by Lieutenant General A. E. Percival during the final phase of the battle for Singapore. From 11 February 1942 onwards, Percival shifted his headquarters from Sime Road to the Fort Canning bunker to work out battle plans against the invading Japanese. Thus the bunker came to be known as the Headquarters Malaya Command Operations Bunker. The decisions made here would impact the British Colonies in the Far East which included not only Singapore and Malaya but Hong Kong as well. Accommodation was congested as the Headquarters Southern Area and Anti-Aircraft Defences were also located there. Ventilation was inadequate and consequently staff worked under unpleasant conditions. Infact, Percival disliked the bunker because of its poor ventilation preferring instead to work from his office at the Headquarters of the British Strategic Command nearby. Soldiers nicknamed the bunker the Battle Box but the only battle fought here was the decision for surrender to the Japanese.
Surrender to the Japanese
On Sunday 15 February 1942 at 9:30 am, Percival held a conference in the bunker to discuss the war situation. Present at the conference were the commanders of Northern, Western and Southern Areas and the anti-aircraft defences, and some staff officers. The decision to surrender was made as the alternative to counter attack was considered impracticable. Some of the major concerns that swayed the decision included the perceived shortage of water in Singapore especially with the influx of refugees from the Peninsula.
At about 11:30 am, a joint military and civil deputation left Fort Canning Headquarters to propose a cessation of hostilities. In the same afternoon, Lieutenant General Percival accompanied by Brigadier Torrance (of the General Staff), Brigadier Newbigging (Chief Administrator), and Major Wild (interpreter) left Fort Canning Bunker to sign the official surrender at the Ford Motor Factory. The unconditional surrender documents were signed at 7:50 pm and all hostilities in Singapore ceased at 8:30pm on 15 February 1942.
Command Centre & Country Club
The above-ground buildings, built in the 1920s by the British, had been used as Headquarters of the British Strategic Command until the surrender. After the war, the British used this building as the Singapore Base District Headquarters, and later it became the Headquarters of the 4th Malaysian Infantry Brigade until Independence saw it being transformed by the Singapore Armed Forces into the Singapore Command and Staff College (SCSC). In 1996, the whole building was restored and leased out to Fort Canning Country Club. Under the project architect, Philip Conn, the three-storey building had restored particularly the double staircase leading to the foyer and the 10 m long balcony outside what used to be Percival's office. Added to it were amenities like a swimming pool, a tennis court, squash courts, restaurants and a gymnasium.
All but one room in the Fort Canning Bunker were stripped and all items burnt in a bonfire by the British a day before the surrender. The bunker remained abandoned until it was investigated on 23 February 1988 for possibilities of reconstructing World War II events there. All that was found were the remains of a dog trapped behind the hastily bricked-up entrances. Built solely by British personnel, no records of the bunker were available and it was unlikely that any locals or lower officers had entered it prior to these investigations. It was reopened on 31 January 1992, its 22 rooms now holding exhibits of wartime artifacts and simulations of events held there.
The Battle Box, 51 Canning Rise, Singapore 179872.
Percival, A. E. (1949). The war in Malaya (pp. 109, 185, 278, 286, 291, 292). London: Eyre and Spottiswoode.
(Call no.: RRARE 940.53595 PER)
Samuel, D. S. (1991). Singapore's heritage: Through places of historical interest (pp. 1-7). Singapore: Elixir Consultancy Service.
(Call no.: RSING 959.57 SAM)
Historic 1920s Fort Canning building restored . (1995, October 12). The Straits Times, p. 25.
Percival's Fort Canning bunker reopened . (1992, February 1). The Straits Times, p. 16.
Percival's last stand: Singapore's fate decided in this forgotten World War II bunker . (1988, July 26). The Straits Times.
Witness Box . (1995, November 3). The Straits Times, Life!, p. 8.
Battle Box . (n.d.). Retrieved March 6, 1999, from www.newasia-singapore.com/sections/articles/4c/0,1180,394,00.html
World War II bunker spruced up for visitors . (1991, December 21). The Straits Times, p. 25.
The information in this article is valid as at 1999 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.
Architecture and Landscape>>Building Types>>Military Sites
1942-1945 Japanese occupation
Fort Canning (Singapore)--History
Architecture and Landscape>>Building Types>>Historic Buildings
Singapore--History--Japanese occupation, 1942-1945
Events>>Historical Periods>>World War II and Japanese Occupation (1939-1945)