Fort Canning Bunker (Battlebox)



The Fort Canning Bunker (now known as the Battlebox), located at 51 Canning Rise, was built between 1936 and 1941 to serve as a command centre for the Malaya Command, which oversaw British military operations in Malaya during World War II.1 It was here, on 15 February 1942, that Lieutenant-General Arthur E. Percival and the allied forces made the decision to surrender to the invading Japanese forces.2 The bunker was reopened on 31 January 1992 as the Battlebox, an educational and tourist destination where World War II events are recreated.3

Description
Work on the bomb- and flood-proof bunker to house the combined-services operations at Fort Canning Hill began in in 1936 and was completed by 1941.4


Sited below the Old Fort Gate, the underground labyrinth is 9 m deep and had over 20 rooms.5 These included a cipher room where messages were decoded, a signal control room, plotting room, gun operations room and an electricity generator. It even had its own telephone exchange and a ventilation system that recycled the air.6 There were two entrances, one from Cox Terrace and the other from Dobbie Rise.7

In terms of design and size, the bunker was unique in Asia; while other bunkers were simple tunnels used to store ammunition, the Singapore bunker was purpose-built for the Malaya Command to conduct strategic planning in the event of war, and was thus elaborately designed as a self-contained nerve centre.8

Uses
British headquarters
The Fort Canning Bunker was used by Percival during the final phase of the Battle of Singapore.9 On 11 February 1942, Percival shifted his headquarters from Sime Road to the bunker to work out battle plans against the invading Japanese.10 Hence the bunker came to be known then as the Headquarters Malaya Command Operations Bunker.11

Accommodation at the bunker was congested, as the Southern Area and Anti-Aircraft Defences were also located there.12 Ventilation was inadequate and, consequently, staff worked under unpleasant conditions.13 In fact, 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.14 The Battlebox was supposed to provide British and Allied forces in Malaya and Singapore a unified command centre from which to defend and strike against the invading Japanese army. Instead, it marked the end of British dominance in Southeast Asia.15

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.16 Present at the conference were commanders of the Northern, Western and Southern Areas and the Anti-Aircraft Defences, as well as some staff officers. The decision to surrender was made, as the alternative of counterattack was considered impracticable.17 One of the major concerns that influenced the decision was the perceived shortage of water in Singapore.18

At about 11.30 am, a joint military and civil deputation left the Fort Canning headquarters to propose a cessation of hostilities. In the same afternoon, Percival, accompanied by Brigadier Torrance (of the General Staff), Brigadier Newbigging (Chief Administrator) and Major Wild (interpreter), left the bunker to sign the official surrender at the Ford Motor Factory.19 The surrender documents were signed at 7.50 pm and all hostilities in Singapore ceased at 8.30 pm on 15 February 1942.20

Command centre and country club
The above-ground building, 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 the building as the Singapore Base District Headquarters, and later it became the headquarters of the 4th Malaysian Infantry Brigade. When Singapore gained independence in 1965, the Singapore Armed Forces converted the premises into the Singapore Command and Staff College.21 In 1996, the three-storey building was restored and leased out to Fort Canning Country Club. Led by project architect, Philip Conn, noteworthy restoration work was undertaken, including the double staircase leading to the foyer and the 10-metre-long balcony outside what used to be Percival’s office. Amenities such as a swimming pool, a tennis court, squash courts, restaurants and a gymnasium, were also added to the building.22

Battlebox
All but one room in the Fort Canning Bunker were stripped and all items burnt in a bonfire by the British on 14 February 1942, the day before the surrender. The bunker remained abandoned until 23 February 1988, when it was examined for the possibility 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-level officers had entered it prior to the investigations.23

The Fort Canning Bunker was reopened on 31 January 1992 as the Battlebox. Today, its 22 rooms hold exhibits of wartime artefacts as well as simulations of events that had occurred there in the past.24



Author
Wong Heng



References
1. Battle Box. (n.d.). Retrieved 2016, September 28 from NewAsia Singapore website: http://www.newasia-singapore.com/places_to_go/world_war_ii_sites/battle_box_20070601123.html; Singapore History Consultants. (n.d.). The Battlebox story: 1936. Retrieved 2016, September 28 from Battlebox website: http://www.battlebox.com.sg/; Percival’s Fort Canning bunker reopened. (1992, February 1). The Straits Times, p. 16. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
2. Samuel, D. S. (1991). Singapore’s heritage: Through places of historical interest. Singapore: Elixir Consultancy Service, p. 1. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 SAM-[HIS])
3. Percival’s Fort Canning bunker reopened. (1992, February 1). The Straits Times, p. 16; Lee, Y. L. (1995, November 3). Witness box. The Straits Times, p. 8. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
4. Percival’s Fort Canning bunker reopened. (1992, February 1). The Straits Times, p. 16. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Singapore History Consultants. (n.d.). The Battlebox story: 1936. Retrieved 2016, September 28 from Battlebox website: http://www.battlebox.com.sg/
5. Bose, R. (1988, July 26). Percival’s last stand. The Straits Times, p. 14. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
6. Percival’s Fort Canning bunker reopened. (1992, February 1). The Straits Times, p. 16. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Battle Box. (n.d.). Retrieved 2016, September 28 from NewAsia Singapore website: http://www.newasia-singapore.com/places_to_go/world_war_ii_sites/battle_box_20070601123.html
7. Bose, R. (2012). Singapore at war: Secrets from the fall, liberation & aftermath of WWII. Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions, pp. 23, 32. (Call no.: RSING 940.5425 BOS-[WAR])
8. Percival’s Fort Canning bunker reopened. (1992, February 1). The Straits Times, p. 16. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
9. Samuel, D. S. (1991). Singapore’s heritage: Through places of historical interest. Singapore: Elixir Consultancy Service, p. 7. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 SAM-[HIS])
10. Geok, B. L. (2005). The Syonan years: Singapore under Japanese rule, 1942–1945. Singapore: National Archives of Singapore and Epigram, p. 19. (Call no.: q940.53957 LEE-[WAR])
11. Percival’s Fort Canning bunker reopened. (1992, February 1). The Straits Times, p. 16. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
12. Bose, R. (2012). Singapore at war: Secrets from the fall, liberation & aftermath of WWII. Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions, p. 85. (Call no.: RSING 940.5425 BOS-[WAR])
13. Percival, A. E. (1949). The war in Malaya. London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, p. 278. (Call no.: RDLKL 940.53595 PER)
14. Percival's Fort Canning bunker re-opened (1991, February 1). The Straits Times, p. 16. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
15. Bose, R. (2011). Secrets of the battlebox. Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions, p. 17. (Call no.: RSING 940.5425 BOS-[WAR])
16. Samuel, D. S. (1991). Singapore’s heritage: Through places of historical interest. Singapore: Elixir Consultancy Service, p. 7. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 SAM-[HIS]); Bose, R. (2012). Singapore at war: Secrets from the fall, liberation & aftermath of WWII. Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions, p. 93. (Call no.: RSING 940.5425 BOS-[WAR])
17. Percival, A. E. (1949). The war in Malaya. London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, pp. 291–292. (Call no.: RDLKL 940.53595 PER)
18. Percival, A. E. (1949). The war in Malaya. London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, p. 283, 290, 291-292. (Call no.: RDLKL 940.53595 PER); Urcan, O. G. (2007). Surviving Changi: E. E. Colman – A chess biography. Singapore: Singapore Heritage Soceity, p. 133. (Call no.: RSING 794.1092 URC); Bose, R. (1988, July 26). Percival’s last stand. The Straits Times, p.14. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
19. Bose, R. (2012). Singapore at war: Secrets from the fall, liberation & aftermath of WWII. Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions, p. 96. (Call no.: RSING 940.5425 BOS-[WAR])
20. Samuel, D. S. (1991). Singapore’s heritage: Through places of historical interest. Singapore: Elixir Consultancy Service, p. 7. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 SAM-[WAR]); Percival, A. E. (1949). The war in Malaya. London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, p. 292. (Call no.: RDLKL 940.53595 PER)
21. 25 years ago. (1988, February 28). The Straits Times, p. 15; Takeover without a shot at Fort Canning. (1963, March 5). The Straits Times, p. 9; Surrender decision made here. (1995, November 3). The Straits Times, p. 8. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
22. Historic 1920s Fort Canning building restored. (1995, October 12). The Straits Times, p. 25. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
23. Parks board wants WWII artifacts. (1992, February 1). The Straits Times, p. 16. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
24. Battle Box. (n.d.). Retrieved 2016, September 28 from NewAsia Singapore website: http://www.newasia-singapore.com/places_to_go/world_war_ii_sites/battle_box_20070601123.html



Further resource
Goh, J. (1991, December 21). World War II bunker spruced up for visitors. The Straits Times, p. 25. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.



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.

 

Subject
Architecture and Landscape>>Building Types>>Military Sites
Military facilities
Bunkers (Fortification)--Singapore
1942-1945 Japanese occupation
Historic buildings
Fort Canning (Singapore)--History
Arts>>Architecture>>Architectural structure
History>>Asia>>Southeast Asia>>Singapore
Architecture and Landscape>>Building Types>>Historic Buildings
Historic sites--Singapore
Singapore--History--Japanese occupation, 1942-1945
Events>>Historical Periods>>World War II and Japanese Occupation (1939-1945)

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