by Chia, Joshua Yeong Jia
Selarang Barracks was built between 1936 and 1938 to house an infantry battalion. During the Japanese Occupation (1942–45), it was used by the Japanese Imperial Army to hold Australian and British prisoners-of-war (POWs). It is also the site of the infamous Selarang Barracks Square Incident during the war, in which some 15,000 Allied soldiers were interned at Selarang Barracks under very poor living conditions until they signed a pledge of non-escape. Today, the Selarang Barracks is a restricted military area belonging to the Singapore Armed Forces. Except for the officers’ mess and the headquarters, most of the original British buildings have been demolished.
Constructed between 1936 and 1938 to house an infantry battalion, Selarang Barracks consisted of seven blocks built around a square. It was part of a larger British military base in Changi. Its first occupants were soldiers from the 2nd Gordon Highlanders Battalion. During the Japanese Occupation, the Imperial Japanese Army used the premises to house Australian and British POWs.1
Selarang Barracks Square Incident
In 1942, four POWs – Corporal Rodney Breavington and Private Victor Gale from the Australian Imperial Force, Private Harold Waters from the East Surrey Regiment and Private Eric Fletcher from the Royal Army – attempted an escape from the Japanese, but were recaptured.2 To prevent such future attempts, the Japanese wanted all POWs to sign a pledge of non-escape, in contravention of the Geneva Convention, which gave POWs the right to escape. The prisoners refused to sign the pledge. To coerce them into signing, the Japanese crammed some 15,000 men, including the British POWs from the Changi camp, into Selarang Barracks, which was originally intended for 800 to 1,200 men.3
The barracks buildings became overcrowded and many had to live in makeshift tents in the square. The Japanese also cut off the water supply to the toilets, leaving the prisoners with no toilet facilities. The prisoners resorted to digging trenches in the parade grounds as latrines.4 Despite the heat, there were only two working taps with water, and each prisoner was limited to one quart of water (approximately 0.95 L) for consumption and washing every day.5
Conditions in the barracks continued to worsen with the lack of food, water and proper hygiene. The number of dysentery and diphtheria cases rose. The Japanese intensified their pressure with threats of cutting off the water supply completely, halving rations, and moving the Robert Barracks Hospital to the Selarang Barracks Square. The latter became the tipping point, as the move would endanger the lives of gravely ill patients and lead to the spread of diseases. To prevent the further loss of lives, Colonel E. B. Holmes ordered the POWs to sign the documents of non-escape. This was done on 5 September 1942 and many of the prisoners signed under false names – Ned Kelly, a legendary Australian outlaw, was a popular choice. All the prisoners were returned to their original barracks after that.6
On 2 September 1942, the Japanese brought Holmes and other senior Allied officers to the Beting Kusah anti-aircraft practice ground to witness the execution of the four POWs who had attempted to escape. The four men were made to line up, three paces apart, with their backs facing the sea at Changi Beach. The POWs declined offers to be blindfolded. The firing squad, consisting of three Sikhs and an Indian officer, stood some 10 to 15 yards away. Corporal Breavington made a plea to the Japanese officers to execute him alone, but was rejected. After an exchange of salutes between the POWs and their senior officers, the firing squad opened fire. The shots wounded the four but did not kill them. Breavington asked to be finished off and more rounds of bullets were fired at the men.7 The remains of the soldiers were buried at the Kranji War Memorial.8 In remembrance of Breavington’s act of courage, the Breavington Award for policing excellence is presented annually in Australia.9
When the Japanese surrendered in 1945, Lieutenant General Shimpei Fukuei (also spelt as Fukuye) was the first to be tried for war crimes. He was found guilty for ordering the execution of the four POWs. On 7 April 1946, he was executed by shooting, at the same spot where the four POWs died.10
After the war, the barracks became home to the Australian Army units of ANZUK, a tripartite force formed by Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom to defend the Asia-Pacific region. ANZUK was disbanded in 1974.11 The premises has housed the 9th Division of the Singapore Armed Forces since March 1984.12
In 1991, Selarang Camp was redeveloped at a cost of S$50 million. With the exception of the officers’ mess and the headquarters, most of the old British buildings were demolished to make way for a new self-contained complex.13
Joshua Chia Yeong Jia
1. Munusamy, S. (2016). History within our camps: Selarang Camp. Army News, (239), pp. 12–13. Retrieved 2017, January 31 from Ministry of Defence website: https://www.mindef.gov.sg/content/dam/imindef_media_library/graphics/army/army_news/download_our_issues/pdf/2016/armynews_issue239.pdf
2. Lee, G. B. (2005). The Syonan years: Singapore under Japanese rule 1942–1945. Singapore: National Archives of Singapore; Epigram, p 122. (Call no.: RSING q940.53957 LEE-[WAR]); Australian War memorial. (2013). The Last Post Ceremony commemorating the service of (VX63100) Corporal Rodney Edward Breavington, Base Ordnance Workshops Malaya AAOC, Second World War. Retrieved 2017, January 31 from Australian War Memorial website: https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/PAFU2013/153.01/
3. Yap, S. Y., et al. (2004). Fortress Singapore: The battlefield guide. Singapore: Times Editions, p. 98. (Call no.: RSING 959.5703 FOR-[HIS])
4. Nelson, D. (2001). The story of Changi Singapore. Singapore: Changi Museum Pte Ltd, p. 42. (Call no.: RSING 940.547252 NEL-[WAR])
5. Yap, S. Y., et al. (2004). Fortress Singapore: The battlefield guide. Singapore: Times Editions, p. 98. (Call no.: RSING 959.5703 FOR -[HIS])
6. Havers, R. P. W. (2003). Reassessing the Japanese prisoner of war experience: The Changi POW camp, Singapore, 1942–5. London; New York: RoutledgeCurzon, pp. 73-74, 790. (Call no.: RSING 940.547252 HAV-[WAR])
7. Yap, S. Y., et al. (2004). Fortress Singapore: The battlefield guide. Singapore: Times Editions, p. 98. (Call no.: RSING 959.5703 FOR-[HIS]); POWs shot to compel others sign parole. (1946, February 26). The Straits Times, p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
8. Lee, G. B. (2005). The Syonan years: Singapore under Japanese rule 1942–1945. Singapore: National Archives of Singapore; Epigram, p. 122. (Call no.: RSING q940.53957 LEE-[WAR])
9. Parliament of Australia. (2006). Hansard display. Retrieved 2017, January 31 from Parliament of Australia website: http://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Hansard/Hansard_Display?bid=chamber/hansardr/616d83e8-a028-46e9-a6c3-35b73a09ffc0/&sid=0249
10. Pugalenthi, S. (1999). Singapore landmarks: Monuments, memorials, statues & historic sites. Singapore: VJ Times International, p. 280. (Call no. RSING 959.57 PUG-[HIS])
11. Munusamy, S. (2016). History within our camps: Selarang Camp. Army News, (239), pp. 12–13. Retrieved 2017, January 31 from Ministry of Defence website: https://www.mindef.gov.sg/content/dam/imindef_media_library/graphics/army/army_news/download_our_issues/pdf/2016/armynews_issue239.pdf
12. Ministry of Defence. (2015, May 20). 9th Division /Infantry: History. Retrieved 2017, January 31 from Ministry of Defence website: https://www.mindef.gov.sg/imindef/mindef_websites/atozlistings/army/ourforces/9th_Division_Infantry/History.html
13. Move to Selarang ‘will boost links within unit’. (1991, May 25). The Straits Times, p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
Koh, T., et al. (Eds.) (2006). Singapore: The encyclopedia. Singapore: Editions Didier Millet; National Heritage Board, p. 463.
(Call no.: RSING 959.57003 SIN-[HIS])
Murfett, M. H. (2004). Between two oceans: A military history of Singapore from first settlement to final British withdrawal. Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Academic, pp. 262–263.
(Call no.: RSING 355.0095957 BET)
Shinozaki, M. (1992). Syonan, my story: The Japanese occupation of Singapore. Singapore: Times Books International, p. 109.
(Call no.: RSING 959.57023 SHI-[HIS])
Tan, B. L. (1996). The Japanese occupation 1942–1945: A pictorial record of Singapore during the war. Singapore: Times Editions, p. 53.
(Call no.: RSING q940.5425 TAN-[WAR])
Turnbull, C. M. (1989). A history of Singapore, 1819–1988. Singapore: Oxford University Press, pp. 158, 187–188, 193, 207.
(Call no.: RSING 959.57 TUR-[HIS])
The information in this article is valid as at 2015 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.
Events>>Historical Periods>>World War II and Japanese Occupation (1939 - 1945)
1942-1945 Japanese occupation
Architecture and Landscape>>Building Types>>Historic Buildings
Arts>>Architecture>>Public and commercial buildings
Great Britain. Army--Barracks and quarters