Fort Canning Bunker (The Battlebox)

Located at 51 Canning Rise, the Fort Canning Bunker (now known as The Battlebox) 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 On 15 February 1942, it was here that Lieutenant-General Arthur E. Percival and the Allied forces made the decision to surrender to the invading Japanese forces.The bunker was reopened on 15 February 1997 as The Battlebox, an educational and tourist destination where World War II events are recreated.

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.

Sited below the Old Fort Gate, the underground labyrinth is 9 m deep and had over 20 rooms.These included a cipher room (where messages were decoded), 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.There were two entrances, one from Cox Terrace and the other from Dobbie Rise.

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.

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 as well as the Anti-Aircraft Defences, and 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 the 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 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

The 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. After the surrender of the Japanese in 1945, civilians looted the bunker. When the British returned, they decided to seal the bunker instead of resuming operations in it.23 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.24

The Battlebox opened its doors on 15 January 1997 after a $3 million restoration effort, 55 years to the day of the surrender of Singapore. The museum within the walls of the bunkers comprise well-researched displays and interactive installations to replicate the morning of 15 February 1942 when Singapore fell to the Japanese forces.25

In February 2013, the Battlebox closed as the previous operator’s lease expired. The Battlebox opened after three years in February 2016. Aside from regular tours, the museum also offers customised school programmes and private tours for Singapore and overseas military groups or interested companies.26 In 2017, the museum was ranked the top museum to visit in Singapore and the 14th museum in Asia by travel website TripAdvisor.27

Wong Heng

1. “Battle Box,” Fort Canning Battle Box Singapore, last retrieved 28 September 2016; “The Battlebox Story,” Singapore History Consultants, last retrieved 28 September 2016; “Percival’s Fort Canning Bunker Reopened,” Straits Times, 1 February 1992, 16. (From NewspaperSG)
2. Dhoraisingam S. Samuel, Singapore’s Heritage: Through Places of Historical Interest (Singapore: Elixir Consultancy Service, 1991), 1. (Call no. RSING 959.57 SAM-[HIS])
3. “Special effects recreate atmosphere of WWII bunker," Straits Times, 15 February 1997, 2; Lee Yin Luen, “Witness Box,” Straits Times, 3 November 1995, 8. (From NewspaperSG)
4. “Percival’s Fort Canning Bunker Reopened”; Singapore History Consultants, “The Battlebox Story.”
5. Romen Bose, “Percival’s Last Stand,” Straits Times, 26 July 1988, 14. (From NewspaperSG)
6. “Percival’s Fort Canning Bunker Reopened”; Fort Canning Battle Box, “Battle Box.” 
7. Romen Bose, Singapore at War: Secrets From the Fall, Liberation & Aftermath of WWII (Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions, 2012), 23, 32. (Call no. RSING 940.5425 BOS-[WAR])
8. “Percival’s Fort Canning Bunker Reopened.”
9. Samuel, Singapore’s Heritage, 7.
10. Lee Geok Boi, The Syonan Years: Singapore Under Japanese Rule, 1942–1945 (Singapore: National Archives of Singapore and Epigram, 2005), 19. (Call no. q940.53957 LEE-[WAR])
11. “Percival’s Fort Canning Bunker Reopened.”
12. Bose, Singapore at War, 85.
13. Arthur Ernest Percival, The War in Malaya (London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1949), 278. (Call no. RDLKL 940.53595 PER)
14. “Percival’s Fort Canning Bunker Reopened.”
15. Romen Bose, Secrets of the Battlebox (Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions, 2011), 17. (Call no.RSING 940.5425 BOS-[WAR])
16. Samuel, Singapore’s Heritage, 7; Bose, Bose, Singapore at War, 93.
17. Percival, The War in Malaya, 291–292.
18. Percival, The War in Malaya, 282, 290, 291–292; Olimpiu G. Urcan, Surviving Changi: E. E. Colman – A Chess Biography, ed. Kevin Y. L Tan (Singapore: Singapore Heritage Society, 2007), 133. (Call no. RSING 794.1092 URC); Romen Bose, “Percival’s Last Stand,” Straits Times, 26 July 1988, 14. (From NewspaperSG)
19. Bose, Singapore at War, 96.
20. Samuel, Singapore’s Heritage, 7; Percival, The War in Malaya, 292.
21. “25 Years Ago,” Straits Times, 28 February 1988, 15; “Takeover Without a Shot at Fort Canning,” Straits Times, 5 March 1963, 9; “Surrender Decision Made Here,” Straits Times, 3 November 1995, 8. (From NewspaperSG)
22. “Historic 1920s Fort Canning Building Restored,” Straits Times, 12 October 1995, 25. (From NewspaperSG)
23. Singapore History Consultants, “The Battlebox Story.”
24. “Parks Board Wants WWII Artifacts,” Straits Times, 1 February 1992, 16. (From NewspaperSG)
25. Bose, Secrets of the Battlebox, 127.
26. “Programmes,” Fort Canning Battle Box Singapore, last retrieved 30 June 2018.
27. “Blog: The Battlebox is the #1 Museum in Singapore for the 2017 Travellers’ Choice Award,” Fort Canning Battle Box Singapore.

The information in this article is valid as at 2018 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from out sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading on the topic.


Bunkers (Fortification)--Singapore
1942-1945 Japanese occupation
Historic sites--Singapore
Fort Canning (Singapore)--History
Singapore--History--Japanese occupation, 1942-1945
Historic buildings
Military facilities