Singapore, following the landing of Sir Stamford Raffles, had grown from a practically deserted place of little or no interest or significance to anybody, to become a busy commercial port. It had also become a very important coaling station for the Royal Navy and merchant ships. Several forts defending the harbour were built in the early years of the colony, and many reports recommending additional defences for this importan colony began to be authored. Records of the China Station dated 1859 contained a recommendation for a battery at ‘Point Rimau’, and others at Silingsing and Serapong. These were not acted on, and it was to be over twenty years and more reports before any action was takem. The British Government, then, being aware of the important commercial and strategic values of Singapore, decided to modernise the existing defences of the island.
Since the last update of the defences, more powerful and longer ranging weapons had been developed, not only by Great Britain, but by countries which were considered to be potential enemies. Following surveys, it was concluded that it would be wiser to construct several new coastal artillery forts than to modernise the older existing ones. Many of these older forts were located in a poor fire position, and were not realistically capable of being enlarged. Indeed, Fort Canning was said to be more suited to controlling the civil populace than providing defence for the harbour. New coastal artillery forts could be sited to take advantage of more powerful weapons with a greater range than the old forts’ armaments. The surveys located several sites which were deemed suitable for the proposed new forts; on Singapore Island itself, on Pulau Brani (Brave Island), and on Blakang Mati.
New, well armed forts constructed in these locations would be ideally situated to protect the western and eastern approaches to the strategically important Keppel Harbour. Whilst the forts were constructed, the armament eventually being emplaced at Siloso and Serapong was to be different to that suggested by the Governor. This aerial view of Blakang Mati and Pulau Brani shows the location of all the coastal artillery forts which were built on these islands. Mount Imbiah and Fort Teregah were never updated during their service lives. Fort Teregah was abandoned during the early 20th Century and Mount Imbiah in the late 1930s. The remainder, with the exception of Siloso were not re-used after the Second World War. Of all the forts built to defend Singapore, only Fort Siloso has been preserved. Remains of some other forts can still be found, but some are not accessible to the public.
Sailing aboard HMS Meander, Admiral Sir Henry Keppel is said to have ‘discovered’ the western entrance to the sheltered harbour between Blakang Mati and Singapore Island in 1848. However, it is evident that this entrance was known of by the seamen of the east for a significant period of time before Admiral Keppel came on the scene. Indeed, it would have been strange if regular users of the harbour did not know of this approach. Lt. H.E. McCallum, Royal Engineers and a workforce comprising of local people began preparing the site for Fort Siloso in 1878. Mount Siloso which is the name of the hill at Siloso Point required levelling to create a suitable flat area for a gun platform. To level the area quickly, Lt. McCallum used 19,000 Pounds (8,636 Kgs) of gun powder to blow away the top of the hill. The workforce then set to, and construction of accommodation, an Engine Shed to provide power for the Fort, Magazines, and three gun emplacements began. At that time, there were no roads in the area. All stores and equipment for the construction work had to be delivered by boat and landed at a small jetty. This was situated not far from the present entrance to the fort. The Stairs down to the jetty survive.
Lifting building materials, heavy stores, equipment and guns up to the top of Mount Siloso was by no means an easy task for the workforce. There was no powered machinery to do the job for them in those days. The only method open to the workers was sheer muscle-power. A tried and trusted method called “parbuckling” was employed. This was both labour intensive and physically demanding work, especially in the heat and humidity of Singapore. The first armament to be installed at Fort Siloso consisted of two 64 Pounder RML (Rifled Muzzle Loading) Guns and three 7-Inch RML Guns. The 7-Inch Guns were also known as “Bottle Guns” because their shape was reminiscent of the soda pop bottles of the day. The fort was initially manned by 18 men of the Singapore Volunteer Artillery. Two of the 7-Inch RML guns were emplaced opposite the Magazine near the entrance to the fort. The third gun was emplaced at the newly levelled top of Mount Siloso. This gun had its own magazine to one side. The two 64 Pounders, were emplaced “en barbette”. That is to say that the guns on their carriages were stood on a solid flat platform and fired over an earthen parapet. This gun emplacement was behind the Gunners Shelter and to the side of the present Battery Command Post. The parapet allowed a good field of fire, but gave less protection to the gunners than an embrasure.
To supplement the guns, a string of electrically operated mines, powered from the Engine Shed, were laid across the entrance to the harbour from Siloso to Tanjong Berlayar on Singapore Island. These were controlled from, and tested in an underground room. Almost as soon as Fort Siloso was completed and operational, there were comments about the armament. Governor Weld in 1880 said,"The Mount Siloso Battery needs heavier guns". Plans to up-rate the defences were not long in coming. In 1881, there were two plans for an update to the Fort’s armament. Colonel Crossman produced plans for several 10-Inch BL Batteries which never came to fruition. The other plan would reduce the 64-Pounder Battery to a single gun, and add five armour piercing guns and a rifled howitzer. Neither plan was implemented although two 10-Inch BL Guns were emplaced at Fort Palmer on Singapore Island. Fort Siloso remained armed with its three 7-Inch RML and the two 64 Pounder RML Guns. In 1885, another plan was drawn up for improving the armament at Fort siloso. These were carried forward and within a few years, a more modern. BL Gun was emplaced below Mount Siloso facing more to the west than the 64 Pounders. An underground magazine was to be constructed for the new gun.
The same set of plans shows the emplacement of a fourth 7-Inch RML Gun at the top of Mount Siloso. This being close to the 7-Inch Gun already on the Mount, but facing south-west. This new gun was approximately where the No.2 Gun emplacement of the present Mount Siloso 6-Inch Battery is. To the right of the new gun, was built a Look-Out Post. The July 1886 ‘Précis of Existing and Proposed Defences’, listed three 7-Inch RML and two 64-Pounder RML Guns as being at Siloso. Proposed armament was given as four 7-Inch RML and one 9.2-Inch BL Guns. A side note stated, “Well advanced. Emplacement and magazine nearly ready”. Vice Admiral R. Vasey Hamilton recorded that the two 64 Pounders were no longer in place in March 1887. The Pasir Panjang Battery at Tanjong Berlayar was operational by 1889. This battery is north west of Fort Siloso on the other side of the harbour entrance. Some six hundred yards (550 meters) separate the batteries. Both batteries commanded the western approach to Keppel Harbour and would have been a formidable defence against any attack from the west. In 1896, a plan was issued which showed a change in armament. The plan was for two 12 Pounder QF (Quick Firing) guns to replace the 7-Inch RML Guns overlooking Keppel Harbour, and for two 6-Inch QF Guns to be emplaced on top of Mount Siloso, replacing the two 7-Inch RML Guns there. The emplaced 7-Inch Guns needed a gun crew of 10 and took a long time to load. A fast moving enemy craft approaching, or in the Harbour would have been practically impossible for them to hit. This type of gun had been long condemned as being unsuitable for their purpose.
The proposed changes were still in progress in 1898. The list of Approved Armaments for the Straits Settlements for 1st January 1898 shows armament then mounted at the Fort as being two 7-Inch RML Guns and a 9.2-Inch BL Gun. The list also had two 12-Pounder QF Guns and the two 6-Inch QF Guns as being approved additions to the armament. The 12-Pounders, more suitable to harbour defence than the 7-Inch RMLs were in place by 1st January 1899 and were located where the No.1, 7-Inch RML Gun once overlooked Keppel Harbour. The 6-Inch QF Guns were mounted by the following year. Singapore’s defences played no part in the First World War. They did, however, play a role in the mutiny of Indian troops which occurred during 1915. Searchlights situated on Blakang Mati were used to illuminate parts of Singapore Island to aid loyal troops in quelling the mutiny. Singapore Harbour also played host to Japanese warships which were provided by the Japanese government, then allies. It has perhaps been forgotten that the Japanese provided convoy escort vessels in the Mediterranean Sea for allied forces during the First World War.
Fort Siloso was one of the artillery forts earmarked for further improvement following General Sir Webb Gilman’s visit to Singapore in 1927. He had been sent by the British Government to plan new coast defences for Singapore. This in order to protect the naval base which was to be built on the north of the Island. As well as major improvements for existing coast artillery forts, General Gilman had recommended the construction of several new forts, with guns of up to 15-Inch in calibre. These would cover all sea approaches to Singapore, not just the harbour approaches. Two new Fire Commands would control the defence of sea approaches to Singapore, Changi and Faber. Changi Command would cover the eastern approaches to Singapore and the proposed naval base, and Faber the southern and western approaches to Singapore.
Between 1930 and 1939, the Fort was manned by the 3rd Hong Kong & Singapore (HKS) RA Battery. Their training and peace time quarters were at India Lines on Blakang Mati. The troops marched to and from their quarters each day. Other British Artillery units also used the Fort for training. The Battery Command Post was enlarged into that seen today on Mount Siloso. The 6-Inch QF Guns were retired from service. Mark VII 6-Inch BL Guns on Mark II CP (Centre Pivot) Mountings were emplaced where the QF Guns had been. This will have been around about 1932. The Singapore Free Press, on 20 June 1932, carried an advertisement for the sale of 5,000lb of electrical cable from Fort Siloso. This must have been the electrical cabling for the QF Guns, and other areas such as the Battery Command Post. The Command Post was renamed as the Battery Observation Post. Two Twin Lewis anti-aircraft guns were set up at the entrance to the fort, where in earlier days there were 12-Pounder QF Guns. Two machine gun posts were also constructed. The Mark VII 6-Inch BL Guns emplaced were not the most modern of weapons at that time. They had actually been superceded by the Mark 24. Of the 6-Inch Coastal Batteries in Singapore, only the Sphinx Battery on Pulau Tekong received the more modern Mark 24 Guns which had a greater range.
The underground power house was enlarged into a major underground complex, the biggest in the Fort. The enlarged complex led down to Siloso Point, the old Malay name for which was ‘Sarang Rimau’ or ‘Tiger's Lair’ as tigers were said to have once roamed this area. The complex now consisted of; an engine room, stores for fuel and ammunition and an Observation Post (OP). At Siloso Point an AMTB Director Tower was constructed with a 12-Pounder QF Gun being emplaced in 1941. The plan was for a Twin 6-Pounder was to be mounted here. However, when the defences were completed, none were available for use at the fort, although they were mounted elsewhere in Singapore (a Twin 6-Pounder was mounted at Siloso Point after the war). The Fort Siloso Record Book mentions a second 12 Pounder having been at Siloso. Its location not mentioned, but it was possibly near the Guardroom where the 1896 planned emplacement was. Here it would overlook Keppel Harbour. There is no visible evidence of any other 12-Pounder Emplacement in the Fort. This gun was moved to another battery.
Five searchlight positions were also constructed. These searchlights were not for anti-aircraft use, but to illuminate any suspicious vessel approaching the harbour. Two were Fighting Lights for the 6-Inch Guns and three to provide illumination for the 12-Pounder. In the years leading up to the Second World War, a daily exercise was conducted at Siloso Point. Every day, a ‘water boat’ passed through the harbour entrance between Siloso and Tanjong Berlayer. This boat, delivering water to outposts, was tracked, targeted and ‘sunk’ by the Siloso guns. Elsewhere on Blakang Mati, Forts Connaught and Serapong were also being improved and their armament up-rated. The 9.2 Inch BL Gun on Mount Imbiah was removed and the emplacement was abandoned. Pill-boxes and machine gun posts were constructed at various places on Blakang Mati to cover the beaches. By 1941, the defences of Blakang Mati had been completed. On the 8th December 1941, the Japanese landed at Kota Bahru in northern Malaya at 0215 Tokyo time (one hour and ten minutes before their strike at Pearl Harbor). Singapore had, ready to deter a sea borne assault, a powerful coastal artillery defence system under the command of Brigadier A.D. Curtis, the Commander Fixed Defences.
Twelve Coast Batteries were on Singapore, Pulau Brani, Blakang Mati and Pulau Tekong. On the Malayan mainland at Pengerang to the south east of Pulau Tekong, was another 6-Inch Battery. Faber Fire Command (7th Coast Artillery Regiment) controlled the Pasir Laba, Buona Vista, Labrador, Siloso, Connaught, Serapong, and Silingsing Batteries. Changi Fire Command (9th Coast Artillery Regiment) controlled Johore, Beting Kusah, Changi, Sphinx, Tekong and Pengerang Batteries. The gun batteries were backed-up by four RAF airfields and infantry soldiers. Unfortunately, the RAF had precious few aircraft, and none of them modern front-line fighters. The infantry were desperately lacking in numbers and training, and there were no tanks. All of which had been recommended more than once to bolster the defences of Singapore and Malaya. To cap it all, the north of Singapore Island had very little in the way of defensive works.
Successive British Governments and the War Office in London, had for years ignored recommendations for strong defences in the north of the island and in Malaya to be built up. They had a blinkered outlook on defence, and would not accept that any attack could come from the north. But come it did, and by the end of January 1942, the Japanese were at the gates of Singapore. The British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill later said the he had, “No more thought of Singapore having no northern defences than of a battleship being launched without a bottom”. In saying this he, at the very least, misled Parliament and the people. When he was Chancellor of the Exchequer, he drastically cut Singapore’s defence budget, thus preventing essential defence works being carried out. He also clearly knew about the parlous state of the defences against attack from the north, having been warned about them more than once.
From 1939 to 1942, The 3rd HKS RA remained at the Fort, along with some British personnel posted there. The CASLs (Coastal Artillery Searchlights) were manned by men of the Royal Engineers, both British and Malay. It is recorded that the Fort was bombed and strafed by Japanese aircraft. Damage was done to the water tanks and other buildings. The Fort Record Book reports that, during February 1942, The Siloso guns shelled Japanese positions with HE (High Explosive) and AP (Armour Piercing) ammunition. On the 15th February, news of the capitulation of the Singapore Garrison reached Blakang Mati. An imprisonment of unspeakable barbarity and which many would not survive had begun. Fort Siloso became a Prisoner of War Camp following the British Surrender. Civilians were also imprisoned at the Fort. Since the Japanese attack on Singapore, a myth has developed and has been kept alive by those who really do not know the truth. This myth is that the Singapore guns faced the wrong way. This is incorrect, the guns did not face the wrong way. As coast artillery, which they were designed for, they were ideally located, and faced the appropriate direction, but most had all-round or near all-round traverse.
The "Statement by Command of Guns of the approved armament capable and required to fire landwards" of November 1937 listed the following batteries; Connaught, Serapong, siloso. Silingsing, Labrador, Pasir Laba, Tekong, Sphinx, Changi, Beting Kusah and Pengerang. This was before all approved armaments became operational. In 1942, with the exception of the Buona Vista 15-inch Battery and the southern-most (No.1 Gun) 15-Inch gun of the Johore Battery at Changi, all the guns were capable of near all-round or all-round traverse. However when the war with Japan broke out, with the exception of Changi and Sphinx Batteries, concrete overhead splinter covers had been constructed at the Singapore 6-Inch Batteries to provide additional shelter for the gunners. The concrete overhead covers had the effect of reducing the arc of fire of the guns. Sphinx Battery, with its Mark 24 Guns had a steel shield completely covering the guns and Changi Battery, which apart from its gun shield were left uncovered.
The Changi Battery was due to have splinter covers installed, but when war broke out, the installation was postponed. Covers were also constructed at the Pengerang Battery. There were no impediments to the traverse of the 9.2-Inch Guns at Connaught and Tekong. To make things worse, for an attack from land, the guns did not have a lot of high-explosive (HE) ammunition. For the big guns, there was only one 15-Inch HE shell on Singapore Island. Being coastal artillery, all of the guns had plenty of armour-piercing (AP) ammunition which, as the name implies is designed to burst through armour plate before exploding inside a warship where it would do most damage. HE ammunition has a relatively thin casing, and explodes on or near the surface at the point of impact and the shrapnel, or metal splinters from the fragmenting shell causes tremendous damage to nearby troops and equipment. AP shells have a thick casing for penetrating armour plate. Used against land targets such as troops or artillery, AP shells bury themselves deep in the ground before exploding, and do not fragment like HE shells, therefore are not suitable for counter battery or anti-personnel use. Despite this, when the Japanese attacked, all the guns that could, fired on them using what HE shells they had followed by AP.
The photograph shows a 9.2-Inch AP Shell fired from Fort Connaught in February 1942 on the advancing Japanese. The shell was recovered from the Pasir Panjang area. It shows how little fragmentation there could be from an AP shell. Having adequate stocks of HE shells may not have stopped the Japanese taking Singapore, the battle had been lost many years before it started, but Japanese casualties would have been much higher. The battle may have lasted longer and eased the pressure on Burma. When the Japanese approached and launched their attack on Singapore, it is recorded in War Diaries that guns of the Johore, Tekong, Connaught, Changi, Sphinx, Pasir Laba, Labrador and Siloso Batteries took part in the battle. The overhead cover of the No.1 Gun at Pasir Laba was partly demolished to enable the gun to fire on the Japanese landing sites. The No. 2 Gun could not be brought to bear. There is also evidence that part of the concrete covers at Labrador and Siloso were demolished to enable the guns to fire on the advancing Japanese.
It is not recorded anywhere that that I could find, that the Silingsing, Serapong or Beting Kusah Guns took part in the Battle. Post-war evidence shows that the concrete canopies at these batteries had not been partly demolished or demolished to enable the guns to bear on the Japanese. The location of these guns meant that the substantially built-up covers to the rear of the guns prevented fire to the west, from where the main Japanese thrust came from. The No. 2 gun of Serapong had had its canopy destroyed by a bomb, but it is still not recorded as turning and firing. It is likely that the top of Mount Serapong would have prevented this. Fort Siloso,as stated above, and several other forts, were bombed and shelled by the Japanese. Pasir Laba and Labrador (Pasir Panjang) were put out of action. Bomb damage at Siloso was still visible in the 1990s, as can be seen in these 1993 photographs of the long abandoned 7-Inch RML position on Mount Siloso. The last traces of this damage were eliminated when the fort was restored in 1995.
The Japanese failed to repair any of the spiked 6-Inch and 9.2-Inch Guns on Blakang Mati, but did manage to recover and remount the 12-Pounder at OSO (Siloso Point). The Twin 6-Pounders at Berhala Reping were damaged beyond repair. On Singapore island, The Japanese were successful at remounting one 6-Inch Gun at Labrador Battery and one at Beting Kusah. They also managed to remount the No.2 15-Inch Gun of the Buona Vista Battery. These repaired guns were never fired in anger by the Japanese. Fort Siloso continued to serve the Japanese as a POW Camp until the end of the war. Both military personnel and civilian being incarcerated there. Following the Japanese surrender, Fort Siloso returned to British occupancy. In September that year, it was initially re-occupied by men of the Royal Navy. Japanese soldiers themselves now found themselves prisoners of war at the Fort (right). Their conditions of imprisonment being a lot more pleasant, and the food being more plentiful, than when they were in charge.
In March 1946, the 1st Malay Coast Battery RA came to Blakang Mati. Undamaged equipment from other gun batteries in Singapore was brought in to re-equip the Fort. This included two Mark VII 6-Inch Guns with Mark II CPM (Centre Pivot Mounting). One of these guns came from Beting Kusah and the other must have come from Labrador. Both of which batteries where the Japanese had repaired 6-Inch Guns. These were installed by August. The Fort was still without essential equipment such as Range Finders and Gun Telescopes. The overhead concrete splinter cover on the emplacement was probably demolished at this time. In October 1947, the Training Wing of 1st Malay Coast Artillery RA came to Fort Siloso, under the command of Major G.L. Brewster. Additional equipment began arriving from elsewhere to continue in the re-equipping of the Fort.
In 1947, a Twin Six Pounder arrived at Siloso. This gun came from the Ceylon (now called Sri Lanka) Breakwater. It was mounted at Siloso Point with work being completed in March 1948. The photo on the right was taken at Fort Rodd Hill in Victoria Island, British Columbia, Canada. This gun was originally mounted in Norway. Two other Twin 6-Pounders are known to survive. They overlook the Rio Tejo from the Jardim da Torre de Belém in Lisbon, Portugal. Harold Dursley was in REME (Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers) attached to the Royal Artillery at Fort Siloso from 1947-48 during his National Service. His job at the Fort was assisting a Royal Artillery Warrant Officer (WO). Armament Artificer to carry out special wear checks on the barrel of the installed 6-Inch Guns. He believes the WO condemned a barrel at that time. As Harold says, “Not surprising as I recall that it was made in Woolwich in 1898”.
The photo on the left shows Harold (right) with the WO beside him at a 6-Inch Gun. One gun barrel, Serial No. 1349, was removed and taken to the Drill Mounting behind ‘F’ Block on the Main Square in July 1948. This was returned to Siloso in June the following year as a salvaged 6-Inch Barrel was found to replace it at ‘F’ Block. Barrel No. 1349 is recorded as having been at Beting Kusah pre-war. Map references shown in records along with the serial no. indicate that it was the No.1 Gun at Beting Kusah. In February 1950 the 6-Inch Battery fired a Proof of Mounting, and the Twin 6 Pounder fired a Calibration. The recoil of the 6-Inch Guns was so violent that CREME (Commander REME) condemned the equipment.
Not long later, two Mark 24 6-Inch Guns with Mark V Shields were brought to Siloso and emplaced. These had been at BOD (Base Ordnance Depot) and had come from Haifa in Israel. A third gun, also from Haifa was mounted behind ‘F’ Block near the Main Square, also for training purposes. Also during 1950, A CA No.2 Mk.1 Radar arrived at Siloso and was temporarily sited alongside the BOP.
An Observation Post is shown by the arrow. This and the concrete wall behind it were demolished and the ground levelled sometime after 1954 by the British. In 1951, Modifications were made to the 6-Inch Battery to give it, a “full role” and the magazine was renovated. A PF Cell was prepared and the engine room was moved underground. A Seawards Defence Headquarters was established at Serapong, using the radar which had been at Siloso. On the disbandment of the Coastal Artillery by the British Army in May 1956, The guns were sold to local scrap dealers. Gurkha detachments manned the Fort until its return to the Singapore authorities in 1967. In that year, with the withdrawal of the British from the island, Blakang Mati was occupied by the Maritime Command of the Singapore Armed Forces. In 1972 Fort Siloso became a historical site when the Government of Singapore decided to develop Blakang Mati which was renamed as Sentosa (Island of Tranquility) for recreational purposes.
Elsewhere on Sentosa, most of Fort Connaught has been demolished with a Coralarium and later a golf course being built on the site. The Coralarium itself has vanished and the site has been extended by land reclamation which has taken in a nearby small island, the area now being called Sentosa Cove. Nearby is a Ground Satellite Station. The No. 3 Gun Emplacement and a Fire Control Tower are hidden in trees above Allenbrooke Road. Its Magazine is still accessible. The No. 1 and No. 2 Gun Emplacements can still be seen as large mounds on the golf course with a rest area having been built on the No.1 Emplacement. The Magazines for the No.1 Gun are still accessible with a little difficulty. Berhala Reping is now no longer an island and is attached to another golf course on reclaimed land. The Director Towers and the emplacements for the two Twin 6 Pounder Quick-firing Guns still stand there. In the days after the Japanese victory, many bodies of Chinese inhabitants of Singapore were washed up near here following some of the many ‘Sook Ching’ murders perpetrated by occupying forces. On Mount Serapong can be found remains of the 8-Inch, 9.2-Inch and 6-Inch Batteries.
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