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.
LEFT: Gunners with a 6-Inch Gun Barrel. Believed to be during the 1930s.
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 They had actually been superceded by the Mark 24.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.
On 2nd March 1936, in a cipher to the War Office, The G.O.C. Malaya, writing about the 6-Inch Gun defences, wrote:
“In order to avoid manning difficulties I am prepared to do without the new 6-in. battery to be constructed at Labrador ......... If necessary, a third 6-in. gun could be mounted in reserve at Siloso. This will be desirable but not essential”. The M.O.2, responding on the 4th March preferred a battery at Labrador saying, “A Battery situated at Labrador will, in our opinion, get a better shoot at ships running into the Western approach to Keppel Harbour than the Battery at Siloso; Rather than mount a third at Siloso, we would prefer to retain the Battery at Labrador, if finance and manning considerations permit.”
In the end, the third gun for Fort Siloso did not materialise, and a two gun 6-Inch Battery was built at Labrador.
LEFT:Fort Siloso in 1941.
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 Coastal 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. A Memorandum from the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, dated June 1940, entitled ‘The Security of Singapore’ stated:-
“Developments in Europe which have reduced the availability of an adequate British force for the Far East, combined with a deterioration in Japan’s attitude towards us make the security of Singapore a grave matter” ...... “The Air Forces in Singapore have been reduced from eight squadrons to five squadrons. Even the former figure was short of the pre-war approved scale of air forces, namely twelve squadrons”.
This Memorandum came a month after Churchill became Prime Minister, and it is more than likely that it was brought to his attention.
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.
The term ‘spiked’ comes from the days of muzzle loading cannon. When guns were in danger of being captured, a metal spike was driven into the touch hole at the breech of the gun with a hammer by one of the gunners, who had such spikes hanging from his waist. Once this had been done, gun powder could not be inserted into the touch-hole and used to fire the propellant charge in the chamber, thus rendering the gun useless to the captors.