Battle Box – story of a bunker

Fort Canning Hill or Bukit Larangan (Forbidden Hill), as it was originally know, dominated the landscape of the island for centuries before being dwarfed by the tall structures of the concrete jungle that Singapore is today. Soldiers and rulers have always had a fixation with heights – for purposes of tactical and psychological domination. Hence, this hill, imposing at 47 meters height over the otherwise flat terrain, was used as the seat of power from the time the island was first inhabited.

Sejarah Melayu, an ancient Malaya text, mentions Sang Nila Utama, the son of Raja Chulana, a South Indian king, who became the ruler of Sumatra and took the title of Sri Tri Buana. He later founded the Kingdom of Singapura on the island earlier known as Temasek (Sea Town). He built his palace on the hill that became forbidden for common people. Later, when Stamford Raffles founded the modern city of Singapore in 1819, he too built his house on the same hill, which was thence called the Government Hill. In 1859, the house was demolished and a fortified garrison, named Fort Canning after the then Governor General and Viceroy of India Lord Canning, was established. The fort also housed 17 canons of various calibers for ceremonial and defence purposes. But these proved to be ineffective as the ships at sea could remain out of their range and easily bombard the town below the fort.

The fort was demolished in 1907 and in its place, several buildings came up in the 1920s to house headquarters of the Malaya Command. This included the administrative building, which is now Hotel Fort Canning, and the barracks, which is now an art centre. Also in 1938 was added and an underground command centre, which this post is actually about.

The story of the happenings this bunker or ‘battle box’ during the events that led up to the surrender of Singapore in 1942 is beautifully told in the one hour tour that I had the pleasure of taking recently.

Singapore was a key military base for the allies during WWII,  the hub of allied war activities in South-East Asia and South-West Pacific – the other being Pearl Harbour in Hawaii.

On 7th December 1941, Japan attacked the latter, presumably to prevent Naval interference for its planned operations in South-East Asia. In a complementary move, on 8th December, Japanese invasion forces landed at Kota Bharu in the Malayan state of Kelantan and on the Thai coast of Singora and Pattani, while Japanese aircraft carried out several air raids including on the island. 10th December 1941, the Japanese aircraft sunk British battleship HMS Prince of Wales and cruiser HMS Repulse off Singapore. With this, as Lord Winston Churchill writes in his memoirs,

“There were no British or American capital ships in the Indian Ocean or the Pacific except the American survivors of Pearl Harbour, who were hastening back to California. Over all this vast expanse of waters Japan was supreme, and we everywhere were weak and naked.”

(Image credit – Google Maps)

After the Naval isolation of the region and gaining air superiority, the Japanese land forces rapidly moved down the Malay Peninsula led by armour, with infantry keeping up on bicycles. Lieutenant General Arthur E. Percival, General Officer Commanding (GOC) Malaya and the overall commander of the Allied troops in the theatre shifted his headquarters from the administrative block (now Hotel Fort Canning) to the ‘Battle Box’, the adjacent bomb proof bunker complex 9 meters underground, consisting of 29 rooms. As the giant steel doors banged shut, the General spent the next couple of months overseeing the retreat, if not the rout, of his forces in Malaya. His staff officers and a posse of signallers, messengers and orderlies worked day and night in this cramped space where even the air they breathed was filtered through two special plants to prevent effects of any chemical attacks by enemy.
(Image credit – battle box )

It is difficult to fully comprehend the state of minds of the air defence coordinators with a handful of outdated aircraft against the enemy’s superior Mitsubishi and Zeros, the telephone operators, signallers and cipher operators constantly relaying news of further setbacks on the Peninsula, and of the commander supervising an obviously losing war with virtually no hope of reinforcements. On 9th January 1942, the British forces on the peninsula were ordered to abandon Kuala Lampur and fall back to Johor, on the souther tip, separated from Singapore by the narrow Johor Strait. They were forced back across the strait into Singapore on 31st January 1942. The whole of Malay Peninsula was now in Japanese hands, with Singapore handing on by a thin thread across the strait and cut off from all hopes of reinforcements or replenishments.

After a brief pause, the Japanese launched the anticipated attack on Singapore on 8th February 1942, crossing the Johor Strait after prolonged bombardment that virtually crippled the Australian brigade deployed for coastal defence. The allied forward troops were overrun over the next two days, and fell back to the second line of defence nearly halfway across the island.

On 10th evening, Prime Minister Churchill cabled ordering

“There must at this stage be no thought of saving the troops or sparing the population. The battle must be fought to the bitter end at all costs…. Commanders and senior officers should die with their troops. The honour of the British Empire and of the British Army is at stake.”

But, even as plans for a counterattack were being drawn up, the Japanese captured the Allies’ food, fuel and ammunition depots. The withdrawing troops were now in a tight perimeter around the city. Throughout the night of February 14/15, the Japanese continued to press against this perimeter, while the Allies’ ammunition and supply situation became precarious. At 9:30 am on 15th February, General Percival held a conference of his senior commanders and staff officers in the battle box, to decide on the further course of action. Ruling out a counterattack in view of the situation, a decision was taken to surrender Singapore to the Japanese.

(Image credit – battle box)

After brief negotiations with the Japanese, Allied troops led by General Percival carrying the Union Jack, surrendered to the Japanese commander General Yamashita at the Ford Factory complex. A total of 85,000 Allied troops surrendered, in the biggest ever capitulation by them during the war. The prisoners, including General Percival, spent the rest of the war as Japanese prisoners, some of them under extremely pitiable conditions in labour camps.

(Image credit – Wikipedia)

The tide of war ebbed and flowed over the next three years, finally culminating in the dropping of the atomic bomb over Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, leading to immediate surrender by Japan. In a possible move to redeem the loss of face, it was ensured that General Percival was specially flown in for the signing of the surrender document by Japan. He can be seen standing behind General Douglas MacArthur in this photograph.

(Image credit –

The entire saga is brilliantly brought to life through models, photographs, audiovisuals and commentary in the one hour tour through the various rooms of the battle box. It’s a must see, particularly for military history enthusiasts.

Details can be found at

(Image – Rohit Agarwal)