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Japanese Invasion of Malaysia and Singapore

On December 7, 1941 the Japanese arrived in the city of Kota Bahru in British Malaya (present day Malaysia). They arrived just a few hours before the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Within two months, the Japanese had conquered present day Peninsular Malaysia. On February 8, 1942 they crossed the causeway and entered into the British colony of Singapore. Singapore was ill prepared for this rapid invasion as all of their guns and cannons had been permanently mounted pointing out towards the ocean. The Japanese merely crossed the bridge between the two countries and began in what would be one of the British empire's worst defeats (p 449, Finlay et al).

By February 20 the Japanese had seized Bukit Timah. This was an important achievement as not only was Bukit Timah the highest point on the island (162 meters) in order to provide good views, but from Bukit Timah there were roads that led straight to the center of the city.

This is a photograph of a plaque commemorating the Battle for Bukit Timah. In case you can't read it, it says:

Bukit Timah, which dominates the arterial Bukit Timah and Dunearn Roads leading to the city, was a strategically important point for both the Allied troops and the Japanese.

On the night of 10th February 1942, the Japanese troops from the 5th and 18th Divisions, supported by armor, attacked troops of the 12th and 15th Indian Brigades, the 22nd Australian Brigade, The Special Reserve Battalion, Tomforce, Merrett's Force, the Argylls, Jind State Infantry and 'X' Battalion. The Allied forces had re-grouped to defend the critical junctions at Choa Chu Kang, Jurong and Clementi Roads leading to Bukit Timah Road.

By dawn of 11th February 1942, the Japanese troops reported to their commander Lietenand-General Tomoyuki Yamashita that they had sezed Bukit Timah. The road to the city was open.

The Japanese built man-made caves in the jungle hills of Bukit Timah to store supplies and ammunition. These caves are still standing today. These are a few photographs of them.

The bars were installed recently to protect the bats that live in the caves from being disturbed by tourists.

Another significant battle was the Battle for Bukit Batok, one of Singapore's bloodiest battles. Now the top of Bukit Batok hill is simply a cell phone tower, but this wasn't always the case. A plaque, located at the base of Bukit Batok, tells the story of the monuments were once on the top of Bukit Batok.

"Two monuments once stood on top of this hill in memory of Allied and Japanese soldiers killed in the battle for Singapore. Built by some 500 Allied POWs in 1942, the Japanese memorial, the Syonan Chureito, was a 40-foot high wooden pylon topped with a brass cone. To the rear was a small hut housing the ashes of Japanese soldiers killed in the Battle for Bukit Timah. The POWs were allowed to build a second monument to honor the Allied dead. This was a 10-foot high wooden cross which stood just behind the Japanese monument. The Syonan Chureito was destroyed by the Japanese before the return of the Allied Forces to Singapore in 1945."

On February 15, Singapore surrendered to the Japanese. The large European population was assembled onto the Padang, a large field, for questioning. The Europeans, including women and children, became POWs, and were interned at Selarang Barracks and Changi Prison. Singapore became a POW camp for the next three years, containing thousands of POWs, many of whom were Australian soldiers fighting for Singapore. One third of the people who were interned did not leave the prisons alive.

On the right is a photograph of what the Padang looked like on February 15, 1942, and on May 5, 1998. It is now a recreational field, as it was before the invasion.

The conditions in the prisons were horrendous. One of the most famous incidents in the Selarang Barracks is the Selarang Square incident. 17,000 POWs were forced to vacate their buildings and remain outdoors for 5 days with no shelter, water, or sanitation because they had refused to sign a form stating, "I PROMISE NOT TO ESCAPE."

The Japanese renamed Singapore Syonanto, or Light of the South, and ruled it harshly (p 1, SHM). The Kempeitai (Japanese military police) massacred over 50,000 Chinese males. Thousands more civilians faced starvation, torture, and execution.

One inmate in Changi prison was WRM Haxworth. Haxworth had been a member of the Singapore Police Force until he was a POW from 1942-1945. He produced over 400 paintings and sketches despite the lack of paper. His artwork depicted daily life as a prisoner, including this sketch, one of many that shows the lack of appropriate shoes for the prisoners.

Another POW was George Aspinall, from Australia. Aspinall was only 17 years old when he came to fight in Singapore (making use of his cousin's birth certificate to join the military). His folding Kodak 2 camera was a going away present from his uncle. While in slave labor loading goods onto ships bound for Japan, he found X-ray photographic material, and, by opening bottles and sniffing until he recognized the distinctive odors, he found developer and fixer. By trial and error he learned how to process his negatives without being caught. As the Japanese military began to search POWs more thoroughly, he had to destroy his camera and hide hi processed negatives down a toilet bore hole. Some were ruined, others were lost, but many of Aspinall's photographs are still here today.

This photo shows tropical ulcers in their early stage. Many POWs had to have their legs amputated without anesthetics because of these ulcers.

This is a photograph of the Changi Quilt, "presented to the British Red Cross at the end of WWII made by women internees in Changi early in 1942."

The thousands of POWs interned in Singapore turned to religion for hope. They built chapels from scrap materials, and prisoners held their own sermons inside their cells. The Changi Chapel was designed and built by Lieutenant Hamish Cameron-Smith, RE in 1944. He was an architectural student before joining the Royal Engineers. Cameron-Smith was greatly assisted by Lieutenant Hugh Simon-Thwaites, and a "band of volunteer laborers" who scrounged the materials from various sources (Changi Prison Museum). The Chapel was built with makeshift tools; a great deal of ingenuity and skill were required.

After the war, the Chapel was dismantled under the supervision of Corporal Max Lee, who was swerving with the Australian was graves registration unit. The Chapel was shipped to Australia and unattended for 40 years. In 1988, it was reassembled at the Royal Military College, Duntroon in the city of Canberra. On August 15, 1988, the Chapel was dedicated as a national memorial to all Australian POWs, regardless of their religion. Now there is a life-sized replica of the Changi Chapel where visitors can leave notes for their loved ones who did not come out of Singapore alive. In front of the chapel is a plaque reading,

"Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest."

Unfortunately, my photo of the chapel did not come out.

However, I was able to take a picture of a picture of the Chapel that is now in Australia.

In 1942, Stanley Warren was in Block 51, a makeshift hospital at Changi Prison. He was recovering from severe renal disorder, kidney disease, malnutrition, dysentery, and the removal of eight kidney stones with no anesthetic. He turned to religion for hope, and painted five colorful murals despite the lack of brushes and paint. His painting style had to adapt to the situation, so he painted large areas of the murals the same color. The Japanese covered the murals with layers upon layers of distemper, and some were destroyed as they built a doorway through the area. The murals were discovered in 1958 when the prison was being renovated and in 1963 Warren was convinced to return to Changi Prison and restore his murals.

Amidst the ubiquitous construction of downtown Singapore stands the WWII memorial. On the left is the view of the memorial from across the street (in front of Raffles City). On the right is the inside of the memorial.

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