Our Memories

Story by Brat, Murray Hill 73-75

Singapore was regarded as a jewel of the British Empire and a strategically significant island much as Gibraltar and Malta. Its fall to the enemy was inconceivable. It quite simply could not happen. It was also the lynch pin of the Commonwealths defensive plans for the Pacific based around the naval base and shipyards as support for a Royal Navy fleet.

On December 7th 1941 the Japanese Imperial Navy launched the war in the Pacific with their attack on the US naval base at Pearl Harbor. This was followed up with attacks throughout the region and in early 1942 they landed in Malaya with the intention of capturing Singapore with its valuable naval base.

From pilots like Geoff Fisken who flew obsolete Brewster Buffalos against Zero's and Lt. Adnan Saidi of the 1st Battalion the Malay Regiment who lead his men in a fight to the last man the fall of Singapore was marked by individual professionalism failed badly by incompetent leadership.

The brunt of the fighting was borne by the Australian's. Though they represented only about 10% of the force they suffered 2/3 of the casualties and provided the few successes of a nightmare campaign.

At the highest level however the British Military was quite simply not equal to the task and was completely unprepared for the vigorous operation the Japanese were engaged in.

The "fleet" which was the whole purpose for the existence of the Islands force consisted of only two capital ships, the battleship HMS Prince of Wales and the battle cruiser HMS Repulse. These ships sortied from Singapore on receiving news of the Japanese landings without air cover. Whether this was because the air force was unable to provide the cover or the navy did not feel the need has been a source of debate for some time. The point is moot as the air cover would have been obsolete Brewster Buffalos and could have little influenced the outcome. Both ships were quickly sunk by determined attack by Japanese aircraft off the Malay peninsula.

This was the first major blow to the complacency of the British administration yet in a deliberate decision to "avoid panicking the population" the Military Command chose not to build additional defences or set up roadblocks and heavy weapons positions that could have delayed the Japanese advance. The only proactive action seems to have been to issue pamphlets advising the troops of the inferiority of the Japanese fighting man.

As the Japanese advanced down the Malayan peninsular they took no prisoners and murdered those that did surrender. Their brutality was not reserved to enemy soldiers. They routinely murdered civilians and non-combatants saving their worst for the Chinese. The allied forces withdrew from Malaya to the island and were dispersed of the 70 miles of the perimeter. Again it was the Australians who faced the Japanese amphibious assault from the mainland. Already having lost over half their strength in action and spread too thinly they were unable to prevent the landings. In spite of having fresh troops in reserve General Percival elected not to provide any reinforcements.

The evacuation of the island, left far too late was a full-scale panic. Individual ships sailed without escort or air cover. There was none. Many were picked off by Japanese air units, survivors lifeboats were routinely attacked after their ships were sunk. Within a matter of days the allied force had been pushed back across half the island and on 15th February General Percival surrendered to the Japanese. Australia and New Zealand were now wide open to the unstoppable Japanese. It was a terrible blow to British confidence and Churchill noted that it was the worst shock he suffered in all the war and he was glad that he was alone. The Japanese General himself was both incredulous and extremely relieved that the British commander chose to surrender at this point. The Japanese force was substantially less than the Commonwealth forces and they were extremely overextended and almost out of ammunition. Had the battle continued he has said he would have been forced to withdraw from the island.

Singapore itself is full of reminders of the events of World War Two. Air raid shelters still dotted the area inside the bases. Some peculiar place names for kids to have for their soccer field, execution row.

The infamous Changi Prison. All were constant reminders of what had taken place there. The useless guns facing the wrong direction - in actuality they did engage the enemy but there was a shortage of high explosive ammunition - are now a tourist attraction. Much of the infrastructure was pre-war as were the some of the staff.

Kranji is like a focus of all these daily prompts and ANZAC Day is the culmination of all that has happened and is made real by the thousands of names on the wall there.

I have attended dawn services for as long as I could remember, from the age of six I was always in one uniform or another. At the ages of eleven and twelve I attended the ANZAC Day dawn services at Kranji Cemetery in Singapore. Many experiences of Singapore and the two years that I lived there remain vivid but none more so that those two services. For me Kranji will always be an experience more than a place.

Kranji itself is unusually small, only around 4,500 are buried there, many in mass graves. Of the graves only about 850 are named. Yet lining the memorial walls are the names of over 24,000 others who died. To put it another way, Kranji is larger than many of the Allied cemeteries in Normandy but here most of the fallen have no known graves.

The grounds are immaculately kept and on an island where space is at a premium Kranji is open, sprawling, well-boarded with trees. It is quiet, unusually so for so crowded a country. This lends an atmosphere of peacefulness that reinforces the nature of the place. The ground rises from the gate to the memorial itself which follows the top of the ridge and from there the straights are visible. Here lay or are remembered – Indians, Chinese, Malay's, British, Australian's and New Zealander's, Ghurkha's. Attending an ANZAC Day dawn service here is a moving experience. Unlike the services back home that take place at every small town memorial and are attended by organizations and veterans, here the dead are in attendance. Not represented by the names on a wall or monument, but here are their remains. The memorial walls carry the names of more than twenty four thousand who have no grave. Scattered around are other particular memorials, the Chinese Memorial, the General Hospital Memorial and others. Each another chapter to the terrible story told in the simple explanations on the inscriptions.

I was used to a solemn occasion but one that was carried off with a kind cheerful disorganization that betrayed more of the holiday that would follow. Here the full impact of the meaning is inescapable. The service is carried off with military precision and dignity that is compelling. The memorial walls are lined with servicemen of three services and two nations resting on reversed arms and stay like statues. The flags flying together give a real sense of the bond our nations share, not only with each other but also with the region itself.

With tropical reliability dawn arrives and the golden star that tops the memorial is struck by the rising sun.

With the official service over we are free to move about and poppies that would normally be either laid at a memorial or lost later in the day are laid on graves of the fallen. In some cases the children took some time to find a grave because they were seeking out an uncle or grandfather they had never known.