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NEWS | March 24, 2016

Sea Diaries: A ride through Singapore’s World War II disaster

By Cmdr. John Bradford

A vibrant and modern city set in lush tropical gardens.  Incredible shopping. Globally-inspired dining available at all price ranges. Amusement parks.  Beaches. Dance clubs and live music. World-class museums. Singapore has something for everyone. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that “The Lion City” has been for decades a favorite liberty spot for U.S. 7th Fleet Sailors.  

7th Fleet Sailors also recognize that Singapore’s strategic location, at the southern end of the primary strait connecting the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea, gives the city-state tremendous military importance. Reflecting on that geography, our group of 7th Fleet Sailors set aside a Sunday during their port visit to focus on professional development. They came along for a staff ride to learn more about the Battle of Singapore and its impact on the strategic outcomes of World War II. Staff rides have been a part of military training for more than one hundred years and combine preliminary study of a selected campaign with an extensive visit to the actual sites associated with that campaign. They provide opportunities to integrate the lessons derived from each.  

The 25 Sailors met for breakfast at the Terror Club, a U.S. Navy facility named after HMS Terror, a ship stationed at Singapore’s Sembawang Naval Base during World War II.  Mr. Jeyathurai Ayadurai, a veteran lecturer from the Department of Strategic Studies at the Singapore Armed Forces Command & Staff College and now Director of the Changi Museum, provided a rich overview of the Battle of Singapore and the strategic considerations that underpinned what Prime Minister Winston Churchill would call the "worst disaster" and "largest capitulation" in British military history.  The lecture set the stage for a lively discussion in which Sailors contemplated the decisions made by the British and Japanese leaders, their possible mistakes, and the impacts of the battle’s outcome.  

From the Terror Club, the group proceeded to the Seribum beach, where Singapore’s Police Coast Guard offered special access to the shoreline. Standing amidst the mangrove swamps of Singapore’s northwest coast, the Sailors were able to see first hand the narrow strait which the Japanese crossed to invade from Malaya and the harsh terrain through which they then fought.  

The Sailors’ next stop was the Kranji War Memorial and Commonwealth graves. Laying a wreath of poppies at the base of the memorial, the Sailors paid their respects to the more than 4000 Commonweath casualties who fell fighting in conflicts from World War I through to the Vietnam War, as well as an unknown number of civilians who died during the Japanese occupation of Singapore. Certainly, the visit to Kranji was the most sobering part of the day.  

From Kranji the group moved on to visit the subterranean British headquarters from World War II known as The Battle Box. The Sailors appreciated this special opportunity as the Battle Box had been closed for several years of renovations. Considering we were all from the 7th Fleet staff, an organization very similar to the one based in the Battle Box during the War, the cite visit was an excellent opportunity to reflect on things that have and have not changed in the last 70 years of military technology.   

At the end of the Battle of Singapore staff ride, many of the participants were pretty worn out. Luckily, we were now in the heart of Singapore, so there were plenty of options to recharge and then have a bit more fun!  Personally, I refueled with some local coffee (kopi) and coconut jam (kaya) on toast before moving on to enjoy more of Singapore.