Singapore Naval Base - Begun in the early 1920's it was lost to the Japanese soon after it opened. Regained almost four years later we stayed this time some 27 years. Read the SNB story and see its 21st century use here before going on to the other 'Singapore' pages.
As the 1920's dawned British and other concessionary areas in China were under both political and physical threat and Hong Kong looked vulnerable. At the same time Anglo-Japanese relations were also deteriorating and it was clear Britain needed to revise its deployments in the Far East/Pacific. Admiral's Jellicoe and Beatty persistently, and in the end persuasively, argued the Navy's case for having a base and protective fleet at Singapore from where Britain could provide security for sea trading routes and its other Far Eastern interests.
Stanley Baldwin's Government gave approval and funded the start of exploratory work in 1923 and the site on the Johore Strait was selected. Clearance began but by November, after calling a snap election, the Government fell, Ramsey MacDonald became Prime Minister and work was stopped. The Government changed again in November 1924, back came Baldwin and back came work on Singapore Naval Base but a review was also ordered. That review, headed by Lord Curzon, confirmed the original site selection and work on the huge site continued.
At that time the British Commander-in-Chief China Station, Vice Admiral A Sinclair, based at Weiheiwei, reported after a visit to Singapore "the existing title of (the senior) RN Officer, Singapore be given the separate and distinctive title of Captain in Charge, Singapore and went on to make the following observations to the Admiralty :-
a) It was no good draining Admiralty ground to clear mosquitoes from it if the ground just outside the boundary was left a swamp,
b) An unauthorised village with no sanitary organisation was springing up just outside the boundary,
c) Local Government wanted approaching on both these questions and this sort of thing should be done by the Captain I/C."
By 1925 the role of Captain I/C Singapore was carried in HMS HAWKINS also the flagship of the China Station. At the end of that year there were just 7 officers and 25 ratings appointed for duties in Singapore and pleas were being made for more. The only vessels there was a Fleet Fuelling Craft (C450) and a 60ft Steam Launch which the Captain I/C reported as being used by him for calling on British and Foreign Men of War. He suggested she be called HMS SEMBAWANG, the name of the river running through the base. Their Lordship's succinct response in February 1926 said "do not consider the present a suitable time to give effect to the proposals….. the name SEMBAWANG is not regarded as suitable either for the dockyard or for the base at Singapore".
Despite the world situation and more locally Japan's expansion in the region, British and Commonwealth political and naval opinions on the Base were not unified so argument and discussion rumbled on through the 1930's which slowed progress and consequently the opening got moved back year by year. Towards the end of 1933, with RN numbers growing, the Monitor HMS TERROR was sent to Singapore as Base ship and the senior RN officer rank was elevated from Captain to Commodore. With the war in Europe looming, the Base was finally opened on the 1st of February 1938 by the then Governor of Singapore, Sir Shenton Thomas.
Just how necessary and important its earlier opening and utilisation would have been was very soon realised and had, by the end of 1941, been indelibly stamped on history. HMS TERROR remained as Base ship until the last day of 1939 and the next day the function was established ashore when HMS SULTAN (the Barracks later renamed TERROR) commissioned.
HMS TERROR (1916-1941) anchored in Johore Strait c.1936 (Thanks to Alf Lawson for this picture)
It was from Singapore Naval Base, within days of arriving there, that the battleship PRINCE OF WALES and the battle-cruiser REPULSE sailed, with their four destroyer escort TENEDOS, EXPRESS, ELECTRA and HMAS VAMPIRE late in the afternoon on the 8th of December 1941. The 1,612 ships company of HMS PRINCE OF WALES and another 1,309 in REPULSE little suspected that their ships would, in less than 48 hours, both be at the bottom of the South China Sea, the victims of Japanese air attacks off Kuantan on Malaya's east coast. With the attacks starting around noon on the 10th events moved at a frantic pace so much so that by 1311 'REPULSE' was sunk and some ten or so minutes later so to was 'PRINCE OF WALES'. The human loss was 513 and 327 respectively. Most of the men were from the 'Devonport' depot so, fittingly, their names are recorded on the memorial that stands on Plymouth Hoe.
HMS REPULSE (1916-1941) At Singapore 8 December and sinking off Kuantan two days later. (Pics. thanks to Clarrie Gibson
This event, following only a couple of days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour was, to say the least, a devastating and defining blow. As the Pearl Harbour attacks were in progress Japanese soldiers were landing in the NE corner of Malaya and, as was soon discovered, they walked and/or cycled down through the Malay Peninsula and onto Singapore Island with unsuspected speed as our forces fought a losing battle ahead of them. Amongst the defenders of Singapore were some of the survivors from the PRINCE OF WALES AND REPULSE.
From Lieutenant General Percival's surrender to the Japanese at the Ford Motor Works factory on the 15th of February 1942 through to the surrender of the Japanese to Lord Mountbatten on the steps of Singapore's City Hall on the 12th of September 1945 some 1,314 days of untold human suffering were to pass.
Following our re-occupation of Singapore it became a Crown Colony and just over a decade later it was agreed that it would become a self-governing state save for defence and external affairs which would remain with the UK. No sooner was this achieved than the Malayan Prime Minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman, proposed the formation of Malaysia comprising Malaya, Sarawak, (Brunei), British North Borneo and Singapore. More than 70% of Singaporeans voted in favour in 1962 and it became an independent member of Malaysia when it came formally into being in 1963. Singapore's presence within Malaysia was, however, a short and unhappy one and with some internal disturbances through 1964/5 it left the group and by the end of 1965 became and remains in 2002, the Republic of Singapore.
As talk of the formation of Malaysia grew Indonesia, opposed to this new and enlarged grouping in the area, began attacks and incursions which forced the UK and local governments into action. That resulted in more commonwealth ships and men being sent to Singapore and consequently a build up of Dockyard staff and work through 1963-66. Thereafter, with Singapore independent and the Indonesian confrontation problem resolved the run down began once more.
In 1967 the UK Government announced its intention to withdraw from its bases in Singapore and the Persian Gulf by the mid 70's. Economics soon shortened that to 1971 and on the 11th of November 1971 we formally left handing Singapore Naval Base - within which the Dockyard had been contract run since 1968 by Swan Hunter - to the Singapore Government.
What had started out in the early 1920's as almost 40 square miles of tropical swamp and jungle; been transformed into the largest British naval dockyard with barracks and fleet supply centre outside the UK; been overrun by an enemy and then re-occupied, was now, as 1972 began, about to undergo yet another transformation. This change came at, indeed brought about, yet another defining moment in the history of the island of Singapore.
Guided by Lee Kuan Yew there has been a thorough and almost total regeneration of Singapore. Gone are the attap huts in clearings instead there are now modern business and commerce centres, shops, homes, leisure facilities together with road and rail infrastructure. It is not without justification that Singapore Airport at Changi is repeatedly voted 'Best World Airport'.
You can still see some of the old amongst the new both inside and outside the ex-Naval Base you just have to look harder for them if you are seeking other than The Padang, Fullerton Building (now an hotel), Tiger Balm Gardens or Raffles for example. Oh yes! there is one little bit of Orchard Road (opposite where the Rose D'Or stood) still recognisable as well but you wont find the Singapura Hotel nor the Orchard Bowl.
Singapore's Business District faced by the Fullerton Building which now houses a hotel and offices & (RH) Padang/Boat Quay
To give you a feel for what SNB is like now, in 2002, let's take a walk through from Semabawang Gate to Woodlands. In the main Admiralty Road still follows its original course but has become a dual carriageway throughout the length of the Singapore Naval Base. Though there is no longer a 'gate' at Sembawang you would still recognise it and the area through to the Dockyard Gate/ Royal Sailors Rest. It has changed little with the roads of 'Black & Whites' (naval & dockyard officers) houses and schools but what was the Dockyard Officers Club in Ross Road has become the US Navy's 'Terror Club'.
The wooden 'Police Station', to the left of the Dockyard Gate, has been replaced by a silver metalled building housing Semabawang Shipyard offices. Across Admiralty Road, up on the hill, what was 'Aggie Weston's' is instantly recognisable standing alone. It now provides rest and recreation for local people much as it did for us.
From here to 'TERROR' nothing much has changed on the left but on the right the dockyard has extended - a new dock capable of taking super-tankers has been built adjacent to KGVI Dock - and our 9-hole golf course has been given over to a concrete pipe construction works etc. Within the old TERROR site the old buildings continue to be used with new ones added to form Singapore's Institute of Naval Technology and Operations.
Outside and across the road from where the old TERROR Main Gate was there was Suara W/T Station. On that site now a multi storey building is nearing completion. Turning right from TERROR towards Woodlands for a couple of miles perhaps the area to the right of the road and down to the waterside is now totally taken up by commerce and industry of all types and sizes. For example the first site you come upon on turning right out of TERROR is a huge British America Tobacco Company building while across the road the Senoko Fleet Fuel Depot remains with a RN Liaison Officer and a small Naval Party. (Picture below Left of housing building behind (S) of oil depot)
Going through towards Woodlands and the Causeway, on your left, there is still a lot of green and undeveloped land but beyond that and within about a mile there has been major housing block development beyond Senoko. When you get down to Rimau where the married quarters and Malaysian Navy Barracks stood on the left there is now a Drugs Rehabilitation Centre and on the right where the Submariner SR's Mess was there is now a Prison. Intimidated by the lookout towers and warning notices I thought it might be 'unwise' to take pictures.
Further on Woodlands Jetty is instantly recognisable and it was here that I chose to stop and look across to JB and the Causeway where, on the day, there was a long queue of northbound traffic all sounding their horns in frustration at the delays through JB Customs - no change there then!!! Woodlands Village is now a modern town and hugely bigger though it has not encroached any closer to the Straits so you would still easily find your way through to the Gate. What you can no longer do is go through the gate to the Bukit Timor Road and Causeway.
I had enjoyed my eight or nine mile ramble round what we called Singapore Naval Base while my wife enjoyed her day by the hotel pool so I thought she couldn't possibly be referring to me when I heard her muttering words like 'self-inflicted injury' and 'fool' as I wallowed afterwards in the bath!!! By the way the blisters only took three weeks to heal!
Use the 'Top of page' button to go to HMS TERROR/HMS MULL OF KINTYRE and SINGAPORE DOCKYARD pages index.
This revised page published 13/9/08. Previous Ctr (Orig page 2003) at 11/9/08 = 10794