The Fatal Fortress. The guns & fortifications of Singapore 1819-1956.

Gordon Angus Mackinlay

I purchased before Christmas :

CLEMENTS Bill. The Fatal Fortress. The guns & fortifications of Singapore 1819-1956. Pen & Sword, Barnsley, 2016. Hard cover, dustjacket, vii, 199pp., photographs, maps, drawings, index.

The author a former Colonel in the British Army, has previously written the both successful and authoritive texts :

Defending the North. The Fortifications of Ulster 1796-1956. Colour Point, County Down, Northern Ireland, 2003. Illustrated card cover placed in hardcover, 118p., photographs, maps, drawings, index.

Towers of Strength. Martello Towers Worldwide. Leo Cooper, Barnsley, 1999. Hard cover, dustjacket, 192p., photographs, maps, drawings, index.

And this book is of the same standard.  It covers the development of coastal artillery and associated structures from when the Island of Singapore in 1832 was taken over by the Honourable East India Company when it formed part of the Straits Settlements (along with Malacca and Penang Island), up to 1956 when the last of the coastal defence systems were sent to the dustbin of history.

It is not just a technical book, but covers the whole development of the weapons systems from muzzle loaders to the (then) ultra modern 15inch guns of the late 1930’s, and how they fitted into the defence concepts of the times.

The photographic reproductions are extremely relevant, although I do wish that they had included far more (but, space and price restrictions put the kabosh on this), and they and the maps show the definitive result of Singapore being created as a “Seaward Defence Fortress”.

Whilst there is still much controversy around as to how the Guns of Singapore did not defend the Island, the text makes it quite plain that their planning, design and eventual construction was to deter the Japanese battle fleet from taking the Island from the seaward side.  The problem being that when conceived in the early 1930’s the technological concept was world class.  Unfortunately, the extremely rapid development of the East coast of the Malayan Federated States transport infrastructure (road, rail, with associated major bridge works across the many rivers), changed dramatically the defence posture, providing a superb conduit for the Japanese to happily trot down the Malayan Peninsular pushing their bicycles and driving their tanks.

The West Coast was well protected by nature having very few landing sites for a invader coming in strength, and Penang Island was also being developed as a Seaward Defence Fortress.  Unfortunately the 1939 outbreak of war in Europe saw the two 15inch guns to be mounted as the main weapons of the Fortress were never constructed, although the very expensive concrete work for the battery was completed in 1940.  Two modern 6inch batteries were completed (but each only mounted with two of the three guns required for each battery), which high mounted (North and South points of the Island) provided seaward close defence, and support for the defence of Malacca.

He discusses the reasons for the lack of HE ammunition for the SIngapore guns, and makes it quite clear that clear thinking by the Artillery command structure did develope a counter-bombardment against the Japanese in Johore State opposite the North of the Island.  The vast bulk of the 15inch HE ammunition was taken in 1941 to resupply the Royal Navy’s Mediterranean Fleet which had expended so much in their operations against the Italian Army throughout the Med, the industrial base in the UK was restricted in their HE ammunition production in 1941, plus there was the immense length of the resupply route from the UK via Cape Town, through the Indian Ocean to Egypt.

The resupply of 15inch ammunition to Singapore was lost in the destruction of the “Singapore Convoy” by the German U-Boat fleet in the Bay of Biscay, well described in Nicholas Montserrat's autobiographical novel The Cruel Sea, in which so much land and air equipment and munitions was lost.  The modern 9.2inch guns at Singapore did not have HE ammunition, as it was intended purely as a coast defence counter-bombardment weapon to attack enemy warships with AP – Armoured Piercing ammunition.  The manufacture of HE ammunition for the 9.2 only commenced in 1941 and the initial stocks were required form the Home Defence forces in the UK, so none was sent out.

So the  Coast Defence Regiments of the Royal Artillery did fight back against the Japanese, with unfortunately a tool, AP ammunition that had little effect in comparison to HE ammunition, although their shooting was very accurate and did cause casualties negated by the ineffective explosions of AP shells!

So the Seaward Defence Fortress of Singapore (and Penang) did fulfil the role it was intended for, with unfortunately the change in technology created a fortress with the back door open.  In KINVIG Clifford. Scapegoat General Percival of Singapore. Brassey's Biographies, London, 1996. Hard cover, x, 278p., photographs, maps, index., the author makes it quite clear that Percival had as the Staff Colonel of Malaya Command in 1936 informed the defence heirachy of the problem, but, no money to fix it.  Kinvig also corrects the many lies told about Percival, who really was the Scapegoat of Singapore.

The books also informs us of the wholesale destruction of the coast defence guns of Singapore prior to the surrender.  But, writers still inform us that guns captured at Singapore were used to build up the defences of the Pacific Islands in the face of the US Navy advance to Japan from 1943-45.  Because these guns were marked made in the UK.

Examination of this very informative website :  has the article 8-inch Coastal Defense Guns in Micronesia.   While the listing on his home page gives us talking about the so called “surrendered guns”, his website is well worth looking at with a substantial amount of articles, although it does not seem to have been altered/updated since 2000.

The only real comment that I have about The Fatal Fortress (apart from my whine about photographs) is that Clements makes no comment about the 1920’s plan to create mobile rail gun batteries, using the very competent Malayan States Railway Corporation, for both coastal and air defence, but, technology quickly overtook that concept anyway.

Well worth buying, and worth the twenty pounds in the UK (in Australia the tyranny of distance and Goods & Service tax took it up to A$59.95) see the Pen & Sword blurb

I will also put up : MALMASSARI Paul. Armoured Trains. An Illustrated Encyclopedia 1825-2016. Naval Institute Press, Annapolise, 2016. Hard cover, dustjacket, 527p., photographs, drawings.  Which superb text I am having great pleasure re-reading.


MACKINLAY  New South Wales