The Battle Box, Fort Canning Park

Fort Canning Hill, a small hill in the centre of Singapore, has had a long history of being used as a defence location against potential invading enemies. The occupying British forces built the original fort in 1861 but it was later demolished in 1926 when more advanced forts were constructed along the southern coastline. A new command headquarters and barracks replaced the fort on the hill and from within inside, the Malaya Command coordinated the defence of British Malaya and Singapore.

As World War II became more of a reality, the British decided to construct a bomb proof shelter, 9-metres below Fort Canning Hill. Started in 1936, the ‘Battle Box’ was made up of 29 rooms that included a cypher room, a telephone exchange room, a signal control room, a gun operations room and an electricity generator. Prior to the Japanese invasion of Singapore, many of those who were assigned to work in the ‘Battle Box’ preferred to work at the nearby Headquarters of the British Strategic Command due to the lack of fresh air and claustrophobic nature of the space. However, in 1942 when Japanese troops entered the north of Singapore, all high level military leaders were moved to the bunker for safety reasons.

When the Japanese started to bomb central Singapore on the 11th of February 1942, it is estimated that almost 500 military officers were squeezed in the Battle Box to make the decision about the fate of Singapore. On the 15th of February, the decision to surrender was made and in the coming days all allied officers left the Battle Box. After the war had ended, Fort Canning was once again used by the British military, however the bunker was left abandoned and in the 1960s it was sealed up due to safety concerns.

In 1988, after much research, a journalist rediscovered the Battle Box buried beneath Fort Canning Hill. It was decided that the space should be converted into a museum that explained the historical significance of the site. In 1992, the bunker was opened to the public and a series of exhibitions and life-size model displays was presented throughout the secure rooms. In 2015, the museum was closed for a year to conduct necessary restoration works and upgrade the interpretive content.

Now managed by the National Parks Board of Singapore, the reopened museum has moved the focus from the individual rooms of the bunker to the wider historical context and events that led to the eventual surrender of Singapore in 1942. Visitors are taken on guided walking tours through the bunker that showcase propaganda posters, old maps and photographs as well as models depicting pivotal scenes that occurred in the bunker after the Japanese invasion. Future plans for the museum are already underway with the roll-out of multimedia guides and 3D technologies such as soundscapes and visual media being implemented in the coming months.