The History Behind Singapore's Only Surviving WWII Bomb Shelter

Yohani Kamarudin
Yohani Kamarudin
Scribol Staff
Anthropology and History, January 15, 2013
  • Bare bricks and long, narrow corridors deep beneath the earth

    For over 70 years, these underground tunnels and rooms in Tiong Bahru, Singapore have lain forgotten. While the apartment blocks above them bustle with life and activity, the only visitors to these subterranean passageways over the decades have been workers from the local council, who used the space to store waste disposal equipment.

    Who could have imagined that beneath their feet was a 16,145 square foot (1,500 square meter) reminder of a time when air raid sirens blared and buildings were razed to the ground, while 100 people huddled together for safety below the surface?

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  • A light at the end of the tunnel

    In 1940, Singapore was still a British colony. The Singapore Improvement Trust, a colonial organization, built this shelter, incorporating it into a public housing block. At the time, WWII was underway, and the British government was concerned with the increasing ambition of the Japanese, who had already taken Manchuria and were making incursions into China.

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  • If these walls could talk…

    In 1939, the British government finished building a naval base in Singapore. The base included what was then the world’s largest dry dock (as well as the third-largest floating dock). Winston Churchill dubbed the island the “Gibraltar of the East”. But the naval dock also made Singapore a target for military raids. The British military believed they had created a fortress that could cope with any attack. However, since the British fleet was occupied with defending Britain, it was a fortress without a navy. And when the Japanese attacked, on December 8, 1941, the effects were devastating.

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  • Sometimes it’s who you know

    The Japanese air raid on Singapore began at around 4:30am. The areas most affected were two airfields in Seletar and Tengah plus commercial district Raffles Place. By the time the Japanese bombers were done, 61 people were dead and 700 more were injured – most of them members of the 2/2nd Gurkha Rifles, 11th Infantry Division. British forces were caught by surprise, as they didn’t think the Japanese could launch such an air attack from so far away.

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  • The shelter must have seemed like a light in the darkness.

    In the months following the December 8 attack, air raid sirens wailed several times. “My grandfather said people nearby did use the shelter when the sirens went off, but those were mostly false alarms. It was actually hardly used,” says Peter Chan, the grandson of a Tiong Bahru volunteer air raid marshal.

    After the initial raid, the military and citizens of Singapore were given a few weeks of respite. It wasn’t until December 29/30, 1941 that the attacks began to come on a nightly basis, eventually escalating into daytime bombing on January 12 of the new year.

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  • Small windows like this offer a glimpse of natural light

    Although they were slow to start, once the Japanese air raids on Singapore began in earnest, they were horrific. The Japanese had captured nearby southern Malaya, which they now used as the base for their air force. Singapore was bombed day and night, leading to thousands of civilian deaths. The raids continued until February 15, 1942, when the British finally surrendered and Singapore fell to the Japanese.

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  • They might look like bunk beds, but they’re actually storage shelves.

    One family who used the shelter during the attacks has bittersweet memories of the experience. On January 21, 1942, Callistus Raymond Pereira, a teacher by profession, was called into action as a civil defense volunteer in the early hours of the morning. And it was almost as if he’d had a premonition of events to come when he gave his pregnant wife Gerarda a picture of the Virgin Mary and said, “Don’t worry, if anything happens, Our Lady will look after you.” He kissed his two sons and left the house.

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  • A wooden door sections off part of the shelter

    That evening, after another day of heavy bombing, Pereira did not return home. Fearing the worst, his wife went to look for him at the morgue. However, as 600 people had been killed in the raids that day, she was unable to find his body amidst the chaos. Later that evening, the sirens went off. She gathered her two young sons, Andrew and Eddy, and headed for the bomb shelter. “The sirens were blaring,” recalls Andrew Pereira, now 76. “There were bombed-out houses with only the staircases left standing.”

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  • A passageway deep underground

    “It was spacious down there, but dark,” says Andrew Pereira. “And if I recall correctly, we had just a few kerosene lamps.” (The fluorescent lighting you see in these pictures was added by the local council decades later, during the shelter’s time as a storage facility.) Another more pleasant memory Andrew Pereira has of that night is eating roasted bananas. But that was before another momentous event in the life of the Pereira family.

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  • A ventilation slot provides some fresh air

    During the night, Gerarda Pereira went into labor. Fortunately, Singapore’s first professor of gynecology and obstetrics, Professor J.S. English, just happened to be on hand, as he was in charge of the bunker’s medical unit at the time. Both he and his wife delivered the baby, Mary, not long after midnight. “If there had not been an air-raid shelter, I don’t know if I would have been born safely – or if I’d even be alive now,” says Mary Pereira, now aged 71.

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  • These corridors must have been even creepier before the lights were installed.

    Even though they must have been upset, the Pereira family was lucky to be inside the shelter during the bombing, for the raids destroyed a lot of Singapore. “We were homeless after that night of bombing,” says Mary Pereira. “I didn’t know it at the time, but my mum told me that whole buildings were destroyed and our flat was taken over.” But thanks to the shelter they had survived. Gerarda’s husband Callistus, however, was not so fortunate; his body was later discovered in a mass grave in Johor, Malaysia.

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  • These pin-ups are another recent addition.

    Now that the shelter has been rediscovered, there is much discussion over what to do with it. In early 2012, the bunker was opened up to the public in commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Singapore. Tours were conducted through the old passageways, raising people’s general awareness about the site.

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  • Here, part of a wall has been knocked down.

    The disused bomb shelter is still in good condition, if a little musty, after all these years. Alvin Tan, the National Heritage Board’s director of heritage institutions, says there have only been small renovations, including covering up some skylights and entrances. “If we do it too nicely, it will lose its authenticity,” Tan explains. The shelter remains unpainted, with exposed planks and pipes and the occasional piece of graffiti.

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  • An emergency generator

    The shelter will most likely be preserved, but the question is, in what capacity? Suggestions have included turning it into a childcare facility (which was rejected on the grounds of the bunker’s limited ventilation and lack of exits) and turning it into an art space (but water leaks make this impractical). At the moment, it’s a popularly requested spot for wedding photos.

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  • Signs of life

    “Singapore was razed to the ground that day,” says Mary Pereira of the day she was born in the shelter. “And I am like the phoenix that rose out of the ashes. That spirit is in me. I’ve been a fighter all the time – that’s me.” The 1930s buildings above the shelters are in line for government conservation status. As the last of its kind in the country, perhaps the shelter will also remain as a monument to the resilience of Singapore’s people through an extremely difficult time.

    Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7

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