First air raid on Singapore

Singapore Infopedia

by Chua, Alvin


The first air raid on Singapore was carried out by 17 Japanese planes from the Imperial Japanese Navy Air Force, launched from Japanese-occupied Saigon (now known as Ho Chi Minh City) in Vietnam.1 It took place shortly after 4 am on 8 December 1941, and left 61 dead and 133 people injured.2

Air raid precautions 1936–1941
In July 1936, the Air Raids and Bombardments Precautions Sub-committee of the British colonial government issued a statement, making public the existence of the committee and the government's deliberations on civilian measures if air raids were to happen. The statement advised civilians that sirens would sound in the event of an air raid, and that people should stay in their homes until the all-clear signal was given.3

Air raid demonstrations, including decontamination and rescue drills,4 lectures, the distribution of pamphlets and blackout exercises5 were subsequently carried out, but these were of limited effectiveness. In October 1938, the Straits Settlements (Singapore) Association made the case to the government that there was a lack of official information on air raid precautions as well as government spending on air raid measures, with majority of the public remaining unaware of what to do during an air raid.6 

The first complete blackout exercise in Singapore was held on 16 March 1939 to educate the public to turn off outdoor lights and obscure indoor
ones to hinder enemy bombers if an attack happened.7 A number of these blackout exercises were held through to 1941.8

The government also recruited civilian air raid wardens to provide information and assistance during raids, and by November 1939, there were around 3,500 Air Raid Precautions (ARP) wardens and another 1,200
St John Ambulance Brigade members.9 The wardens were to work with rescue personnel, firemen and police to guide civilians to shelters, enforce blackout measures, rescue people and in basic fire fighting.10 

Other precautionary measures such as bomb shelters and the evacuation of population centres such as
Chinatown were debated in Singapore, and the government initially recommended a "stay put" policy for people to remain in their homes.11 Then Governor Sir Shenton Thomas considered that shelters and evacuation camps were impracticable as the risk of enemy bombers getting through Singapore's anti-aircraft defences and defending fighter planes was low.12

In the face of public pressure, however, bomb shelters were built in the new estate of
Tiong Bahru,13 and evacuation camp registration centres were established in the east and west coast districts of Singapore and in Geylang in 1941.14 Companies also made air raid provisions for their workers, and municipal buildings and facilities were protected against bomb attacks.15

The overall effectiveness of these measures was shown to be inadequate when the "vast majority" of the population did not know what to do during a daylight air raid exercise in January 1941.16 There were also criticisms levelled against the colonial administration for its lack of effort in building air raid shelters and reinforcing buildings with blast walls.17

Singapore under attack
In the early hours of 8 December 1941, Japanese invasion forces landed at Kota Bharu in the Malayan state of Kelantan and on the Thai coast of Singora and Pattani. Governor Thomas was informed of the Japanese landings at 1.15 am and instructed the Straits Settlements police to begin Operation Collar and Trousers, so as to arrest and intern all Japanese in Malaya and their sympathisers. Among those interned was Suermasa Okamoto, the Japanese consul-general who had been scheduled to lunch with Thomas later that day.18

At 2.30 am, Thomas attended a meeting at the Singapore Naval Base with senior military officers, then Secretary of Defence in Malaya Charles Vlieland and then Colonial Secretary Stanley Jones. The meeting was interrupted when Japanese bombers attacked Singapore about two hours later.19 

Through radar monitoring, the Fighter Control Operations Room was alerted to aircraft 140 miles (225 km) out approaching Singapore from the northeast at 3.30 am. The island's army, air force and navy forces as well as anti-aircraft guns were immediately put on standby.
20 At the time, Singapore had about 40 3.7-inch heavy anti-aircraft guns capable of hitting targets above 20,000 feet (6,096 m), but these proved ineffectual in deterring the Japanese bombers on 8 December and in subsequent air raids.21

Shortly after 4 am, 17 Japanese naval bombers that had taken off from Saigon, Vietnam, attacked the Tengah and Seletar airfields.22 The defending Allied forces decided not to engage the Japanese bombers in the air, as they feared the anti-aircraft gunners would not be able to differentiate between Japanese and Allied planes. Over the next 10 minutes, Japanese bombs struck a number of targets across the island, including Chinatown, Raffles Place and Keppel Harbour, causing 61 casualties and 133 injuries. Many people turned out on the streets after hearing the explosions, and some thought it was another air raid exercise.23 

There was a delay in activating the Air Raid Precautions scheme, with some sources stating that Thomas had forbidden the sounding of the air raid warning sirens without his express approval.
24 Other sources, including an official account published by the Royal Air Force, noted that the A.R.P headquarters were not properly staffed and repeated telephone calls to the headquarters were not answered.25 In the recollection of F. A. C. “Jock” Oehlers, who lived through the Japanese Occupation, the sirens only sounded after the bomb attack.26 The Straits Times reported on 8 December 1941 that the air raid sirens were sounded at about 4.15 am. Despite the relatively short warning given, A.R.P wardens quickly went about their duty, receiving praise for their efficiency.27

Unfortunately, the city lights remained switched on during the air raid, as the officer in charge of the switchboard had gone to the cinema and taken the keys with him. This caused much debate in the days following the air raid. In later writings, however, some sources pointed out that a blackout would have been rendered ineffectual by the bright moonlight that night.28

Lun Yue Sheong, a witness to the air raid, spoke of how the bombs killed several people on Upper Cross Street. He also recalled a bomb landing on Tai Thong Restaurant where a large crowd had gathered, as it was near breakfast time. The bomb, however, did not explode as it “got stuck in the kitchen floor on the third” level of the restaurant.29 Another witness, Lee Tian Soo, a resident of Chinatown, remembered that "not until some people went down to the spot to see the buildings being brought down by the bombs and saw the casualties did they realise it was war. That was the time people started to rush everywhere, anywhere to any ground to build air raid shelters."30

Aftermath and subsequent events

In the following days, the people of Singapore learned that Pearl Harbour in Hawaii had been attacked by the Japanese hours before the first bombs were dropped on Singapore. This precipitated the entry of the United States of America into World War II.31 The Japanese government formally declared war on the Allies (including the British) some hours after the bombings, citing Allied interference in the Sino-Japanese War, and alleging that Allied actions had disturbed the peace and stability of east Asia, and placed economic and political pressures on Japan.32

For Singapore, war had become a reality. In the weeks that followed, Christmas lights had to be put out and a blackout regime was observed, as only searchlights lit the night sky in search of enemy planes.

Two days after the first air raid, the much heralded British warships
HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse were sunk by the Japanese on 10 December 1941.There were sporadic night-time hit-and-run air raids on Singapore during December, but the bombings intensified in January 1942 with two to three attacks daily, each carried out by groups of 27 or 54 Japanese aircraft. The Royal Air Force found that their F2A Buffalo planes were outmatched by Japanese Zero fighters, and the Hurricane MKIIs that arrived later were also unable to secure British control of the skies.34

Air raids in January caused an estimated 600 casualties and 1,500 injuries, but the figures are said to be much higher with some sources reporting almost 1,000 civilians killed during the raid of 21 January alone. Targets for the Japanese included Keppel Harbour, Kallang Aerodrome and crowded Chinese districts.
35 After taking control of Johor, the Japanese began to shell Singapore with artillery fire in February 1942. Landing on Singapore on 8 February, the Japanese secured British surrender on 15 February and gained control of the island, thereby subjecting Singapore to three-and-a-half years of Japanese occupation.36

Alvin Chua

1. Romen Bose, Singapore at War: Secrets from the Fall, Liberation & Aftermath of WWII (Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions, 2012), 73. (Call no. RSING 940.5425 BOS-[WAR])
2. Lee Geok Boi, The Syonan Years: Singapore under Japanese Rule 1942–1945 (Singapore: National Archives of Singapore and Epigram, 2005), 41 (Call no. RSING q940.53957 LEE-[WAR]); “Governor on the War,” Straits Times, 8 December 1941, 8. (From NewspaperSG)
3. “Air Raid Precautions in Singapore,” Straits Times, 20 July 1936, 13. (From NewspaperSG)
4. “How Singapore Woud Cope with An Air Raid,” Straits Times, 10 August 1936, 12. (From NewspaperSG)
5. “A.R.P. Advice for Masses,” Straits Times, 29 June 1939, 14; “Singapore's First Air Raid Blackout Tomorrow,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884–1942), 4 February 1938, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
6. “Singapore Lacks Adequate A.R.P.,” Straits Times, 9 October 1938, 17. (From NewspaperSG)
7. “Big "Black-Out" Planned for Singapore,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884–1942), 16 February 1939, 3; “Compulsory Black-Out Was Completely Effective,” Straits Times, 17 March 1939, 13. (From NewspaperSG)
8. “Big Black-Out Starts Today,” Straits Times, 2 September 1940, 10; “To-night’s Black-Out Exercises,” Straits Times, 22 January 1941, 12; “Regulations Governing Next Week's Black-Out Practice,” Straits Times, March 1941, 11. (From NewspaperSG)
9. “3,500 Wardens in Singapore,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884–1942), 15 November 1939, 5. (From NewspaperSG)
10. Chan Kwee Sung,  “3 Letters That Spelt <H-e-l-p> in War,” Straits Times, 11 December 2000, 10. (From NewspaperSG)
11. “‘Stay Put’ Defence,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884–1942), 10 May 1939, 8. (From NewspaperSG)
12. “Singapore Safe from Air Attack Danger?,” Straits Times, 22 May 1939, 12. (From NewspaperSG)
13. “Bomb-Proof Shelters for New Blocks of Flats,” Straits Times, 28 June 1939, 15. (From NewspaperSG)
14. “Evacuation Camps Plan,” Straits Times, 6 June 1941, 10. (From NewspaperSG)
15. “Singapore Firms Preparing Air Raid Shelters,” Straits Times, 17 November 1940, 9; “Municipality Busy with A.R.P. Measures,” Straits Times, 15 January 1941, 10. (From NewspaperSG)
16. “First Daylight Air Raid Exercise,” Straits Times, 22 January 1941, 12. (From NewspaperSG)
17. Allen Warren, Singapore 1942: Britain's Greatest Defeat (Singapore: Talisman, 2002), 212. (Call no. RSING 940.5425 WAR-[WAR])
18. Justin Corfield and Robin Corfield, The Fall of Singapore: 90 Days: November 1941–February 1942 (Singapore: Talisman Publishing, 2012), 116–25. (Call no. RSING 940.5425957 COR-[WAR])
19. Corfield and Corfield, Fall of Singapore, 116–25.
20. Corfield and Corfield, Fall of Singapore, 116–25.
21. Warren, Singapore 1942, 203.
22. Corfield and Corfield, Fall of Singapore, 116–25; “Governor on the War.”
23. Corfield and Corfield, Fall of Singapore, 116–25; Lee, Syonan Years, 41.
24. Bose, Singapore at War, 73.
25. Cynicus, “As I Was Saying,” Straits Times, 3 April 1954, 6. (From NewspaperSG)
26. Jock Oehlers, That's How It Goes: Autobiography of a Singapore Eurasian (Singapore: Select Publishing, 2008), 52. (Call no. RSING 617.6092 OEH)
27. “In Singapore,” Straits Times, 8 December 1941, 8. (From NewspaperSG)
28. Corfield and Corfield, Fall of Singapore, 116–25.
29. Foong Choon Hon and Jane Thum Soon Kun, eds., Eternal Vigilance: The Price of Freedom (Singapore: Asia Books, 2006), 80. (Call no. RSING q940.5425 ETE)
30. Lee, Syonan Years, 41.
31. “Naval Battle Off Pearl Harbour,” Straits Times, 8 December 1941, 7; “Roosevelt Prepares Nation for Long and Hard War,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884–1942), 11 December 1941, 5. (From NewspaperSG)
32. Cabinet, Imperial Rescript on the Declaration of War, 8 December 1941; H. Gordon Bennett, The Fall of Singapore (Dehradun: Natraj Publishers, 1990), 1. (Call no. RSING 940.5424 BEN-[WAR])
33. Chan Kwee Sung, “The Night the Lights Went Out,” Straits Times, 12 December 1998, 9. (From NewspaperSG)
34. Warren, Singapore 1942, 203–4.
35. Warren, Singapore 1942, 204.
36. Lee, Syonan Years, 43, 61; Corfield and Corfield, Fall of Singapore, 492.

The information in this article is valid as of 25 November 2014 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading material on the topic.


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