Alexandra Hospital massacre

Singapore Infopedia


Japanese forces invaded Malaya on 8 December 1941 and drove the British troops from the Malayan peninsula after just 70 days of fighting. By early February the following year, the Japanese were poised to strike their final blow on Singapore, the bastion of the British Empire in Asia.

Under the command of General Tomoyuki Yamashita, Japanese soldiers crossed into Singapore on 9 February 1942. It was evident by 14 February that the island would soon be captured by the invaders.1 The British Military Hospital (now known as Alexandra Hospital) was caught between the advancing Japanese troops and the retreating British forces. It became the site of a Japanese massacre when between 150 and 200 staff and patients were killed on 14 February 1942.2

The massacre
The British Military Hospital had a normal capacity for 550 patients but the battle for Singapore had swelled the numbers to 900 patients.3 The men of the 32nd Company of the Royal Army Medical Corps were running the hospital under difficult conditions.4 Water was rationed, torches and lights were used only for medical procedures, and corpses wrapped in blankets remained unburied.5

The hospital had been under heavy Japanese shelling since the morning of 14 February 1942. At about 1:00 p.m. the first Japanese soldier was sighted approaching the building. A British officer walked out to meet him while pointing to his Red Cross arm band as an internationally recognised symbol to protect military medical personnel during armed conflicts.The Japanese soldier ignored this and fired at the officer but failed to hit him. The officer ran back inside but by then more Japanese soldiers had surrounded the hospital.7

For about one hour, three large groups of Japanese soldiers attacked the hospital. They went from room to room shooting, bayonetting and beating up doctors, orderlies and patients indiscriminately. They even killed an anaesthetised patient who was still lying on the operating table. About 50 men were killed in this first round. Around 3:30 p.m., 200 men were rounded up, tied into groups of eight and forced to march toward a row of buildings some distance from the hospital.8 The gravely injured were not spared and were killed if they fell along the way.9

Upon reaching their destination, which was a row of outhouses, the men were divided into groups of 50 to 70 people and crammed into three small rooms. There was no ventilation and they lacked water. They had neither space to sit nor lie down. Under these terrible conditions, some men died during the night. The following morning, the remaining men were told that they would receive water. By 11:00 a.m. the Japanese captors allowed the prisoners to leave the rooms in groups of two on the pretext of their fetching water. However, as the screams and cries of those who had left the rooms could be heard by those still inside, it became clear that the Japanese were executing the prisoners when they left the rooms. The death toll numbered approximately 100 prisoners.10

Suddenly at this time, Japanese shelling resumed and a shell struck the building where the prisoners were being held. This interrupted the executions and allowed a handful of men to escape.11

Reasons for the massacre
The most widely accepted explanation for this massacre is that Japanese soldiers were after a group of retreating Indian soldiers who had been firing at them from a location near the hospital.12 Another explanation given is that the massacre took place in the heat of battle.13 Some maintain that the massacre happened because the Japanese troops wanted to revenge their fallen comrades.14

The Alexandra Hospital case
On 15 February 1942, the British surrendered Singapore to the Japanese.15 Those who survived the massacre became prisoners of war (POWs) of the Japanese and had to endure three and a half years of captivity. The war ended formally on 2 September 1945, when the Japanese surrendered to General Douglas MacArthur on board the U. S. S. Missouri.16

During the post-war trials of Japanese officers and soldiers for war-time atrocities, the Alexandra Hospital massacre was difficult to prove. Despite there being plenty of evidence that the massacre took place, it was impossible to identify the perpetrators and bring them to justice.17

On 17 February 1992, two of the survivors of the massacre, Dick Lee and Dick Gwillim, returned to the hospital for a visit and to present to Dr Ng Kwok Choy, then the medical director of the hospital, a plaque commemorating the victims of the massacre.18

On 15 September 1998, the National Heritage Board marked the hospital as a historical site. This recognition was given as a tribute to the very important role the hospital played during World War II in giving medical aid to the sick and injured, and to commemorate those who had lost their lives in the massacre.19

1. Karl Hack and Kevin Blackburn, Did Singapore Have to Fall?: Churchill and the Impregnable Fortress (London: RoutledgeCurzon, 2004), 84. (Call no. RSING 940.5425 HAC-[WAR])
2. “‘Japanese Massacred 400 in Singapore Hospital’,” Straits Times, 17 July 1984, 3; “Recognition: History of Hospital, S’pore Linked,” Straits Times, 16 September 1998, 24. (From NewspaperSG)
3. Jeff Partridge, Alexandra Hospital: From British Military to Civilian Institution, 1938–1998 (Singapore: The Hospital, 1998), 58. (Call no. RSING 362.11095957 PAR)
4. Peter Bruton, The Matter of a Massacre: Alexandra Hospital Singapore 14th/15th February 1942 (n.p. 1989), 8. (Call no. RSING q940.5425 BRU-[WAR])
5. Bruton, Matter of a Massacre, 9.
6. “The Emblems,” International Committee of the Red Cross, 29 October 2010.
7. Partridge, Alexandra Hospital, 58–60.
8. Bruton, Matter of a Massacre, 21.
9. Bruton, Matter of a Massacre, 23.
10. Partridge, Alexandra Hospital, 64–66.
11. Partridge, Alexandra Hospital, 66–68.
12. Frank Owen, The Fall of Singapore (London: Penguin Books, 2001), 202. (Call no. RSING 940.5425 OWE-[WAR]); Peter Elphick, Singapore: The Pregnable Fortress, A Study in Deception, Discord and Desertion (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1995), 353–54. (Call no. RSING 940.5425 ELP-[WAR])
13. John Deane Potter, A Soldier Must Hang: The Biography of an Oriental General(London: Muller, 1963), 89–90. (Call no. RCLOS 940.541352 POT)
14. Stanley L. Falk, Seventy Days to Singapore: The Malayan Campaign, 1941–1942 (London: Hale, 1975), 252. (Call no. RSING 940.5425 FAL-[WAR])
15. “Surrender Decision Made Here,” Straits Times, 3 November 1995, 8. (From NewspaperSG)
16. Kay Tateishi, “How the Rising Sun Set,” Straits Times, 4 September 1982, 11. (From NewspaperSG)
17. Partridge, Alexandra Hospital, 66–67.
18. “Survivors Relive Massacre at Hospital,” Straits Times, 18 February 1992, 24. (From NewspaperSG)
19. “Recognition: History of Hospital, S’pore Linked.”

The information in this article is valid as at 3 April 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 materials on the topic.

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