How a message from Australia led to rediscovery of forgotten WWII battle in Singapore

An aerial view of Sleepy Valley where 1,100 soldiers were killed in Bukit Batok during World War II. PHOTO: YOUTUBE/JAMES TANN

SINGAPORE - A plea to find the spot where an Australian soldier was killed during World War II led Singaporean James Tann to rediscover a forgotten battle in Bukit Batok that claimed the lives of more than 1,000 soldiers.

Intrigued by his findings, the heritage blogger created a 44-minute documentary tracing how the fight unfolded and mapping the events on to modern Singapore for the 80th anniversary of the Fall of Singapore this year.

The 68-year-old said: "Most people who read about the fall of Singapore in 1942 don't know much about the conquest of the city apart from the Japanese crossing the Strait of Johor, the battle of Bukit Timah or Bukit Chandu.

"So ferocious were the fire fights during those eight days that thousands were killed in places like Tengah, Pasir Panjang, Bukit Timah and Mount Pleasant."

The lesser-known fact is that of all the Japanese killed in the 70 days of the Malayan Campaign, almost half of these occurred in Singapore during the last eight days of the campaign, Mr Tann added, attesting to the intensity of the battles.

Uploaded on YouTube on Jan 1 this year, the video follows a series of blunders by the allied British forces and strategic manoeuvres of the Imperial Japanese Army between Feb 8 and Feb 11, 1942.

This culminated with the ambush of the 15th British Indian Brigade at Sleepy Valley - an old rubber estate in Bukit Batok - on Feb 11.

Of the 1,500 Australian, British and Indian soldiers involved in the fight, only 400 escaped alive from Sleepy Valley, said Mr Tann.

Among those who died there was 33-year-old Private William Cameron from the Australian Special Reserve Battalion. His grandson Paul Cameron contacted the blogger in January 2013 after reading Mr Tann's post about the battle.

The Australian Special Reserve Battalion was a hastily put together company of soldiers who were barely trained, most of them were administrative clerks, cooks or store men, noted Mr Tann, but the British were desperate to send reinforcements then.

"Paul Cameron shared that his grandfather had been killed at about 10am on Feb 11 while retreating from the battle, and to that day, his family did not know where he died or was buried," said Mr Tann, who writes about the heritage of Western Singapore where he lives and his childhood years spent there.

While the Australian initially asked for maps and images in the blog post to locate the area where his grandfather had died in battle, Mr Tann offered to help him dig deeper.

Starting with a book written about men from the same battalion as Private William Cameron, the blogger learnt that the commanding officer of the unit had been allowed by the Japanese to search for the remains of soldiers 10 months after the surrender of Singapore. The fallen men were buried in an unmarked mass grave at what is now the Eng Kong Gardens Playground.

These bodies were exhumed and reburied at Kranji War Cemetery between 1947 and 1950 when the Commonwealth War Graves Commission recovered bodies of soldiers killed during WWII, said Mr Tann.

The name of Private William Cameron is in the burial register at Kranji War Memorial and etched on the wall at the Singapore Memorial along with other soldiers whose remains were never positively identified or recovered, he added.

Taking the search one step further, the heritage blogger also noted down various sites of battle in places around Bukit Batok, which he showcases in the documentary of the battle.

The video is the culmination of the hard work Mr Tann put in by combing through historical records, maps from the Japanese and Allied forces, aerial photos and war diaries found in the Imperial War Museum in London and the Australian War Memorial.

Remote video URL

The men narrating accounts of the Australian soldiers in the film are Australian friars from Church of St Mary of the Angels at Bukit Batok. The church was built on a hill that the Australian soldiers defended before they were ambushed at Sleepy Valley.

By viewing the documentary, Mr Tann hopes, younger generations will remember historical events in Singapore before 1965.

He said: "Not many young people are aware of Singapore history before 1965, perhaps because we were under British Administration for a long time and defeats in the war tend to be glossed over.

"I hope this will help them remember a lesser-known battle that is part of our history."

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