Monday, 23 September 2013

Penang, the British and Japanese War Museum

We had a very informative day out yesterday in the SE of Penang Island at an old secret British military bunker, taken over and used as a POW camp by the Japanese during the occupation and recently reopened as a museum (and sadly a paintball games area and night time ‘spooky tours’ – let’s hope they don’t spoil it any more!).

It was an interesting adventure just to get there as we went by public bus so, although only being about 20km away, took 1 ½ hours as it went a very devious route covering just about every street in Georgetown right down past the small airport and all towns on the way. 
Underground bunker with escape tunnel up those steps on the right
We were also told about the irregular service, so were apprehensive of getting a bus back, but after waiting at the bus stop (mercifully in the shade from the burning sun) for about 20 minutes, one came along to take us back on a similar devious route (including several ‘U’ turns in streets, which seemed to be its standard bus route! It confused us and obviously a lot of locals, who stuck their head in the door at bus stops, conversed with the driver and then stepped out again. Other people tried to flag it down, but he waved a ‘no’ at them and carried on. We had no idea what was going on, but we did get there and back again!). 
Which, after a 7m horizontal crawl and 9m ladder, it emerges here!
Fortunately the bus was air conditioned, which was a great relief from the hot, humid weather which, although we weren’t exerting ourselves, I in particular was so running with sweat my t-shirt was as though we had been out in the rain. I could feel trickles of sweat constantly dripping from me! Jackie was not as bad as that, but of course, women only ‘glow’ in the heat, they don’t sweat!

A 200m uphill walk from the bus stop warmed us up again after almost suffering hypothermia from the air-con on the bus and we encountered a group from the US army, stationed in Hawaii but over here training with the Malay army and a family/friends group from Perth in Australia (plus others from China and other countries). We chatted for a while with one of the US army guys, who was very interesting and the older guy from Perth who had served in Butterworth but lived on Penang in the 1960’s while serving with the RAAF.

Underground ammunition storeroom
Interestingly, he was telling us that his 1960’s RAAF posting was during the 'confrontation' with Indonesia. He lived on the island and worked in the transport corps, liaising with the locals and arranging transport for the troops to and from the island to Butterworth each day. He told us that he had no idea this place existed it was so secret at the time, so he was very interested to walk round and have a look.

Until we came to Malaysia we had no idea of the history of the country post 1945 and we found it really interesting to learn about the 'Malaya emergency' from 1948 to 1960'ish, where the British and Malay were fighting communist insurgents, and then the 'confrontation' from 1963 to 1968'ish where Indonesia opposed the formation of modern Malaysia, which was the joining of Sarawak and Sabah in Borneo (which Indonesia felt should be Indonesian not Malayan), plus temporarily, Singapore, all then British colonies and supported by Britain. 
One of the gun emplacements
Our man from Perth was here during the 'confrontation' and, although there was no direct 'fighting', he told us there was a time when he couldn't travel south towards Singapore as there were some Indonesian parachutists who landed in or near Singapore, but were quickly picked up. Another incident he told us about was an Australian or Malay (can't remember which) Mirage jet that took off with two missiles, but returned with only one, saying the one went off accidentally. Apparently the following day an Indonesian transport plane was reported missing somewhere over the Melaka Strait, so he assumed the rogue missile must have found a target!

Peaceful today, but that hole is bomb damage
I know that Bill Lingard (the friends we stayed with In Melbourne) was in the RAAF and stationed in Butterworth with Marilyn and their son Michael in the 1960’s, so I’ve asked him of his experiences of the ‘confrontation’ and will let you know his reply in a later blog entry.

The bunker itself was built by the British, and is a maze of underground tunnels, reinforced ammunition storerooms, offices, barracks for British, Indian and Malay’s and gun emplacements (no guns though), all built on a high hill overlooking the sea and the mainland. After the Japanese invasion, they occupied the bunker and used it as a POW camp, using it to slaughter prisoners by firing squad and torture, with other areas used to rape, abuse and kill women prisoners. 
The bullet-holes tell the horrific story
We saw rooms with one wall riddled with bullet holes, rooms with torture equipment, including racks equipped with electricity generators with wires to shackles, pincers, pliers, sharp pointed and blunt, bent metal equipment, all very horrible! Another room had a cage and various equipment used for the women prisoners, it’s just horrific how human beings can degrade to such a level.

After the war it fell into disuse and was forgotten for nearly 50 years until, in 2002 a group of individuals bought the site, excavated the tunnels and are still in the process of developing it as a real life museum. As it remained forgotten for so long it hasn’t had time to be developed too much, so it’s possible to really feel as though you are walking back in time.

A torture rack complete with generator
The next bit is about some of the history, so it’s coloured in green type for you to avoid if uninterested.

On 1st December 1941, as war looked imminent, the decision was taken by the governor of the Straits Settlements, Sir Shenton Thomas, after consultation with the Commander-in-Chief Far East, Air Chief Marshal Sir Robert Brooke-Popham, to declare a ‘State of Emergency’, calling up all reserves and volunteers, whilst emphasising that it did not signify a deterioration of diplomatic relations with Japan.

The 'tools of torture'. Imagine being faced with those!
By 12th December, 5 days after the surprise invasion on shores in Siam and Malaya (see earlier blog entry:, Japanese invaders, under the command of General Tomoyuki Yamashita, push south through Malaya. On the opening days of the conflict, that commenced in the early hours of 8th December, the Japanese air force had bombed key air fields in Butterworth, Penang, Alor Star, Singapore and several bases on the east coast, destroying most Allied aircraft before they even had time to take off, giving them almost total air superiority. 
We suppose a defused bomb, but who knows!
Also, on 10th December bombers had sighted and sunk two powerful British ships, the battle cruiser Repulse and the battleship Prince of Wales with the loss of 840 lives, dealing Britain its worst ever Naval disaster. These were the only British ships Winston Churchill could spare from the battle in Europe and with the decimation of the American fleet at Pearl Harbour, this gave the Japanese total control of the sea.

That's a submarine depth charge suspended on that wooden tripod!
On the same day, Penang suffered massive bombing, mainly in the capital Georgetown, killing and injuring 2000 civilians and causing civil administration collapse. Fort Cornwallis had only 4 anti-aircraft guns and 500 untrained troops so, with panic in the streets, the decision was taken to evacuate all European women and children, starting the wave of resentment caused by the abandonment of the native population by their British ‘protectors’ that would eventually lead to their demand for independence after the war.

On 14th December, the exhausted British defenders of the north-west frontline were in full retreat south of Jitra under relentless bombardment. Britain’s Far East War Council decided that, as Penang could only be held for three or four days, it should be abandoned. The following day the British abandon the RAF base at Butterworth and, on 16th December, Penang is evacuated by the British.

The following day, on 17th December, the Japanese entered Penang unopposed and, on finding the radio station still working, started broadcasting propaganda to Malaya and Singapore. The programmes in four languages all started identically: ‘Hello Singapore, this is Penang calling. How do you like our bombing?’

A gallows replica
The British, however, believed that Yamashita’s forces would not push south until they had consolidated their forces in the north for an attack on Burma and also believed the invasion party that landed at Kota Bharu on the NW of Malaya could not move south due to dense jungle.

By 20th December, however, the British had abandoned the states of Kedah, Wellesley and Perak, having lost 5 of the 11 airfields in Malaya. They had retreated back to the river Krian, where they believed the terrain provided better defences. Meanwhile the authorities in Singapore made an urgent appeal to London for more troops and aircraft, but no work had yet commenced on fortifying the landward side of Singapore as it was still believed no landward invasion was possible, due to dense jungle!

Jackie on one of the lookouts
I will follow the Japanese campaign as it, and we, move further south, but as Allied troops were captured, they were shipped to Thailand to start construction of the ‘Death Railway’ from Bangkok to Rangoon in Burma (see earlier blog entry: and also onto China and Japan to undertake forced labour from which many, if not most, did not survive.

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