Sailing aboard HMS Meander, Admiral Sir Henry Keppel is said to have ‘discovered’ the western entrance to the sheltered harbour between Blakang Mati and Singapore Island in 1848. However, it is evident that this entrance was known of by the seamen of the east for a significant period of time before Admiral Keppel came on the scene. Indeed, it would have been strange if regular users of the harbour did not know of this approach.
Lt. H.E. McCallum, Royal Engineers and a workforce comprising of local people began preparing the site for Fort Siloso in 1878. Mount Siloso which is the name of the hill at Siloso Point required levelling to create a suitable flat area for a gun platform. To level the area quickly, Lt. McCallum used 19,000 Pounds (8,636 Kgs) of gun powder to blow away the top of the hill. The workforce then set to, and construction of accommodation, an Engine Shed to provide power for the Fort, Magazines, and three gun emplacements began. At that time, there were no roads in the area. All stores and equipment for the construction work had to be delivered by boat and landed at a small jetty. This was situated not far from the present entrance to the fort. The Stairs down to the jetty survive.
The photograph to the right shows the original entrance to the fort. The magazine is on the left inside the tunnel formed by the roof. To the right was an emplacement for two 7 Inch RML Guns, one at each end of the tunnel. The few remains of the No.2 Gun Emplacement can still be seen on the right as you pass the Magazine on the way in to the Fort. The No.1 Emplacement was destroyed when, in later years, two 12 Pounder Quick Firing Guns were emplaced there. There are currently two 64-Pounder RML (Rifled Muzzle Loading) Guns mounted on the emplacement.
Today, the shop and Surrender Chambers are where the right-hand wall of the tunnel was. It is thought that the roof was demolished by the British Army some time after 1950.
Lifting building materials, heavy stores, equipment and guns up to the top of Mount Siloso was by no means an easy task for the workforce. There was no powered machinery to do the job for them in those days. The only method open to the workers was sheer muscle-power. A tried and trusted method called ‘parbuckling’ was employed. This was both labour intensive and physically demanding work, especially in the heat and humidity of Singapore.
The first armament to be installed at Fort Siloso consisted of two 64 Pounder RML (Rifled Muzzle Loading) Guns and three 7-Inch RML Guns. The 7-Inch Guns were also known as “Bottle Guns” because their shape was reminiscent of the soda pop bottles of the day. The fort was initially manned by 18 men of the Singapore Volunteer Artillery.
Two of the 7-Inch RML guns were emplaced opposite the Magazine near the entrance to the fort. The third gun was emplaced at the newly levelled top of Mount Siloso. This gun had its own magazine to one side.
The two 64 Pounders, were emplaced “en barbette”. That is to say that the guns on their carriages were stood on a solid flat platform and fired over an earthen parapet. This gun emplacement was behind the Gunners Shelter and to the side of the present Battery Command Post. The parapet allowed a good field of fire, but gave less protection to the gunners than an embrasure.
To supplement the guns, a string of electrically operated mines, powered from the Engine Shed, were laid across the entrance to the harbour from Siloso to Tanjong Berlayar on Singapore Island. These were controlled from, and tested in an underground room (No.4 in the map above right).
LEFT: A drawing of the original Engine Shed.
Almost as soon as Fort Siloso was completed and operational, there were comments about the armament. Governor Weld in 1880 said,"The Mount Siloso Battery needs heavier guns". Plans to up-rate the defences were not long in coming. In 1881, there were two plans for an update to the Fort’s armament.
One, by a Colonel Crossman, called for the fort to be armed with with five 10-Inch BL (Breech Loading) guns. Colonel Crossman produced plans for several 10-Inch BL Batteries which never came to fruition. The other plan would reduce the 64-Pounder Battery to a single gun, and add five armour piercing guns and a rifled howitzer. Neither plan was implemented although two 10-Inch BL Guns were emplaced at Fort Palmer on Singapore Island. Fort Siloso remained armed with its three 7-Inch RML and the two 64 Pounder RML Guns.
In 1885, another plan was drawn up for improving the armament at Fort siloso. These were carried forward and within a few years, a more modern Mark IV 9.2-Inch BL Gun was emplaced below Mount Siloso facing more to the west than the 64 Pounders. An underground magazine was to be constructed for the new gun.
The same set of plans shows the emplacement of a fourth 7-Inch RML Gun at the top of Mount Siloso. This being close to the 7-Inch Gun already on the Mount, but facing south-west. This new gun was approximately where the No.2 Gun emplacement of the present Mount Siloso 6-Inch Battery is. To the right of the new gun, was built a Look-Out Post.
The July 1886 ‘Précis of Existing and Proposed Defences’, listed three 7-Inch RML and two 64-Pounder RML Guns as being at Siloso. Proposed armament was given as four 7-Inch RML and one 9.2-Inch BL Guns. A side note stated, “Well advanced. Emplacement and magazine nearly ready”. Vice Admiral R. Vasey Hamilton recorded that the two 64 Pounders were no longer in place in March 1887.
The Pasir Panjang Battery at Tanjong Berlayar was operational by 1889. This battery is north west of Fort Siloso on the other side of the harbour entrance. Some six hundred yards (550 meters) separate the batteries. Both batteries commanded the western approach to Keppel Harbour and would have been a formidable defence against any attack from the west.
In 1891, according to the ‘Report of Local Committee, revised to September 1891’, armament at Fort Siloso was, “1 9·2”, 2 7”, 1 Q.F., 1 machine”. Major Rich was the Officer Commanding.
In 1892 the Approved Garrison of Singapore was:-
Royal Artillery: Officers 14. Warrant Officers Non Commissioned Officers and Men 247
Native Artillery: Officers 2. Warrant Officers Non Commissioned Officers and Men 118
Royal Engineers: Officers 6. Warrant Officers Non Commissioned Officers and Men 81
Native Engineers: Officers 3. Warrant Officers Non Commissioned Officers and Men 50
Infantry: Officers 2. Warrant Officers Non Commissioned Officers and Men 984
Staff & Departments: Officers 12. Warrant Officers Non Commissioned Officers and Men 35
I have seen documentary evidence of two 9-Pounder Guns being at Fort Siloso in the early 1890s. Unfortunately, the sources do not say anything about these guns where in the Fort they were. They appear to have been removed by 1896.
In 1896, a plan was issued which showed a change in armament. The plan was for two 12 Pounder QF (Quick Firing) guns to replace the 7-Inch RML Guns overlooking Keppel Harbour, and for two 6-Inch QF Guns to be emplaced on top of Mount Siloso, replacing the two 7-Inch RML Guns there. The emplaced 7-Inch Guns needed a gun crew of 10 and took a long time to load. A fast moving enemy craft approaching, or in the Harbour would have been practically impossible for them to hit. This type of gun had been long condemned as being unsuitable for their purpose.
The proposed changes were still in progress in 1898. The list of Approved Armaments for the Straits Settlements for 1st January 1898 shows armament then mounted at the Fort as being two 7-Inch RML Guns and a 9.2-Inch BL Gun. The list also had two 12-Pounder QF Guns and the two 6-Inch QF Guns as being approved additions to the armament. The 12-Pounders, more suitable to harbour defence than the 7-Inch RMLs were in place by 1st January 1899 and were located where the No.1, 7-Inch RML Gun once overlooked Keppel Harbour. The 6-Inch QF Guns were mounted by the following year.
The 6-Inch Guns, Mark IIs, were first introduced into service by the Royal Artillery in 1890. They had a range of 12,000 yards (10973 metres) and also had a rapid rate of fire when serviced by a well trained team of gunners. The 6-Inch Gun was destined to become the backbone of British coastal defence systems around the world until as late as 1956. The 9.2-Inch BL Gun at the Fort remained in service at this time.
By 1st April 1907, The 9.2-Inch BL Gun was listed for removal as were the 6-Inch QFs. It would seem that the two 12 Pounders were removed sometime during 1907 as well, as they do not appear in the list of mounted armament for 1908, being replaced by two medium machine guns as armaments mounted. In the 1908 list, the 9.2-Inch and the 6-Inch guns were shown as still being mounted, but listed for removal. In April 1909, the approved armament list does not mention the 9.2-Inch BL Gun, therefore it must have been removed by then. The 6-Inch QFs were still mounted and remained so according to the 1910 and 1911 lists. They were still however, listed for removal.
This plan, dated 1911, shows an extension to the old 9.2-Inch Gun’s Magazine. The extension is shown in grey on the graphic on the left. This extension was in order to convert the Magazine to service two 6-Inch QF Guns. These were the two guns from atop Mount Siloso. They were moved downhill and the new Battery became operational during 1911 and would not be further modified until the 1930s. This is more or less the layout of the Magazine as seen today. The new position gave a better arc of fire to the west of the harbour. It also allowed the 9.2-Inch BL and 6-Inch QF Batteries at nearby Fort Pasir Panjang to be retired.
Singapore’s defences played no part in the First World War. They did, however, play a role in the mutiny of Indian troops which occurred during 1915. Searchlights situated on Blakang Mati were used to illuminate parts of Singapore Island to aid loyal troops in quelling the mutiny. Singapore Harbour also played host to Japanese warships which were provided by the Japanese government, then allies. It has perhaps been forgotten that the Japanese provided convoy escort vessels in the Mediterranean Sea for allied forces during the First World War.