- Periodical, RNZN Navy Today
- History - Between the wars
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- March 2007 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
The actual construction of the base proceeded slowly. The fixed defences, designed to defend against a raid from battleships, were not installed until 1936-39, as follows:
- 5 x 15” guns in two batteries,
- 6 x 9.2” guns in two batteries
- 18 x 6” guns in nine batteries
The batteries were sited to cover the commercial port (Keppel Harbour) and the Changi eastern entrance to Johore Strait (except for one battery of 6” guns on the west side of the island).
One airfield, RAF Seletar, was built (later, two more were added) and anti-aircraft guns deployed, as an integral part of the defences. Of note, Johore Strait itself was never intended to be a defence line; the scale of possible attack was assessed as naval raids; the invasion of Malaya was not contemplated when the base was first conceived.
But as well as a naval base, the ‘Singapore strategy’ needed a fleet. Admiral of the Fleet Lord Jellicoe ((After WWI Admiral Lord Jellicoe conducted a review of Empire naval defence and later became Governor-General of New Zealand.)) was an early and persistent advocate of a battlecruiser force being based at Singapore in peacetime, hence New Zealand’s force of two cruisers could be a division ((At this time the RNZN was titled the New Zealand Division of the Royal Navy and her ships were still prefixed HMS.)) of this proposed Imperial Pacific Fleet (absorbing the existing RN China Fleet). However, the Admiralty’s preference was to base its main battle squadrons in the Mediterranean – in the event of a Pacific crisis they would deploy the ‘main fleet’ to Singapore.
During the 1920s, Britain had a fleet of 22 capital ships, compared with ten for Japan, thus the idea of sending a powerful fleet to the Pacific was realistic. Operating from the new well-defended base, with Hong Kong or ports in Borneo as advanced bases, the British anticipated a Jutland-style main fleet battle to defeat the IJN somewhere in the South China Sea.
Logistics, of course, would be a challenge – planners estimated that scores of tankers would be needed to provide fuel for the fleet as it went East. Nonetheless, the 1924 cruise of the Special Service Squadron to Australia, NZ and other parts of the Empire, was designed to show Britain’s ability to deploy worldwide.
Throughout most of the 1930s – the Depression years – both the Japanese and British navies were faced with the challenge of modernizing their capital ships (the various naval treaties prohibited new building until January 1937). Thus the British undertook the massive rebuilding of three Queen Elizabeth ((HM Ships Queen Elizabeth, Malaya and Warspite; battlecruiser HMS Renown was modernised but not the youngest, HMS Hood.)) class ships and a battlecruiser. The Japanese were more successful; all their battleships had been refitted with modern boilers and improved fire-control by 1940, and Japan’s ‘secret weapon’, the Type 93 oxygen-fuelled torpedo, gave their cruisers and destroyers an unrivalled day and night capability in surface warfare. (Indeed the Japanese were to prove superior at night fighting until late in 1943).
Meanwhile the defence of Singapore had grown into a three-dimensional problem of defending the whole of Malaya from land, sea and air attack. In 1940 and 1941 the Japanese moved south to French Indochina; based there, their bombers were in range of Singapore. By then Japan’s plans called for an amphibious landing in Southern Thailand and Northern Malaya; they had assessed an overland attack on Singapore as practicable.
The sad irony of the Singapore Strategy is that as the Base neared completion the British battle fleet declined in overall numbers, while its commitments in European waters grew. By the time the Base was ready in 1940, the British Fleet was fully committed to the war against Germany and Italy. When the threat from Japan could no longer be ignored, in the latter half of 1941, only two British capital ships could be spared from European waters.
Today, when our ships manoeuvre alongside the Five Power Defence Agreement (FPDA) wharves at Sembawang, they are still using the naval base that was built for the Royal Navy’s ‘main fleet’. Even though the ‘Singapore Strategy’ failed in 1941, in the decades of the ’50s and ’60s HM Naval Base became very familiar to a generation of British, Australian and New Zealand naval men. During the post-war decades of tension and Confrontation in South East Asia, the Singapore naval base proved to be a vital Commonwealth asset as the home of the ‘Far East Fleet’ ((The post-WWII British Commonwealth military strategy in the Far East effectively revived the former ‘Singapore strategy’ as its contribution against the ‘Domino theory’ of Communist infiltration, with a vast build up of the Far East Fleet based in Singapore and to opposing the Indonesian Confrontation against the new Federation of Malaysia 1962‑66.)).