Missing Amongst the Dead



Jon Cooper reports on a recent extraordinary find – yielding clues on the possible fate of British soldiers who fought in Singapore, with Bukit Brown as the theatre of war. 


A rendition of the Battle at Bukit Brown (National Library)


On the evening of 14th February 1942, the rolling hills of the Bukit Brown Cemetery were suddenly engulfed in a barrage of flame and fire. It appeared like scene from Dante’s ‘Inferno’. Artillery from the Yamashita’s advancing XXV Army opened up their most intensive bombardment of the Singaporean campaign to date plastering the grave covered hills with high explosives rounds that made the earth tremble and sent the headstones spinning through the air. Onlookers recalled being deluged with dust, debris and human remains.

The gunners’ targets were the men of the 4th Suffolks, a fresh-faced territorial battalion of the 18th Division who had only landed in Singapore two weeks earlier. The Suffolks, raised from the country towns and farming communities of East Anglia, had already seen combat up at Bukit Tinggi and had been forced to retreat back towards the Lornie Road by the relentless drive of the IJA’s elite 5th Division. The Suffolk’s hasty withdrawal and the stubborn defence of Adam Park by the 1st Battalion Cambridgeshires had allowed the men to establish new positions overlooking the eastern end of the SICC golf course and southern tributaries of the MacRitchie Reservoir. They were all that stood between Yamashita’s army and the all important water pumping stations at Thompson Village and Woodleigh. That evening Yamashita’s exhausted and battle weary troops were to launch one final effort to break through to the east. The leading units of the 11th Regiment of the 5th Division were by now running short of ammunition and artillery shells and the bombardment and attack was to be their final assault. It was to be a ‘make or break’ attack on the hills of Bukit Brown.

At dusk the 3rd Battalion, 11thRegiment led by Colonel Ichikawa surged up the Sime Road and charged across the Lornie Road. Colonel Shimada’s tank company parked up on the fairways of the golf course provided covering fire and his men witnessed the arms and legs of the defending Suffolks fly up into the air with every explosion. He watched as the screaming infantry disappeared into the murk and smoke along the tree line on Hill 130 then to his relief saw the torch lights and flares signal the successful capture of the temple complex. The attack had been a total success; those Suffolks that had not fled or been blown to bits by the barrage had been bayoneted in their trenches. The way was open to Thomson Village; surely Singapore would now surrender.


Hellfire Corner in 2012 was so called from the amount of Japanese artillery fire the exposed crossroads attracted. It was here that the 3rd Battalion 11th Regiment stormed up Sime Road and across Lornie Road onto ‘Cemetery Hill’.


The following are maps from both sides of the action.


Japanese map of the tank action on Bukit Brown 


(This annotated Japanese sketch map provided shows the approximate course of the battle described in Shimada’s account. The Colonel’s tank attack up Lornie Road and onto Caldecott is shown by the thick black arrows. The infantry attack led by 3rd Battalion of the 11thRegiment up Sime Road, across to the temple and onto Hill 160 is marked in a dotted arrow. )


Suffolks on Cemetery Hill, aka Bukit Brown (Courtesy of National Library of Australia)


Almost 70 years on, a team of researchers in the National Archives in Kew Gardens, London unearthed an incredible find. Deep in the vaults was a consignment of papers that had miraculously survived the war but had then been ‘lost’ in the archival process. These faded parchments were the work of the Bureau of Records and Enquiry (the BRE) set up by Captain David Nelson at Changi prison camp in 1942. Nelson and his colleagues undertook the mammoth task to track and record the movements and fate of the 80,000 British and Commonwealth prisoners that at some time passed through or stayed at the camp.

Amongst the archival material are detailed rolls listing the name, rank and fate of individuals from each regiment serving in Malaya and Singapore. The 4th Suffolks’ list makes interesting reading. Out of the 117 men noted as not being with the unit after the fall of Singapore, 62 men were listed as lost on the 14th or 15th of February during the action around Bukit Brown and Hill 95. However when this list is compared to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s Roll of Honour it would appear not all the bodies were recovered to the Kranji Cemetery after the war. Twenty five of the 4th Suffolks who died or went missing during the fighting on these days appear on the Singapore Memorial inferring their bodies have never been properly accounted for.


BRE entry detailing the fate of missing Suffolk officers


Remarkably the BRE records have been annotated with handwritten comments added by the bureau staff as their interviews and enquiries went on in 1942. Records for 15 of the 25 ‘missing’ Suffolk men have been annotated with map references identifying their last known location or their burial site.  This is not to say however that if one were to plot the coordinates then a body would be unearthed. There are many ways an individual could ‘go missing’. Bodies may be recovered without any form of identification and buried at Kranji under the epitaph ‘Known Unto God’. Wounded soldiers may simply crawl into the forestation and die; their bones being covered in undergrowth or scattered by scavenging animals. Men were also known to basically disintegrate when struck by a high explosive shell leaving nothing for the burial teams to bury. However there may be a possibility that those men are to be found at rest amongst the ancestors of the people they were sent to defend[1].

The task of finding these graves by archaeological survey alone is monumental; it is like looking for a needle in a pile of needles. The undergrowth and cemetery architecture makes meaningful geophysical survey impossible. Metal detecting may not penetrate the surface deep enough to identify buried bodies. Even fieldwalking looking for unmarked grave cuts is impaired by the thick undergrowth and numerous treefalls, unrecorded civilian graves and undulating terrain.  However it is feasible that the remains, should they be unearthed say during construction,  can be identified as military as they will be most likely lying amidst a scatter of tell tale buttons, badges and buckles.  It is not unknown for leather work and fabric material to survive 70 years under the ground facilitating the identification of a military man through his ID Discs, uniform or personal possessions. There is always a chance that a costly DNA survey would reveal a living link to the identity.  If found there is a distinct possibility that the ‘missing’ may not remain known only unto God.

There is of course undoubtedly a less poignant but as important material record of the fighting scattered across the Bukit Brown site still to be found today. Surveys carried along at Adam Park suggest that shrapnel, shell fragments, live and used ordnance, buttons, buckles and bombs will have been left relatively undisturbed amidst the headstones across the site.  There are even local stories of wells and water courses being used as handy dumping grounds for broken and lost equipment, not to mention the bodies of the fallen. The recovery of such items in meaningful amounts would be a massive undertaking but it would give us a fascinating insight into the battle that raged that night. There is no better way to inspire our grandchildren into understanding and respecting the incredible adventures of their grandparents than showing them the actual objects that they used. It’s all about touching history and at Bukit Brown, it’s all around you.


Battle: Possible slit trench or old grave site (photo: Jon Cooper)


Postscript: In a corner of a foreign field Amidst in the undergrowth within the corner of woodland alongside the entrance of the MacRitchie Nature trail and away from the clutter of headstones and grave mounds of the cemetery, are a number of peculiar holes, or ‘features’ as the archaeologists like to call them.  These ‘holes’ of varying sizes are set out along the forward slope of the slight rise overlooking the golf course fairway and tactically speaking they provide an excellent field of fire for any men defending the Lornie / Sime Road crossroads. They are potentially the remains of British slit trenches dug by the Cambridgeshire and Suffolk men on 12th and 13th February 1942. What makes the site even more provocative the site is also cited in the BRE records as the resting place of four missing Suffolk lads.  It’s time to dig a little deeper into Singapore’s wartime heritage.

[1] It must be noted here that this is just the roll for the Suffolk men. There were other units in the area at the time as well as a number of stragglers from previous fighting. For example 19 of the 1st Cambridgeshires fighting along Adam Road are listed as missing, they too may have found their last resting place on the Bukit Brown cemetery.

Jon Cooper at Bukit Brown (photo: Claire Leow)

Jon Cooper is an expat amateur archaeologist and a graduate from the Centre for Battlefield Archaeology at Glasgow University. He has spent the last three years working as the project manager alongside his partners in the Singapore Heritage Society and the National University of Singapore, for The Adam Park Project; a study into the archaeological record of the battle for the estate and the subsequent POW camp that was established there in 1942. The project’s findings have recently gone on show at the National Library in an exhibition entitled ‘Four Days in February’. He will speak on The Adam Park Project on March 19 at the Asian Civilisations Museum. 

Jon Cooper at Bukit Brown (photo: Claire Leow)