BOOK REVIEW ‘The Fatal Fortress: The Guns and Fortifications of Singapore 1819-1956’

13-13-january-2017

Reviewer: NZ Crown Mines

Title: The Fatal Fortress: The Guns and Fortifications of Singapore 1819-1956

Author: Bill Clements

Total Number of Printed Pages: 199

Rating Scale (1: Very Poor, 10: Excellent): 7

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According to well-held popular opinion, the fall of the British possession of Singapore to the Japanese in 1942 was largely the result of ‘The guns facing the wrong way; out to sea, when thy should have faced ‘inland’; towards the (then) British colony of Malaya (now Malaysia)’. But was this in fact the case?

In this well-written and exhaustively-researched volume, Bill Clements seeks to clarify the situation. His narrative consists of two parallel themes; ‘Political’ and ‘Military’; the former providing ‘the reasons why’, the latter, the military response.. The tale that results is one of conflicting orders, evolving and changing international policies, self-important experts, technological development and unnecessary expense. An inability to think beyond very fixed perceptions, also contributed to what eventuated.  The miracle is that despite all the foregoing, some of the heavy artillery on Singapore was in fact able to contribute to its defence. The unfortunate aspect is that these guns could have done so much more. The facts are presented objectively and in impressive detail. The post-World War II era is also covered. A subsection in the final chapter lists what remains of the fortifications in 2016 and would be a useful guide for any visitor wishing to view what little is left.

The main part of this work consists of 11 Chapters, and three Appendices.  Several chapters contain subsections which relate to specific topics within the larger chapter. End-notes are used throughout the book and these are listed in a separate Notes section at the back of the book.  A  Glossary, Bibliography and Index are also provided. Although Maps and Photographs appear throughout the volume, the Contents page carries no indication of their existence.

For this reviewer, this volume was something of a mixed bag. As already noted, it is well written and researched, the author’s enthusiasm for his subject being very evident. The facts are presented in an objective way and the technical details are both comprehensive and informative. There are however some serious omissions in respect of the volume’s format. Several chapters contain subsections intended to provide additional information not covered within the main body of that chapter. Their existence (and that of both maps and photographs) is not noted in the Contents section. As a result, should a specific subsection, map or photograph be required, frustrating and time-consuming searching has to be undertaken. As this Reviewer expects the Contents page of a work to accurately reflect what is within its pages, such omissions are unacceptable.

There can be no doubt that this work is authoritative, the quality of the information it contains being such that it may become the standard reference on the subject of Singapore’s defences between 1819 and 1956.  Purchasers seeking details about the ordnance used during this period will no doubt find it very useful. Military historians seeking a more generalist overview of the island and the battle which resulted in its surrender, are also find likely to find it helpful. Students of World War II, Japanese military history and the history of British South East Asia are also likely to find it informative.

In precis, this work is a well-researched and written history of both Singapore Island and the guns that were intended to defend it when it formed part of the British Empire. As such, it is of high historical value.  Unfortunately, the omission of important information from the Contents page, together with the existence of unrecorded maps and photographs within the work itself, serves to reduce the volume’s value. Were that it was not so.

On a Rating Scale (1: Very Poor, 10: Excellent), I would give it a 7.

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BOOK REVIEW ‘The Fatal Fortress: The Guns and Fortifications of Singapore 1819-1956’