Traces of World War II in Penang

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This post was written by Austen Wilks.

The Second World War left its mark on Penang, and Austen Wilks explores some of the traces left behind and understands a little more about the reality of life for those on the island at the time.

THE SECOND WORLD WAR is something that many of us know about, most probably from stories our parents and grandparents have told us. Having heard that Penang went through a difficult time during that conflict, I set out to find some of the traces of the war and the occupation that remain on this island.

The British Cenotaph on the Esplanade and the Chinese Memorial in Ayer Itam both honour those who fell in the conflict, but in order to find out what people actually experienced, you have to go further afield. The best place to start is the well-presented War Museum at Batu Maung, which was formerly a large-scale military installation built by the British in the early 1930s.

Beneath the Surface

In the cool, well-ventilated, underground complex it is easy to imagine yourself back in that time of well-ordered certainty. Perhaps if I had lived at that time I could have been a private soldier, serving in Penang’s defence.

I spy where I would have lived in the carefully labelled barrack blocks, complete with contemporary photographs.These buildings still give a very strong impression that every man had his place, was respectfully provided with the appropriate food for his religion, was clothed in smart khaki uniform, and had the shiniest boots imaginable.

If I was an Indian my boots would have had to be shiny enough to satisfy the havildar (equivalent to a sergeant) when he was preparing us for inspection by the subadar (equivalent to a Lieutenant or Captain). Malay, Indian, and British troops were accommodated separately in well-designed, airy, shaded barrack blocks and, of course, there was also a rigid division between officers and “other ranks.”

Home from Home

The buildings were designed on a rectangular plan, set lengthways on the hillside on a terrace. Built-in washing and other necessary rooms were located at one end.The open side was a wide verandah, supported by square pillars, with characteristic triangular bracing at the top, creating a recognisable style (which I saw later on the Pearl Hill military ruins).

Behind this long verandah is the large space designated for the sleeping area. Its concrete looks so clean and new, that it seems to be just waiting for a new issue of tubular steel beds so it could be ready to accommodate us all over again.

Almost every detail of this remarkable site make one feel that the troops have only just left, the big guns only just unbolted from their massive emplacements, and that the huge shiny shells that served the guns were only hoisted up yesterday. Although the remaining hardware in this splendid museum has been expertly cleaned, the remarkable state of preservation is largely due to the quality of the original construction.The highest building standard available must have been used, and no expense was spared. It is truly a reflection of state-of-the-art military planning of its time.


The Occupation

The tragedy was that this fortress was of little use in the actual conflict. Just as the Germans bypassed the Maginot line and conquered France in a matter of days, so the Japanese bypassed the British defences in Malaya with a strategy of landing infantry soldiers rather than the heavy and cumbersome baggage of a modern army. Each man carried his own weapons, ammunition, and supplies, and they bicycled down the peninsula to Singapore, which they quickly took from the landside as the guns were facing out to sea.

Large and impressive as it is, the fortress Batu Maung also fell to the invading forces. Parts of the complex show signs of the Japanese occupation.There are rooms with the unmistakable evidence of heavy bullets, the pitting and scoring of the reinforced concrete that had so spectacularly failed in its purpose.There is a room designated as the “Torture Chamber.” There is a reconstruction of the gallows which were used to end the life of the Japanese General in charge of the invasion, who went on to even greater glory in the short-lived Japanese overseas empire.There is a photograph of this able servant of the Japanese Emperor in arrogant majesty complete with samurai sword and pith helmet, offset by another in which he wept during his war crimes trial while his wife testified on his behalf, pleading for her husband’s life.

There are photos of the Japanese Occupation Currency, soon to become utterly worthless. It’s probable that the Japanese used the base to support the little-known link-up of German U boats with Imperial forces. A maritime museum is planned for construction below the Batu Maung site, probably to show remains of the harbour installations and facilities for the U boats.

On the internet you can easily find harrowing accounts of raids on the innocent local population by the Japanese secret police, the fearful Kempitei.There are infamous stories about the Japanese policy of using forced labour to build railway links, involving the effective enslavement of the local people as well as the British prisoners of war. Everyone suffered to some degree, but it was a long time ago, and those born after the conflict ceased have now reached retirement age. of Batu Maung was only an insignificant outstation to the main British base which was located at Singapore. It was Singapore, the great pivot of the British Empire, that was the ultimate Japanese objective, and they attained it almost as easily as they captured Penang.

Another military ruin still standing is located on the very summit of Pearl Hill at Tanjong Bungah. The walk up through the jungle at dusk is atmospheric and as you come upon the ruins, you feel the sudden thrill of history coming alive. But were these remains British built or were they constructed during the Japanese occupation, I wondered.The barrack blocks were in remarkably good condition, the camouflage paint still recognisable. It was easy to identify this neglected site, which has returned to nature via the extending roots of trees seeded on the reinforced roofs, as a complement to Batu Maung.

Amid the green of the trees and neglected buildings sits a tiny Buddhist temple, built “for the sake of all mankind,” and it stands on the foundations of an anti-aircraft gun emplacement. It is tucked behind the line of sight of approaching aircraft, and so is the last part of this site visible from the path to the top of the hill.

The image of the Buddha sits behind glass far above us in the stupa. Decorative carved lions appear to support the structure. Prayer flags fl utter in the breeze. It is a joy to see that the signs of planning for inhumanity have been built over with a new layer, dedicated to peaceful cooperation between all peoples. Perhaps we now live in a better age.


Source: Penang International December 2012 -January 2013

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