Kranji: From War to a Place of Memorial

5 min read

Contrasting against the dense tropical greenery of 1903 Kranji, a railway track with two parallel rows of long steel cuts a meter-wide path through the jungle. On 11th April the same year, the crushed stones beneath the tracks rumbled for the first time as a train passed the level crossing at Kranji Road. It pulled a multiracial mix of passengers in its seven carriages, as they eagerly took in the country scenery.

The Railway through Kranji

Although known as the Singapore-Kranji Railway, the train never stopped at Kranji. The metallic track started from the heart of Singapore at Tank Road and extended up north to Woodlands.

The SS24 in the Kranji wooded area between Sungei Kadut and Kranji crossings at 1057pm, Darren Soh, Collection of National Museum of Singapore

With the completion of the Causeway in 1923, trains from Singapore could travel all the way to Butterworth Penang. Along the track, astute passengers would have spotted an inconspicuous yellow sign by the track at Kranji, marking the spot 761.25km away from the terminal at Butterworth.

Goods trains quickly executed the British administration’s intentions of tapping into Malaya’s resources, thundering by Kranji, at 75 km per hour, carrying minted tins and harvested rubber from Malaya, all headed to the port and marked for England. This strengthens the dominance of the ports at Penang and Singapore, which establishes the presence of the British in Southeast Asia.

But beyond the British administration, it was also a welcome accessibility amongst spirited gamblers. With the ban of gambling in Singapore, the railway saw many eager hopefuls onboard trains to gambling dens in Johor. Sundays were the most crowded as these dens would offer to cover the return fares of train passengers.

Taking three years to build and costing almost two million dollars, the railway was an ambitious project that bridged Singapore and Malaya. And Kranji, marking the last level crossing in Singapore before the trains enter Malaya, was in the middle of it all.

The Johor-Singapore Causeway, c.1970s. Collection of National Museum of Singapore.

However, it would soon also witness this very ‘bridge’ fall apart as one of Singapore’s fiercest battle during World War II unfolded.

Defending Kranji

By 1942, Japan had taken Malaya and was headed down south in an aggressive charge towards Singapore. In a drastic move reflecting desperate times, Singapore blew up the Causeway, literally cutting out Malaya. This move slowed the Japanese for over a week but it only shifted the crosshairs on Kranji. With the Causeway in smithereens, the only way across was to head to the waters and Kranji was where the Straits of Johor was narrowest.

Also, capturing Kampong Kranji, a village by Kranji Road, would be a huge boon. From there, they could rebuild the Causeway and open the floodgates to a sea of reinforcements waiting in Malaya.

On 8th February, under the cover of the night, the Japanese imperial guards crossed the Johor strait. Wave after wave of armoured landing-crafts, collapsible boats and swimming troops came onto the shores of Singapore in a seemingly unending torrent. In the first night alone, a flurry of 13,000 Japanese soldiers landed on Kranji.

Amidst the mangrove swamps and tropical forests of Kranji, the Australian 27th Brigade, led by Brigadier Duncan Maxwell, readied themselves for battle with the Japanese. By their side was the Dalforce, a Chinese volunteer army gathered from all walks of life - teachers and labourers to communists.

Despite having only about 3,000 defenders, the Allied forces made sure that every bit of advance came at a high price for the Japanese. On 10th February, they let loose an oil slick from a nearby oil depot. By the time the Japanese realized what was happening it was too late. The coastline blazed in an untamed inferno, taking the lives of many. On this day, Japan suffered its heaviest losses in the Battle of Singapore.

The casualty count was so high that Nishimura, the Commanding Officer of the Guards wavered and asked for a withdrawal. However, on the Allied end, a series of miscommunication between Maxwell and Lieutenant General Ernest Percival led Maxwell to retreat towards the last line of defence.

Probably one of the most pivotal missteps in the war, leaving Kranji unguarded gave the Japanese a much needed break and the momentum to push into the city with reinforcements. Within a week, Singapore would surrender.

Remembering Kranji

Not far from where the Japanese landed, the British set-up a prisoner-of-war camp and hospital in Kranji. What started as a temporary cemetery by the prisoners to honour the dead would later become a much larger project beyond anyone’s expectation.

Perhaps it was in remembrance of the fierce resistance put up in the area or the fact that prisoners-of-war had already sown the seeds for a war cemetery, it was decided after the war that Kranji would be the final resting place for the allied and commonwealth soldiers who gave their lives during World War II.

The Kranji War Memorial, 1970s-1980s. Collection of National Museum of Singapore.

4,461 burials expanded across the gently sloping green hill in an orderly, almost militaristic fashion in the war cemetery. The war memorial sits atop the hill, overlooking the Straits of Johor to the north where the Japanese first crossed into Singapore. The majestic structure bears the names of the 24,346 soldiers who died with no known grave and sits amongst other smaller memorials all of which commemorating sacrifices in the war effort.

Kranji War Memorial, c. 1970s. Collection of National Museum of Singapore.

Sitting quietly in Singapore’s North-Western front, Kranji had become the stage to many key moments in the nation’s history. As the tropical overgrowth reclaims where the railway tracks used to be, hints of its tumultuous history continue to echo in its nooks and crannies.