Location Scouting in British Newsreels made before the Japanese Occupation of Singapore (1938-42) – Part 1

Newsreels produced by Gaumont British News, British Movietone News, British Paramount News and British Pathé.

Newsreels are short documentary films prevalent in the early to mid-2oth century, regularly released for public presentation and contained news stories of topical interest. They were important sources of news and current affairs for moviegoers – they were usually shown before full-length features – until television replaced their role in the 1950-60s. A substantial number of these newsreels were made in Singapore by British newsreel companies during World War II, especially during the periods before and after the Japanese Occupation in Singapore — the occupation lasted three years and eight months; between Feb 1942 and Aug 1945. Singapore was a Crown Colony of the British Empire and the territory was sought after by the Japanese Imperialists during World War II as part of their plans to create a “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere”. (They were actually after the oil and the rich natural resources available in Malaya and the Indonesian Archipelago.)

British newsreel-makers travelled to Singapore to document the military and civilian activities in the colony as the threat of a Japanese invasion grew since the start of World War II in 1939. They are valuable historical documents, since they offer glimpses into the physical landscape of Singapore 70 years ago. These landscapes and places are the contexts in which historical events, both key and cursory, occurred. They are places that might have undergone changes over the years or are removed through the process of urban redevelopment and consigned to mere memory.

The filmed locations or places that I will highlight in the upcoming posts are drawn from videos of newsreels found on the websites of British archives. The majority of the newreels are made by Gaumont British News, British Movietone News, British Paramount News & British Pathé.

Excerpts from these British newsreels also feature prominently in later feature-length documentaries that covered the topics of World War II and the Japanese Invasion of Singapore. The documentaries that I have referred to are:
a. The World at War Episode 6: Banzai (Japan 1931-1942) (1974), produced by Thames Television.
b. Battlefield: Pearl Harbour and the Fall of Singapore (2000), shown on Discovery Channel.
c. Battlefront: Fall of Singapore (2001), shown on National Geographic Channel.
d. Riding the Tiger (2001), produced by the Singapore Ministry of Information and the Arts.
e. Japan’s War in Colour: Faith in Victory (2005), shown on History Channel.
f. The History of Singapore (2006), shown on Discovery Channel.
g. Generals at War: The Battle of Singapore (2008), shown on National Geographic Channel.
h. Apocalypse: The Second World War (2011)
i. Rising Sun Over Malaya (2012), shown on History Channel
j. The Fall of Singapore: The Great Betrayal (2012), shown on BBC.

The Film Locations:

1. Sembawang Naval Base (or Singapore Naval Base)

The British colonial government had decided to build a massive naval base in Sembawang in the northern tip of Singapore as part of its defense strategy in the Far East after the First World War, and as a deterrent to the increasingly ambitious Japanese Empire. Construction began 1928 and proceeded slowly. It only began to gain momentum after the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931. It took another 7 years to finally complete the British Royal Navy’s base in Singapore in 1938. Upon its completion, Winston Churchill had touted it as the “Gibraltar of the East”. Such a grand project deserved extensive reportage and many newsreels were made upon its opening and in the build-up to the Japanese attack in 1941.

One of the key events documented was the 1938 opening of the largest graving (dry) naval dock in Southeast Asia — King George VI Graving Dock.


The King George VI Dock is located within the Sembawang Naval Base, which also comprised of other dockyards, wharves and workshops, as well as supporting administrative, residential and commercial areas.

Left: Indian Army Reinforcements in 1941. Right: Giant cranes at the naval base. 

2. Keppel Harbour (Singapore Harbour Board)

Besides the Sembawang Naval Base, the Keppel Harbour — then managed by the Singapore Harbour Board — was also one of the main entry points for troops arriving from India and Australia, which were colonies or dominions of the British Empire. The massive vessels that carried the troops to Singapore would later depart with women and children evacuating the colony before the outbreak of the war, most of them to India where it was thought to be out of the sphere of invasion of the Japanese.

Arrival: Reinforcements for the defence of Singapore came from Australia and India.


Departure: Women and children of the colonialists evacuate Singapore before the onslaught of the Japanese.


Neither arriving nor departing; the “stayers”Local labourers earned a living at the Singapore Harbour Board.


Anyway, port and naval base workers were known to be a tough lot. After the end of World War Two, the trade unions in the port and naval base of Singapore made many appeals to the authorities for better working and living conditions and higher wages to cope with the increasing costs of living.

The Singapore Harbour Board Association, Singapore’s first union to be officially registered after the war under the Trade Unions Ordinance. Under the leadership of general secretary Jamit Singh, the union organised an extended 67-day port workers’ strike in 1955. Jamit Singh would later face allegations of misuse of union funds in 1962. It wasn’t easy to be a trade union leader in the early 1960s; one would often find him/herself on the wrong side of the fence in the tug-of-war between the splitting factions in the governing People’s Action Party.

Jamit Singh, general secretary of the Singapore Harbour Board Staff Association faces a charge in the First Criminal District Court for misuse of union funds. A crowd of onlookers and supporters gathered outside the Court House, 1962.


The Naval Base Labour Union also made claims of exploitation by the Royal Navy of the British government — the British gained control of the base after the Japanese Occupation. They went on strike and held mass meetings on many occasions in the 1950s and 60s, to fight discrimination and seek to settle outstanding claims owed by the colonialists. The photos below depict the provocations of the Naval Base Labour Union in years 1952 (left) and 1963 (right).

As I was foraging for information on the Sembawang Naval Base and the Keppel Harbour, I came across a cartoon published in New Zealand newspapers, depicting a “Singapore” cannon that provides shade for a”Pacific Paradise” island, to mark the official opening of the Singapore Naval Base on 14 February 1938. New Zealand is presumably “basking in the shade” of the Crown Colony’s naval power, shielded from the glare of the Japanese “rising sun” — the war flag of the Imperial Japanese Army. As it turned out, the cannon had proven itself to be a limp and impotent one….


[to be continued…. next up, newsreel film locations in the City Centre of Singapore, 1942….]