Saturday, January 14, 2006

I Remember Gillman Camp

One problem with Singapore men is that, once they start reminiscing about their ‘army daze’, they simply cannot stop. So, I have to put my blogs about kampong life on hold and continue with more stories of my NS (National Service) days in the army. This time, I want to blog about my time in the School of Combat Engineer in Gillman Camp in 1977.

If you travel southwards along Alexandra Road, as you approach Keppel Road, you will pass a place called Gillman Village on your left. Inside this huge undulating compound, you will find an assortment of enterprises such as a food court, restaurants, furniture store, offices, and others. Do you know that this place is quite rich in history?

It was originally a British military camp. It was then called Gillman Barracks. I believe it was named after Major General Webb Gillman, who was appointed in 1927 by the Army Council to prepare a detail scheme of defence for Singapore. During the 2nd World War, this area was the scene of some fierce fighting between the British Loyal Regiment and our local Malay Regiment on one side, and the invading Japanese army on the other. You can read two personal accounts of the fighting that took place at Gillman at the two websites listed at the end of this article.

Following the withdrawal of the British forces from Singapore in 1971, Gillman Barracks was renamed Gillman Camp when the SAF (Singapore Armed Forces) took over. It subsequently became the headquarters of the Singapore Combat Engineers (HQSCE) and also housed the School of Combat Engineers (SOCE) as well as a couple of other Engineer units. It was during this period that I spent one of the toughest stints of my NS (National Service) days. I want to share with you my memories of those days.

Recently, I visited the Gillman Village where I had lunch and walked around taking in the changes. The place has changed drastically from what it was like in 1977 when I spent four-and-a-half months undergoing the Junior Officers Engineer Course (JOE Course) at the School of Combat Engineers (SOCE). Sadly, I could not even identify some of the landmarks like the Commanders Training Wing, the swimming pool or the syndicate rooms where we bunked. The only clearly identifiable building was the Officers’ Mess (photo below) which is now occupied by the Gillman Food Centre.


After I completed my 9 months of Officers Cadet Training in Safti, I never expected to be sent for yet another course. This was because I had earlier completed 6 months of BMT (Basic Military Training) and Section Leaders training before I was disrupted to pursue my university studies. My disappointment turned to dismay when I found out that I was posted to SOCE for the Junior Officers Engineers Course or JOE course for short. I had heard that this course was a very tough course and many trainees even suffered slipped discs during the training. Furthermore, it was not unprecedented for temporary 2nd lieutenants to be demoted to sergeants when they failed the course.

As it turned out, our fears were not unfounded. The JOE course was made up one tough exercise after another, all crammed into a short space of 4½ months. Not only were the exercises physically demanding, the theory exams were also killers. The mine warfare, field fortification, demolition, bridging and other course manuals (or what the army calls ‘format’) were inches thick. I remember waking up once at 4+ am in the morning to cram for my written tests.

It was probably more than a coincidence that most of my course mates were either Engineering degree or diploma holders; except for the regulars. We even had 2 guys with Phds in civil engineering; one specializing in Bridges (David Chew) and another in Soil Engineering (Dr Fwa) – 2 really nice and humble gentlemen, if I may add. I often had this suspicion that some NCO sitting comfortably in CMPB (maybe someone like my friend Victor) picked us by looking at our paper qualifications. Anyone with the letters “Eng” after their names automatically qualified for Combat Engineers training. Alas we also found out that Combat Engineers was just a nice name for hard labourers.

By the way, we had a paper called Soil Engineering; and guess who topped the class – not Dr Fwa, but the kampong boy who grew up in Chui Arm Lor. I also heard that one of my friends, who was a Colombo Plan scholar with an honours degree in Engineering was called up for counseling by his CO because he flunked his Maths paper during the Artillery course. His excuse was that he had forgotten how to use log books. (I hope the youngsters reading this blog know what is a log book. My poly graduate nephew does not even know what is a slide rule. But that is a story for another blog)

This place was known as Temple Hill. We had our mine warfare lessons here. The flats in the background are part of Telok Blangah Estate (not Depot Road estate which I originally thought)

Exercise Lotus

One of the toughest exercises we went through was Exercise Lotus, where we had to construct a 9-span triple-triple Bailey Bridge. The Bailey Bridge is actually a 2nd World War bridge which you can find in parts of rural Malaysia even today. We were so happy that the bridge was finally completed and our ever so tough and demanding course commander, Lta Soh Guan Kwee actually complimented us on a job well-done. I suspect he did not expect this bunch of ‘neng-kar-pengs’ (‘soft-legged soldiers’ in Hokkien) to complete the bridge to the last detail and in record time too.

Our joy was short-lived because, after a short rest, we had to dismantle the bridge and clean and keep the stores. Apparently, dismantling the damn thing was just as tough, if not tougher than assembling it! At the end of Exercise Lotus, even though it was a Saturday afternoon, when every true-blooded NS boy would rush to book out of camp, most of us simply spent the afternoon sleeping in our bunks returning home only in the night. Never before had my poor back felt so sore.

The man we called “The Pork Seller”

Subsequently, when we became platoon commanders and had to push our men to carry out a similar exercise, we were thankful to Lta Soh (nicknamed, the Pork Seller) for pushing us so hard to complete the Bailey Bridge. This guy was so tough that he actually made us repeat one exercise on mine warfare just to proof that he didn’t make empty threats. In case you are wondering, it is no joke to redo a major exercise because it involved lots of rescheduling and logistical arrangements. Thanks to the man, we lost one precious weekend to repeat Exercise Hedgehog (or Porcupine, or some other fanciful name that these people dreamed up).

By the way, his motto was: Skill in Doing comes from Doing. In fact, at the end of our course, some wise guy left a note on the door of our bunk for the next batch of JOE Course trainees. Basically, he did some simple mathematics to warn them that for the Ex Lotus, each one of them should be prepared to lift a total of X number of tons. He did this by adding the total number of panels or transoms to be moved, multiplied by the weight of each panel/transom. I am afraid I cannot recall the exact figure; but it was quite staggering. He ended his note with this words; “Beware of the man they call the Pork Seller”. When Lta Soh heard of this note, can you guess what he did? He pinned it next to his desk and made all the new trainees read it!

This picture always reminds me of a scene from the movie Ben Hur where Charlton Heston and his fellow slaves were chained to the galley ship. The only thing missing is the whip. By the way, more than ½ the guys here have at least a poly diploma in Engineering.  

Finally we can pose with the product of our hard labour
The completed Triple-Triple Bailey Bridge straddling what was known as the Bridging Gap

The Bridging Gap in 2006

Another interesting thing about Gillman Camp was it had a swimming pool - a considerable luxury those days, but you should remember that this was formerly a British army camp, and we know how those British military personnel loved to enjoy life, don't we? Although we were usually too busy or tired to go swimming, nevertheless we tried not to miss Thursday evenings. Do you know why? That was the day when they permitted the trainee dental nurses from across Alexandra Road to use our pool!

While I was there the other day, I tried to locate the ‘syndicate rooms’ where we bunked for 4½ months. But unfortunately both the swimming pool and our syndicate rooms were gone. This reminds me of something interesting. At that time there was a campaign of some sort to save energy. So the camp commandant gave an order for the guards to come around our bunks to switch off the power after midnight or so. He reasoned that, once we were sound asleep, we didn’t need the electric fans anymore. Unfortunately, he did not take into account the kamikazes (mosquitoes). Although nobody contracted dengue fever, we did lose much needed rest thanks to Cpt Chan. We had no choice but to turn to mosquito coils. In my case, I didn’t even need mosquito coils. My roommate’s smelly socks could easily do the job (Sorry Chee Tiong, if you are reading this blog – your smelly socks are an indelible part of my memories of Gillman Camp).

Another job well done. This one is called a Cage Bridge I think

I am not one of those who like to make New Year resolutions. But for 2006, I plan to round up some of my course mates for lunch at the Gillman Village and savour the memories. And better do it fast too. I won’t be surprised if they convert the place to yet another condo. Or worse still; some of us may have to make an early exit.
 This is a picture of me (standing, 2nd from the right) with some of my course mates. Front row squatting from left: Dr Fwa, the soil expert. Next to him: my room mate and platoon mate in OCS, Ong Chee Tiong. Back row with hand on my shoulder: another OCS platoon mate, Cheung Tuck. He has since left us more than 10 years ago.

"The book of life is brief.
And once the page is read;
All but love is dead.
That is my belief."
(Don McClean)



pinto said...

Yes, indeed, once you start talking about army days, you can't stop. Thanks for sharing the memories and photos of your days in NS.

Very different times in the army now. Almost ten years since I enlisted. Perhaps I'll write a post about army days too...

Chris Sim said...

I had mine more than 20 years ago. Hated every minute of it then. Always looking forward to booking out. But thinking back, the memory was bitter sweet. It was really a time when we boys came of age.

And yes, Victor, when you gonna blog about your stint as a clerk at the CMPB? I know you hate assignment but you know the rule... there's always a due date for assignments... ROTFL.

Lam Chun See said...

On second thots, I think I got my bearings wrong. The flats in the photo of Temple Hill were probably part of Telok Blangah Estate. Hope someone can confirm.

Victor said...

You are wrong Chun See. The NCOs like us in CMPB held no power to decide on the fate of enlistees. That power was more in the hands of the CO, the OCs and the EOs, in that order. They in turn probably acted on the instructions of the Minister and the gahmen.

We were also 'marking our time' in CMPB (过日字) and couldn't wait to ROD (or ORD as they call it now) in 2-1/2 years time.

It's good that you know who is still around and who has passed on. It shows that you keep in touch with your buddies (while they are still alive). As for me, I do not know how many of my NS buddies are as lucky as me - still alive and blogging.

Lionel Tan said... making NS life more intresting to live in. =)

Lam Chun See said...

Victor - certainly u know I was joking right?

Pinto - Glad u liked my pictures. Actually I have many more. But worried that insufficient storage space. Which leads me to a question; does Blogspot impose some kind of limit on the size of our posts? I notice people like Ivan has posts that go back more than 2 years. Will there come a time when Blogspot will say, "enough - you have used up all your alloted space. Now you have to pay"? What do we then? Can we transfer to our own domain space? Hope someone can enlighten.


pinto said...

As far as I know, Blogspot - technically Blogger - which is owned by Google, does not impose storage limits. It does resize photos so that they do not take up so much space. Also, they are the same people who provide 2GB (and counting) email space. So, I don't think they will pull the plug any time soon. Google is into indexing stuff, so it pays for them to store our text and our images.

Victor said...

Of course I know that you're not serious, Chun See. Haven't we've been always joking, taking swipes at one another and in the process enjoying all the fun? :)

Regarding whether blogspot will impose charges one day, I think your guess is as good as mine. To use a food analogy (sorry for being a copycat) it is just like asking when your favourite beef noodle stall will start charging for chilli sauce. Don't laugh, I've accepted having to pay extra for wasabi and soy sauce packs for takeaway sashimi ok.

Chris and I have discussed this topic earlier. (Yes, great minds think alike and fools don't know how to think). Should blogspot decide to do charge one day, we'll have no choice but to pay up or stop blogging altogether. (Your own domain space is not free either.)

One way to control the size of your blog is to reduce the resolution of your photos before uploading. If you are using a scanner, use a lower resolution. Before you upload a large jpeg image, reduce the size first by using a photo-editing software like Photoshop. (100 kb photos are sufficient for web display.) Posts with smaller-sized photos also download faster for your blog readers.

Lam Chun See said...

Thanks guys for the info-sharing.

Don't you think the officers' mess building is too big for a food court - actually only 2 stall were operating when I was there. I think the NHB shd convert it into a military museum or something. The area is very accessible to the public, esp those who drive. Definitely better than the Discovery Centre in Jurong. You can even put up some old military hardware there plus some outdoor activities for the kids; such as the Omega tower.

Anonymous said...

Hi Chun See,

Thanks for sharing your memories with us. It's a great read and very interesting.

On the photo hosting issue, there are many other places to host if Blogger decides to charge. Flikr is a useful site for bloggers as it automatically resizes pics if you want to post thumbnails etc.

Lam Chun See said...

Today is 6 April 2006. I just saw an obituary of my friend Chong Teuck in the Straits Times. It is the 10 anniversary of his passing.

I am happy to see that he had accepted Christ. May the Lord watch over his wife and 2 daughters.

Anonymous said...

Hi Lam Chun See,

The second photo down on your home page shows the good old AKC or Army Kinema Corporation cinema. You can just make out the logos left and right above the entrance. Spent many a Satuday morning between 67 and 69 in the matinee shows. Just down to the left of the AKC, in the 'valley' as it were, was the Gillman swimming pool, another favourite haunt. Up on the hill beyond the AKC was Bourne School where I was a pupil. I think everyone who was ever priviliged to have been 'posted' to Singapore has fond memories of a fabulous place and extremely friendly people. For me I can say that I had the time of my life and only wish I could do it all again!!

Best regards

Ronnie Clews

Lam Chun See said...

Hi Ronnie. Thanks for that interesting bit of history. You mean that AKC logo is the same one from your Bourne School days? That's amazing! Next time I go to Gillman Village, I must remember to take a closeup shot and share with you guys.

Mike said...

Dear Lam,

Thank you for sharing your memories of Gillman Barracks. I was there Between 1966-68 and remember the time with fondness. I visited Singapore earlier this year and went to the site. I was amazed to find as much still standing, as Singapore has had so much development. I climbed the hill where the barracks used to be and is now reclaimed by the undergrowth. I was trying to find an old map to compare with the current one when I found your memory site. If you have any other photos or even an old map I would love to see them.

Best Regards

AJCAA Chinese Orchestra said...

Oh my goodness. That is the APB "Acro Panel Bridge". I couldnt believe that you all completed that huge bridge. Nowadays, combat engineers just go through the motion without completing it. I salute you.

Lam Chun See said...

I think it is actually quite wise of our SAF commanders nowadays to do away with Ex Lotus. No point trying to act tough and risk injury to our young men; esp since the families nowadays have very few male children; unlike our post war baby boom era.

As an industrial engineer, I too thought that it was very stupid to make us construct the Bailey Bridge using the performance standards handed down by the British Army. The BB was designed for Caucasians. For us smaller built Asians, it was very strenuous and that's why many combat engineers suffered slipped disc injuriy and had to be down-graded. Furthermore, the design was such that you cannot add more manpower. One panel was designed with 6 openings to accept a team of 6 soldiers, 3 on each side. Likewise, 1 transom can take only 8 persons.

Later, we learned to construct the Medium Girder Bridge which was supposed to be made of new materials which was lighter. Our hope turned to dispair when we learned that even though the parts were much lighter than the BB, the number of soldiers per team was reduced. Thus essentially, it made no difference that we were using a 'lighter' bridge!

I think the same problems applied to the guys in Arty. Trust that the SAF today have found a way to overcome this problem.

Anonymous said...

I recently bought an envalope sent from a british Officer stationed at Gillman Barracks in 1950's.

Anonymous said...

hi there,

im doing some research for a webtv travelogue program and i came across ur blog. we are going to feature the southern ridges and it would be nice to highlight some areas surrounding the connectors. i thought the gillman village cld be highlighted as we go pass the alexandra arc.

i hope you can enlighten me as i am confused. is the bridge leading to the gillman village today, the bridge you and your fellow NSmen built. I highlight the captions for your pictures. "The completed product straddling what was known as the Bridging Gap" and "The Bridging Gap in January 2006".


Lam Chun See said...

Hi Nina. No the bridge you see today is not the one that we built. It's the same type of Bailey Bridge but these are the differences,

1) Ours was only an exercise, meaning after we have completed it, we had to dismantle it and keep all the parts in the store so that another group can do the same exercise, and so on; batch after batch of trainess have used the same bridging parts. It's like Lego set. The SAF has only a few sets of such bridging parts (very very expensive) The bridge you see now is semi-permanent. Exactly how different, I am not able to tell becos my knowledge is rusty plus no chance to study.

2) Ours was a 'triple-triple'; i.e. 3 triple storey (high), triple span (thick) and thus much stronger; can take the weight of a tank. The present one is meant for pedestrians and thus only single storey; and I think single span.

3) Ours was muuch shorter in lenght as it was just a 3 day exercise. The present one is meant for public to access from the main road and hence much longer.

Hope this clarifies.

yg said...

chun see, in your posting titled "i remember gillman camp', you have these lines at the end:

the book of life is brief
and once a page is read
all but love is dead
that is my belief

you attributed the song to don mcclean; i thought it came from the song 'and i love you so' by perry como. maybe don mcclean has also recorded this song. but here's the original by perry como.

Lam Chun See said...

YG. I think you are mistaken. I checked the CD sleeve and it says the this song was from a 1969 album titled Tapestry. (Not same as another album of same name by Carole King which came 1 year later.) Subsequently the song was recorded by a no. of artistes including Perry Como.

yg said...

chun see, you are right. perry como recorded that song in 1973, a few years after don mclean. i always associate don mclean with the song 'vincent' and 'and i love you so' with perry como.

Gerald Fraser said...

Would just like to thank you for the only good picture of the ex Officers Mess, which I have been searching for for ages! My father was in some degree responsible for building the place back in the early 1930s, and I was born nearby in 1932 :)


Gerald Fraser said...

Sorry, I was pretty sure your Officers' Mess photo was of the old Officers' Mess Tanglin, now the MFA HQ, see

Wish someone could point me to a picture of the front of that building :)

Regards All

Lam Chun See said...

frafam. I assure you 100%, this photo is from Gillman and not Tanglin. I have not been to the Tanglin place before. Anyway, many of the old British army camps have similar looking buildings.

Gillman Village as it is now called, is open to public. The last time I was there, it had become a food court. You can see more photos of Gillman Village at Tom O'brien's Memories of Singapore.

Unknown said...

My dad, Charles "Pat" Riley was RSM of Gillman Barracks between 1952 and 1953. I went to Alexandra Senior School and then when I left was secretary to the Alexandra Junior School.. What happened to the Great World, New World and Happy World? I loved Singapore, especially remembering going to the Swimming Pool on the way home

Anonymous said...

Hi Mr Lam
You born in 1952 and serve NS at Gilman in 1977? I born in 1951 and spent 2 solid hard labour years as SOFE NCO at Blakang Mati and Gilman from 1970 to 1972.3 months infantry and another 3 months combat engineer recruit at Blakang Mati, 3 months NCO trainee at Safti & 3 months NCO trainee at Blakang Mati. Others got a pip we only got 2 stripes after 1 year solid of hard labour thanks to a great Singaporean who has just passed on. We were his experiments.

David Drinkell said...

I served with 59 Field Squadron Royal Engineers at Gillman Barracks from 1969 until 1971. We lived in F Block, Gillman Barracks but the unit offices were at Cloutman Lines which was along Ayer Rajah Road.

My unit returned to England in April 1971 to become 59 Independent Commando Squadron Royal Engineers based in Plymouth. All squadron members undertook the Commando course after returning to England.

My Troop was fortunate to remain in Singapore until November 1971 based at HMS Simbang, Dieppe Barracks, Sembawang.

I have many happy memories of Gillman Barracks and Singapore. I spent many hours in the swimming pool drinking ice cold Magnolia drinks.

I can honestly say that living in Singapore at that time was a wonderful experience which I shall fondly remember.

Anonymous said...

27th Pioneer 1979. Some years ago when I went back there, there was a Japanese restaurant where the guard room used to be. I wondered if the diners knew not too long ago, there were boys in the lock-up in the same room who were begging for food on some of my watches (guard duties).

I'm happy my British friend liked the swimming pool, some swear that it's haunted :)

Anonymous said...

Kenny Yap said...

I just saw this post about Gillman Camp, which reminds me of my days there from 1975-1976 at right at the top, they called CTW (Commanders Training Wing. Of course same memories of what all combat engineers went through.:-):-):-)

Hsiaoshuang said...

I came across your blog while searching for any mention of friends who were with me in Blakang Mati in the 30th Combat Engineers Battalion and School of Field Engineers in Blakang Mati in 1970 and 1971. Our training days from recruit to NCO to officer (all conducted in-house except for the Infantry portions which were done in SAFTI) seemed to be only yesterday, but strangely there was no trace now on the Worldwide Web. No Facebook, no online news, absolutely nothing!

Although you described your NS days that were much later (anything after Blakang Mati can be considered "recent") it is an interesting read, though.

Anonymous said...

Thanks so much for the memories. I was based in Gillman Barracks from 1979 until it was closed down in Jan - Feb 1981. I did my SSL (Support Section Leaders Course at SOCE and then posted to 37SCE in Gillman.(Camo unit = it existed until 1981 when the unit was closed down - the highest building on the hill behind the muslim cookhouse).
After Gillman was closed down the units we transferred to Seletar until ROD,
Good times but very hard times - only the memories remain.

Healthystars said...

7th JOE then 30SCE followed by 37SCE in Gillman. I was literally the last man to leave 37SCE the last one to switch the lights off on that building on the hill overlooking HQ SCE. After that I was posted to SOCE ...hence still in Gillman.