Tag Archives: World War II

Raffles, Singapore’s most famous Hotel

Raffles Hotel, named after the founding father of the city state, is one of Singapore’s most recognizable landmarks and arguably its most famous institution.

Raffles Hotel by night
Raffles Hotel by night

The original Raffles Hotel, opened in 1887 by the Armenian entrepreneurs Martin, Tigran, Aviet and Arshak Sarkies, was a simple colonial bungalow with ten rooms. It stood on an auspicious site, however, beside the sea, at the corner of Beach and Bras Basah Roads, where, in 1842, Maria Dyer (wife of the Missionary Samual Dyer) had established Singapore’s first girls’ school.

In 1899 the Sarkies’ modest bungalow was replaced by architect Regent Alfred John Bidwell’s grand colonial palace, which forms the core of today’s hotel complex. In time, a verandah, a ballroom, a bar and a billiards room were added, along with new wings and out-buildings. In 1989, Raffles closed for a $160 million dollar refurbishment. It re-opened on September 16, 1991, restored to the standard and style of its 1915 heyday. An extension, true to the building’s original colonial design, houses the Raffles Museum, the Jubilee Hall and the exclusive Raffles boutique shopping arcade, which includes Louis Vuitton, Tiffany’s and the local Bespoke Tailors CYC. Over the years, as the expanding city has reclaimed more and more land, the distance has grown between Raffles and the sea. Today, it stands 500 metres from the shore, in the heart of downtown Singapore.

But grand and commanding as they are, Raffles is more than the sum of its buildings and position. Since its beginnings as a ten-room bungalow beside the beach, it has seen heydays and survived doldrums, it has been the backdrop to some of Singapore’s bravest and darkest history and to some of its best stories. It was in Raffles’s Long Bar, according to one of those stories, that the last surviving Singapore Tiger was shot. The first Singapore Sling was mixed in the Long Bar, by bartender, Ngiam Tong Boon, sometime between 1910 and 1915, in the glittering heyday of colonial society and of Raffles (when, incidentally, Asian patrons were excluded from the hotel)


During the Great Depression, Raffles dropped into the doldrums and went into receivership. It was rescued in 1933, by the newly formed Raffles Hotel Ltd. When the conquering Japanese stormed Singapore on February, 15, 1942, they found Raffles’ guests dancing a last brave waltz. During the occupation the hotel was home to the Japanese army and was renamed Syonan Ryokan, Inn of the Light of the South. Raffles saw its darkest moments, when, after the liberation of Singapore, 300 Japanese soldiers detonated hand-grenades and ended their lives in its rooms. After the war, the hotel was used a transit camp where allied prisoners of war recovered from their ordeals.


Raffles, too, recovered from the ravages of the war. On 16 September, 1991 it celebrated its 120th anniversary with Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew, who celebrated his 84th birthday on the same day.

Today, Raffles is managed by Raffles International Limited and is one of the world’s great hotels. It is a national monument and a Singapore tourist icon. A Singapore Sling in Raffles Long Bar is de rigeur for any visitor to the island state.


The Normandy Invasions

On June 6, 1944, the Allied forces landed on the beaches they had code named Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword,  along the Normandy coast in Western France.

The American war graves on the Normandy coast
The American war graves on the Normandy coast

On a jutting cliff, called Pointe du Hoc, between Utah and Omaha beaches, stood a set of concrete fortifications, housing a battery of Nazi artillery.

The American ground forces had been tasked with destroying the guns of Pointe du Hoc, but before they finally succeeded, thousands of men had been mown down as they struggled ashore or made their way up Utah and Omaha Beaches.

Today Pointe du Hoc still bears the signs of those June days. It is gouged with huge bomb craters and the concrete bunkers that housed the German guns remain, pitted with bullet holes.

On January 11, 1979 Pointe du Hoc was ceded to the Americans. It is maintained by the Battle Monuments Commission. A memorial and museum dedicated to the battle stand on the site.

In the American Cemetery at Colville-sur-Mer, looking out over the beach below, are 9, 387 small white crosses and stars of David. They mark the final resting places of the American servicemen who lost their lives in the invasion and liberation of Normandy. Many of them died on the beaches just below.

On a monument just across from the rows of crosses is a monument inscribed with the names of a further 1, 557 American soldiers, whose remains were never found or identified.

It is a place of great beauty, stillness, reflection and overwhelming sadness.

Remembering the war on the Normandy coast

The Hotel Churchill in Bayeux is full but there are just two groups of guests. One is a band of American seniors, the other a troop of schoolgirls from Australia. They’re all here for the same reason – to visit the places where the end of World War II began.

The statue of Our Lady at Arromanches
The statue of Our Lady at Arromanches

Most of the Americans are probably sons, daughters, nephews and nieces of the soldiers who played a part in the D Day landings along the nearby coast in June, 1944 and drove the Nazi forces into retreat. Some are possibly even veteran soldiers themselves. Many of the Australians are probably grand or great-grandchildren children of soldiers who played their part in World War II, if not here, then somewhere else in the world.

The Churchill is a perfect base for such a pilgrimage. Used as a hospital during the war, it is redolent of the ghosts of the people who passed through it.  The numerous photos which hang on its walls and the memorabilia in its cabinets tell the small war stories of young American soldiers and the people of Bayeux.

The history – the grand, heroic story of the D Day Invasions, is told through compelling displays and multimedia presentations in the Musée de la Bataille on the outskirts of the town. It is told again, even more compellingly, in the 360 degree cinema on the cliff above the nearby town of Arromanches. Along the cliff, a statue of Our Lady, a large crucifix and  photos showing the devastation of the local villages and towns, the suffering and the resilience of the local people, admonish to peace.


Although small, quiet and unpretentious, Bayeux is a town with an impressive history.

The old mill in Bayeux
The old mill in Bayeux

It was from Bayeux that William the Conqueror set out to invade England in 1066. The details of his departure, the battle Hastings, the death of the English King Harold and William’s coronation as King of England are chronicled in the famous Bayeux Tapestry. The tapestry, which is in fact an embroidery, was said to have been created by William the Conqueror’s wife, Mathilde and her ladies in waiting. 70 metres long and 50 centimetres high, it depicts more than 600 people, 200 horses, 40 ships and hundreds of animals and mythological figures.

The tapestry was originally displayed in the magnificent Norman Romanesque Cathedral of Notre Dame, built by William’s half brother Odo of Conteville, which dominates the Bayeux skyline even today. Ironically, it was here that Harold Goodwinson of England had taken an oath on ancient relics to support William as the successor to the English throne. When he broke his oath and took the throne himself, William went to war against him. The tapestry can now be viewed in the Bayeux Tapestry Museum.

Much later, Bayeux was to play an equally important role in another invasion, this time, not as the point of departure but as the point of arrival. On June, 6 1944, the Allied forces landed on the beaches just north of the Bayeux. It was the first French town liberated from Nazi occupation in the Battle Normandy and it was to Bayeux that General Charles De Gaulle returned to make his first speech on free French soil, on June 16, 1944.

The Australian War Memorial

The Australian War Memorial is a mighty stone edifice which stands on the upper slope of the hill at the outer edge of the “civilisation” or town side of Canberra.  It looks down a broad avenue, lined with monuments, across the lake to the new Parliament building.

The statue of Weary Dunlop at the Australian War Memorial
The statue of Weary Dunlop at the Australian War Memorial

There is a suggestion of the Parisian Champs de Mars in the avenue and a hint of Les Invalides in the memorial itself but it has a different and uniquely Australian translation. A statue of Australia’s own World War Two hero Weary Dunlop stands, not as uniformed young digger, nor as a decorated ex-serviceman, but as an old man in crumpled suit with a red cloth poppy tucked into his stone buttonhole.

Inside, the Memorial the stories of Australia’s Wars,  from the clash with the Boers in South Africa to the Vietnam involvement, are told in a variety of ways that make the hardship, the horror and the tragedy that is common to them all, impossible to forget.

There are galleries of dioramas, storyboards, photographs, weapons, uniforms and memorabilia.  The Discovery Zone offers a Hands-on, see it touch it smell it, play on it experience. In a great sensurround hangar you are literally immersed in battle – stand on a platform and watch an air raid on a city below, or sit on the ground and watch a dog-fight in the air above.

The Hall of Valour honours the heroes of war. The Walk of Remembrance, lined on both sides with endless ranks of names, honours those who sacrificed their lives.

The Australian War Memorial is more than a war museum, it’s admonishment to peace.


A history of Prague, Part 9, World War II

Prague’s glorious years, as the capital of an independent Czechoslovakia, came to a sudden and sorry halt in 1939.

Jewish Prague
Jewish Prague

In a misguided attempt to avert World War II, the powers of Europe and Great Britain, without Czech consultation, ceded Czechoslovakia to Germany. The British Prime Minister proclaimed the move “Peace with honour” while the Czechs dubbed the decision “about us without us”. Germany, which had laid claim to Czechoslovakia because of its strong German associations, occupied Prague on March 15, 1939 and the country became a corridor for the Nazis’ relentless march through Eastern Europe.

During the occupation, Czech citizens suffered abominably. Prime Minister Alois Elias was murdered, along with many other politicians and academics. Thousands were incarcerated. Prague’s Jewish community was decimated. Those who had not already fled the city were sent to the infamous Theresianstadt labour camp or death camps in Germany. Josefov became a ghost town, carefully preserved by the Germans as an example of how Jewish people had once lived. When all fighting finally ceased on May 12, 1945, 270,000 Czech citizens were dead, including 77, 297Jews whose names are inscribed on the walls of Prague’s Pinkas Synogue.

Although the German occupation had spared Prague the devastations of a blitzkrieg, the bombardments during the liberation destroyed parts of the city. A vast square of lawn, with an oddly out of place modern sculpture, at the foot of Prague Castle Hill, marks the site where and American bomb landed on February 14, 1945, killing 700 people and injuring 1200.

Mercifully, however, most of Prague’s beautiful cityscape survived the war intact.

The War graves of Crete, Souda Bay

Out on the edge of the sea beyond Chania, set between the outstretched arms of two rocky cliffs, is Souda Bay Cemetary, the resting place of the 1500 allied soldiers, sailors and airmen who lost their lives in battles to defend Hill 101, Maleme Airfield and Galatos. Among them lie those who were left behind to perish in prisoner of war camps or who fought with the Cretan Resistance and were executed alongside them .

The Commonwealth Cemetery at Souda Bay
The Commonwealth Cemetery at Souda Bay

Ranks of white gravestones stand to perpetual attention, on a parade ground of perfect green lawn. They look out beyond the trees, to where yachts blow across the impossibly blue water.   At the foot of each grave red roses and rosemary bloom. Carved on each headstone is a fragment of a story, a name, a rank, a serial number, a regiment, a religious symbol or the simple, poignant phrase,  “known only unto God”

Outside Souda Bay cemetery, in a small gatehouse, is a type of tabernacle, with a book, listing the names of all who are buried here. I recognise many – famous names, whose stories of bravery and heroism I know. I recognise family names  from home in Aotearoa, New Zealand.

Outside this graveyard too, display boards tell the story of the  Battle for Crete – this time from the Allies side. Days before the German invasion, Allied intelligence had cracked the German enigma code and uncovered the operation they called Mercury, so they were prepared for the invasion. It should have been an easy victory, but it was not.  Broken supply and communication routes in the first crucial days saw the loss of Hill 101 and the Airfield at Maleme. After that, troops, already battle weary from their disastrous campaign in Greece, and depleted of ammunition could not hold back the onslaught.

As well as the story of the Allies, the boards tell of the bravery of the Cretan and the Greek people, who fought relentlessly for years to defend and free their land. The story ends with Winston Churchill’s tribute “From this day forward let it be said not that Greeks fight like heroes but that heroes fight like Greeks”