Essays on the Marshallese Past

The "Singapore Guns" British Guns in the
Marshall Islands

The Japanese bases in the Marshall Islands had been provided with a wide range of armament by both the Imperial Japanese Navy and the Imperial Japanese Army. The ocean side of the islands was fortified by a series of strong points. Each strong point consisted of one or more batteries of coastal and anti-aircraft or dual purpose heavy guns emplaced in well constructed concrete and coral or coral and coconut-log revetments.

The weapons ranged from a few large naval guns to a number of small arms and countless hand arms. Of these the majority was made in Japan, while some stem from European sources, are direct copies of such guns, or are modelled on European guns. Of the heavy weapons we have to distinguish between the mobile, Army, armament, including field guns and light tanks, and the permanently emplaced naval artillery, mainly the 150mm (6 inch) and 140mm (5.5 inch) naval guns, and the 127mm dual purpose gun.

There is an abundance of heavy guns on the islands fortified by the Japanese, and most of these guns are still in place and can be inspected by visitors.

All guns can always be identified by their barrel numbers, which are punched or ground into the breech block. Some of the 6inch guns on Mile, Taroa and Wotje have inscriptions on their breech blocks which give away their place of manufacture, such as the following inscription on the breech block of a gun on Mile: EOC 6.IN. B.L. No 15668 1905

This abbreviated inscription reads in full: Elswick Ordnance Company 6 inch breech loading Barrel No 15668 Manufactured in 1905

The gun was evidently manufactured by a British ordnance company in 1905. How did it end up on Mile in a World War II gun emplacement? And why are there identical guns which bear no such inscription but Japanese characters and a shorter number on the breech block? When looking into the history of the naval armament in the Marshall Islands, then the heavy coastal defense guns on the Japanese bases can stem from the following three of sources:

The "Singapore guns"

The heavy guns found in the Marshall Islands and beyond are often addressed as the "Singapore guns" and it is claimed that these guns were taken and relocated by the Japanese after the fall of Singapore in early 1942.

It needs to be noted that the Pacific area seems to be replete with "Singapore guns" to such an extent that about ten Singapores could have been equipped. Some of the guns are of British manufacture and thus such a claim is possible. Other guns, however, such as the "Singapore guns" on Roi-Namur, are in fact Japanese dual-purpose guns of a 1936 design.

Drawing of a British Vickers-Armstrong 6inch Mk II Naval Gun.

The Singapore guns alluded to, were 16inch guns protecting Singapore from the sea, while the heaviest guns seen in the Marshall Islands are 6" coastal defense guns. Therefore the use of the Singapore guns in the Marshall Islands can be ruled out.

However, there is still potential that some of the smaller guns were taken from Singapore and relocated to the Pacific bases then still under construction or nearing completion.

Six-inch coastal defense gun on original location on Mile island. The gun was manufactured in 1905 by the Elswick Ordnance Company in the U.K. for a Japanese warship. After the ship had been scrapped following the Washington naval limitation treaty of 1922 the gun was kept mothballed and was finally emplaced at the eastern perimeter of the Japanese Mandated Territory of Micronesia.

The Japanese Ship Building Programme in the United Kingdom

The Japanese navy, following centuries of self-imposed isolation, showed in the 1895 Sino-Japanese war that it was a respectable fighting force. By the same token, it had become apparent that the quality of the naval vessels was sufficient in combat against the Chinese, such as at Yalu and Wei-ha-wei, but that the capacity of the fleet was insufficient to meet another potential enemy, Russia.

As a result of the Sino-Japanese war the Japanese navy decided to step up ordering ships from what was at the time the country with the most advanced navy and the most advanced dockyards: the United Kingdom. The ship building programme had already begun a couple of years earlier, but was substantially intensified following the conflict, with the order of four battleships.

In addition, ships were built by a dockyard in Stettin (Germany), a yard in St. Nazaire (France) and in the Japanese dockyard at Yokosuka using European designs. Following the construction of the Fuji and the Yashima in the United Kingdom, armament manufactured by the Elswick Ordnance Company was used exclusively for a time. In addition, a study of the Japanese navy published in 1904 by the naval authority of the time, Fred Jane (founder of the reference series "Jane's Fighting Ships), mentions that "a factory for the construction of Elwick guns was established in Japan", which led to a prolifertaion of Elswick clones in Japan. The pieces manufactured in Japan were the 12-inch, the 8-inch and the 6-inch gun as well as the smaller 4.7-inch gun. All were quickfiring guns with a breechloading mechanism. In 1902/03, however, the Imperial Japanese Navy experimented with the Vickers 6-inch 50 calibre gun, which was then adopted as the standard naval weapon and contracts were awarded to W.G.Vickers, Whitworth & Co. Ltd., who at the time, had acquired the Elswick Ordnance Company.

Turreted six-inch coastal defense gun on original location on Wotje. The gun was manufactured in 1901 by the Elswick Ordnance Company in the U.K. for a Japanese warship.

Turret of a six-inch coastal defense gun on original location on Taroa.

In the Marshall Islands we have guns of an earlier 6 inch type on Wotje and Maloelap with breech block dates of 1898 and 1901, while the guns on Mile have a more advanced breech design, with a date of 1905. All dates fit well with the dates of the outfitting of the British-built Japanese warships.

The Historic Preservation Office is now in communication with archival sources in the United Kingdom to attempt a match between the guns found here and the actual ships for which they were initially manufactured. While the myth of the "Singapore Guns" in the Marshall Islands is finally being laid to rest, a much more intriguing chapter of history is being opened.

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Bibliographic citation for this document

Spennemann, Dirk H.R. (1998). Essays on the Marshallese Past Second edition. Albury:

Dirk H.R. Spennemann, Institute of Land, Water and Society, Charles Sturt University, P.O.Box 789, Albury NSW 2640, Australia.

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