Behind the 21-Gun Salute

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24 Jul 2023 | OPS & TRAINING

Behind the 21-Gun Salute

A day in the life of the combat engineers and gunners reveals the long hours and hard work that goes behind the NDP 2023 Presidential Gun Salute.

//Story by Thrina Tham / Photos by Kenneth Lin

On board the military raft, with the Singapore city skyline behind them, the men of the National Day Parade (NDP) 21-gun salute look sharp and sleek in their No. 1 uniform.

Round by round, they fire off from four 25-pounder Howitzer guns as the parade is inspected.

Crowds throng the Marina Bay banks to watch them in action, while those at the Padang catch the thunder of the cannons as they go off.

On 9 Aug during NDP, these guns on board the Mobility 3rd Generation (M3G) military raft will fire 21 times in salute to the President – the highest military honour to be conferred.

But behind this favourite NDP segment known as the Presidential Gun Salute (PGS) are hours of work that the public does not see.

PIONEER follows the PGS crew for a day to find out what exactly goes into the ceremony.

0530H

It is the break of dawn as engineers of 35th Battalion, Singapore Combat Engineers (35 SCE) arrive at the M3G launch site at the Kallang Basin.

The combat engineers launching safety boats into the Kallang Basin. [Photo courtesy of NDP 2023 EXCO]

Safety boats are first launched to provide coverage for the M3Gs. Metal plates are also placed on the ground in preparation for the arrival of the military vehicles, to minimise damage to the grass.

Safety boats around the basin help provide coverage for the launching of the M3Gs.

In camp, personnel of 21st Battalion, Singapore Artillery (21 SA) load up their stores and 25-pounder guns and rig them to be transported to Kallang.

07:15

The M3G amphibious vehicles arrive and are safely guided to the water banks.

Operated by the bridging engineers, the M3Gs provide rafting and bridging capabilities for the Singapore Army. Before making their way to the water, the vehicles are checked and maintained to ensure they are fit for operation.

Combat engineers on the ground direct and guide the M3Gs safely to the launch site.
The thumbs up signal means to "move forward".

07:45

The first of five M3G rigs is launched out into the water.

An M3G being launched into the water.

Once all the M3Gs are afloat in the water, bridging takes place.

08:00 to 09:00

It takes coordination and good communication to bridge the M3Gs into place.

3rd Sergeant (3SG) Arul Doss Manoj, a Section Commander in 35 SCE, said: "Once the rig is afloat, I guide the men in setting the ramps onto the rig based on our pre-determined configuration.

"Only when that is done properly, can we form a raft with the five M3Gs coupled together," said Arul, who doubles up as a rig and crane commander during operations.

The engineers setting up the ramps on the side of the rig to ensure that bridging can take place.
A raft commander from 35 SCE guiding his M3G pilot to manoeuvre the rig into position.
A total of five M3G rigs are coupled side by side to form a raft for the 25-pounder guns.

09:00

The M3G raft is ready and the 25-pounder guns arrive. They are towed onto the raft by Land Rovers operated by 1st SAF Transport Battalion (1 TPT Bn).

It's a tight squeeze: The transport operators work closely with the combat engineers to navigate the narrow spaces while getting on board the M3G raft and towing the guns in place.

3SG Arul guiding the land rover transport operator to drive the gun onto the raft.

"Taking part in the NDP PGS has been a tiring yet fruitful experience… We have to undergo extensive preparations prior to rehearsals, which were mentally and physically demanding," said 3SG Arul.

"We also have to conduct weekly maintenance to ensure that the M3G is kept in its best condition for the rehearsals and parade. But at the end of each successful show, I feel the effort we put in was certainly not wasted."

09:30 to 10:30

With their guns on board the M3G, gunners from 21 SA begin to load their 25-pounders into position.

The gun detachment crew goes through a similarly long day as the combat engineers, shared gunner Lance Corporal (LCP) Jimmy Lye.

"Training and rehearsals for NDP have been quite demanding. We need to wake up at 4am every Saturday to prepare the guns for the rehearsals; and we usually return only at midnight, packing up and cleaning the 25-pounders after the parade.

"But knowing the significance of what we're doing makes it worthwhile," he said.

LCP Lye (third from right) moving the 25-pounder gun into place with his section.

13:30 to 14:30

The PGS crew take a short break after an early morning, and return in the afternoon to conduct a dry rehearsal.

During the afternoon dry run, the crew practise to ensure the guns are positioned in place for the firing later.

They sail out to the Marina Bay waters to simulate the movement during the parade – ensuring that their drills are sharp and the equipment is positioned correctly.

18:00

It is nearing evening time as the gunners return for duty, dressed sharply in their Army No. 1 uniforms.

They take up their respective positions as they sail out to the Marina Bay waters, bringing the gun salute closer to the public.

The gunners looking smart in their crisp No. 1 uniforms.

18:30

With the M3G raft and the Howitzer guns in position, the soldiers get ready for the gun salute.

The iconic State Flag Flypast making its way across the skies towards the Padang; PGS personnel are poised and ready for action.

18:52

Boom! The 21-gun salute is fired off in tandem with the President's review of the parade. Close communication between the gunners aboard the raft and spotters from 21 SA at the Padang ensure that the firing is timed to precision.

The 21-gun salute is timed precisely with the presidential inspection of the parade contingents at the Padang.

The 21-gun salute is the highest military honour conferred, reserved only for the President. During NDP previews, the guns are fired 19 times instead for the parade's Reviewing Officer.

A tradition originating from the British Royal Navy, the 21-gun salute is an honour usually reserved only for the head of state. [Photo courtesy of NDP 2023 EXCO]

19:30

With a job well done, the PGS personnel sail back to their launch site.

Mission (almost) accomplished: After the firing, the crew still have to pack and clean up the guns before heading back to camp.

But the work does not end here. The 25-pounder guns have to be carefully unloaded and brought back to camp for cleaning, while the M3G rafts unrigged and brought back to shore.

Despite the long hours, LCP Lye said taking part in PGS is a rare opportunity he would not miss.

"It's an honour and privilege to be able to provide one of the highest salutations given to the President. I feel incredibly lucky to have been selected as one of the few individuals participating in this year's NDP."

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