Today's Honour Roll

February
18
Today's Honour Roll recognizes 109 Australians who fell on this day in history.
See Full List
Name Date of Death Conflict
LEEDHAM, Clarence Albert 18 Feb 1945 World War 2
BOWERS, Albert John Llewwllyn 18 Feb 1919 World War 1
CHRISTIANSEN, Jens 18 Feb 1916 World War 1
PATTISON, Allan Graham 18 Feb 1968 Vietnam War
PAGET, Percy George 18 Feb 1917 World War 1

The Vyner Brooke / Banka Island tragedy

In February 1942, as it became apparent that 'Fortress Singapore', the bastion of Britain's South East Asian strategy, was likely to fall to advancing Japanese forces, an evacuation began, by sea air and any other means available. 

By this stage the Japanese had established air superiority, so ships leaving Singapore were exposed to air attack.  In open waters Japanese warships were patrolling.

Australian nurses were among the personnel identified for evacuation.  Many of the nurses were attached to the 2nd / 4th Casulaty Clearing Station and 2nd/13th Australian General Hospital. 

Malaya. 1941. Group portrait of three nursing sisters of 2/4th Casualty Clearing Station (2/4 CCS), 8th Australian Division. Left to right: Sister D. S. Gardam, who survived the sinking of the Vyner Brooke, was taken prisoner by the Japanese and died later in captivity in April 1945, Sister E. M. Hannah, also a survivor from the Vyner Brooke and the only surviving nurse of the 2/4 CCS, and, Matron I. Drummond, who, after surviving the sinking of the Vyner Brooke was among those massacred by the Japanese of the foreshore of Banka Island, Sumatra on 1942-02-15.

Seventy-two nurses embarked with hundreds of patients and civilians aboard the Empire Star and the Wah Sui. They eventually made it back to Australia, having suffered heavy attack on the way.

Not so fortunate were the 65 nurses, evacuated, along with many civilian women and children, on the SS Vyner Brooke.

The SS Vyner Brooke was a British-registered cargo vessel of 1,670 tons, built in 1928.  She was named after the Third Rajah of Sarawak - Sir Charles Vyner Brooke. Up until the outbreak of war with the Japanese, the Vyner Brooke operated in the waters between Singapore and Kuching, in Borneo, under the flag of the Sarawak Steamship Company. She was then requisitioned by Britain's Royal Navy as an armed trader.

On the evening of 12 February 1942, Vyner Brooke was one the last ships carrying evacuees to leave Singapore. Although she usually only carried 12 passengers, in addition to her 47 crew, Vyner Brooke sailed south with 181 passengers embarked, most of them women and children. On the manifest were the last 65 Australian nurses in Singapore. The next day, the Vyner Brooke laid up in the near a small jungle-covered island on 13th February, but she was attacked late in the afternoon by a single Japanese aircraft, fortunately with no serious casualties. At sunset she made a run for the Banka Strait, heading for Palembang in Sumatra. Prowling Japanese warships, however, slowed her escape and daylight on February 14th found her dangerously exposed on a flat sea just inside the strait.

Sometime after 2pm, the ship was attacked by multiple aircraft and despite taking evasive action she was straddled and hit by several bombs, eventually rolling over and sinking.  About 150 people made it into the water and came ashore over the next 48 hours or so.  The island was occupied by the Japanese and most of the survivors were taken captive.

At another part of the island at Padgi beach, other survivors had made it ashore, where fate was to deal them a dreadful hand. Survivors from the Vyner Brooke joined up with another party of civilians and up to 60 Commonwealth servicemen and merchant sailors, who had made it ashore from other vessels  that had been sunk. After an unsuccessful attempt to source food and assistance from local villagers, a deputation was sent to contact the Japanese, with the aim of having the group taken prisoner. Anticipating this, all but one of the civilian women followed behind.

Later, a party of Japanese troops arrived at Radji Beach. They marched off the males and shot and bayoneted them.  They then ordered the 22 Australian nurses and the one British civilian woman who had remained after the other party had left,  to wade into the sea.  They were machine gunned where they stood. 

There were only two survivors - Sister Vivian Bullwinkel, and Private Cecil Kinsley, a British soldier who later died of his wounds.  Hiding in the jungle for several days the pair eventually gave themselves up to the Japanese. Kinsley died shortly afterwards, and Bullwinkel spent the rest of the war as an internee, without disclosing to the Japanese that she had been witness to the massacre.

Of the 65 Australian nurses embarked upon the Vyner Brooke, 12 died during the air attack or drowned following the sinking, 21 were murdered on Radji Beach, and 32 became internees,  eight of whom subsequently died before the end of the war. 

 

(C) Steve Larkins February 2018