Second World War nurses

Where there are men fighting, there are always nurses.
Sister Florence Syer

When the Second World War broke out, nurses again volunteered, motivated by a sense of duty and a desire to “do their bit”. Eventually, some 5,000 Australian nurses served in a variety of locations, including the Middle East, the Mediterranean, Britain, Asia, the Pacific, and Australia. Seventy-eight died, some through accident or illness, but most as a result of enemy action or while prisoners of war.

At first, the AANS was the only women’s service. The Royal Australian Air Force Nursing Service (RAAFNS) was formed in 1940, and the Royal Australian Navy Nursing Service (RANNS) in 1942. But the AANS remained by far the largest, and also made up the bulk of those who served overseas.

AIF in Palestine, near Rehovot. Matron Kathleen Best and nurses of the 2/5th Australian General Hospital on parade in camp near Rehovot. (Negative by F. Hurley)

By the end of the war, nursing sisters had been commissioned as officers, although many were loath to give up their traditional titles of “sister” and “matron”. They were yet to be given the same status and pay as male officers.

After the First World War, some nurses married and left the workforce; others took over the care of family members incapacitated by the war. Some retrained in jobs away from nursing, but many continued to work in hospitals, often in senior positions.

Army nurses embark for the Middle East in February 1940, aboard the Empress of Japan. 000407

The Middle East

On duty 6.30 pm to find the place v. busy & as night went on it got worse. 23rd Batt. Mach-gunned & patients poured in, theatre going all night. By morning all v. tired.
Sister Nell Bryant

The first army nurses arrived with the Second AIF in Egypt and Palestine in 1940. Over the next two years, several hundred women served in the Middle East and Mediterranean in different hospitals and medical facilities. 

For many of these young nurses, it would have been the first time they had to treat the horrific wounds caused by gunshot or artillery fire. Nor was their work without danger. During 1941 Alexandria, in Egypt, was regularly bombed by enemy aircraft, while the nurses in Tobruk were evacuated, along with 300 of their patients, only days before the famous siege began.

Army nurses going through their paces aboard the troop transport carrying the 6th Division to the Middle East, January 1940. 000858/08

Sister Sybil Fletcher shortly after arrival in the Middle East in 1940. 000924

Greece and Crete: to stay or go?

Even during the worst barrages there was no panic and no comments.
Matron Kathleen Best

In early April 1941, as the fighting in Greece intensified, the matrons of 2/5th and 2/6th AGH were ordered to prepare for immediate evacuation. Transport was limited, so not everyone could go. Matron Best of 2/5th AGH asked her nurses to write their names and either “stay” or “go” on a slip of paper. Although staying meant possible capture, “not one Sister wrote ‘go’ on the paper. I then selected 39 sisters to remain [with me].”

With the railway line destroyed, the departing nurses headed south in trucks. They sheltered in a cemetery during an air raid, and arrived at Navplion only to discover several ships on fire. Fishing boats ferried them to a waiting ship: “We ... had to judge the gap, and leap to the destroyer, equipped with tin hat, respirator, great coat and a very tight mid-length skirt.

Despite attacks from enemy bombers, the nurses arrived on Crete and set to work at a British tent hospital as wounded troops flooded in. Meanwhile, the group left behind in Greece struggled on despite the air raids. To make themselves easily recognisable as non-combatants, they wore their red capes and white caps. Finally, in the early hours of 26 April, they too were evacuated. 

Three days later all the nurses left Crete for Alexandria.

Sister Jane Tivey (standing): "On the destroyer it was the most marvellous feeling … [even though] I hadnt had a bath for five days and had slept in my clothing". P06179.003

Australian and New Zealand nurses arrive in Crete, April 1941. 007606

Four weeks, two hospitals and one hair-raising adventure!

Question: What’s the definition of “tough”?
Answer: Australian service nurses

In early April 1941, the nurses and physiotherapists of 2/5th and 2/6th Australian General Hospitals (AGH), were transported to Greece with the men of the 6th Division. They were moved around frequently, often at short notice, as the Germans advanced down the Greek peninsula. Hospital supplies and food were in short supply, and many of the incoming wounded were suffering from frostbite.


Nurses at home

I counted seven groups of nine planes. As they swooped down on us I kissed the dirt and kept my fingers crossed.
Sister Constance Watt

With the entry of Japan into the war, the AANS nurses in the Middle East were brought home. Military hospitals were established in all states, and those in northern Australia prepared for an attack that seemed increasingly likely to come.

In what would turn out to be the first of many air raids, Japanese aircraft bombed Darwin on 19 February 1942. Two hundred and fifty-two people were killed, and hundreds wounded. The scene was one of devastation and chaos as patients, many with severe burns, flooded into the 119th AGH. The hospital ship Manunda, at anchor in the harbour, took a direct hit, but it remained afloat and the nurses on board treated numerous casualties from nearby ships.

Staff and patients in a ward of the 119th AGH, Darwin, tin hats at the ready in case of further attack, February 1942. P02625.004

An unidentified AANS sister does her rounds, while on night duty at a hospital in Queensland. P00784.008

Nurses and physiotherapists on board the hospital ship Manunda before the Darwin raid. P01081.005

The sinking of the Centaur: Sister Ellen Savage

My cabin mate, Myrle Moston and myself, were awakened by two terrific explosions … We rushed to the porthole, looked out, and saw the ship ablaze.
Sister Ellen Savage

In May 1943 the hospital ship Centaur set out from Sydney for its second voyage to New Guinea. On board were 12 nurses recently appointed to the ship’smedical staff. At 4.10 am on 14 May, the Centaur was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine off the coast of Queensland, even though it had been lit up and clearly marked with large red crosses. Many of the passengers were sound asleep in their bunks. The ship sank in minutes, and 268 lives were lost, including 18 doctors and 11 nurses. Sister Ellen Savage was the only nurse among the 64 survivors. This tragedy touched Australians deeply and caused a public outcry.

The wreck of the Centaur was found in December 2009, about 60 kilometres off Moreton Island.

Sister Savage spent over 30 hours on a makeshift raft with other survivors, doing what she could to treat their injuries and keep their spirits up. 044427

As the Centaur was sinking, Ellen Savage and her friend Myrle Moston (shown here in 1943), still in their pyjamas, jumped overboard. Moston was struck by a piece of falling timber and died in the water. P03730.001

In the aftermath of the sinking of the Centaur, posters called on Australians to invest in war loans to avenge the nurses. ARTV09088

The air force and naval nursing services

We were busting out of our skin to join.
Sister Edna Faulkner

Two other nursing services were created out of wartime necessity. The RAAFNS was set up in July 1940 in response to the huge wartime increase in RAAF personnel. Applicants for the RAAFNS had to be single, female, registered as an Australian citizen, and aged between 21 and 40. They entered the service with the rank of flying officer. Some of these nurses at the RAAF base hospital in Darwin found themselves in the thick of things during the Japanese raids.

As navy numbers swelled, more nurses were needed in shore-based hospitals, so the RANNS was formed in 1942. At its peak 56 nursing sisters were working in RAN hospitals across Australia, and six were posted to Milne Bay in New Guinea. Registered nurses entering this service, with the rank of sub-lieutenant, were required to have at least 12 months’ nursing experience. As well as their medical and surgical nursing duties, RANNS nurses were responsible for the training of male sick berth attendants.

While serving in forward areas in New Guinea, RAAFNS nurses were instructed to dye their white ward dresses with strong tea as it was feared they were too visible from the air and could become an enemy target. P02720.003

John Harrison – Madang, New Guinea, c. 1945 – digital print, 2011. OG3354

New Guinea and the islands

Stretcher after stretcher of filthy bloodstained bodies; the extent of their wounds was unforgettable.
Sister Dorothy Gellie

From October 1942, Papua was considered safe enough for servicewomen, so nurses and physiotherapists were posted to 2/9th AGH at “Seventeen Mile”, near Port Moresby. Here they treated some of the wounded from the Kokoda campaign. In the years that followed, hundreds of nurses in hospitals and casualty clearing stations followed the Allied offensive. By the end of the war, they were serving in Bougainville, Jacquinot Bay, Morotai, Labuan, and Balikpapan.

The conditions were often very trying, and the work, as always, was constant. In some areas there was the threat of air raids. When nurses from the 2/11th AGH arrived at Buna, Papua, in September 1943, the hospital was receiving soldiers evacuated from the fighting around Finschhafen in New Guinea. On average, there were around 2,000 men in the hospital, and during their first six weeks at Buna none of the nurses had a day off. Among the wounded were many suffering from tropical illness, such as scrub typhus; extremely ill, these men were in need of constant nursing.

Port Moresby, Papua. 1943.Interior of a tent ward at the 2/9th Australian General Hospital. 107160

Sister Cherry Wilson, painted in Victoria, 1946, Oil on canvas on hardboard, Acquired under the official war art scheme in 1947. ART26671

RAAF nurse Senior Sister Alice Wheatley tends to local man Lauraburi at a Medical Receiving Station in New Guinea. 013890

Flying Angels

A typical working day for a air-evac sister began at 3 am with breakfast at 3.30 am and take off at first light.
Sister Nancy Read

Air evacuation became a quick and effective way to transport seriously wounded troops from the front line in New Guinea and the surrounding islands. In early 1944, 15 nurses recruited from the RAAFNS to the newly formed No. 1 Medical Air Evacuation Transport Unit (1 MAETU) began training in in-flight medicine and care, emergency survival procedures, and tropical hygiene.

Nicknamed “The Flying Angels”, flight teams comprising a sister and an orderly flew in Douglas C47s, carrying up to 18 stretcher cases at a time, from forward areas back to base hospitals in Australia. Within the first year of operation, some 8,000 patients had been evacuated.

In 1945, 2 MAETU was formed with ten new nurses. After the war both units assisted with the repatriation of thousands of prisoners of war.

Sister Elizabeth Bray and Sergeant Dawson, a nursing orderly, attend to their patients during a flight between New Guinea and Australia, c. 1944. OG3345

Portrait depicting Sister Marie Craig. ART24278

Portrait depicting Sister Verdun. ART24305

Nurses in captivity

We knew we were living on a knife edge... we were starving and we were sick... if the Japs didn’t kill us, disease probably would.
Sister Wilma Oram

When the Japanese captured Rabaul, New Britain, in January 1942, six AANS nurses were taken prisoner. After six months’ internment at a mission hospital at Vunapope, they were moved to Japan, where they remained in various camps till after the war’s end.

A month later, as Japanese soldiers advanced towards Singapore, the Australian nurses in the region were ordered to evacuate. Seventy-two nurses embarked with hundreds of patients and civilians aboard the Empire Star and the Wah Sui. They finally made it back to Australia, having suffered heavy bombardment on the way.

Not so fortunate were the 65 nurses, evacuated, along with many civilian women and children, on the SS Vyner Brooke. Twelve lost their lives when the ship was sunk, and 21 of the survivors were executed on Banka Island; the remaining 32 became prisoners of war. The captured nurses hoped their non-combatant status, symbolised by their now tattered uniforms, would protect them. It did not. For the next three and a half years, they were kept as prisoners under appalling conditions. Eight died in captivity.

Three friends and colleagues, seen here in happier times, suffered different fates at the hands of the Japanese after surviving the sinking of the Vyner Brooke. 120519

After their release, nurses who had survived the sinking of the Vyner Brooke and subsequent imprisonment returned to Singapore en route to Australia. 044480

Those who had uniforms put them on … this is the day they had been kept for … we tried not to remember we’d worn them to our cobber’s funerals.
Sister Veronica Clancy

Personnel charged with the transportation and treatment of the wounded and sick shall be respected and protected under all circumstances. If they fall into the hands of the enemy they shall not be treated as prisoners of war.

Geneva Convention Article Nine, 1929

Prison camp life in Sumatra: Sister Betty Jeffrey

The Australian survivors of the Vyner Brooke sinking were sent to Palembang camp on the island of Sumatra, where they joined 300 other women and children captured after the fall of Singapore. During the early days of their captivity, the nurses kept busy with educational activities and musical concerts. However, conditions worsened with each transfer to a new camp. Food and medical supplies were hopelessly inadequate, and the death toll rose.

Throughout this ordeal, Sister Betty Jeffrey kept a secret diary, later published as White coolies (1954). In her diary Jeffrey recorded the physical and mental battle for survival, the unrelenting obsession with food, the death of friends, and the fading of hope.

Sisters Jenny Greer (left) and Betty Jeffrey recovering in a Dutch hospital in 1945 from the malnutrition they suffered while prisoners of war in Sumatra. 305369

Doll belonging to Sister Betty Jeffrey. The cloth doll was made in the camp from a shirt stolen from a Japanese soldier. REL/11877