The Sinking of SS Vyner Brooke and the Banka Island Massacre

The Sinking of SS Vyner Brooke and the Banka Island Massacre

Group portrait of the nursing staff of 2/13th Australian General Hospital. c1941 - 1942

Built in 1928, SS Vyner Brooke was a British-registered cargo vessel of 1,670 tons. She was named after the Third Rajah of Sarawak, Sir Charles Vyner Brooke. Until the outbreak of war with the Japanese, Vyner Brooke plied the waters between Singapore and Kuching, 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 after the Japanese invasion. Although she usually only carried 12 passengers in addition to her 47 crew, Vyner Brooke sailed south with at least 181 passengers embarked, although this figure has been estimated to be more than 300. The significant discrepancy in these figures is indicative of the chaos and fear which gripped Singapore, as many attempted to escape before the Japanese Army closed in. Among the passengers were the last 65 Australian nurses in Singapore. Throughout the daylight hours of 13 February Vyner Brooke laid up in the lee of a small jungle-covered island. The ship was attacked late in the afternoon by a Japanese aircraft, but fortunately there were no serious casualties. At sunset she made a run for the Banka Strait, heading for Palembang in Sumatra. Prowling Japanese warships, however, impeded her progress, and daylight on February 14th found her dangerously exposed on a flat sea just inside the strait.

Not long after 2 pm Vyner Brooke was attacked by several Japanese aircraft. Despite evasive action, she was crippled by several bombs; within half an hour she rolled over and sank bow first.

Into the sea

As the bombs exploded, the nurses prepared for an evacuation, rushing to treat the wounded as best they could, before abandoning ship with the rest. Some were helped into lifeboats, others clung to rafts. 

Twelve Australian nurses died at sea following the bombing of Vyner Brooke. They were: Kathleen “Kit” Kinsella, Ellenor Calnan, Lavinia Jean Russell, Marjorie Schuman, Mona Margaret Wilton, Olive Dorothy Paschke, Annie Merle Trenerry, Caroline Mary Ennis, Louvima Mary Isabella Bates, Mary Dorothea Clarke, Gladys Myrtle McDonald and Hulda Millicent Maria Dorsch. These nurses were either killed during the bombing of the ship, or drowned after being swept out to sea.

Kathleen "Kit" Kinsella

Ellenor Calnan

Olive Dorothy Paschke

Annie Merle Trenerry

Lavinia Jean Russell

Marjorie Schuman

Mona Wilton

Mary Dorothea Clarke

Caroline Ennis

Gladys Myrtle McDonald

Hulda Millicent Dorsch

Louvima Bates

Banka Island Massacre

Approximately 150 survivors eventually made it ashore on the nearby Banka Island, after spending between eight and 65 hours in the water. The island had already been occupied by the Japanese and most of the survivors were taken captive.

An awful fate awaited many of those who landed on Radji beach. There, survivors from Vyner Brooke joined up with another party of civilians and as many as 60 Commonwealth servicemen and merchant sailors who had made it ashore after their own vessels were sunk. After an unsuccessful effort to gain food and assistance from local villagers, a deputation was sent to contact the Japanese, with the aim of having the group taken prisoner. All but one of the civilian women, a Briton, followed.

A party of Japanese troops arrived at Radji Beach a few hours later. They shot and bayoneted the males and then forced the 22 Australian nurses, and the British civilian woman, to wade into the sea. The Japanese then shot them from behind.

From the whole party, there were only four survivors: Sister Vivian Bullwinkel; Eric Germann, an American civilian; Ernest Lloyd, a British sailor; and Private Cecil Kinsley, a British soldier. Bulkwinkel had been wounded in the diaphragm and lay on the beach for several hours after the massacre before making contact with Kinsley, who was also wounded. The pair hid in the jungle for several days, during which time Bullwinkel tended Kinsley’s wounds. However, starvation eventually prompted their surrender, and they gave themselves up to the Japanese. Kinsley died soon after their capture, and Bullwinkel spent the rest of the war as an internee.

Elaine Balfour-Ogilvy

Alma May Beard

Florence Rebecca Casson

Irene Melville Drummond

Minnie Ivy Hodgson

Kathleen Margaret Neuss

Bessie Wilmott

Dorothy Gwendoline Howard 'Buddy' Elmes

Rosetta Joan Wight

Florence Aubin Salmon

Clarice Isobel Halligan

Ellen Louisa Keats

Mary Eleanor McGlade

Peggy Everett Farmaner

Esther Sarah Jean Stewart

Nancy Harris

Ada Joyce Bridge

Lorna Florence Fairweather

Mona Margaret Anderson Tait

Mary Elizabeth Cuthbertson

Janet Kerr

Prisoners of war

Thirty-two nurses, including Vivian Bullwinkel, became prisoners of war, held with civilian internees in camps on and around Palembang, in Sumatra. Conditions were grim, and over three and a half years of captivity the women suffered from tropical diseases and the effects of malnutrition.

Nurses who survived the sinking of the Vyner Brooke suffered three and a half years as prisoners of war. In September 1945, pictured, they arrived from Sumatra for repatriation.

Winnie May Davis

Pauline Blanche Hempsted

Dora Shirley Gardam

Wilhemina Rosalie Raymont

Irene Ada Singleton

Gladys Laura Hughes

Rubina Dorothy Freeman

Pearl Beatrice Mittelheuser

War Crimes

After the war, many Japanese guards were charged with war crimes committed against prisoners and civilians. Hundreds of prisoners of war wrote statements describing what they had seen and endured. War crimes trials, in which Japanese guards were tried for acts of brutality, were held throughout south-east Asia. In Australian trials, 922 men were tried and 641 were found guilty. Of 148 sentenced to death, 137 were actually executed.

War crimes trials remain contentious, especially in Japan. Some suggest that Japanese soldiers were convicted under “victors’ justice” – convictions based on inadequate evidence. However, some known offenders were acquitted for lack of firm evidence.

Victims were perturbed to see many convicted war criminals released early, as part of the American effort to retain Japan in the Western sphere of influence during the Cold War.

Historians continue to examine the process, outcome and significance of the war crimes trials.

Captain Vivian Bullwinkel (left) sitting in a witness stand, giving evidence before the War Crimes Tribunal in Tokyo, Japan 1946. 

Vivian Bullwinkel Sculpture

In 2019 the Australian College of Nursing initiated the development of a sculpture to commemorate Lieutenant Colonel Vivian Bullwinkel (1915–2000) as a great Australian, a great leader, a great woman, and a proud nurse. The sculpture will be installed into the forecourt of Poppy’s Café and will be the first sculpture of an individual nurse or woman in the Memorial’s grounds. 

Find out more

The Memorial has commemorated several of those on the Roll of Honour who were killed during the sinking of the Vyner Brooke or during the Banka Island Massacre. Recently we commemorated the service and sacrifice of Sister Nancy Harris. Watch the ceremonies using the links below.

Watch the ceremony about Nancy Harris
Watch a Last Post Ceremony
E84734 - The Sinking of Vyner Brooke
Goodman, Rupert, Our War Nurses: The history of the Royal Australian Army Nursing Corps 1902–1988
Manners, Norman, Bullwinkel
Nelson, Hank, Prisoners of War: Australians under Nippon
Second World War Official Histories, Vol 4: Lionel Wigmore, The Japanese Thrust, Chapter 17, “Cease Fire”
Shaw, Ian, On Radji Beach
Stolen Years: Australian prisoner of war - Australian nurses in captivity 
Stolen Years: Australian prisoners of war - The war crime trials

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