The Tragic Loss of Brave Women

Posted on 30 November 2019

In early February 1942 the Imperial Japanese forces were set to complete their conquest of Malaya with the capture of the British bastion of Singapore. The British authorities knew that the island would soon fall so, in the last desperate days amid chaos and death from the air, efforts were made to evacuate as many British civilians and non-essential military personnel as possible.

One of the last vessels to leave, barely three days before the surrender, was the coastal trading vessel SS Vyner Brooke.  Aboard were over 250 civilian men, women and children, as well as sixty-five Australian nurses. The nurses had protested their evacuation, feeling that they were being forced to abandon the care of those for whom they were responsible, however the military authorities were insistent, and the nurses followed their orders. The ship was discovered by Japanese aircraft in Banka Strait only two days after sailing and was strafed and bombed. It sank quickly and twelve of the nurses on board were lost at sea, including 28-year-old Sister Caroline Mary Ennis, from Victoria.

The remaining fifty-three nurses who survived the sinking eventually made it ashore along the coast of Banka Island, in what is now Indonesia. Twenty-two of them had landed on a small strip of sand called Radji Beach. Other survivors also eventually found their way to the beach, including men from the Vyner Brooke and British servicemen from other ships sunk nearby.

On the morning of the 16th of February, a party of Japanese soldiers arrived at the beach. Instead of taking the survivors prisoner however, the Japanese troops separated the men and women. They then took the men out of sight behind a headland and massacred them, before returning to Radji Beach. The sight of the soldiers wiping blood from their bayonets left those on the beach in no doubt what their fate was to be. The twenty-two Australian nurses were ordered to walk into the sea and as they did so, the Japanese opened fire on them.  All but one of the nurses died in the massacre. One of those killed was Sister Dorothy Gwendoline Howard Elmes, a 27-year-old nurse, also from Victoria.

The names of both Sister Dorothy Elmes and Sister Caroline Ennis appear on the War Memorial at Oxley. Of the 65 nurses who embarked on the SS Vyner Brooke, only 24 returned to Australia. Of the 32 taken prisoner of war, eight died in captivity. One of those who did survive the war was Sister Vivian Bullwinkel, the one survivor of the Radji Beach massacre.



AWM website