When Singapore fell dramatically to the Japanese on 15 February 1942, hundreds of people scrambled to the docks to flee. Amongst the evacuees were 65 Australian nurses who boarded a coastal freighter named the Vyner Brooke . They only made it as far as the waters off Muntok Island near Sumatra. There, Japanese bombers sank the small ship. Those who survived the sinking drifted for up to three days before making landfall on one of the many beaches on Muntok. A group of about 60 shipwreck survivors, including 22 nurses, gathered at Radji Beach. They voted to surrender to the Japanese rather than slowly starve to death, but the Japanese patrol that found them did not accept their surrender. Instead, it divided the Europeans into three groups and killed them all in turn. The Australian nurses were in the third group, and 21 of them died in a hail of bullets as they walked, abreast, into the sea. Miraculously, there was one survivor, Vivian Bullwinkel, who brought the truth about this appalling atrocity to light, and who went on to experience the internment camps, starvation and disease that took away many of her friends.
On Radji Beach tells the story of the 65 nurses from the Vyner Brooke : their service in Singapore and on the Malay peninsula, their desperate voyage to escape capture by the Japanese, and their courage, compassion, ingenuity and fortitude in the unthinkable events that followed.
This extremely well researched slice of history is an incredibly sad, yet poignant story of the events of 65 Australian nurses, who went to Singapore in 1941 to help with the war effort. The story of their incredible courage, their compassion and love for their patients and each other, is one everyone should read.
When the first bomb hit Singapore on the 7th December, 1941, the request was put in to evacuate the nurses back to Australia. The wheels of authority turned slowly, but the final group of nurses, along with civilians and others, left on 12th February, 1942 on a coastal freighter called the Vyner Brooke.
While in the Banka Strait, they were attacked by Japanese bombers, and with the captain managing to dodge and weave, it caused the first wave of bombs to be off target, but once the Japanese worked out the strategy of the manoeuvres, the next wave of bombs were directly on target. After taking direct hits by three bombs, the uninjured captain sounded the alarms for abandon ship. With the bombers strafing the life boats and ship with bullets, the survivors tried their best to stay alive, with their bulky life jackets keeping them afloat.
Those who survived drifted on the make-shift rafts, at the mercy of the currents, for up to 3 days, before feeling the sand under their feet on one of the many beaches of Banka. Some drifted away, never to be seen again. And some, including 22 Australian nurses, washed up on Radji Beach. There were survivors from other shipwrecks on Radji Beach as well, some injured, some near death, and some uninjured. They voted to surrender to the Japanese, as they knew they would starve to death otherwise.
The absolute horror of what happened next, when the Japanese patrol wouldn’t accept their surrender, absolutely beggars belief! The murder of almost one hundred people, including the Australian nurses, soldiers, women and children is astounding. But amazingly, from the group of nurses, there was one survivor...Vivian Bullwinkel, or Bully as she was known by her friends.
The story of her survival of 13 days in the jungle with a bullet wound, then re-uniting with the remaining nurses from the Vyner Brooke at a POW camp on the island, their terrible situation with starvation and disease, the shunting between one internment camp to the other for the next three and a half years, makes compelling reading.
When the war ended, there were 24 nurses who made it home, from the initial 65. This is their story, researched from the diaries and papers of some of the survivors, and is a moving account of the fate of every single nurse who was aboard the Vyner Brooke when she left Singapore on that fateful day in February 1942.
Badly researched. The story is amazing (my grandmother is one of the nurses) but there are just too many errors for me to respect this book. In one of the photos he incorrectly identifies my grandmother as Vivian Bullwinkel, one of the main figures it the book. While this could be considered a minor mistake, in combination with the huge errors he makes about my grandmother (something that could be easily corrected by talking to any of her family - all of us would have happily obliged) and knowing the story from first hand accounts I can not recommend this book. You are all better off reading White Coolies by Betty Jeffreys. She was there.
The Australian Nurses from the SS Vyner Brooke on Bangka
This is a beautifully written tribute to those who survived as well, indeed, as a memorial to those who died on Radji Beach and who died through lack of food and medicines in Bangka Strait and in southern Sumatra while prisoners of the Imperial Japanese Forces between early 1942 and August, 1945. A friend’s aunt, Kath Neuss, was among those murdered on Radji Beach. As a boy I recall listening to radio broadcasts of Betty Jeffrey’s “White Coolies”. The name Vivian Bullwinkel was always to the forefront of any mention of Bangka Island. One of my uncles married a woman born in 1946 and raised till age nine in Pangkalpinang, the capital of Bangka Island before her family moved to Jakarta. This is a truly moving story which should be read to do honour to all those young women.
This was an absolutely stunning read shocking yet inspiring. Well written from the start including the interaction between the nurses and soldiers in Singapore to the bombing of the hospital ship trying to fleeing from the Japanese and to their capture. Despite how truly shocking their treatment was, one can take inspiration from these nurses about never giving up. Truly great book.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
I recently visited the Women’s Memorial Playing Fields in Adelaide ( a very moving place dedicated to the nurses ) where I purchased my copy of this book. A very confronting, sad and heartbreaking story. The love and support for each other and their patients in horrific circumstances was overwhelming. May they all be remembered forever
A well researched book. A part of Australian history that I was not aware of. Next time I'm at the War Memorial, I will pay my respects to these nurses. What they endured is unimaginable. And they did it with dignity. Bless you girls. Thank you for your service.
I knew Vivian Bullwinkel and this book is just riveting - it brings it all alive. Although a history text, the author is so skilled its like reading a novel. Well done and thanks for this first class read. I adored Vivian and bless her heart she will not be forgotten.
Hard on the heels of my reading of an Occupation novel and a collection of refugee stories, comes this compelling history of the Australian nurses whose evacuation during the Fall of Singapore is now the stuff of legend amongst people of my generation. On Radji Beach is their story, and although the book doesn’t wallow in their tragedy, it’s often harrowing to read. I had to wander around in the peace of my garden for a while after I had finished reading it, and it’s taken me a day or two to compose this post because I felt so overwhelmed by the evil that Shaw so faithfully records.
I had known the story of Vivian Bullwinkel since I was a teenager because my mother had somehow met this heroic woman, and as a teacher I had brought the Bullwinkel story to the attention of my students who were visiting the Australian War Memorial in Canberra. But I did not know much about the nurses who were with her on the ill-fated voyage of the steamship Vyner Brooke. On Radji Beach tells their stories too, and honours their memory by naming each one, celebrating their individuality, and bringing them to vibrant life.
This is an interesting and well-researched book in which Shaw traces what happened to a group of 65 Australian Army nurses from their arrival in Malaya in 1941, through their evacuation from Singapore just before it fell to advancing Japanese forces in February 1942, and the events that unfolded after the the sinking of their evacuation ship, the Vyner Brooke.
Very gripping story of an amazing group of Australian nurses and their experiences in Singapore during WWII. Recommended for WWII buffs, history buffs and anyone interested in a sad but inspiring story.