Missing and Presumed Dead: Remembering British colonial nurses who died in the Fall of Singapore

On the 75th anniversary of the Fall of Singapore guest-blogger Dr Rosemary Wall examines the losses at sea of British and Australian colonial nurses serving in the Pacific.

The Japanese invaded Singapore on 8 February 1942. By the next day, 30,000 Japanese troops had invaded the island. Prior to the Fall of Singapore on 15 February 1942, attempts were made to evacuate British colonial nurses. More well-known is the tragic plight of the staff and patients massacred on 14-15 February at the Alexandra British Military Hospital in Singapore. 75 years on, this blog-post highlights the fate of 40 of the colonial nurses presumed ‘lost at sea’ when evacuation ships sank in February 1942. How were the 40 colonial nurses who disappeared that week sought for and remembered in the following years of war, and finally presumed dead? How did this prolonged process, of being uncertain whether these women lived or had died, affect how they were remembered by the Overseas Nursing Association, an organisation which acted as an agency recruiting for the Colonial Nursing Service on behalf of the Colonial Office?

Singapore, part of British Malaya, was one of the most common destinations for British colonial nurses prior to the Second World War. There were 176 nurses in British Malaya in 1939, more than in any other part of the Empire, and about 170 remained in the area when war broke out in the Malayan peninsula. All the Malayan Nursing Service nurses were moved to Singapore in January 1942, and then nurses were ordered to leave on 13 February. One of the ships on which they left, the SS Kuala, was bombed by the Japanese on 14 February. Some of the survivors were picked up by the Tanjong Penang on 15 February, a small vessel, which was also bombed. Mark Felton has described the horror of the experiences of the nurses and other passengers, some of whom suffered from shell wounds, others dying from being swept out to sea. As the ship sank, the Japanese continued to bombard the survivors of the Kuala from the air, killing more people (Felton, 2009). A letter to the Times about one of the survivor’s experiences whilst waiting on the island, Pom Pong, where they waited for rescue after the sinking of the Kuala, recalled the experience of digging island graves and erecting crosses, after hearing the ‘heart-rending’ moans of the seriously wounded (The Times, 17 June 1942). Two more British colonial nurses were presumed to have died on the Vyner Brooke which sank on 14 February (ONA, Annual Report, 1946).

In 1942, the ONA Committee expressed ‘deep sympathy with the parents and families who are waiting during months of anxiety to hear news of the safety and welfare of all the Nurses who were working in places now under Japanese control’ (ONA, Annual Report, 1942). A letter to the Times on 29 July 1942 asked whether ‘sufficient tribute’ was paid to the women in Singapore and Malaya. As the years went by the ONA became more positive about the possibility of the survival of missing nurses in the annual reports. In 1943 there was ‘reason to hope that a number of these may be prisoners or in one of the islands, unable to communicate with their friends.’ (ONA, Annual Report, 1943, and see Colonial Office Enquiries and Casualties Department, 8 March 1943, ONA 142/1/218). In 1944 it was hoped that with news ‘trickling through’ about nurses being found in internment camps, the 33 or so missing nurses might be found to be safe. News was ‘scanty’ and with ‘new items of information … still coming through’ the Committee of the ONA felt reassured that there might be positive news.  However, news filtered through revealing the extent of the tragedy, with letters from the Enquiries and Casualties Department of the Colonial Office written in February 1944, reporting witness statements of nurses’ deaths (ONA, 142/1/225226). The nurses were memorialised in a Roll of Honour in the 1946 and 1947 Annual Reports of the ONA with the realisation that ‘there can no longer be any hope of the survival of many sisters who have been missing since the fall of Singapore’ (ONA, Annual Report, 1946). The 1946 report attempted to identify when they died – six on the Kuala, 22 on the Tanjong Penang, and two on the Vyner Brook, amounting to 30. Yet, ten more nurses were missing from the Malayan Nursing Service, with ‘Searcher Units’ making final investigations in Singapore and surrounding areas. The 1947 report was not so specific, with 40 Malayan Nursing Service nurses listed as ‘Presumed lost at sea’.

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Sister Jess Doyle, of 2/10 Australian General Hospital sitting up in a hospital bed after her release from Belalau, a Japanese prisoner of war (POW) camp outside Loebok Linggau, Sumatra. She had been aboard the Vyner Brooke when it was sunk by the Japanese on 14 February 1942 two days out of Singapore. She was one of the few survivors. Photograph – Australian War Memorial, in the Public Domain.

Four more nurses were lost at sea, resulting from enemy action, one on the way to the West Indies, another off West Africa, one travelling to Gibraltar and one to St Helena. Another four died in Singapore in February 1942, and a further four died in Japanese internment camps in Sumatra and Hong Kong. So a total of 52 Overseas Nursing Association nurses died directly from conflict in the Second World War. Military nurses were also lost; for example there were only 24 survivors from the 65 Australian Army Nursing Service sisters who attempted evacuation aboard the Vyner Brooke.

The British colonial nurses, and the anxiety of families and colleagues who did not know their fate, should be remembered on the 75th anniversary of the Fall of Singapore, alongside the tragic massacre at the military hospital in Singapore.

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Vyner Brooke survivors Capt Vivian Bullwinkel (left) and Lt Anges Betty Jeffrey laying flowers at the Edith Cavell Memorial, c.1950. Photograph – Australian War Memorial, in the Public Domain.

Bibliography and Further reading:

H.P. Dickson, The Badge of Britannia: The history and reminiscences of the Queen Elizabeth’s Overseas Nursing Service, 1886-1966 (Edinburgh: The Pentland Press, 1990).

Mark Felton, The Real Tenko: Extraordinary True Stories of Women Prisoners of the Japanese (Barnsley: Pen and Sword, 2009).

Nicola Tyrer, Sisters in Arms: British Army Nurses Tell Their Story (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London, 2008).

Australian War Memorial, ‘Nurse Survivors of the Vyner Brooke’, https://www.awm.gov.au/encyclopedia/nurse_survivors/

Overseas Nursing Association Papers, Bodleian Library, http://www.bodley.ox.ac.uk/dept/scwmss/wmss/online/blcas/ona.html

QARANC, ‘British Military Hospital’, Singapore, http://www.qaranc.co.uk/bmhsingapore.php

Dr Rosemary Wall is Senior Lecturer in Global History at the University of Hull. She is Principal Investigator for a new project, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council: ‘Crossing Boundaries: The History of First Aid in Britain and France, 1909-1989’. Previously, she was part of a collaborative project on British colonial nursing with colleagues at King’s College London, which benefited from funding from the Wellcome Trust.

Feature image: Matron Olive Dorothy Paschke and a number of nurses of the 2/10th Australian General Hospital. Matron Paschke, five other nurses and two small children were last seen drifting out to sea on a raft following the sinking of the Vyner Brooke. Photograph – Australian War Memorial, in the Public Domain.

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