Ordered to leave

Fearing for the safety of the nurses after the fall of Singapore, General Bennett ordered their evacuation from the island.

Four women in 1940s army nursing uniforms with crosses on their sleeves sitting at a table with tea and sandwiches

Four members of the 2/13th Australian Army Nursing Service enjoying a tea break on the verandah of Australian General Hospital, Tampoi, Johor, Malaya, 1941. Left to right: Sister (Sr) Vivian Bullwinkel, Matron Irene Drummond, Sr M Anderson and Sr M Selwood. AWM P01344.008

Escape on MV Empire Star

Although reluctant to leave when there was so much work to be done, 59 Australian Army Nursing Service (AANS) nurses and physiotherapists left Singapore on MV Empire Star on 11 February 1942. The ship carried more than 2,000 evacuees, including civilians.

Unfortunately, Japanese bombers attacked the Empire Star the next day.

Two nursing sisters who dragged wounded men to safety were decorated for their courage.

Sister Margaret Anderson was awarded the George Medal for her actions. Her portrait and medals are on display in the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.

Sister Vera Torney was made a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE).

The nursing sisters on the Empire Star reached safety in Australia despite the Japanese attack.

Bangka Island massacre

The remaining 65 AANS nurses sailed from Singapore on SS Vyner Brooke on 12 February 1942.

Two days later, and within half an hour of Sumatra, the ship was bombed and sunk. Twelve of the nurses were drowned or killed in the water. The survivors struggled ashore on Bangka Island. Some of them had spent over 60 hours in the water.

At the time, the island was occupied by the Japanese and housed prisoner of war camps.

On 16 February, at Radji Beach, Japanese soldiers ordered 22 of the nurses and one civilian woman into the sea where they were machine-gunned.

Only one woman, Sister Vivian Bullwinkel, survived by laying in the water until the troops had left. Unable to survive in the jungle, she later surrendered and was interned with her colleagues on Bangka Island and later on Sumatra for the remainder of the war.

The nurses in captivity experienced shocking living conditions and 8 army nurses died. Only 24 were rescued on 16 September 1945.

Bullwinkel retired from the army in 1947 and became Director of Nursing at Melbourne's Fairfield Hospital. She had a distinguished career as an ambassador for nursing and veterans’ associations.

Painting depicting a woman seated and dressed in grey nurse's uniform, red cape and sister's veil

Portrait of Matron Vivian Bullwinkel a nursing sister who served with 8th Division, 2/13th Australian General Hospital, and survived the Bangka Island massacre. This oil painting by Shirley Bourne was a finalist in the 1962 Archibald Prize for portraiture. AWM ART28389

Last updated: 21 February 2022

Cite this page

DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) (2022), Ordered to leave, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 27 September 2023, https://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/wars-and-missions/world-war-ii-1939-1945/events/japanese-advance-december-1941-march-1942/fall-singapore/ordered-leave
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