The sinking of the "Vyner Brooke"
A collection of Eye-witness Accounts:
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The Vyner Brooke - a make-do evacuation ship shelled and sunk by the Japanese saw many acts of valour and dedication. For a vivid description of the allied retreat down the Malay Peninsula, and then from Singapore, read Thelma Bell's account in The Wah Sui Incident. Like the Wah Sui and theEmpire Star, the Vyner Brooke was a hastily requisitioned ship and unsuited for the job it was about to do.
This unique photograph is courtesy of Chai Foh Chin, Managing Director, The Sarawak Steamship Co
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Originally built to carry 12 passengers, the Vyner Brooke soon became terribly overcrowded with over 265 frightened men, women and children, plus the 65 AANS nurses. Short of food and water, the ship finally set sail just as darkness set in. It was to be a never-to-be-forgotten scene: huge fires were burning along the whole front of Singapore and a heavy pall of black smoke hung over the island. In the gathering darkness, the captain unwittingly steered the vessel into a minefield and was forced to stop for the night.
The next day (Friday the13th February) was spent hiding behind islands and avoiding detection. The day was hazy and hot, the sea was calm and the captain knew that he would be foolish to attempt to breakout in these conditions. That night, the Vyner Brooke attempted to slip out to freedom, and eventually it reached the Bangka Strait. After dodging bombs from Japanese planes and machine gun fire which had left the starboard lifeboats holed, the ship eventually received three direct hits (it was 2pm on the 14th of February). One bomb went down the funnel, while another exploded on the bridge, the third hit the aft section injuring scores of civilians. The vessel began to pitch and soon the frightened passengers heard the sound of pouring water. The Vyner Brooke was sinking and the captain gave the order to abandon ship. The ship was to sink in approximately 15 minutes.
Some of the nurses helped to move the wounded topside, while others lent a hand getting everyone up on deck. The civilians were ordered to go over the side first, and Vivian Bullwinkel was later to recall that "…those that weren't too keen to leave, we gave a helping hand to!" They were no sooner in the water, than enemy pilots returned and began strafing the human flotsam. There was utter pandemonium, one lifeboat holding the elderly and children turned over and two empty lifeboats, with bullet holes in them , dropped into the sea.
Bullwinkel helped to see to the casualties and eventually evacuated the ship by climbing down a rope ladder. She was able to get ashore by hanging onto the side of one of the life boats. Though the lifeboat was overcrowded, they were able to reach Bangka Island by late afternoon. Earlier survivors, including Matron Drummond (one of the senior nurses), had lit a fire on the beach and it was this fire that acted as a beacon for the others still in the water. Click here to read what happened to this group on the beach.
"The Japanese planes came over and bombed us. They bombed us at 2 o’clock in the afternoon. We’d already gone down to take shelter below decks. And the side where Mona (Mona Wilton, the best friend with whom she enlisted in the AANS) and I were, we were lying flat on our faces, and the side was blown out of the ship. There was broken glass sprayed all over us. I thought my legs had been cut off, but when I had a look they were only just cut by flying glass. But one of our girls was badly wounded. She had a very bad wound in her buttock. We carried her up this ladder onto the deck and put a field dressing on it. Then we had to abandon ship.Click here to read the eye-witness account by Vivian Bullwinkel of the Vyner Brooke sinking. She was hit in the arm by flying shrapnel but was too busy to notice the wound until much later when someone was binding it. "The chip of steel is still somewhere in my arm as a souvenir of the occasion," she says. "I grasped a rope which hung overboard, kicked off my shoes and slid rapidly down into the water, so rapidly that it turned out that I burned all the skin off my palms, although in the excitement I was completely unaware of the damage until later. I pushed off from the ship and could see that a few of the boats had been successfully launched, but they were so badly holed that the occupants were bailing frantically.... We held an inpromptu mass meeting in the water... At first it was really pleasant, quite a lark, in fact, to be swimming in the cool water. We had not bathed for some time and even a perfunctory wash had been impossible on the ship... Jenny Greer started to sing "We're off to see the Wizard" and the girls joined in as they made towards the piece of wood she was hanging on to." Simons boarded a raft with two british sailors and a Eurasian radio operator.
"It was listing now very badly. So we put the girls with the wounded over the side, down a ladder into a life boat, and they got away. They eventually got to shore but were amongst the group that was shot by the Japanese (the Bangka Island massacre). Then Mona and I climbed over the side and went down a ladder into a life boat. Jean Ashton was in the life boat. But the ship was coming over very fast. The boat was full of women and children. It was sinking. So we just had to jump out of the life boat.We couldn’t get it away from the ship. Not nearly quickly enough. So Mona and I jumped out. It was everybody for themselves at this stage. And Mona said “I can’t swim”. She had a life belt so I said “Just dog paddle.” We were both parallel with the ship and trying to get away from it because it was going to tip over on top of us. So dog paddle is what we did. But it did tip over on top of us, and I said to Mona, “The ship’s coming down. Looks as though we’re sunk this time. We’re not going to get out of this.” I put my hand up and caught the rail of the ship and came through the rails. When I surfaced again there was no sign of Mona. I don’t know what happened to her, I guess the ship came down on top of her and she couldn’t get out from under it. I never saw her again.
"I was still trying to get away from the ship because it was tipping over. And the rafts from the high side of the ship started to fall off. They hadn’t been thrown over, as they should have been, and I saw this raft coming down. I put my head down. I’d taken off my tin hat prior to this and the raft hit me on the head. And as I came up another raft hit me. I think there were six altogether, one after the other, they hit me on the head and kept pushing me under."
R.E. Borton, O.B.E.
Master of the Vyner Brooke at the time of its sinking.
Born 1890, died 1965.
Was taken prisoner by the Japanese in Sumatra immediately after the sinking and was transferred to Changi for the duration of the War. While imprisoned, he did not reveal to his captors that he had been the Vyner Brooke's Master.
He was married and had four children. Prior to the war the family lived in Orchard Road, Singapore. The mother, nee Jeannie Gray, and children were evacuated to England in February 1942, where they spent the war living in Leeds until Captain Borton's eventual release.
His eldest daughter, Mrs Phyllis Wilson (now lives outside Melbourne) told us: "I was only 8 in 1942 so don't remember very much, remembering only the horror my mother felt with 4 young children and bombs falling into the sea as we were making our way to the 'big ship' (they were not aboard the Vyner Brooke).
A LETTER FROM A DESCENDANT
The Master of the Vyner Brooke was a Captain R.E. Borton O.B.E. He was in
fact my Uncle. He also survived the disaster,and the horrors of the Japanese
prisons. He returned to the U.K.,where I caught up with him. Incidentally I
would add that I, together with my mother sister and two younger brothers
were on the Gorgon at the same time.I at that stage was a boy of 13
years,and can recall the action, especially the Empire Star being hit.We
eventually arrived at Fremantle,where we were very well cared for.After the
war I did my training on the T.S.Vindicatrix and spent 26 years at sea. Am
now retired and living in beautiful Rockingham, Western Australia.
"The Captain (of the Vyner Brooke) was good. He zigzagged. They came over and bombed us, and missed. It was a very small ship. They came back and it is said that they dropped 27 bombs. And eventually one hit us. Right down the funnel. The boys down in the engine room were very badly burned. And then we were given orders to abandon ship.Click here to return to the Wah Sui incident.
There was no trouble, no worry, because Matron (Paschke) had given us lifeboat drill. She was a marvelous woman, and we just knew where to get off. We only had 2 or 3 lifeboats. So those who could swim had to swim and those who were wounded had to go in the lifeboats.
The majority of the Australian Sisters, 65 of us, we could swim. Our main recreation in Singapore was swimming, because it was so hot. Anyway we all knew what we had to do. I had a bag of dressings. Another Sister had the hypodermic needles with morphia. Some of us had different things. We went about the ship attending to the wounded. And there wasn't a sound. We knew where we were going, we didn't have to have orders yelled at us. I was one of the last getting off. We all took our shoes off except one Sister. I remember taking my shoes off and placing them neatly on the deck. I looked up and there were two of my friends down in the sea. By this time the ship was listing the wrong way. I was getting way up in the air and they were calling out "Jump, Blanchie, jump!" Well I jumped and I thought I was never coming up again, it was so long.
Anyway I joined up with those two girls and we saw the ship just roll over a few minutes later.
Quite a lot of debris floated along. And along came a piece of the rail of the ship. Quite a big piece. And we had little cork life belts. And if you didn't swim a bit, these 'd tip you up. It was awful. And those who couldn't swim, of course they drowned. Anyway there were three of us, and then we picked up another two girls, and by putting our hands on that board we could keep together. Swim with one hand and kick. There were 5 of us. Jenny Greer, Beryl Woodbridge, Flo Trotter, Joyce Tweddell and me. Jenny's a bit of a wag. And as we got into a current, it took us quite quickly away and Jenny started to sing "We're Off To See the Wizard." And we all joined in. Surprisingly enough, the Captain got into a different current to us, went to Sumatra and got home. And he said, "There were some Australian Sisters on my ship, but I don't know how many and what happened to them, but they were singing We're Off to See the Wizard." Our people (at home) wouldn't believe it. Anyway, it was true.
That was 25 past 2 according to my watch. Then all the debris, and the people, and a few rafts went. Only one lifeboat floated, and that had the wounded in it. Jenny had a waterproof watch and her watch kept going: 6 o'clock, 7 o'clock. The night went, we got quite cold and one of the girls got cramp and couldn't swim, and one didn't want to hang on and we roused at her to be strong. I was very strong, and Tweedie was the other one who was a very strong swimmer. We were at the front of the plank. We roused at the girl to keep going, have a bit of courage, "You'll be right, we'll be soon on the land, or somebody'll pick us up."
Anyway night came. Early in the morning we thought we saw a big cliff. But it wasn't a cliff, it was a huge warship. We realized it was Japs, and they looked overboard, had a look and just laughed. Anyway we didn't care, we didn't want them to pick us up. During the (early) morning we could see a lighthouse. They lit a fire, and we could see in that firelight some of our girls. In uniform. Quite a few had landed there including a couple of whom had been wounded, they were in the life boat. That was where the lifeboat landed. But we couldn't get in to that lighthouse. We tried to pull this (plank) in but we couldn't make it. Click here to read what happened to the people on the beach.
Eventually, about half past 6 in the morning, we got into a current which took us straight to the beach. And we couldn't stand up. And our skin was all wrinkled. We were covered with oil, we looked an awful sight. We just lay on the beach there in the sun until we thawed out. Then a native came and told us that the Japanese had taken the island, and it was no good trying to hide. There was no food, no people to help us, he said. I said, "Show us where the Japanese Headquarters is." He left us then because he didn't want to be seen by the Japanese. So we started off, then as we got near the quarters a young Japanese met us, the five of us. We thought we were going to be shot. He told us to go into a house. There were five or six steps, and we stood on the steps and he yelled at us to stop. We stopped. We had our back to him, and we thought "This is it". Then he grunted, and we turned around and he beckoned us. We followed him and we met a native with some bananas. He took the bananas from the native and gave them to us. I think he had a tender heart and couldn't shoot us. Or maybe he just didn't have enough bullets.
He took us to the HQ. And were they pleased to see us, because our buttons had Australia on them. They said, "Australia sister, Australia nurse!" And they were as pleased as Punch. And of course our army should never have let the nurses be taken prisoner. As soon as the Japs took us prisoner, they grabbed Jenny's watch which was still going. Mine wasn't any good. But they grabbed everything and took them from us. So later on we came to realize that they 'd left us nothing to barter with.
A.J. Mann RNVR was
serving aboard the Vyner Brooke when she sank. The
is extracted from his memoirs, a 90 page document written 10 years
the event. The material has been made available by his nephew, Mr Peter
Mann of Sussex, England.
Until the evacuation of Singapore, Vyner Brooke was a merchant vessel sailing peacefully between Singapore and Kuching. When requisitioned as an evacuation ship she was painted grey and equipped with a 4" gun for'ard, depth charges and a Lewis gun aft. She needed someone on board who knew how these worked, who was familiar with naval matters in general, and Lt. Mann was posted to serve aboard.
At the time of the evacuation Capt. Borton's orders were to sail to Batavia, to sail at night and take cover by day. It soon became obvious that by taking cover they became sitting ducks for Japanese dive bombers. They had encountered dive bombers before, and knew that by turning hard to port or starboard as soon as they saw the bomb leave the plane, they dodged it.
On 14th February, six twin engined Japanese planes split into 3 groups and began attacking. Vyner Brooke dodged the first 5 attacks but the 6th struck Number Two hatch and exploded in the hold.
Lt. Mann found the radio was smashed so he could not raise the alarm. The fire hoses were also not working. The Japanese attacked again. This time they just missed but smashed the 3 portside lifeboats. The 3 good starboard lifeboats were launched and filled with people. The other 3 holed boats also had people clinging to them.
Lt. Mann saw Capt. Borton slide down the ship's side, by which time it was listing badly, and did the same himself. They met in the water surrounded by about 100 people, in life jackets and clinging to wreckage, and together they watched Vyner Brooke do down.
Lt. Mann was sure the three sound lifeboats would be able to row ashore, about 8 miles away, then come back to pick up more survivors, and so he remained quite calm.
The day passed. Mann floated on a piece of mast and then later on a hatch cover. He described some people he met in the water, first a ship's raft with nurses clinging to it, and a woman sitting on it holding a baby, he also recalled that the Matron was there. (Note: Matron Paschke is mentioned specifically as being on a raft)
Later he drifted towards a raft and on board were a stoker, a Siamese (sic) lady and two British children, a girl aged 11 and her brother 9, who he remembered as perhaps called Betty and David.
He joined them on their raft and continued to drift along the coast in the strong current, looking for somewhere to land. As daylight increased he could see a lot of ships, both naval and merchant, landing on the North East corner of Bangka Island, and a Japanese destroyer passed them sailing north, ignoring their calls for help.
They made several attempts to enter streams flowing through the mangroves, but the forest was too thick. On one attempt they were astonished to meet a Staff Sergeant from the RASC called Knight, a survivor from another ship. He was stranded up a tree. He too joined the raft.
After spending the night in the swamp they carried on down the coast and saw a lifeboat under sail. This was crewed by 4 Australian naval ratings from HMS Siang Wo. Their ship had beached on Bangka Island and these 4 had opted to make for Batavia, 300 miles away. They agreed to take the woman and children, but were reluctant to take the 3 men aboard even though they had a 25 foot lifeboat to themselves.
Eventually the ratings agreed to tow the raft with the 3 male survivors on it, until such time as they came to a suitable landing place where Lt. Mann and his companions could make their own way to Palembang, 70 miles distant.
When they came across a pagah they stopped to cook a meal but were forced to leave by about 12 Malay fishermen who did not want to be caught helping allied sailors. After this incident Lt Mann and his companions were permitted to board the lifeboat and the raft was cast off.
Soon they passed a clear beach and Lt. Mann and the other two were put ashore. The beach was surrounded by swamp that could not be crossed, except for a fast flowing stream in which they found a damaged sampan. It was about 10 feet (3 metres) long, 3 feet (about 1 metre) wide and, on 18th February, the 3 survivors set sail on this, bailing and paddling.
The 18th and 19th were spent paddling down the coast. They stopped at any pagahs they saw, often being helped by the locals. By this time Lt Mann's legs were badly sunburnt, swollen and turning septic from numerous cuts got in the mangroves. The other two were in much the same condition.
On 20th February the sea turned brown and they realized they were near a river mouth. Paddling inland, they saw a ship's lifeboat with 3 men aboard, a Lt. Basil Drakeford, an Able Seaman called "Taffy" Belmont, and a Stoker named "Paddy" Dunn. They received some basic medical attention and supplies ashore and all 6 men then sailed on together.
On 23rd February they came across a Sumatran police pagah near a town called Mongala which had just been taken by the Japanese, so they were unable to go ashore, but a prau was heading south on 24th and agreed to take them.
The 26th Feb found them heading ashore again, this time transfering to a much larger boat and heading south again along with a party of Dutch soldiers. They landed in Java on 27th.
Lt. Mann was driven to Tjilatjap on the south coast and, on 2nd March, sailed for Fremantle aboard SS Verspyck.
Until 1948, when he learned that Captain Borton was now living in Bradford, England, the Lieutenant believed he was the only officer to have survived the Vyner Brooke's sinking. He died in the mid-1950s, leaving no children.
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Sr J.C. Ashton, 13th AGH, survived the POW camps to return to Australia in 1945. In the camp at Irenelaan she was elected captain of one of the two nurses' houses. Later she helped to keep morale alive by staging a comic mannequin parade "Paula of Palembang". J.E. Simons wrote of the mannequin parade in "While History Passed" (Heinemann 1954) First came "Camp possibilities" featuring curtains and other available materials converted unconvincingly if romantically to female wear, followed by a Snappy Sunsuit" and "Something Practical for Everyday Tasks", the latter our routine shorts. Throughout the "orchestra" provided suitable background music until the climax. "Paula" (Jean Ashton) aware that our captivity was being prolonged and that our wardrobes were noticeably wearing, dipped into the future and presented "Likely fashions for 1945". Lights flashed on for a split second to show three girls clad only in three paw paw leaves. And, believe me, it nearly came to that!"
Victims of the Vyner Brooke sinking,
presumed lost at sea, were: Matron O.D. Paschke, RRC - and Sisters
Bates, E. Calnan, M.D. Clarke, M.H.M. Dorsch, C.M. Ennis, K. Kinsella,
G.M. McDonald, L.J. Russell, M. Schuman, A.M. Trenerry, M.M. Wilton.
The prisoners of Rabaul . The Bangka Island massacre . The Tol Plantation massacre . J.E. Simons .
Betty Jeffrey . Brave Women of Oceania . Vivian Bullwinkel . Wilma Oram . The Wah Sui Incident .
Civilian nursing teams in Vietnam . Lest We Forget .