Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 27, 2016

On Radji Beach (2010), by Ian W. Shaw

On Radji BeachHard 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.

The book begins with the enlistment process, and then moves to Singapore, where in the days before the Japanese attacked, the young women enjoyed a splendid social life.  Shaw says that there was, in senior circles, some disquiet about the rapid advance of the Japanese and more than a little anxiety about the Allies preparedness to face them, but the nurses shared the misplaced confidence of almost everyone else.  While they worked hard to prepare the hospitals for what was to come, in their spare time they partied, they shopped, they enjoyed the privileges of being assigned officer class, and they did not seem to mind the restrictions placed upon them because of their gender.

Even at this late stage [January 1942] the full experience of war was something the girls read about rather than lived through.  For many of them, their first vision of war wounded was when they were in Johore Bahru on leave, and ambulances and trucks rolled through the city carrying British and Indian Army soldiers wounded in the fighting in the north to their own hospitals in Singapore. They were allowed leave in Johore Bahru during the daytime right up until the end of January, and for all the girls at Tampoi, the war was more an occasional inconvenience than the life and death struggle it was for others.  They could still entertain visitors in their mess after 2100 hours, and go shopping in the shops and bazaars of old Johore.  (p.77)

(BTW Shaw calls these women ‘the girls’ throughout, which of course they were not.  They had to be over 25 to enlist for overseas service, though one 24-year-old lied.  Some were closer to forty.  But while for me the use of ‘the girls’ consistently grated because calling grown women ‘girls’ is belittling, Shaw says that’s what they called themselves.  IMO unless he was quoting them, he should have referred to them as women or as the nurses.  No, it’s not a minor quibble, it’s about respect, in an otherwise respectful book.)


But of course things changed.  And even when the reader knows the history of the Fall of Singapore, it’s chilling to read about.  As the nurses in the clearing station began to deal with Australian casualties from clashes with the advancing Japanese, each day brought home to them the facts of the retreat.  As I found when I read Janet Butler’s brilliant Kitty’s War, injured men on the front line need their nurses to be very nearby, so they face great danger and can become casualties too, a fact which is often unacknowledged.

The scenes in the dressing and clearing stations were Dante-esque.  Because movement on the main roads during the day was fraught with danger, the ambulances and lorries travelled mainly at night.  At the medical stations, the examination rooms and operating theatres were brightly lit, and the combination of bright lights and enclosed spaces generated great heat.  Perspiring doctors probed and cut and stitched while the nurses, their dresses soaked, passed instruments and mopped both brows and wounds.  The cooler mornings brought some temporary relief but, more often than not, also brought orders for the station to pack up and move another 20 or so kilometres closer to Singapore. (p.84)

(One thing I noticed was the readiness of these nurses to do tasks now considered too menial for professional nurses to do. In addition to direct nursing duties, they also mopped and cleaned rooms and equipment, made bandages, and each time they moved the clearing station, were expected to make sure that everything was in order).

The responsibilities of Matrons Olive Paschke and Irene Drummond were enormous, and none more so than when it came to evacuation.  None of the nurses wanted to abandon their patients.  But as history records, 59 Australian Army Nursing Service (AANS) nurses and masseuses (today called physiotherapists) left Singapore on the Empire Star on February 11th.  Clearly a civilian ship, the Empire Star was attacked  by the Japanese and two nurses were subsequently decorated for their bravery under fire: Sister Margaret Anderson was awarded the George Medal and Sister Vera Torney was made a Member of the Order of the British Empire. (The MBE was the forerunner of the OA, i.e. Order of Australia).  The ship with its 2000 evacuees eventually made it safely to Australia.

The remaining 65 AANS nurses sailed from Singapore on the Vyner Brooke the next day.  Two days later it was sunk by Japanese.  Shaw paints a vivid portrait of the plight of the survivors in the water.  Lifeboats were targeted by enemy fire, and the few remaining were used for wounded men, adults who couldn’t swim, and children.  The others clung to life-rafts or floating debris.  They were within half an hour of Banka Island off the coast of Sumatra, but the currents were capricious and the life-rafts couldn’t be steered.  The last ever sighting of some of the nurses was as their rafts floated by within sight of a bonfire burning on the beach…

That bonfire had been lit by survivors who had reached Radji Beach.  There were about 100 people, crew members and service personnel of other ships bombed by the Japanese, and 22 of the 65 nurses.  Eventually the unavoidable decision to surrender to the Japanese at the nearby town of Muntok was made, and a party of men set off, followed shortly afterwards by civilian women and their children.  The Japanese accepted the surrender, killed the men there and then, and then came back to the beach and massacred the rest.  They bayoneted the men in two obscene batches, and then they made the women line up along the beach and shot them as they walked into the sea.  (I have chosen not to name the officer-in-charge.  He was subsequently convicted of a war crime and executed.  His name deserves to be forgotten.)

Miraculously, although shot in the back, Vivian Bullwinkel survived, and so did a British soldier, Private Kingsley, who had also been shot.  They decided to lie low because they realised that as witnesses to a war crime, they would be killed immediately if they revealed who they were and where they had come from.  But although at the risk of their own lives local women helped them with food, eventually the survivors had no choice but to surrender at Muntok.  Kinglsey subsequently died from a wound infection that could easily have been treated, but Sister Bullwinkel was reunited with some of her colleagues who had survived up to 60 hours in the water and had come ashore elsewhere.

Again, Shaw brings each one of these nurses to life.  Using primary sources such as interviews and diaries, he reconstructs their life in internment, documenting the shocking conditions and wholly unnecessary deaths from tropical diseases and malnutrition, but also recording the team spirit of the kongsi (group) that encouraged survival and made camp conditions more bearable.

No work was considered too menial if it meant putting food on the table for the group.  Iole Harper and Betty Jeffrey in one team, with Dot Freeman and Rene Singleton in another, set up bakeries which used every scrap of rice they could beg, borrow or steal to produce little rice savouries that they would either sell or exchange for more substantial foods.  An increasingly frail Mina Raymont sewed little handkerchiefs from scraps of material and traded these to Dutch civilians for food. [Dutch civilians in the camp had money to supplement their inadequate rations, whereas the nurses did not]. Others worked on latrine duty, emptying the overflowing septic tank with coconut shell cups in return for a small payment for those not prepared to do such things.  (p. 263)

When not subjected to incessant roll calls, harsh punishments and the necessities of survival in the camp, the nurses set up simple entertainments, education classes and vegetable gardens.  But nothing they could do could ameliorate the lack of adequate food and absence of medicines, and eight nurses died in that camp.  I defy anyone to read this passage without getting a lump in the throat:

Wilhelmina Rosalie ‘Ray’ Raymont was not the first of the Vyner Brooke nurses to die, but she was the first to die as part of the kongsi the group had formed at Irenelaan, the extended family that had been together for just on three years, and that family wanted to farewell her with dignity and respect amid the squalor their lives had become.  During the morning on the day after her death, a group of nurses dug a grave in a small clearing in the jungle outside the camp.  Others still dressed Mina for burial.  Uniforms – many still stained with oil from the sinking of the Vyner Brooke – were retrieved from special storage places.  Late in the day the funeral party, all in uniform, came together and lifted Mina’s coffin, draped with the flowers she loved, onto their shoulders.  As they moved off they may have shuffled, but they shuffled in step, and when they passed the guard post at the camp’s entrance gates, the two Japanese soldiers on duty snapped to attention and saluted them.  The burial party marched down the short path to the jungle clearing and lowered Mina’s coffin into the grave.  Val Smith stepped forward and read from the Bible, passages from Revelations 5 and 7: ‘They shall hunger no more, neither thirst any more; neither shall the sun light on them, nor any heat.’ The nurses gathered in the jungle clearing then sang the second and third verses of ‘Jerusalem the Golden’.  Mina Raymont, formerly of the 2/4th CCS, was finally at rest. (p. 268)

BTW It was a Dutch teenager who recorded these details in her subsequent book about her experiences, and together with other sources including some from the Australian nurses, these were used as the basis for the film Paradise Road.

Is On Radji Beach good history?  The book lists an extensive range of sources and is well-indexed (there are also poignant photos, mostly B&W) and Shaw has obviously done extensive research.  But Shaw is not a professional historian: he’s a former schoolteacher, intelligence officer and security risk manager.  It’s his interest in social history and how it shapes national character that guides this book, and he has a tendency to stereotype other nationalities while perhaps he idealises the Australians.  Perhaps he doesn’t test the evidence as a professional historian would.  But in a country suffering from the collective delusion that playing sport is heroic, I don’t mind Shaw’s partisanship.  Collectively and individually these women were courageous beyond measure, and I think their story deserves to be told.

Do check out this review at the SMH so that you can use the photos to put faces to the names.

Author: Ian W. Shaw
Title: On Radji Beach
Publisher: Macmillan (Pan Macmillan), 2010
ISBN: 9780330404259
Source: loan from a friend, thanks, Carol!

Available from Fishpond: On Radji Beach


  1. Good on you, Lisa, for your comment re ‘girls’ vs ‘women’! Couldn’t agree more.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks:) (I’m surprised his editor didn’t pick it up!)


  2. This sounds brilliant, Lisa. I did not know this story (I didn’t do history beyond year 8, and it was mainly about white settlement of Australia). And yes, that passage about the funeral is very moving, but how wonderful that her “family” took the time to lay her to rest in this way.


    • I did do history, but I did Modern European History and British History, and when I was at university I did Greek and Roman. So, my knowledge of OzHist fizzled out after Form 2 (Year 8), until I started teaching it in the library and did heaps of research in order to set up a wiki for my students.
      And I love history now:)

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I’ve been researching this incident for some time and for the life of me I cant find the exact location of Radji Beach on any map or google earth. All the narratives , photos and videos I look at or any clue seem to contradict each other. I think I’ve found it but its distance from Muntok suggest otherwise according to accounts I’ve read.


    • Hello David, that’s interesting. Have you tried the Australian War Memorial? They might know…


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