How the story of SS Vyner Brooke will break your heart

Patricia Hului

SS Vyner Brooke started her service as the royal yacht of Sarawak. The Scottish-built steamship also worked as a merchant ship used between Singapore and Kuching.

However at the beginning of World War II, this ship owned by Sarawak Steamship Co Ltd, had a tragic ending.

Here are 5 things to know about SS Vyner Brooke:

1.She was named after the third White Rajah of Sarawak

The ship was named after Vyner Brooke. His wife Ranee Sylvia launched it on Nov 10, 1927 at Leith, north of the city of Edinburgh, Scotland.

Then the ship sailed from Leith for Singapore on Apr 17, 1928.

2.The interior of SS Vyner Brooke was clearly described in an issue of The Sarawak Gazette
A screenshot of The Sarawak Gazette published on Nov 1, 1927.

On Nov 1, 1927, The Sarawak Gazette published an article on the launching of SS Vyner Brooke.

It described the specifications and interiors of the royal yacht.

The main deck had accommodation for crews as well as a cold store room designed for temperature -2 degree Celsius.

Meanwhile, the upper deck cabin could accommodate 44 first class passengers and a large saloon for dining. The saloon was ‘panelled to the full height with polished mahogany and is provided with twenty large windows of Laycock type’.

In fact, all furniture is of mahogany and the chairs came with leather seats.

For passengers who were looking for entertainment and exercise, there was a room for deck quoits and deck tennis.

As for safety, she was equipped with lifeboats, rafts and lifebelts enough for six hundred and fifty people.

3.She was requisitioned by the Britain’s Royal Navy as an armed trader

Before the war, she sailed the waters between Singapore and Kuching under the flag of the Sarawak Steamship Company. She usually carried about 12 passengers in addition to her 47 crew.

When the war broke out, SS Vyner Brooke was considered a militarily-useful vessel. So the British Royal Navy requisitioned it as an armed trader.

Now known as HMS Vyner Brooke, the ship was painted gray and armed with guns. The crew was made of members of Malay Royal Navy Reserve as well as survivors of HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse.

Both HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse were sunk by Japanese aircraft on Dec 10, 1941. The wrecks now rest near Kuantan, Pahang in the South China Sea.

4.SS Vyner Brooke was bombed by Japanese aircraft and sunk

Unfortunately, the former crew of HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse could not survived a Japanese attack for the second time.

On the evening of Feb 12, 1942, HMS Vyner Brooke was one of the last ships carrying evacuees leaving Singapore.

This was right before Singapore fell into Japanese hands on Feb 15, 1942.

On top of her 47 crew, there were 181 passengers, including the last 65 nurses of the Australian Army Nursing Service in Singapore, wounded servicemen as well as civilian men, women and children.

In the late afternoon on Feb 13, she was attacked by a Japanese aircraft. Fortunately, there were no casualties. By sunset, she set her sail for Palembang passing through Bangka Straits.

The next day on Valentine’s day at about 2pm, HMS Vyner Brooke was attacked by several Japanese aircraft. This time she did not survive. Within 30 minutes, she rolled over and sunk bow first.

Altogether, it is believed that 44 ships were carrying evacuees from Singapore between Feb 12 to 14. All but four were bombed and sunk as they sailed through the Bangka Straits.

Thousands of people died before any of them could reach land.

5.Some of the survivors died during the Bangka Island Massacre

According to records, there were approximately 150 survivors washed up ashore at different parts of Bangka island, east of Sumatra.

Unfortunately, Japanese troops had already occupied the then Dutch East Indies island. On Radji beach of Bangka island, a group of survivors from HMS Vyner Brooke gathered together with survivors from other vessels bombings.

What happened to them after the sinking is now known as the Bangka Island Massacre.

At first, they tried to ask for help and food from the locals but were denied due to the locals’ fear of the Japanese.

One unnamed officer from HMS Vyner Brooke had an idea. Since they had no food, no help for the injured and no chance of rescue, they considered giving themselves up as prisoners of war (POWs).

The group agreed and the officer walked to Muntok to inform the Japanese that they surrendered.

While he was away, one of the nurses – Matron Irene Drummond – instructed a group of civilian women and children to walk toward Muntok.

Those who remained on Radji beach were 22 Australian nurses from HMS Vyner Brooke and the injured.

The Massacre and aftermath

Several hours later, the officer returned with about 20 Japanese soldiers (some records stated 15).

The nurses were confident that the Japanese would not hurt them as they wore their Red Cross armbands. By right, they were Non-combatants and therefore protected under the international treaties of the Geneva Convention.

However, the Japanese started to divide the survivors into three groups. The first two groups were the male survivors who were capable of walking.

The Japanese soldiers escorted the groups down to Radji Beach and around a headland, out of the nurses’ sight.

When they heard gunshots from a distance, the survivors knew that the Japanese were not accepting their surrender.

All 22 Australian nurses and one civilian woman were in the third group. They were instructed to walk into the sea until they were waist deep.

Knowing what would happen to them, Drummond reportedly called out, “Chin up girls. I’m proud of you and I love you all.” Then, the Japanese began to shoot them down.

A nurse, Vivian Bullwinkel was the only one who survived the shooting.

Of the 65 Australian nurses on board the HMS Vyner Brooke, 12 were killed during the air attack, 21 were shot dead at Radji Beach, and 32 became POWs. Eight of the nurses did not survive the internment.

Two of its crew were taken as POWs. Some of the non-European crew members who died on board of HMS Vyner Brooke were Ahmad Rashid, Awang Adam Awang Nong, Li Wong Chuan and Phiaw Chew Teck.