Valentine’s Day – a day filled with thoughts of love and that special someone, but for Cora Lynn’s Kathleen Kinsella on Valentine’s Day 1942 there was probably no time for such trivial thoughts. She and 64 other Australian nurses were aboard the Vyner Brooke desperately trying to avoid Japanese bombers and war ships in a last minute bid for freedom.
Kathleen Kinsella was born on 18 March 1904 in South Yarra to Michael James Kinsella, a van proprietor and his second wife Susan. Kathleen was the couple’s last child, Michael and his first wife Eliza had been blessed with 5 children and now Kathleen completed the set, being the fifth child for Michael and Susan.
The family had bought land at Cora Lynn in 1900 but waited until 1905 to relocate. At Tullamore, the Kinsella family ran dairy cattle and grew potatoes, peas and briefly, asparagus. Kathleen attended school at Koo Wee Rup North and then in 1912 transferred to Cora Lynn State School until 1918. Kathleen trained as a nurse and worked at the Heidelberg Military Hospital where she was highly regarded, she also undertook brain surgery theatre support training at the Alfred Hospital before being posted to Singapore and Malaya with the 2/13th Australian General Hospital. A unit consisting of 18 officers, 44 nurses, 3 masseuses and 146 others equipped to treat 600 patients arrived in Singapore on 15 September 1941. By this time Kathleen had been promoted to senior nurse of the 2/4th Casualty Clearing Station.
Australian forces spent an uneasy Christmas and New Year as hostilities increased and the British and Indian forces continued to retreat southwards along the Malayan Peninsula towards Singapore. The 2/4th CCC was at Kluang, Malaya and would shelter in trenches during the daily air raids. The 2/4th CCC then fell back to Mengkibol, Malaya and then to Bukit Panjang in Singapore. The Causeway connecting Malaya to the island of Singapore was blown up by British engineers by 1 February. There was little respite, Japanese troops landed on 8 February. Life was now hard indeed, nursing staff and hospitals were stretched beyond their limits coping with overwhelming numbers of casualties, continual air raids and threatened water supplies. Complete blackout conditions meant that all hospital work had to be undertaken in darkness. Recommendations in late January to evacuate Australian nurses were refused due to concerns about civilian morale. The first 6 nurses didn’t leave Singapore until 10 February with wounded on the hospital ship Wah Sui. But the nurses themselves, realising there was no hope of other hospital ships arriving to evacuate the wounded wanted to stay, even in the face of such dire adversity. And too little, too late, the order to evacuate was issued and half the nurses left the next day. It had taken the Japanese just ten weeks to overrun Allied forces on the Malay Peninsula and Singapore, and the ‘impregnable fortress’ was beginning to fall.
On 12 February, the last 65 Australian nurses met at St. Andrews Cathedral as ordered, for evacuation but the destruction around the waterfront meant that they had to leave their transportation and walk the last few miles to their ship. Fires were burning everywhere, Singapore was burning. The nurses boarded the Vyner Brooke, a small coastal steamer of 1,670 tons, 80 metres long and 13 metres wide at its widest point and requisitioned by the Royal Navy at the start of hostilities. She was fitted with guns dating back to WW1 at the front, more for show than anything else, certainly not suitable for defending the ship from enemy aircraft. The plan was to hide from the enemy by day and steam for Batavia (we now know this as Jakarta) at night, a voyage of some 800 kilometres which was expected to take about two days. The nurses were accompanied by 40 crew and estimates of 150 or more military and civilian personnel. No one is really sure; there was not enough time to list the names of those boarding the ship. There were six lifeboats to accommodate 140 people, 180 in a pinch, wooden life rafts, two toilets, no food and limited water.
The Vyner Brooke left that night, but five minutes into the voyage discovered it had headed into one of the minefields in the harbour. The thick black smoke was obscuring vision of the buoys and markers that marked the mine fields and although the Captain thought he could negotiate the mine field he was not prepared to take the risk and backed out of it and away. That was their first delay, and the ship hid during the day. On the second night out the ship steamed into open sea but spotting flashes of fire on the horizon sought cover, not wanting to be discovered by the Japanese navy. The Captain waited until the flashes disappeared and then waited a bit more to be safe, before setting off again, which was understandable but as day broke, on the 14 February, the Vyner Brooke was still in open sea. At about 11 o’clock in the morning they were circled by a Japanese scout plane and sprayed with machine gun fire, they had been found, if they stayed where they were they’d be a sitting duck when more Japanese planes returned, so it was decided to make a run for it. So at full speed the Vyner Brooke made a dash for a cluster of small islands near the entrance to Banka Strait and after about 90 minutes the ship dropped anchor in the cover of a small island at about 1.30 pm.
It was just before 2 pm that the Vyner Brooke’s lookout spotted another scout plane, it circled the ship and the island but did not attack. Once again, the ship was a sitting duck and Captain Borton ordered the ship at full speed to make for a larger island approximately 20 km away. A mere ten minutes passed before nine planes flying in three V-formations were spotted. The planes dropped their bombs and sprayed the ship with machine gun fire; the Vyner Brooke was zigzagging in a desperate effort to avoid being hit. Miraculously, over a five minute period the Vyner Brooke avoided 27 bombs, the planes reformed for a second attack and in a matter of minutes the ship was attacked again. They were not so lucky this time and one bomb went straight down the funnel, exploding in the engine room, killing or wounding the crew. Another struck between the bridge and stern, killing most of the elderly passengers in the staterooms and destroying many of the life rafts on deck. Another bomb struck the forward deck, the gun and gun crew taking the brunt of the hit. To add insult to injury, the starboard side of the ship was opened up by a bomb that just missed. The captain gave the order to abandon ship, uninjured crew and nurses, already at their battle stations swung into action.
The nurses orders were clear – they were not permitted to leave the ship before ensuring that all passengers were off safely, those who could be, were put into the lifeboats that had not been cut loose or destroyed by machine gun fire and when the lifeboats were full passengers jumped into the water, crew and nurses followed. The ship sank quickly; estimates vary between 15 and 30 minutes from the time the first bomb hit. Too few of those nurses eventually returned to Australia. Some became prisoners of war, of which not all survived and a terrible fate awaited those who were washed up on Radji Beach at Banka Island, but this is Kathleen’s story, so what happened to her? No one really knows, one nurse thought she saw Kathleen floating in the water wearing a life jacket but isn’t really certain if it was real or not, the nurse was concussed at the time and floating in the water herself. Kathleen’s body was never recovered and she was presumed to have drowned that afternoon.
In the book On Radji Beach, Ian Shaw tells us that “The AIF regarded the 2/4th Casualty Clearing Station as the most efficient medical unit operational in Singapore or Malaya.” He describes Kathleen Kinsella as having a “rare gift for leadership and a genuine love for those she led”. He also tells us that Kathleen’s commanding officer was proposing to recommend her for a Royal Red Cross, awarded for exceptional services in military nursing, in recognition of her outstanding leadership at Kluang. In addition, he was intending to recommend to AIF Command that Kathleen be decorated and promoted to matron, putting a larger group of nurses under her exceptional care. With an exemplary nursing manner based on straight talking and compassion he was sure she would do well. And no doubt, she would have.
Sister (Lieutenant) Kathleen Kinsella
18.3.1904 – 14.2.1942
Lest We Forget
On Radji Beach by Ian W. Shaw
Australia in the War of 1939–1945. Series 5 – Medical – Volume Vol4 – The Australian Army Nursing Service
Australian War Memorial – The Sinking of the Vyner Brooke