FALL OF SINGAPORE
Allied forces were ordered to lay down their arms at 8:30pm on 15 February 1942, which came as a shock to many. Gunner Ronald Houlahan from the 2/15th Field Regiment described his confusion when he learned of the capitulation:
‘At 1530 hours we get cease-fire orders [and] believe that peace negotiations are going on. Just after dark, we are moving, we are told, into a smaller perimeter near Tanglin Barracks. A lot of ammo is left behind. Along the road, we hear lots of rumours that the Japs have retired and we are going forward. The CO’s driver told me the peace terms have been signed between Britain & Japan. But soon we learn the truth. We have to line all the guns & trucks up at the gardens. All called together by our T C [‘Troop Commander’] and were told we were prisoners of war.’
[Houlahan diary, 15 February 1942, AWM PR88/052]
Gunner Houlahan’s impressions of that day are typical of the confusion felt by many on the island.
While many Australians and other Commonwealth troops were now prisoners of war, there had been evacuations from Singapore since late January 1942, including civilians, military nurses, and wounded, injured and sick troops.
Some managed to make it back to Australia, while others were not so fortunate.
SS Vyner Brooke set sail with evacuees on 12 February 1942, but was attacked a few days later and sunk. Some who survived the sinking managed to reach the shores of the Japanese occupied Bangka Island, which lies off Sumatra, Indonesia. They joined those who had reached the island from other sunken ships. Many surrendered to the Japanese and became prisoners.
Those who came ashore on Radji Beach however met a very different fate. There a large group of civilians and military personnel sought to surrender, but the Japanese separated the men, who were taken behind a headland and killed, before ordering twenty-two nurses from Vyner Brooke to wade into the ocean and machine-gunning them.
These events became known as the Bangka Island massacre. Sister Lt Vivian Bullwinkel and a British soldier, both wounded, were the only survivors. After several days in hiding, they gave themselves up. While the soldier died shortly after surrendering, Sister Bullwinkel was taken into captivity and endured three years as a prisoner of war.
Those who surrendered on Singapore were held captive, firstly at Changi and, as the war continued, in locations across South East and East Asia, including Japan.
More than 8,000 Australians captured by the Japanese in Singapore and in other parts of the Pacific theatre died in captivity over the next three and half years.