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Sisters in Captivity

Sister Betty Jeffrey OAM and the courageous story of Australian Army nurses

in Sumatra, 1942–1945


Colin Burgess

Cammeray, NSW: Simon & Shuster, 2023

Paperback   368pp   RRP: $34.99


Reviewer: Adrian Catt, October 2023


 Although this work is focussed upon the life of Betty Jeffrey OAM, it is so much more than the title suggests. It is primarily the proud story of Australian Army nurses deployed initially to Singapore during World War II and who, from that point, became the tragic victims of war in all its most brutal forms.

Though Jeffrey and her fellow nurses, including her close friends and colleagues such as Vivian Bullwinkel and Iole Harper escaped Singapore as it fell quickly to Japanese invaders, they were to flee upon a vessel which was sunk in Banka Straits. From here, their epic battle to survive strong seas so as to make landfall upon Banka Island, only led to terrifying and horrific treatment of the nurses as POW’s, and the Radji Beach massacre at the hands of the Imperial Japanese Army.

Jeffrey kept a diary of her wartime experiences; even concealing and maintaining it during captivity as a POW, hidden from the Japanese as she and her surviving Nurses were shuffled back-and-forth from prison camps at Muntok (on Bangka Island), and Palembang and Lubok Linggau (on Sumatra). 

The women were held captive in filthy and primitive camps for Three Years and nine months, enduring starvation diets and punishing daily duties. Many of these Nurses were to die from disease or starvation. Those who survived were left to fend for themselves, whilst nursing their fellow sick or dying Sisters.  The sad irony was that ample food grew abundantly just out of reach of the nurses - on the outside of the camp’s wire.

The nurses shared overcrowded camps with British and Dutch civilian prisoners, including children;  they were however segregated from Allied male POWs who were held in separate camps.  The men relied upon the visits of the sisters to provide essential nursing for their sick and dying men.  At Christmas-time, the nurses made mahjong sets as gifts for the men.

Sixty-five Nurses left Singapore on that fateful voyage, and of them, 32 would be held in captivity.  Only 24 nurses would return to Australia alive at War’s end, on the vessel HMAHS Manunda. At subsequent War Crime trials, Jeffrey’s diary and the testimony of Vivian Bullwinkel would be used successfully in the prosecution of their Japanese tormentors,.

Though Betty and Vivian faced many years of treatment at the Heidelberg Hospital for various illnesses, they continued to display their respects for their lost colleagues and seek highest standards of recognition for the nursing profession. Betty and Vivian went on a drive around Australia post-war, collecting valuable donations to fund their dream of a place of memorial, learning and recognition for the nursing profession in Australia; now known as the Australian Nursing Federation.

A most moving and distressing story, with both sad and positive outcomes, which pays due credit, in detail, to the angels in habits, who bring aid and comfort to us all, whether in peace-time, or in war.


The RUSI – Vic Library thanks the publisher for making this work available for review.

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