Angels of War: Remembering Australian Army Nurses

Joyce Tweddell

Joyce Tweddell was amongst the Australian nurses who boarded the Vyner Brooke ship following the fall of Singapore on the 12th of February, 1942. The ship itself was bombed with Joyce and her fellow nurses aboard, a direct impact causing the vessel to sink in under 15 minutes.

Header image: Portrait of Joyce Tweddell. Courtesy of Virtual War Memorial Australia

Those who weren’t killed in the blast were now facing a dire situation- stranded, in the middle of the ocean, clinging to pieces of floating debris. The Japanese forces returned to fire machine guns at survivors they could see in the water, killing more of those that remained whilst others drowned in their efforts to escape. Miraculously, there were still some that survived- Joyce herself being among them. She recalls that, as they paddled with no land immediately in sight, the survivors began singing “We’re Off to See the Wizard” over and over again to maintain their optimism and wakefulness.

Stuck in the ocean for over a day at least, the survivors finally reached land, landing off the shores of Bangka island. They were not out of trouble yet, however- Joyce was amongst a group of nurses that was then captured as a prisoner of war after the fall of Singapore in 1942. 32 nurses had been imprisoned, and would remain so as they shifted from camp to camp for 3 years until the end of the war. Due to the terrible conditions, 8 nurses passed away during this time, and the remaining had a series of diseases, infections and malnutrition affecting them. Joyce, despite all that she had been faced with, managed to survive.

Nobody had known the location of the final camp the prisoners were kept at, until locals were able to recall seeing women working in the jungle nearby. It was at 5am, on the 5th of September 1945, that Joyce Tweddell and the remaining survivors were liberated from their imprisonment and immediately transported to a hospital in Singapore where they received urgent medical attention.

A ship approaches a dock across the bay, where a crowd of onlookers and seafarers await.
The hospital ship Manunda arriving at Fremantle with released prisoners of war from Malaya, including 24 Australian nurses from Sumatra, 1945. Courtesy of State Library Victoria

Joyce was extremely unwell still upon her return to Australia, arriving home in October 1945. Yet this did not deter her from continuing on with her profession. Although she was discharged from the Army in June 1946, Joyce was employed as second in charge in the radiography unit at the Royal Brisbane Hospital. Before the war, she had completed a therapy radiography course- something considered rare for women at the time due to the necessary physics and chemistry educational background. Using this qualification, in combination with her learnt leadership and persistence from the war, Joyce Tweddell became Queensland’s Chief Radiographer before her eventual retirement in 1979.

Joyce kept in contact with a number of the nurses she had been imprisoned with, and stood together with six of them to see a memorial raised for the prisoners of war on Bangka beach, in 1993.

Having undergone unimaginable hardship and pain, Joyce's story is one to be remembered with respect for both what she endured and how she still prevailed in the years following the war.

Nurses gathered around two tables as a group, smiling at the camera, and holding on to gifted bouquets of flowers.
AANS nurses who were formerly prisoners of war during World War II, 1945. Courtesy of The Australian War Memorial
A nurse is laid back in bed, slightly sat up with a glass in her right hand, smiling at the camera.
Sister M.G. James, one of the returning nurses who had been prisoners of war, 1945. Courtesy of State Library Victoria