Banka Island Massacre

Today, February 16, marks the 80th anniversary of the Banka Island Massacre. We remember and pay tribute to Sister Mary Elizabeth Cuthbertson, who was killed on this day in 1942.

Popularly known as “Beth”, Mary Cuthbertson was born on 5 March 1910 to William and Lillian Cuthbertson. She had two younger brothers and a younger sister, Joan.

She trained as a nurse at Ballarat Base Hospital, and went on to study at the Queen Victoria Hospital in Melbourne. In August 1937 her engagement to Dr John Scholes was announced, but he died suddenly the following March. Cuthbertson was living in Ballarat when she enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force on 20 August 1940. She embarked for Singapore in July 1941 and was attached to the 10th Australian General Hospital.

Once the fall of Singapore became inevitable most Australian personnel were evacuated from the island. Cuthbertson was one of 65 Australian nurses who left Singapore aboard the Vyner Brooke on 14 February 1942. Two days later the ship was bombed by the Japanese and many lives were lost. Cuthbertson was among those responsible for ensuring passengers were evacuated. Some were put into lifeboats, and those who could swim made for the nearby Banka Island.

Some of the survivors travelled to the nearest port to formally surrender to the Japanese, but Cuthbertson was among the 22 Australian nurses who remained on the beach to tend the wounded.

On the morning of 16 February a group of Japanese soldiers arrived on the beach. The men were ordered around a headland, where they were killed.

The nurses were ordered to walk into the sea. When the water reached their waists the Japanese opened fire with machine-guns and all but one were killed. Beth Cuthbertson was 31 years old.

In the early 1990s her sister Joan returned to the beach where her sister was killed, taking her daughter, Beth, who she named in her sister’s honour.