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Irene Melville Drummond (1905–1942)

by Julie Gorrell

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Irene Melville Drummond (1905-1942), army matron, was born on 26 July 1905 at Ashfield, Sydney, daughter of Cedric Drummond, marine engineer, and his wife Katherine, née Melville, both Queensland born. Educated at Catholic schools in Adelaide and at Broken Hill, New South Wales, Irene returned to Adelaide, trained as a nurse at Miss Laurence's Private Hospital, qualified in obstetrics at the Queen's Home and worked at Angaston Hospital. In 1933 she moved to the Broken Hill and District Hospital where she proved to be a compassionate and extremely competent nurse, well liked and respected by her superiors and colleagues. She served as a surgical sister, assistant-matron and acting-matron.

Appointed sister in the Australian Army Nursing Service, Australian Imperial Force, on 8 November 1940, Drummond was called up for full-time duty with the 2nd/4th Casualty Clearing Station in January 1941. Next month she sailed for Singapore to join the 2nd/9th Field Ambulance. Briefly back with the 2nd/4th C.C.S., she was promoted matron on 5 August and posted to the 2nd/13th Australian General Hospital in September. When the Japanese invaded Malaya on 8 December, the hospital was situated near Johore Bahru. In January 1942 it was hurriedly moved to St Patrick's School, Singapore. Despite chaotic conditions—brought on by the hasty retreat, enemy air-raids and increasing admissions of battle casualties—Drummond's quiet efficiency helped to ensure that the wards were operational within 48 hours.

By early February 1942 surrender to the Japanese appeared likely. Throughout January, Major General Gordon Bennett had repeatedly refused to allow the evacuation of A.A.N.S. personnel. It was not until 10 February that they began leaving, five days before the capitulation. On the 12th only Drummond, Matron Olive Paschke of the 2nd/10th A.G.H. and sixty-three members of their staffs remained in Singapore. Although the nurses had begged to be allowed to stay with their patients, they were put on board the steamer, Vyner Brooke, that day for the perilous voyage to Australia. On the 14th in Banka Strait the vessel was hit by bombs. The nurses helped other passengers to abandon ship. Scooping up a small Chinese boy as the Vyner Brooke sank, Drummond escaped in a lifeboat.

A group of survivors, including Drummond and twenty-one fellow nurses, came ashore at Radji Beach, Banka Island. They were joined by some twenty British servicemen from another sunken ship. Having discovered that the island was already in the hands of the Japanese and that no help could be expected from the local population, on 16 February the party resolved to surrender. One of the Vyner Brooke's officers was sent to Muntok to negotiate with the Japanese. While he was away Drummond suggested that the civilian women and children should leave for Muntok. Shortly after the civilians departed, a Japanese officer and twenty soldiers arrived at the beach.

Ignoring pleas that the remaining group was surrendering, the Japanese separated the men from the women. The men were marched around a small bluff to another cove; there they were shot and bayoneted. The Japanese returned to the nurses who had been left on the beach. They were ordered to walk toward the sea and all knew their fate. The Japanese soldiers fired at the line of nurses with a machine-gun; Irene Drummond was the first to die. Evidence that has emerged many years since this event suggests it was probable that many of these nurses were raped before they were shot. There was one survivor of the massacre, Sister Lt Vivienne Bullwinkel.

Irene Drummond was mentioned in dispatches in 1946. The Sister Drummond Memorial Park, opened at Broken Hill hospital in 1949, commemorates her.

Select Bibliography

  • A. S. Walker, Middle East and Far East (Canb, 1953)
  • L. Wigmore, The Japanese Thrust (Canb, 1957)
  • A. S. Walker, Medical Services of the R.A.N. and R.A.A.F. (Canb, 1961)
  • L. Ramsay Silver, Angels of Mercy: far west, far east (Crookwell, NSW, 2019)
  • Barrier Miner, 10 Oct 1949
  • T. Lawrence, 2017, Vivian Bullwinkel, the Bangka Island massacre and the guilt of the survivor (retrieved,10040) accessed June 2021
  • AWM 52, item 11/2/13, AWM 54, item 1010/4/23, AWM 76, item B150, PR87/187 (Australian War Memorial)
  • private information.

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Citation details

Julie Gorrell, 'Drummond, Irene Melville (1905–1942)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 18 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (Melbourne University Press), 1996

View the front pages for Volume 14

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