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Close to the entrance to Ladywell cemetery, amidst the tangle of summer undergrowth lies the Sprenger family headstone, on the base is inscribed 'Olga Sprenger lost at sea, Singapore, February 1942. The daughter of Oliver and Charlotte Sprenger ( both buried here).'  With the VJ (Victory in Japan) commemorations freshly in mind, it seemed appropriate to also remember how this missionary teacher was caught up in the tumultuous events that surrounded the Japanese Imperial Army's capture of Singapore in February 1942 and the sad fate that befell her and many of the evacuees in their desperate bid for freedom on the steamship, SS Vyner Brooke . Many of those who were lost in the unfolding tragedy were Australian nurses, who had stayed behind to tend many of the wounded soldiers aboard the doomed vessel and whose notorious massacre at the hands of Japanese troops on Bangka Island (Sumatra), only came to light at the end of the conflict in the East in 1945.

SS Vyner Brooke
SS Vyner Brooke, named after the Greenwich born last White Rajah of Sarawak Sir Charles Vyner Brooke


On the evening of 12 February 1942, Vyner Brooke was one the last ships carrying evacuees to leave Singapore. The Vyner Brooke sailed south with 181 passengers embarked, most of them women and children. Among the passengers were the last 65 Australian nurses in Singapore. Throughout the daylight hours of 13 February Vyner Brooke laid up in the lee of a small jungle-covered island, but she was attacked late in the afternoon by a Japanese aircraft, fortunately with no serious casualties. At sunset she made a run for the Bangka Strait, heading for Palembang in Sumatra. Prowling Japanese warships, however, impeded her progress and daylight on February 14th found her dangerously exposed on a flat sea just inside the strait.

Not long after 2 pm Vyner Brooke was attacked by several Japanese aircraft. Despite evasive action, she was crippled by several bombs and within half an hour rolled over and sunk bow first. Approximately 150 survivors eventually made it ashore at Banka Island, after periods of between eight and 65 hours in the water. The island had already been occupied by the Japanese and most of the survivors were taken captive.

However, an awful fate awaited many of those that landed on Radji beach. There, survivors from the Vyner Brooke joined up with another party of civilians and up to 60 Commonwealth servicemen and merchant sailors, who had made it ashore after their own vessels were sunk. After an unsuccessful effort to gain food and assistance from local villagers, a deputation was sent to contact the Japanese, with the aim of having the group taken prisoner. Anticipating this, all but one of the civilian women followed behind. A party of Japanese troops arrived at Radji Beach a few hours later. They shot and bayoneted the males and then forced the 22 Australian nurses and the one British civilian woman who had remained to wade into the sea, then shot them from behind. There were only two survivors - Sister Vivian Bullwinkel, and Private Cecil Kinsley, a British soldier. After hiding in the jungle for several days the pair eventually gave themselves up to the Japanese. Kinsley died a few days later from his wounds, and Bullwinkel spent the rest of the war as an internee.

Of the 65 Australian nurses embarked upon the Vyner Brooke, 12 were killed during the air attack or drowned following the sinking, 21 were murdered on Radji Beach, and 32 became internees, 8 of whom subsequently died before the end of the war.

Who was Gladys Olga Springer ?

Olga is commemorated on the CWGC website as a civilian who died in the sinking of the SS. Vyner Brooke on 14.2.42  – She was the headmistress of St Marys Girls School, Kuala Lumpur and in 1938 travelled back to Singapore from Southampton on the ‘Dempo’. There is no other record of her during the intervening years up until the Japanese invasion, but then she appears in a most poignant newspaper advertisement in Singapore, just two weeks before Singapore fell,  asking for a “ ... European lady willing to look after 11 year old English girl on the voyage to England. Miss O. Sprenger, CEMZ School, Sophia Road,  where it is assumed she had transferred to as a missionary during the years prior to the war or had sought accommodation or employment after the evacuation of Kuala Lumpur. CEMZ School was initially named the Chinese Girls School in Singapore, a school specifically established for those abandoned or enslaved Chinese girls who were being sold as servants, it later became known as the Church Of England Zenana Missionary school and is now St Margaret’s Secondary School. It was clear that Olga was working as a missionary by the time of the Japanese invasion because she is mentioned a post war publication by the Anglican church 'The War and After: Singapore' by John Hayter and Jack Benitt, priests of the diocese. Several of the women missionaries left only a few days before the surrender, amongst them Evelyn Simmonds and Olga Sprenger, of whom nothing has been heard since they left Singapore ...”  ... Miss Olga Sprenger, Pudu English School , KL, believed drowned . Miss Gladys Olga Sprenger, Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, Malaya, died on or about 14.2.42 in the vicinity of the Bangka Straits following the sinking of the “SS. Vyner Brooke”

Poignant eye witness account of Olga Sprenger's final moments - courtesy of Jonathan Moffatt.
Poignant eye witness account of Olga's final moments - courtesy of Jonathan Moffatt.

Elsie, Oliver, Charlotte & Olga Sprenger, Lewisham October 1918. Photo : Courtesy of Howard Sprenger.

Footnote -

Readers might be interested in another local connection to the tragic sinking.

A memoir of Lt A J Mann, 2nd Mate of SS Vyner Brooke. A personal account of his escape from Singapore, the loss of his ship, and his subsequent flight through the Dutch East Indies.  Arthur John Mann ( d.1959 ) was born in New Cross in 1904 and his memoir  'One Jump Ahead - Escape on the Vyner Brooke' has now been been published (2020) by Harry Nicholson.