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Edward Willis

The 'Armidale' Tragedy and Heroic Teddy Sheean

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75 YEARS ON

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THE ARMIDALE TRAGEDY AND HEROIC TEDDY SHEEAN

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On 1 December commemoration services will be held in several locations around Australia to recognise the 75th anniversary of the sinking of the corvette Armidale by Japanese aircraft and the heroic efforts of Able Seaman Teddy Sheean to defend his shipmates as the ship went down. [1] The sinking of the Armidale, the tragic loss of lives that followed and other dramatic associated events involving the little ship Kuru and the sister corvette Castlemaine were brought about by the first attempt to evacuate the No. 2 Independent Company from Portuguese Timor.

Cyril Ayris recounted the story of what happened in his history of the 2/2, All the Bull’s men [2]:

40 EMOTIONAL FAREWELL

[During November 1942] it was decided in Australia to evacuate the 2/2nd, Dutch and some Portuguese from Timor, leaving the 2/4th to take over.  The 2/2nd had been there more than eleven months and was utterly exhausted.

Callinan’s orders were that the evacuation was to be in two phases: First the Dutch and Portuguese, then the Australians.  The timing for the departure of the Dutch and Portuguese appears to have been left to his discretion, as was the pick-up point and all other arrangements.

Three ships would take them off – the little Kuru and the corvettes HMAS Castlemaine and HMAS Armidale.  The corvettes would also be landing a new Dutch detachment to replace those being evacuated with the Australians.

The Australian Navy’s contribution to supplying and later evacuating the men in Timor culminated in one of the great naval dramas of the war in that part of the world.

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HMAS Armidale at sea.  Note the location of the aft Oerlikon gun situated behind the mainmast [3]

The story started when the Castlemaine and Armidale left Darwin on 1 December 1942 to start the evacuation.  Kuru had left earlier with orders to rendezvous at Betano.  Lt-Cdr P.J. Sullivan, who was commanding Castlemaine, was the senior officer.  Lt-Cdr D. H. Richards was in command of Armidale.

It was hoped that the ships would complete the evacuation without being discovered, though the odds were slim given the enemy’s air and naval superiority.

The morning after the two corvettes sailed, nightmare turned to reality when both ships were spotted by an enemy reconnaissance plane when they were still two hundred kilometres from their destination.  The aircraft dropped several bombs, all of them missing, before heading back to Dili.

Knowing the planes would be back, the corvettes changed course but were soon picked up by two formations of enemy aircraft, which immediately launched bombing and strafing attacks.  Sullivan radioed for help and when several Beaufighters arrived from Darwin the enemy planes flew back to Dili.  Neither ship had been damaged.  These actions delayed the corvettes’ arrival in Betano.

Kuru arrived at Betano and was boarded by about seventy Portuguese and Dutch evacuees, mainly women and children.  Baffled by the non-appearance of the corvettes, however, Lt J.A. Grant – Kuru’s Commander – notified Darwin and left at 2 a.m.  He was ordered to stay in the general area and to complete the evacuation the following night when the corvettes arrived.  Kalgoorlie was sent from Darwin to lend support.

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Armidale sinking reference, Royal Australian Navy memorial globe, HMAS Shropshire Naval Memorial Park, Ulverstone, Tasmania

Sullivan sailed into Betano Bay at 3.30 a.m. with Castlemaine and Armidale.  When he saw that Kuru had left he turned the two ships about and headed south at full speed.  By daybreak they were 120 kilometres off Timor – where they rendezvoused with Kuru.  Castlemaine took aboard the refugees and headed for Darwin leaving Kuru and Armidale to return to Timor to pick up the rest of the refugees.

The Japanese meanwhile had spent the night preparing their attack against the three ships.  Every available aircraft was loaded with bombs and two cruisers were sent racing to the area.  Armidale and Kuru split up but by midday both ships had been spotted by searching aircraft.

Armidale opened fire with every gun she had as enemy planes dived on her, releasing bombs and torpedoes and strafing her with machine gun fire.  Her gunners shot down a bomber and fighter but she received direct hits from two torpedoes.  Armidale rolled over and sank with Ordinary Seaman E. Sheean strapped to his Oerlikon gun, still firing at diving planes.  Sheean, who had shot down the bomber, was posthumously Mentioned in Dispatches. [4]

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Left: Ordinary Seaman Edward 'Teddy' Sheean.  Right: Painting depicting Teddy Sheean strapped to Armidale's aft Oerlikon anti-aircraft gun firing at Japanese bombers. [5]

Among those on board were the crew of eighty-three, three AIF men, two Dutch army officers and sixty-one of their Indonesian soldiers.  The engineer officer, nine ratings and thirty-seven Dutch East Indies troops went down with the ship.  The ship’s lifeboat was freed but those who reached it were machine gunned by the Japanese aircraft.  Only a handful survived; they were left in the water clinging to whatever they could find.

In Timor, nobody knew of the attacks on the corvettes.  The major concern for the Australians was that the Dutch reinforcements had not arrived, meaning that their front line had some serious gaps.  The remaining Dutch and Portuguese who were to be evacuated were still in Betano though this was not seen as a serious problem – they could always be taken off with the 2/2nd in phase two of the evacuation.

The various 2/2nd platoons began moving towards the beach head, without their packs, while the 2/4th settled in to the areas they were to defend.

Kuru meanwhile had become the centre of attention for other enemy aircraft which were harassing her mercilessly.  Grant, the commander, evaded the attacks by lying on his back on the deck from where he could see the diving aircraft, and shouting “hard port” or “hard starboard” to the helmsman.  Kuru zigzagged first one way then the other making it impossible for the pilots to get a bead on her.  Bombs, torpedoes and bullets boiled the sea but Kuru evaded all of them, twisting, turning and circling like a gazelle with a lion on its tail.

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Armidale track [6]

The attack lasted seven hours, in which time forty-four aircraft dropped two hundred bombs, every one of them missing their mark.  When night fell, Kuru was ordered to return to Australia.  The little ship metaphorically shook herself, turned about, and majestically headed south.

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This pocket compass was used by Lieutenant Lloyd Palmer to navigate ‘Armidale's’ whaler toward the Australian coast. [7]

The Armidale survivors spent the next twenty-four hours in the water, helping the wounded and cobbling together a raft out of two floats and pieces of wreckage.  Nearby was the ship’s submerged whaler.  When the raft was finished, some scrambled onto it.  Lt-Cdr Richards crammed twenty men into a disabled, five-metre lifeboat and set a course for Darwin, 450 kilometres away.  They were picked up four days later by Kalgoorlie.  Two men had died on the voyage and another two perished before reaching port.

Meanwhile, those who took to the raft soon found themselves being circled by sharks.  They kept themselves alive with one sip of water a day and a teaspoon of bully beef.  On the third day, they managed to work the raft under the stern of the submerged whaler, lifting it high enough from the water for it to be baled with tin hats.  It was then partially repaired by stuffing canvas into holes in the vessel’s sides.

With the situation becoming more desperate by the hour, a gunnery officer decided to make an attempt to reach Darwin in the whaler, taking twenty-five ratings and three Australian soldiers.  His reasoning was that the closer they could get to the coast, the better the chance of being spotted from the air by an Australian aircraft.  The twenty-eight were selected and the overloaded whaler slowly pulled away, leaving twenty-eight of the ship’s company and twenty-one Dutch native troops clinging to the raft under the command of Sub-Lt J.R. Buckland RANVR.

Those in the whaler had five dinghy oars, one whaler oar and a boat hook stave.  There was no rudder, no sails and their only navigation aid was a pocket compass.  They rowed in four watches, half an hour rowing and one- and-a-half hours resting.

On their second day, the twenty-nine men shared a 340-gram tin of bully beef.  The rainstorms which usually lashed the area at that time of the year did not appear, leaving them without water.  Some of the men became delirious.

One week after their ship was sunk they ate the last of their bully beef.  Later in the day a rain squall appeared enabling them to catch a little water.  Hours later they were found by a Catalina that circled low and dropped a note, saying that the raft had been found and that they had dropped them all their food.  A ship would be sent to rescue those on the raft and in the whaler.

Next day the whaler was found by Kalgoorlie.  The men had rowed 230 kilometres in three days.

HMAS Vigilant, under Sub-Lt Bennett, was sent out to find the raft party.  By this time the area was being patrolled by enemy cruisers, submarines and aircraft.  Nevertheless, Vigilant spent five days searching until the ship developed engine trouble and had to return.  Neither the raft nor the fifty survivors were seen again.  A total of ninety-eight of the 149 men on Armidale had died.

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A Catalina flying boat was despatched from Cairns to pick up these survivors.  She reached the area on the afternoon of 8 December 1942.  One of the Catalina aircrew took this picture however, the aircraft was unable to land because of the rough sea state.  Despite exhaustive air and sea searches and the rescuing of other survivors, these pictured survivors were never seen again after the Catalina departed from the area. [8]

 

REFERENCES

[1]

See for example, ‘Last Post Ceremony: 75th anniversary of the sinking of the HMAS Armidale’ | The Australian War Memorial

https://www.awm.gov.au/visit/events/lpc-armidale

[2]

Cyril Ayris. - All the Bull's men: no. 2 Australian Independent Company (2/2nd Commando Squadron). – Perth: 2/2nd Commando Association, c2006: Chapter 40 ‘Emotional farewell’ pp.366-370.

[3]

HMAS Armidale (I) http://www.navy.gov.au/hmas-armidale-i

[4]

There is an ongoing campaign to get Teddy Sheean awarded a posthumous VC; see, for example, Tom Lewis. - Honour denied Teddy Sheean, a Tasmanian Hero ... and other brave warriors of the Royal Australian Navy. – Kent Town, SA: Avonmore Books, 2016.

[5]

AWM ART28160 by Dale Marsh https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/C172710?image=1

[6]

HMAS Armidale (I) http://www.navy.gov.au/hmas-armidale-i

[7]

AWM REL/04501 https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/C110553

 

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