HMAS Armidale, Teddy Sheean, and the sailors who disappeared
At about 3:15pm on Tuesday December 1, 1942, HMAS Armidale slid beneath the sea off Timor. Many men died in a Japanese air attack, and others as she sank. Several more would perish before rescue, and the actions of another would start a long-running attempt to have him awarded a Victoria Cross.
Two RAN corvettes, Castlemaine and Armidale, left Darwin for Betano in Timor in support of the allied forces holding out against the Japanese. They carried reinforcements and were authorised to take off civilians for return to Darwin. Another vessel, the shallow draughted, 76-foot wooden-hulled HMAS Kuru, was an important part of the planned inshore operation. Smaller and slower, she left Darwin the day before.
Steaming towards Timor, the two corvettes came under attack from Japanese bombers and, although no damage resulted, the concern was raised about how much jeopardy they might now face. The Japanese knew where they were, and their heading. A decision was made in Darwin for them to proceed.
Further problems arose with Kuru slowed by bad weather and heavy seas. In the event, when the three ships did rendezvous, they came under further attack from enemy bombers and fighters. Kuru managed to take cover in a rain squall while Castlemaine and Armidale defended themselves vigorously. A series of four attacks ensued, during which the two ships were separated. During the fourth attack, at around 3:10pm, Armidale was struck on the port side by a torpedo.
Captain Richards gave the command to abandon ship. Personnel cut away rafts and managed to launch the motorboat and whaler. Even as the ship sank, Japanese aircraft continued to drop bombs and strafe survivors. A second torpedo struck the ship to starboard; she was now sinking rapidly.
In an act of extraordinary heroism, the already wounded ordinary seaman Teddy Sheean, an 18-year-old from Latrobe in Tasmania strapped himself to the ship’s Oerlikon anti-aircraft gun. He began firing the weapon, damaging at least one aircraft that was seen to crash into the sea about a quarter mile distant. He continued to fire, even as he, the gun, and the ship slipped away under the stormy surface.
Teddy Sheean was Mentioned in Dispatches, but for many years past there has been an active campaign for him to be awarded the ultimate recognition of individual courage, the Victoria Cross. No member of the Royal Australian Navy has ever received this signal honour, simply embossed For Valour. Teddy’s main recognition has been in the naming of one of Australia’s six Collins-class submarines HMAS Sheean. He is the only ordinary seaman in RAN history to achieve such distinction.
Following the attack and the sinking, during which some 60 men perished, the remaining survivors in a motor boat with a damaged engine, a whaler and a raft attempted to row back towards Australia. On managing to start the engine, a rope to the raft was cut and Captain Richards, with another 21 men made an attempt to speed up the process, but without success. There was petrol enough for only 100 miles.
Meanwhile, a Catalina flying boat was despatched, hoping to land on the open sea — an ever risky procedure — but the surface was too rough. They photographed the raft with its 29 occupants from the air but the next day, even though the men in the motor boat and the whaler were rescued by HMAS Kalgoorlie, no trace was ever found of the raft and its human cargo. They had simply floated away
Friday, December 1 marked the 75th anniversary of the sinking and is a time to remember all those brave people, especially a lad named Teddy whose right it should be to have the Victoria Cross posthumously awarded. It would be a fitting tribute to all.
Lest we forget.