• 4th Battalion Parade Ground Cemetery, Gallipoli

  • Menin Gate Last Post, Ypres

  • Rhododendron Ridge, Gallipoli

  • Tyne Cot, Belgium

  • Villers-Bretonneux, France

Ordeal at Sea – The Loss of HMAS Armidale

For those who make the connection, the sinking of HMAS Armidale on 1 December 1942 is primarily remembered for the selfless heroism of a young Ordinary Seaman from Tasmania. However, the subsequent ordeal of the survivors as they hoped for rescue is an overlooked story of survival at sea.

HMAS Armidale was one of sixty Bathurst class corvettes constructed in Australian shipyards during World War 2. At 650 tons and a length of 186 feet, the ships were initially intended for anti-submarine and mine countermeasures roles. However, operational requirements saw them employed on a variety of other tasks including convoy escort, troop transport, support to amphibious landings and hydrographic survey.

After commissioning on 11 June 1942, Armidale was employed on escort duties with coastal and New Guinea convoys until November, when she joined the 24th Minesweeping Flotilla at Darwin. On 29 November Armidale and another corvette, HMAS Castlemaine, sailed for Betano Bay in Japanese - occupied Timor to deliver a relief contingent of Royal Netherlands East Indies Army troops and to evacuate Australian troops and Portuguese civilians. They were to rendezvous with the smaller patrol vessel HMAS Kuru which would carry out the ship-to-shore transfer of personnel.

The sailing was observed by Japanese reconnaissance aircraft and the ships survived three air attacks before arriving off Betano Bay early on 1 December. Failing to find either Kuru, or the friendly forces ashore, both ships made for the open sea before daylight. At 8.00 am Kuru was sighted, making for Darwin with 70 civilian evacuees. As Armidale was still carrying the relief troop contingent, the civilians were transferred to Castlemaine for passage to Darwin, while Armidale and Kuru were ordered back to Betano Bay for a second attempt to land the troops that night.

At 3.15 pm on 1 December, Armidale was attacked by a group of thirteen Japanese aircraft, approaching from different directions to split the ship’s fire. Two torpedoes struck the ship in quick succession and she began to sink. Ordinary Seaman Edward “Teddy” Sheean, crewing one of the Oerlikon anti-aircraft guns, although wounded while preparing to abandon ship returned to his gun and, strapping himself into the gunner’s harness, engaged the aircraft which were now strafing men in the water. Despite the ship sinking quickly under him, Sheean continued to fire at the enemy aircraft, survivors recalling that tracer rounds could be seen rising from under the sea surface.

With the ship gone the ordeal of the survivors began. Of the 149 crew and troops aboard Armidale at the time of the attack, 99 were now in the sea with only the damaged ship’s motor boat, a waterlogged whaler, a Carley float and a makeshift raft to sustain them. On 2 December the ship’s Captain set out for Australia with six men and the wounded in the motor boat. Rowing most of the way because of damage to the engine, they were sighted by aircraft and picked up by HMAS Kalgoorlie on 5 December. Meanwhile, at the site of the sinking, the whaler had been made relatively seaworthy and, with no sign of rescue, it was decided that it should be used in another attempt to reach help.

On 5 December the whaler with 29 men aboard set out, leaving the remaining survivors on the Carley float and raft. Rowing continuously, with the men divided into four watches and with limited assistance from a makeshift sail, the party struggled towards land. With almost no food and relying on collected rainwater for drinking, the whaler was sighted by an Australian flying boat searching the area on 8 December. Food and water were dropped to the whaler and at 5.00 pm on 9 December Kalgoorlie picked up the party. The final, sad note to the drama was that despite twice being located by air and resupplied, the 48 men on the Carley float and raft were never seen again.

HMAS Armidale is commemorated in the new Armidale class patrol boats of the RAN. Teddy Sheean was Mentioned in Dispatches for his actions. In 1999 the sixth of the Collins class submarines, HMAS Sheean, was named in his honour; the only RAN vessel to be named after an ordinary seaman.

Article written by Rod Margetts - who is a battlefield tour guide for Boronia Travel Centre.

Image Top Left: The corvette HMAS Armidale at Port Moresby in September 1942. At the time of its loss, Armidale had been in service for only six months.

Image Bottom Right: A painting in the Australian War Memorial in Canberra, depicting Ordinary Seaman Edward (Ted) Sheean on the sinking HMAS Armidale, shooting at attacking Japanese aircraft during World War II.
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