Originally presented by Ian Hodges on Sunday, 1 December 2002 beside the Roll of Honour at the Memorial, as part of the Roll of Honour Talks series.
Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen and welcome to the Australian War Memorial. My name is Ian Hodges and I am an historian in the Memorial's military history section. This is one of a series of Roll of Honour talks to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the events of 1942 and this afternoon I will be speaking about what happened to the men who were on board the corvette, HMAS Armidale when she was sunk off Timor on 1 December that year.
Armidale was one of many Allied naval vessels involved in the resupply and reinforcement of the troops fighting on Timor. On this, her first operation to Timor she was to land 61Netherlands East Indies troops and their two Dutch officers at Betano Bay and evacuate other soldiers from Timor to Darwin.
The plan was for two corvettes, Armidale and HMAS Castlemaine, to sail to Betano Bay and rendezvous with HMAS Kuru. Kuru was to embark the troops and a group of Portuguese refugees and ferry them to Armidale and Castlemaine, all three ships were then to return to Darwin.
When Armidale and Castlemaine left Darwin shortly after midnight on the 29th of November 1942, Armidale was crowded with its own crew of 83, 3 AIF bren gunners and the Dutch and Netherlands East Indies soldiers. The slower Kuru had left Darwin the previous night. Early the next morning the corvettes were seen by Japanese airmen. Once they'd been spotted Castlemaine's captain, the operation's senior officer, Lieutenant Commander P.J. Sullivan radioed Darwin requesting that the operation be postponed. There was nowhere other than Timor that they could be going and there was at least ten hours of daylight between them and their destination. Japanese aircraft based on Timor would have ample opportunity to try and sink the two ships.
The request was refused and the operation continued. The corvettes came under attack three times that day, but reached Betano unscathed. When they sailed into the bay, hours later than scheduled, there was no sign of Kuru, and no movement on the beach. Neither ships' captain knew that Kuru had already been to Betano, embarked the refugees and headed back to open sea.
With dawn only a few hours away Sullivan was also keen to put as much distance between his ships and the island as he could before sunrise. Shortly after daybreak the two ships found Kuru about 100 kilometres off-shore. The refugees were transferred from Kuru to Castlemaine. Kuru had already been ordered to return to Betano and complete the operation and Armidale was now expected to do the same. Castlemaine, crowded with civilians was to return to Darwin.
The three ships were still together when they were spotted by Japanese aircraft. Kuru moved away to seek cover in a rain squall and Castlemaine turned for Darwin. Armidale's captain, Lieutenant Commander David Richards reluctantly prepared to go back to Betano. But first he would have to survive almost an entire day in enemy waters a few minutes flying time from Japanese air bases. He requested air cover and was assured he would get it. The crew, most of whom believed themselves doomed, remained at their action stations.
The first attack came at around 1.00pm, Armidale managed to avoid the Japanese bombs and she survived. But at around three, 13 Japanese planes began circling beyond the range of Armidale's guns. They circled for about 20 minutes, then split up into groups and attacked from four directions at once. Armidale's gunners were overwhelmed and this time the Japanese attacked with torpedoes, rather than bombs.