Remembering 1942: HMAS Armidale
1 December 2002
Presented by Ian Hodges on Sunday, 1 December 2002 beside the Roll of Honour at the Memorial.
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.
The first one hit just near the messdeck, killing more than half of the Netherlands East Indies troops and wounding many of the rest. Already the Armidale was taking on water but as she was sinking one man scrambled up the listing deck, strapped himself to an oerlikon gun and began firing at the planes. He hit two - but Armidale was sinking fast. As the deck disappeared below the tracers could still be seen rising from the gun as the ship went down. The gunner was Teddy Sheean, an 18 year old Ordinary Seaman, who some of the crew think should have been awarded the VC. He is commemorated here on the Roll of Honour and in a famous painting in the Memorial's Second World War gallery.
Armidale sank within three minutes of the first torpedo hitting, but for the next twenty minutes the planes flew back and forth over the scene machine-gunning the men in the water.
When they were able to take stock, it turned out that of the 149 men aboard, 102 had survived the sinking. The good swimmers gathered flotsam and it was lashed together to make a raft, held afloat by some drums and a couple of orapiza floats. The survivors also had a carley float and a motorboat. Later that afternoon someone noticed a ripple on the ocean surface and a few men swum over to investigate. They found Armidale's damaged whaler, floating about a metre under water. They tied it to floats and lashed it to the raft for men to stand in.
They were now congregated in one place, the wounded in the motorboat, the others taking turns on the raft and in the carley float. Some of the crew were already looking forward to their survivor's leave and Christmas at home. Captain Richards also expected that rescue would come quickly – but by the next afternoon he had to accept that it wouldn't. He guessed that no one even knew that the Armidale had been sunk. Without help some of the wounded would die, some already had, and Richards knew that the only hope for everyone was for him to take the motorboat and try to reach the Australian reconnaissance area where they might be spotted. They were 250 kilometres from the area regularly patrolled by Allied planes and even if the motor would start they only had enough fuel for 160 km's, so he picked some fit men to row and set off, there were 22 men in motorboat when they set out, 2 died on the journey.
On the raft the men continued to fend off the sharks and sea snakes that had plagued them since the sinking. The Netherlands East Indies troops, unable to speak English and unused to the ocean were reluctant to give up their places in the carley float and take their turn on the raft. Their officers were armed, so were some of the soldiers and things began to look ugly. The Australians, unarmed and on the raft decided to give up the carley float – and the two groups drifted apart.
As the days passed the coral dust in the water infected every small scratch, the men's skin was raw and every contact was painful. Tempers flared and subsided just as quickly and the raft, which was more like a large floating platform, kept breaking up and needing repair.
Four days after the sinking the Australians decided to try and float the whaler. It looked an impossible task – but there was nothing to lose, at least then they could take turns at getting out of the water. It would be difficult enough for fit men to float a waterlogged 27 metre long boat in the middle of the ocean - but these men had already been in the sea with almost no food or water for four days. Still, they set to work and after hours of effort they succeeded, but the whaler would not stay afloat without constant bailing.
Now the survivors were slightly better off, at least they could stand in the whaler- but they were still adrift at sea, hundreds of kilometres from safety and with dwindling hopes of rescue. Five days after the sinking and three days after Richards had set off in the motorboat it looked to the men on the raft as if he hadn't made it. The senior officer on the raft, Lieutenant Lloyd Palmer, had a difficult decision to make, the whaler offered a slim chance of salvation if it could be rowed into Australian waters and found – then they might all be rescued. Success seemed unlikely, but there were no other options. So Palmer picked 28 men to join him on the whaler. Two of them he judged to be in danger of breaking down if they were left behind, the rest he choose for their ability to row.
The others were left behind on the raft, it was a difficult parting – some men cried and some of the survivors still find it difficult to discuss. No one knew if they would ever see each other again.
On the whaler they took turns rowing, resting and baling. They were all almost naked and their backsides were red raw from the movement involved in rowing. They had a bottle of water and a little bully beef between them. But it was water, not food that they craved. Thirst drove them to the brink, some hallucinated and tried to leave the boat, some drank their own urine. They rowed for two days, the whaler always threatening to break up under the strain. Then it rained, the grateful men collected what water they could, even licking it off their mate's backs, they didn't care as long as they got to drink their fill.
The water gave them a little more strength – they kept rowing, but they were weakening fast. Shortly after the rain had passed someone heard an aeroplane – then a Catalina flew into sight, disappeared and then came back – right over them. It dropped a message saying that Richards was safe, that they'd found the raft and that a ship would be sent to pick them up.
When HMAS Kalgoorlie reached them the next afternoon the exhausted crew of the whaler found the strength to climb the scrambling nets but their legs turned to jelly when they touched the deck. When Kalgoorlie's crew tried to lift the whaler out of the sea, the small boat disintegrated. Then the survivors were taken below deck to showers and food.
Back in Darwin they were reunited with Richards and the survivors from the motorboat. The raft had been spotted by the same Catalina that found the whaler, but the sea was too rough for a landing and all that remains of that encounter is a grainy photo showing the men on the raft waving. There were extensive air and sea searches, but the raft and carley float were never seen again.
Armidale had only been commissioned 173 days before she was sunk – her role in the war was small and by the standards of the Second World War this was not an extraordinary episode – but for those who survived, the experience stayed with them for the rest of their lives. Sadly many who were on board did not survive and today we remember not only those whose names appear here on the Roll of Honour, but also the Javanese and Dutch soldiers who died when the Armidale was sunk.