Remembering 1942 - 2002 History Conference

HMAS Armidale 1942
Ian Hodges

Some of the speakers at this conference will be talking about matters of great strategic moment, of pivotal battles and campaigns, of generalship and the broad directions that the war took in 1942. I'm going to take a narrower view and talk about what happened to the men who were on HMAS Armidale when she was sunk in the Timor Sea 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. Her orders were to land 61 Netherlands East Indies (NEI) troops and their two Dutch officers at Betano Bay and to evacuate other soldiers from Timor to Darwin.

The plan was for the two corvettes, Armidale and HMAS Castlemaine, to sail to Betano Bay and rendezvous with HMAS Kuru, a small former Northern Territory Patrol boat. Kuru was to embark the troops and a group of Portuguese refugees, and ferry them to Adelaide and Castlemaine; all three ships were then to return to Darwin. Castlemaine had already made one trip to Timor; Kuru had made nine; it was Armidale's first.

This was one of hundreds of small wartime operations that in themselves have relatively minor importance - its success or failure had little impact on the broader Timor strategy and it was almost inconsequential in the course of the war. But for the people who survived Armidale's sinking, the first week of December 1942 was the most terrible, and memorable, of their lives.

When Armidale and Castlemaine left Darwin shortly after midnight on 29 November 1942, Armidale was crowded with its own crew of 83, 3 AIF Bren gunners, and the Dutch and NEI 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, and 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 were 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 Naval Officer in Command in Darwin, Commodore Cuthbert Pope, signalled that the risk had to be accepted and the operation continued. The corvettes came under attack three times that day: one was driven off by fighters from Darwin and during the other two attacks the ships had to dodge the bombs and machine-guns without aerial support. Both ships reached Betano unscathed, but the attacks had delayed them by several hours. When they sailed into the bay, there was no sign of Kuru, and no movement on the beach. Neither ship's 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. 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 couldn't go back; Sullivan had the refugees on board and his orders were 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 just 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 1.00 pm. Armidale managed to avoid the Japanese bombs and she survived. But at around three the crew confronted a much more menacing situation. This time 13 Japanese planes circled beyond the range of Armidale's guns. Richards sent out a last desperate plea for air support and the crew braced themselves. The planes circled for about 20 minutes, and then they 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 mess deck, killing more than half of the NEI troops and wounding many of the rest. Already, the Armidale was taking on water. The blast blew Wireman Bill Lamshed right off the deck and into the sea - swimming in Armidale's wake, he watched her struggle on for a few hundred yards before a second torpedo tore the ship in half. Stoker Ray Raymond reckons it must have been his lucky day: he had jumped overboard and the second torpedo passed right under him before hitting the ship. He still remembers that it was painted red and green.

Bill Lamshed was safe for the moment - a few hundred metres from where the Armidale was sinking, he watched as one man scrambled up the listing deck, strapped himself to an Oerlikon gun and began firing at the planes. He hit one and it crashed into the sea about half a mile from Lamshed; then he hit another and it flew off trailing smoke. But Armidale was sinking fast, and, as the deck disappeared below the surface, Lamshed could still see tracers rising from the gun. He learned later that the gunner was Teddy Sheean, an 18-year-old ordinary seaman, who some of the crew think should have been awarded the Victoria Cross for his actions that day. Ray Raymond had seen him too, but he saw a lot of bravery that afternoon and in the days that followed, and he still regards others as equally worthy of recognition.

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. Some men sought safety by diving, others, held afloat by their life jackets, just had to hope. Ordinary Seaman Rex Pullen was in the water, but he reckoned there was no point trying to avoid the bullets - the planes were too close and there was nowhere to hide. They flew away when their ammunition was finished. Hundreds of metres away Bill Lamshed had been a spectator; he watched the strafing and thought that he was the last man left alive. But as he swum for a motorboat that had survived the sinking, he noticed dozens of heads bobbing about in the water.

When they were able to take stock, it turned out that, of the 149 men aboard, 102 had survived the sinking: 73 of the Armidale's crew, the three AIF Bren gunners, two Dutch army officers, and 24 NEI soldiers. One of Armidale's crewmen, Leading Seaman Leigh Bool, had always got his mates to pick up bits of scrap timber from the docks during shore leave and lash them to the ship's railings in case they were ever needed. Now they were and the men were grateful for his foresight. The good swimmers gathered this flotsam and it was lashed together to make a raft, held afloat by some drums and a couple of orapiza floats. They also had a Carley float and the motor boat that Lamshed had seen. 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 motor boat 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 kilometres; so he picked some fit men to row and set off. There were 22 men in the motor boat when they set out; two 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 NEI soldiers, 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 on the raft, decided to give up the Carley float, and so 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, Bool suggested to Lieutenant Lloyd Palmer, Armidale's gunnery officer - now the senior officer on the raft - that they try to get the whaler afloat. 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. The whaler was pushed on to the raft, while as many men as could used their combined weight to keep it submerged. When the whaler was on, everyone jumped off the raft; it floated and lifted the whaler, draining some of the water. The two smallest men in the group leapt in and began bailing with a couple of steel helmets. Eventually, after hours of intense effort, the whaler was afloat. Now they began patching the holes, trying to make the fragile craft more seaworthy; however, she would not stay afloat without constant bailing.

With the whaler afloat, the survivors were slightly better off, 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 motor boat, it looked to the men on the raft as if he hadn't made it. 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. In that case, 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. Those not at work had to lie in the water in the bottom of the boat, careful not to get in the way of the rowers. They were all almost naked and their backsides were red raw from the movement involved in rowing. There wasn't much conversation, with everyone concentrating on simply surviving. 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. Rex Pullen began to wonder if it was possible to survive. Like everyone else, he'd been immersed in salt water for almost week, he was thirsty to the point of despair, and he didn't think they could last another day. Then it rained, and 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 still Pullen thought they wouldn't last much longer. Shortly after the rain had passed, he 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. It was already late in the afternoon and there was no hope of rescue before morning. Palmer ordered the men to stop rowing: he didn't want the small boat to move now they had been seen. No one had to be told twice. Next morning a flight of Hudsons appeared overhead; they dropped food and water, and a note telling them that a corvette would be there in about three hours.

When HMAS Kalgoorlie reached them, 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 motor boat. 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. Palmer, who his men called a wonderful officer and decent man, always wondered whether he had made the right decision and after the war he went back to Timor to see if any of the men on the raft had been in Japanese prison camps. But there was no trace.

Richards had been right: when he set out in the motorboat, no one even knew that Armidale had been sunk. It didn't become obvious that something had happened until three days later, when she failed to respond to calls from Darwin. And although I said at the beginning of this paper that the sinking of the Armidale did not change the broader Timor strategy, it did result in some more immediate changes. Even before the survivors had been picked up, Commodore Pope wrote in his report of the incident that future operations to Timor would be difficult and, in what was in effect an admission of error, concluded that if a ship failed to carry out an operation on the evening planned, she would not be expected to stand off Timor and return the following night. From then on, ships in Armidale's position would return to base and make another attempt later.

As it turned out, this was the last corvette operation to Timor. Subsequent evacuations were carried out by destroyers, until most Australians were taken off the island in January 1943.

Some of the Armidale survivors went back to sea. Bill Lamshed was discharged, re-enlisted and was perhaps the only Australian sailor to be sunk on two corvettes: he was on the Geelong when it went down in 1944 - he survived that too. Both Ray Raymond and Rex Pullen were given shore postings.

Once the loss of Armidale was confirmed, Pope ordered a board of enquiry. It found that Richards and his officers had acted correctly, and that they were in no way responsible for the loss of the ship. Nevertheless, Richards was never given another command.

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, it was not an extraordinary episode. But for those who survived, the experience stayed with them, and for the few that are still alive today the sinking of the Armidale remains a defining moment in their lives.