Teddy Sheean Victoria Cross honour reminds us of courage of crew of HMAS Armidale

This week’s announcement by the Prime Minster Scott Morrison to award WWII hero Teddy Sheean the highest military honour the Victoria Cross is long overdue and very close to the heart of the inhabitants of the city of Armidale.

The link to the city and the courageous crew of the HMAS Armidale is in name only but whose heroics have been honoured by the city annually and with a commemorative memorial in Armidale’s Central Park for the past 82 years.

This is an opportunity to remind our city of the story of the sinking of the HMAS Armidale off the coast of Timor in 1942, the extraordinary survival at sea of 49 survivors and in particular the heroic actions of the already wounded Ordinary Seaman Teddy Sheean, an ­­18-year old from Latrobe in Tasmania.

Armidale was fortunate to be one of the cities and towns to be honoured when the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) Corvettes were commissioned. 53 of these vessels saw combat zones during the Second World War. HMAS Armidale was built at Mort’s Dock in Sydney and launched on 23 January 1942. She was ordered to convoy duties along the east coast of Australia when the threat of Japanese submarines was apparent. Later she was stationed only a few weeks in Darwin before ordered to sail on 30 November 1942 to Betano Bay in Timor to evacuate 2/2 Independent Company, Australian Imperial Force and a number of Portuguese civilians holding up against the Japanese. On board HMAS Armidale were 83 crew, three Australian soldiers, two Dutch army officers and 61 native soldiers of the Netherlands East Indies (NEI) army.

Below is an extract of text from an address given by Kevin Smith to a meeting of the Armidale and District Historical Society at Kent House on 18 March 2003.

On 30 November 1942, as she proceeded towards Betano Bay, Armidale was attacked by an enemy bomber and then by formations of nine or ten bombers. She fought back strongly and suffered neither damage nor casualties. Reaching her destination at Betano Bay, Armidale could locate no signal fires as had been arranged. She withdrew out to sea, trying again the next night to land the Netherland East Indies Troops.

Early next morning on 1 December, in the Arafura Sea Armidale came under persistent air attack again 110 kms off the coast of Timor. There were twelve enemy aircraft, nine torpedo bombers, three zero fighters and a float plane apparently observing close by. It was approx. 3.15pm when the ship was hit by two torpedoes, both on the port side. The first exploded just forward of the bridge. The second explosion was between the engine room and the boiler. Armidale settled rapidly in the water as the order was given to ‘Abandon ship’!

One enemy bomber and one fighter had been shot down during the lengthy attacks. In the water some of the Armidale’s survivors were strafed and killed by the Japanese aircraft.

Seeing the plight of his shipmates eighteen year old Ordinary Seaman Teddy Sheean, scrambled to reach the aft Oerlikon anti-aircraft gun ignoring the order to abandon ship. He had been helping to ready the ship’s motorboat for launching. He strapped himself into the gun’s firing position as the ship was rapidly sinking. It took only three minutes to go down. Single-handedly he took on the attacking aircraft, bringing down one of them and damaging two others. Bullets slashed open his chest and his back. As Armidale settled beneath waves the Oerlikon was seen to be still firing.

The surviving sailors and soldiers endured further Japanese attacks. For days on end they suffered from the tropical sun, sea snakes and sharks, hunger, thirst, their wounds and the cruel sea. Those on a raft became separated from the others and were never seen again. Those in the whaler lifeboat were rescued after nine days, those in the ship’s motor boat after six days. This was one of the greatest sea survival dramas of World War II. Out of a total of 149 soldiers and sailors there were just forty-nine survivors.

Perhaps the courage of Teddy Sheean is the more dramatic and better known part of the story of HMAS Armidale. Certainly we applaud the naming of a Collins Class submarine as HMAS Sheean. However there is more to the story than Sheean’s magnificent self-sacrifice.

Further historical information on the heroic story of the crew of HMAS Armidale is available through the Armidale and District Historical Society located at Dumaresq Chambers, 114 Faulkner Street, Armidale. It is staffed by volunteers who endeavour to open Monday to Friday, 9am to 4-pm.

Thank you to the Armidale and District Historical Society for their assistance in providing historical information for this article.

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