A brave sailor fought to the
nd trying to save his mates
on the HMAS Armidale

Many partygoers,  mostly men, have broken into song or poem  during a session on  the  singing syrup.

There’s a rhyme that will be known to many of those party-goers; it begins: “The boy stood on the burning deck”. Perhaps needless to say, some rude version of the rest of the verse have been added.

The rhyme was initiated for use at singalongs, but not necessarily to those alluded to above. It  comes from  the poem, Casabianca, written by Felicia Hermans in 1829.

The original verse reads:

“The boy stood on the burning deck
Whence all but he had fled.
The flame that lit the battle’s wreck
Shone round him o’er the dead.”

The poem is significant just as much in the 2sth century as it was almost a couple of centuries ago.

As related by Dr Kevin Smith OAM to members of the Naval Historical Society of Australia in Sydney in April 2017,  the original verse relates to the Battle of the Nile in 1798.

The French flagship L’Orient had seriously  disabled HMS  Bellerophon. In response, a pack of other British vessels moved in to attack L’Orient.

Dr Smith noted: “Amid the wreck and carnage of battle the French admiral’s thirteen-year-old son stood bravely to his post awaiting his father’s permission to leave.  The boy, Louis de Casabianca, died at his post when L’Orient’s magazine exploded.”

Dr Smith recalled that piece of history in his paper about the sinking of an Australian warship, the HMAS Armidale, on 1 December 1942.

He said: “Every Australian schoolboy growing up in the 1920s and 1930s, a century later still, heard about or occasionally even read that poem. Young Edward Sheean growing up amid the green farmlands and forests of Barrington, south of Ulverstone in Tasmania, was one of those who almost certainly would have known the first line of this poem.

Edward (Teddy) Sheean (above), was still in the minds of many Australians for many years after the war into into the 21st Century.

Teddy, just a teenager,  was serving on the HMAS Armidale as it undertook escort duties along the eastern Australian coast and around New Guinea. Both he and the Armidale were lost at the hands of the Japanese.

According to The Australian Defence Force Journal in 2002, the loss of the Armidale was one of the most painful and bitter episodes in the history of Australia’s navy, the RAN.

HMAS Armidale was attempting to evacuate Australian and Dutch soldiers and deliver a relief contingent to Portuguese Timor (now East Timor).

Spotted by Japanese reconnaissance aircraft as they left Darwin, Armidale and  sister ship Castlemaine survived repeated air attacks but reached Betano too late to rendezvous with HMAS Kuru, which had already picked up Portuguese refugees and moved off.

The two corvettes found Kuru 110 km off Timor and the refugees were transferred to HMAS Castlemaine, which then returned to Darwin. Kuru and Armidale were ordered to continue the operation.

Two Japanese torpedoes hit their target, the Armidale, sending her to the bottom. The crew was ordered to abandon ship where they came under further attack.

The survivors, having been strafed by the attacking aircraft, made a makeshift raft.The wounded were put on a small motor boat that had survived the sinking. The rescue they hoped for didn’t happen and the captain and 21 other men (two of whom died) headed for Australian waters in the motor boat, rowing much of the way because the engine was damaged. Two days later, another 29 survivors began the same precarious journey in a salvaged  but damaged whaler that had to be baled regularly.

Some of the crew of HMAS Armidale

The remaining survivors clung to the raft and awaited rescue. The men in the motor boat and whaler were picked up, but the men left on the raft disappeared without trace.

The last sighting of the raft.


The story of Teddy Sheean is one of heroism and a long battle to secure for him a greatly deserved honour for his actions against the odds in the aftermath of the sinking of HMAS Armidale.

Teddy Sheean was given a Mention in Despatches — a badge — for refusing to abandon his gun while Japanese aircraft attacked the ship in December 1942. But supporters believed his bravery warranted a higher award, even the highest.

Classified as an Ordinary Seaman, he was far from that.

Right on 78 years after his death, Teddy Sheean finally got the award, posthumously, that so many had fought hard for him to be given .

On Tuesday 1 December 2020 he became the first Navy sailor to receive a Victoria Cross.

The short story is that Ordinary Seaman Edward Sheean helped launch multiple life rafts, before returning to fire at enemy aircraft despite orders to abandon ship. He kept firing until the Armidale sank, giving others time to escape.

He was killed during the assault.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison  said at the VC presentation that Sheean’s story challenged Australians to live a life of meaning and selflessness.

“To say Teddy Sheean gave his life for his country really doesn’t quite capture the fearless grip he had on it until the very end,” he said.

“Everything he did was deliberate; he was determined to save his ship mates from being stranded in the sea.”

It had appeared the authorities would not buckle to demands for Teddy Sheean to be honoured, even up to just a year before his award was approved. But his supporters fought on and in August 2020, the Queen gave her assent for him to be made Australia’s 101st recipient of the Victoria Cross.

Teddy  Sheean was 18 years old, the youngest member of the crew of HMAS Armidale on patrol off the coast of East Timor when the ship came under heavy attack from 13 Japanese planes.

The Armidale was struck by two torpedoes. The order to abandon ship was given; rafts were cut loose and a motor boat freed.

Up stepped Teddy Sheean. He helped launch a life raft, then disobeyed orders and returned to his gun, strapped himself in and began firing at the Japanese fighter planes – The boy stood on the burning deck whence all but he had fled.

As survivors leapt into the sea, they were machine-gunned by the enemy aircraft.

A survivor, Leading Seaman Leigh Bool recalled: Ratings were trying to get out lifesaving appliances as Jap planes roared just above us, blazing away with cannon and machine guns. Seven or eight of us were on the quarterdeck when we saw another bomber coming from the starboard quarter. It hit us with another torpedo and we were thrown in a heap among the depth charges and racks. We could feel Armidale going beneath us, so we dived over the side and swam about 50 yards astern as fast as we could. Then we stopped swimming and looked back at our old ship. She was sliding under, the stern high in the air, the propellers still turning.

Navy records show that, despite being wounded  in the chest and back, Teddy Sheean managed to shoot down one bomber and keep other planes away from his mates in the water.

The last sighting of Teddy was of him still firing his gun as HMAS Armidale slipped below the waves.

A  painting by Dale March depicting Teddy Sheean’s historic last stand hangs in the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.

The loss of Armidale resulted in a change to RAN policy, preventing minimally armed vessels like the Bathurst-class corvettes travelling into areas of heavy enemy presence while attempting tasks similar to Armidale’s.


Edward ‘Teddy’ Sheean was born on 28 December 1923 at Barrington, Tasmania.  He was the 14th child of  James and Mary Jane (nee  Broomhall).

Teddy was educated at the local Catholic school. He took casual work on farms between Latrobe and Merseylea. In Hobart on 21 April 1941 he enlisted in the Royal Australian Naval Reserve as an ordinary seaman, following in the steps of five of his brothers who had joined the armed forces (four of them were in the army and one in the navy). After initial training, he was sent to Flinders Naval Depot, Westernport, Victoria, in February 1942.

In May Teddy Sheean was posted to Sydney where he was billeted at Garden Island in the requisitioned ferry Kuttabul, before joining his first ship as an Oerlikon anti-aircraft gun-loader.

Commissioning of HMAS Armidale

On home leave, he was not on board Kuttabul when Japanese midget submarines raided the harbour and sank her on 31 May. Eleven days later he returned to Sydney for assignment and  the commissioning of  his ship, the new corvette HMAS. Armidale, which was assigned  to escort duties along the eastern Australian coast and in New Guinea waters. Ordered to sail for Darwin in October, Armidale arrived there early in November. The Armidale and Teddy with her were lost sixth months later.

Teddy Sheean was mentioned in dispatches for his bravery. In 2020 he became Australia’s 101st recipient of the Victoria Cross, the first to be awarded to a member of the RAN. A Collins-class submarine, launched in 1999, was named after him—the only ship in the RAN. to bear the name of an ordinary seaman.

The town of Latrobe, where Teddy Sheean grew up after moving there as a youngster,  installed a memorial plaque in his honour. There is also a plaque in Launceston.


HMAS Armidale (J240), named for the city of Armidale, northern NSW, was one of 60 Bathurst-class corvettes built during World War II, and one of 36 manned and commissioned  by the Royal Australian Navy (RAN).

Launched in early 1942, and initially assigned to convoy escort duties, Armidale was transferred to Darwin in October 1942 under the captain, Lieutenant Commander David Richards.

The corvette was attacked and sunk off Betano Bay  on the south coast of Portuguese Timor just two months later.

Of the complement of 149, 49 were saved.

In 1938, the Australian Commonwealth Naval Board (ACNB) had called for a general purpose ‘local defence vessel’ capable of both anti-submarine and mine-warfare duties. The Board first preferred a displacement of about 500 tons, a speed of at least 10 knots (19 km/h) and a range of 2,000 nautical miles (3,700 km).

Operational needs changed and the Board opted for a 680-ton vessel, with a 15.5 knots (28.7 km/h) top speed, and a range of 2,850 nautical miles (5,280 km), armed with a 4-inch gun, and able to be fitted with either depth charges or minesweeping equipment depending on the planned operations.

Construction of a prototype, HMAS Kangaroo, did not go ahead, but the need for locally built utility vessels for World War II saw the “Australian Minesweepers” (so designated to hide anti-submarine capability, but generally referred to as “corvettes”) approved in September 1939, with 60 constructed during the war: 36 (including Armidale) ordered by the RAN, 20 ordered by the British Admiralty but manned and commissioned as RAN vessels, and 4 for the Royal Indian Navy.

Armidale was laid down by Morts Dock & Engineering Co in Sydney on 1 September 1941. She  was floated on 24 January 1942 and commissioned on 11 June 1942.

The Armidale eventually became a class of its own, with a new HMAS Armidale as the flagship.

The RAN said at he time “HMAS Armidale and her 12 sister Armidale Class Patrol Boats and two Cape Class Patrol Boats are Navy’s principal contribution to the nation’s fisheries protection, immigration, customs and drug law enforcement operations. The vessels work hand-in-hand with other Government agencies as part of the Australian Border Force. In the event of war they would be tasked to control the waters close to the Australian mainland.

Armidale Class Patrol Boats are highly capable and versatile warships which are able to conduct a wide variety of missions and tasks.”

The latest HMAS Armidale, with an aluminium hull, was built by Austal Ships in Fremantle and commissioned in 2005.

With the first of a new class of offshore patrol boats – the Arafura class OPVs – due to join the RAN from late 2021, the Armidale class were being retired progressively.

Though it appears there were no sailors from the city of Armidale aboard the original HMAS Armidale, some of its crew felt an affinity with the town.

One of the survivors wrote to the  Armidale council in January 1943, as recorded in a local newspaper:

“The Armidale Town Clerk, Mr F. W. Milner, has received a letter from Mr S.D. Davies, a survivor of HMAS Armidale addressed from Gloucester. He writes: ‘I was in the second batch of 26 picked up on the ninth day after the sinking of the ship and at present am enjoying several days leave at home. It was a pleasure to serve in the Armidale. We had a good captain, officers and crew and we were sorry to leave the little ship – but not before we gave the Japs a taste of what we were made of. I want to thank you for the comforts we received on the ship and wish you and the people of Armidale a merry Christmas and a bright and happy New Year’.”

HMAS Armidale  bore the crest of the Armidale City Council (above). Ald. E. M. K. Wilson told a council meeting: “The town should be very gratified at the compliment to Armidale. The best thanks of the council should be given to the commander. Local patriotic bodies would be pleased to help with comforts needed by the men of the ship. If he writes to the local branch of the Patriotic Fund we would be pleased to co-operate.”


Sources and references: Australian War Memorial; TROVE archive of newspapers and publicly available reports; N. Watson, “Sheean, Edward (Teddy) (1923–1942)”, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University; and as acknowledged through the text, including Dr Kevin Smith’s paper.











Operation Postmaster was a British operation on the Spanish island of Bioko,  known then as Fernando Po. The objective was to board Axis Italian and German ships in the harbor and sail them to Lagos, destabilising the Axis Forces. British authorities refused to support the raid, considering it a breach of Spanish neutrality. It was left up to the Small Scale Raiding Force (SSRF) and the Special Operations Executive (SOE) to carry out the mission.

Baker Street Irregulars and
a daring plot in Spain

Operation Postmaster was dicey. The plan was to board Italian and German ships in the harbour at  the Spanish port of Fernando Po in the Gulf of Guinea, West Africa, in 1941 and sail them to Lagos.

The British military suspected that the fuel  being pumped into German submarines was being transported to Spanish ports by disguised civilian cargo ships.

The British encountered three suspicious vessels, believed to be using radios to secretly navigate for  German submarines. All three ships were in Spanish territory.

The problem with the British plan: such a raid by Britain could breach Spain’s neutrality in World War II and even drive the Spanish to join the Axis Powers (The “Axis of Evil”), a coalition of Germany, Italy, and Japan fighting the Allied Powers in World War II.

The go-ahead was given by the British Foreign Office against the advice of British officials in the region who believed the operation constituted an act of piracy.

British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain put his name to the paper to establish the SOE: “A new organisation shall be formed forthwith to co-ordinate all action, by way of subversion and sabotage, against the enemy overseas.”

After Cabinet approval SOE officially came into being on 22 July 1940 to conduct espionage, sabotage and reconnaissance in occupied Europe (and later, in Southeast Asia) against the Axis powers and to assist local resistance movements.

  Baker Street

SOE was sometimes referred to as “the Baker Street Irregulars”, after its London HQ. It was also known as “Churchill’s Secret Army” or the “Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare”.

Its various divisions were concealed for security purposes behind names such as the “Joint Technical Board” or the “Inter-Service Research Bureau”, or fictitious branches of the Air Ministry, Admiralty or War Office.

SOE employed or controlled around 13,000 people, including about 3,200 women.

The Small Scale Raiding Force (SSRF) was set up in the early 1940s to carry out raids on the coast of Northern France and the Channel Islands. It was to gather information and take prisoners to be interrogated.

Winston Churchill initiated the “pinprick” raids, believing they would demoralise the German troops stationed along the Channel coast of occupied France.


The SSRF was founded by Major Gus March-Phillipps (above), Major Geoffrey Appleyard and Captain Graham Hayes.

They chose small boats for inshore operations. Members of the force were drawn from The Special Boat Service (SBS), the SOE and nationals from countries including France, Poland, The Netherlands and Czechoslovakia.

  An SSRF force

The SSRF raid was carried out by 11 of its men under the command of Major March-Phillipps, with four men from SOE and 17 local volunteers.

The SSRF left home for the Spanish colony in August 1941 aboard the trawler Maid Honour, from Brixham, for the daring raid on the ships at Fernando Po. In Nigeria, Governo, Sir Bernard Bourdillon  provided the raiders with two tugs.

The aim was to take over an Italian merchant vessel Duchessa d’Aosta (above), a German tug and a barge that had been impounded by the Spanish Government. Britain feared the ships could be used to supply U-boats operating off West Africa.

Reaching the port late at night on 14 January 1942 the commandos used plastic explosives to break the anchor chains.

They overpowered the crews on the three ships and sailed off with them and 29 prisoners to Lagos.

The mission took just 30 minutes from the time the tugs entered the harbour to leaving with the three ships under tow. There was no loss to the raiding party.

The tugs experienced motor problems on the way and a ship was sent from Lagos to complete the mission.

It was reported that to lure the officers away from the ships, SOE agent Richard Lippett who had taken a job with a British shipping company with an office on the island, and Spanish “friends” threw a party and invited officers from the impounded ships. It was also reported that the officers were offered free use of the island’s brothel.

The operation was a triumph for SOE.  The Spanish were furious. Foreign Minister Serrano Suner said of the operation: “It was an intolerable attack on our sovereignty; no Spaniard can fail to be roused by this at of piracy committed in defiance of every right and within water under our jurisdiction. Do not be surprised if we return the answer which the case demands – that of arms.” There was no action.

March-Phillips, Hayes, Appleyard, Lippett and other participants all received honours for their parts in the raid.

British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden denied all knowledge of Operation Postmaster, attributing it to the Free French.

But the truth came to light almost 70 years later. Solicitor Brian Lett, whose father served with the SOE, gained access to documents relating to the top secret raid.

He discovered that the Naval Liaison Officer for Operation Postmaster was Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond 007.

Lett believes the SSRF team was the basis for the creation of the James Bond character: “Before his death, Fleming said 90 per cent of the plots came from his personal experience,” Lett said in an interview.

In 2012 Brian Letts published the book, Ian Fleming and SOE’s Operation Postmaster – the untold top secret story (Pen and Sword Books). Letts argues (probably reasonably  that the people involved in the operation were the inspiration for Fleming’s series of nine James Bond books.

March-Phillipps was killed during Operation Aquaint in September 1942, Hayes was captured on the same operation and a German firing squad eventually executed him in 1943. Appleyard joined the SAS and on the same day Hayes was executed, he was reported missing in his plane while on an aerial mission.


The Special Operations Executive (SOE) was approved by Cabinet and officially formed by Minister of Economic Warfare Hugh Dalton on 22 July 1940, to conduct espionage, sabotage and reconnaissance in occupied Europe (and later, also in occupied Southeast Asia) against the Axis powers, and to aid local resistance movements.

It was formed from a merger of Department – MI R, the Ministry of War Section D (sabotage), the secret service SIS/MI6 (Secret Intelligence Service) and the team of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for Propaganda.

SOE’s first headquarters were three floors of the Victorian St Ermin’s hotel in central London, close to St James Park Tube Station and also close to Westminster Abbey, Buckingham Palace and the Houses of Parliament.

Later, the headquarters were established at 64 Baker Street, under the contracted name Union Trading Company. It had facilities in the main cities of Europe and Africa, including Stockholm, Lisbon, Madrid, Bari, Algiers. SOE agents were trained in England and on the west coast of Scotland.

Those who were part of SOEor who had contact with it  were sometimes referred to as the “Baker Street Irregulars”, after London HQ location. It was also known as “Churchill’s Secret Army” or the “Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare”.

Many of its activities  were disguised by names such as the “Joint Technical Board” or the “Inter-Service Research Bureau”, or fictitious branches of the Air Ministry, Admiralty or War Office. As well as Ian Fleming, another notable member included actor Sir Christopher Lee.

The organisation was officially dissolved on 15 January 1946. The memorial to all those who served in the SOE during the Second World War was unveiled on 13 February 1996 on the wall of the west cloister of Westminster Abbey. Another memorial to SOE’s agents was unveiled in October 2009 on the Albert Embankment by Lambeth Palace in London. A Valençay SOE Memorial honours 104 SOE agents who lost their lives while working in France.

There were more than 40  female secret agents operating for the SOE overseas during its lifetime.


The Small Scale Raiding Force (SSRF) was created in 1942 by the Chief of Combined Operations, Lord Louis Mountbatten,  a maternal uncle of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh.

He believed in the use of specialist soldiers trained in sabotage. The SSRF was to be an amphibious force of no more than 50 men. It was placed under Mountbatten’s command.

The force in essence already existed as the Special Operation Executive’s Maid Honour Force named after the converted trawler it used. Though Mountbatten had control over the SSRF, it remained on the SOE’s role as Station 62. The SSRF was commanded by Major Gus March-Phillipps (sometimes spelled Phillips).

The unit undertook raids on German targets.  Members worked only in small groups, in the belief that such groups would be far more  detect. However, on the night of September 12 1942, the SSRF attacked St Honorine in Normandy but most in the raiding force were killed, including March-Phillipps. The command of the force passed to Major Geoffrey Appleyard, previously its second in command.

The SSRF raids buoyed Allied spirits and helped undermined the morale of the Germans troops.

The SSRF was disbanded in April 1943; other commando units were getting larger and there were divisions arising between the roles of SSRF and SOE.


Ian Lancaster Fleming was born on 28 May 1908 in Mayfair, London.

His parents were well off and he spent his school years at top British schools Eton and Sandhurst military academy. He took up writing while schooling in Kitzbuhel, Austria. He failed entrance requirements for the Foreign Service and joined the news agency Reuters as a journalist.

He worked in the financial sector for the family bank, but just before World War II and was recruited into British Naval Intelligence where he excelled. He rose to the rank of  Commander, which later became his nickname.

After the war Fleming retired to Jamaica where he built a house called “Goldeneye,” took up writing full-time and created the character that made him famous – British Secret Service agent James Bond, in a novel called “Casino Royale,” the first of nine in his 007 series.

Fleming spent the rest of his life writing and traveling as his Bond character reached new heights of popularity on movie screens.

He also wrote the novel “Chitty-Bang-Bang: The Magical Car” which was released in three volumes from October 1964, after his death. The main character was Commander Caractacus Pott.

It became a successful musical-fantasy film in 1968, starring Dick Van Dyke, Sally Ann Howes, Adrian Hall, Heather Ripley, Lionel Jeffries, Benny Hill, James Robertson Justice, Robert Helpmann, Barbara Windsor and Gert Fröbe.

Roald Dahl was a co-writer of the screenplay.

Fleming’s  health began to fail and he died of a heart attack (his second) in England in August 1964 at the age of 56.

This article is an extension of a chapter in Elite Special Forces, 75 Years of Covert Action, Chris McLeod, Wilkinson Publishing.