A brave sailor fought to the
end 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.
AGAINST THE ODDS
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.