HMAS
Armidale
(I)

HMAS Armidale (I)
Class
Bathurst Class
Type
Australian Minesweeper
Pennant
J240
Motto
Stand Firm
Builder
Mort’s Dock and Engineering Co Ltd, Sydney
Laid Down
1 September 1941
Launched
24 January 1942
Launched by
Built in dock and not launched therefore no ceremony was held
Commissioned
11 June 1942
Decommissioned
1 December 1942
Fate
Sunk by Japanese aircraft on 1 December 1942
Dimensions & Displacement
Displacement
  • 599 tonnes (standard)
  • 944 tonnes (full war load)
Length 56.69 metres
Beam 9.45 metres
Draught 2.59 metres
Performance
Speed 15 knots
Complement
Crew 85
Propulsion
Machinery Triple expansion, 2 shafts, 2,000 hp
Horsepower 2,000
Armament
Guns
  • 1 x 4 inch gun
  • 3 x Oerlikons
  • Machine guns
Other Armament Depth charge chutes and throwers
Awards
Battle Honours

HMAS Armidale (I) was one of sixty Australian Minesweepers (commonly known as Corvettes) built during World War II in Australian shipyards as part of the Commonwealth Government’s wartime shipbuilding programme. Twenty were built on Admiralty order but manned and commissioned by the Royal Australian Navy. Thirty-six (including Armidale (I)) were built for the Royal Australian Navy and four for the Royal Indian Navy.

Armidale (I) commissioned at Sydney on 11 June 1942 under the command of Lieutenant Commander David H. Richards RANR(S).

Lieutenant Commander David H. Richards, RANR(S). Commanding officer HMAS Armidale.

Lieutenant Commander David H. Richards, RANR(S). Commanding officer HMAS Armidale.

Following a workup period Armidale (I) was brought into operational service as an escort vessel protecting convoys operating between Australia and New Guinea. That service ended in October 1942 when she was ordered to join the 24th Minesweeping Flotilla at Darwin. Armidale arrived at Darwin on 7 November 1942.

 

Commissioning of HMAS Armidale in Sydney 11 June 1942

Commissioning of HMAS Armidale in Sydney 11 June 1942

On 24 November 1942 Allied Land Forces Headquarters approved the relief/reinforcement of the Australian 2/2nd Independent Company which was holding out in Japanese occupied Timor.

The withdrawal of 150 Portuguese civilians was also approved and consequently plans were made in Darwin for HMA Ships Castlemaine (Lieutenant Commander Philip J. Sullivan RANR(S)), Armidale and Kuru (Lieutenant J.A. Grant, RANR), a shallow draught, 76 foot wooden motor vessel, to effect the relief operation which was code-named Operation HAMBURGER.

Action off Timor

Left: HMAS Armidale in Port Moresby.

HMAS Armidale in Port Moresby.

The proposal was for the three ships to each make two separate runs into Betano. The first run was planned for the night of 30 November – 1 December. HMAS Kuru sailed from Darwin at 10:30 pm on 28 November preceding the two corvettes. She was delayed en route due to adverse weather conditions and did not reach Betano until 11:45 pm on 30 November.

Meanwhile Armidale, in company with Castlemaine, had left Darwin at 00:42 on 29 November. In Armidale were 61 Near East Indies troops, two Dutch officers and three members of the 2nd AIF. At 09:15 on the morning of 30 November, when 120 miles from their destination, the two corvettes came under aerial attack from a single enemy aircraft. Although neither ship sustained any damage or casualties, concerns were raised that the mission may have been compromised. The attack was duly reported and orders were received to press on, with an assurance that Beaufighter aircraft had departed to provide cover. The ships were subjected to two more air attacks, each by formations of five bombers which dropped no less than 45 bombs and machine gunned the ships from a low level. According to Armidale, the promised Beaufighters arrived in time to drive off the bombers and both ships escaped serious damage or injury, reaching Betano at 03:30 on 1 December. Disappointingly there was no sign of Kuru and a decision was made to return to sea and make as much ground to the south as possible before daylight.

Meanwhile, Kuru, with no knowledge of the attacks affecting the arrival of the corvettes, embarked 77 Portuguese before sailing without delay. At dawn, Kuru was sighted by Castlemaine 70 miles south of Betano and subsequently closed to conduct the transfer of her passengers to the corvette. Following the rendezvous, Kuru received orders from Darwin to return to Betano and complete the mission that night. No sooner was the personnel transfer complete when enemy bombers again appeared causing Kuru to run for cover in a rain squall.

As the senior officer, Castlemaine’s captain quickly appraised the situation. Kuru had orders to return to Betano, Armidale had troops on board to be landed there, and, to further complicate matters, a signal had been received to search for two downed airmen from a Beaufighter some 150 miles to the south-east. Sullivan’s preference was to exchange passengers with Armidale so Castlemaine might escort Kuru back to Timor, however, the presence of enemy aircraft ruled that out. Consequently Armidale and Kuru were ordered to return to Betano to complete the troop operation while Castlemaine went in search of the downed airmen en-route back to Darwin.

Left: HMAS Kuru. Right: HMAS Castlemaine.

Left: HMAS Kuru. Right: HMAS Castlemaine.

As Kuru and Armidale steamed northwards they both came under fierce aerial attack becoming separated in the process. For almost seven hours Kuru dodged bombs suffering minor damage to her engine and losing her assault boat that was under tow. Grant reported the damage to Darwin but was told that the operation was to be carried through. This instruction was later rescinded when the presence of Japanese cruisers were reported approaching the area. Kuru then shaped a course for Darwin.

At approxomately 1:00 pm on 1 December five Japanese bombers were spotted by Armidale's lookouts. Without adequate air cover there was little hope of surviving the attack and a signal was sent to Darwin requesting urgent fighter cover. For the next half an hour Armidale's gunners beat of successive Japanese attacks and the ship escaped serious damage. In the mean time a signal was received from Darwin advising that the much needed fighters would arrive at 3:45 pm.

Shortly before 3:00 pm Armidale was attacked by nine bombers, three fighters and a float plane. The fighters split up and came in at low level straffing Armidale's decks with machine-gun fire. With her gunners thus distracted, the torpedo bombers mounted their attacks from different directions as Richards manoeuvred desperately to avoid their torpedoes. In spite of the brave resistance, the ship was hit twice by torpedoes, immediatlely heeling over to port. At that point Richards gave the order to abandon ship. Rafts were cut loose and a motor boat  freed from its falls before men took to the water. Their ordeal, however, was far from over. The Japanese airmen then pressed home further attacks machine gunning the survivors. Leading Seaman Leigh Bool who survived the ordeal later recalled:

Two or three [aircraft] went right across the ship and they apparently were using their torpedoes as bombs. These did no damage although several of the torpedoes hurtled low right across the ship. However, the others hit us within two or three minutes of the commencement of the attack. We were hit on the port side forward, causing the ship to heel over at an angle of 45 degrees.

The Armidale was going fast and the captain ordered us to abandon ship. 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 an we were thrown in a heap among the depth charges and racks.

We could feel the Armidale going beneath us, so we dived over the side and swam about 50 yeards 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.

Before we lost her, we had brought down two enemy bombers for certain, and probably a third. The hero of the battle was a young Victorian ordinary seaman, Edward Sheean, not long at sea, who refused to leave the ship.

Sheean had no chance of escape. Strapped to his anti-aircraft gun, he blazed away till the last. One of the Jap bombers, hit by his gun, staggered away trailing smoke, just skimming the surface until it crashed with a mighty splash about a quarter mile away.

 

Ordinary Seaman Edward Sheean

Ordinary Seaman  Edward 'Teddy' Sheean, an 18 year old rating from Latrobe, Tasmania, was one of those injured during the attacks. In spite of injuries to his chest and back he helped to free one of the ship's life-rafts, before scrambling back to his post on an Oerlikon gun, mounted behind the bridge. Strapping himself to his weapon he opened fire shooting down one bomber and keeping other aircraft away from his comrades in the water. He was seen still firing his gun as Armidale slipped below the waves just after 3:10 pm in position 10°S, 126°30´E.

Left: Ordinary Seaman Edward 'Teddy' Sheean. Right: Painting depicting Teddy Sheean strapped to Armidale's aft Oerlikon anti-aircraft gun firing at Japanese bombers. Sheean was observed by his shpmates to continue firing at the enemy as the ship sank. (AWM ART28160 by Dale Marsh)

The Survivors

When the Japanese departed the survivors found themselves  in the water with two boats (a motor boat and a whaler) a Carley float and a raft. They remained together until midday on 2 December when Lieutenant Commander Richards, 16 of the ship's company and some Dutch service personnel set out in the motor boat in the hope of being sighted.

This group was rescued by another sister ship of Armidale (I), HMAS Kalgoorlie, on 6 December, following sighting by aircraft.

HMAS Armidale at sea. Note the location of the aft Oerlikon gun situated behind the mainmast.

HMAS Armidale at sea. Note the location of the aft Oerlikon gun situated behind the mainmast.

A group of unidentified crew members onboard Armidale (AWM P03773.004)

A group of unidentified crew members onboard Armidale (AWM P03773.004)

An informal group portrait of members from HMAS Armidale. (AWM P03773.003).

 

On 5 December, the whaler parted company from the raft with 26 RAN and the three AIF personnel on board. On 7 December, the raft was sighted by searching aircraft and on the following day both the whaler and raft were again observed. HMAS Kalgoorlie subsequently located and rescued the occupants of the whaler, however, the raft was never seen again.

A Catalina flying boat was despatched from Cairns to pick up these survivors and reached the area on the afternoon of 8 December 1942. One of the Catalina aircrew took this picture, but the aircraft was unable to land because of the rough sea state. Despite exhaustive air and sea searches and the rescuing of other survivors, these pictured survivors were never seen again after the Catalina departed from the area.

A Catalina flying boat was despatched from Cairns to pick up these survivors. She reached the area on the afternoon of 8 December 1942. One of the Catalina aircrew took this picture however, the aircraft was unable to land because of the rough sea state. Despite exhaustive air and sea searches and the rescuing of other survivors, these pictured survivors were never seen again after the Catalina departed from the area. (AWM 300191).
Out of a total of 83 naval personnel, comprising five officers and 78 ratings, 40 (two officers and 38 ratings) lost their lives. Losses of Netherlands East Indies personnel were two officers and 58 soldiers.
 
 Eight of the Survivors enjoying a drink at Menzies Hotel, Melbourne. The second, the ship's whaler with twenty nine survivors, commanded by Lieutenant (Lt) L. G. Palmer was also rescued by HMAS Kalgoorlie on 1942-12-09. During the epic voyage in the ship's whaler Signalman George Devlin celebrated his 21st birthday on Sunday 1942-12-06 and complained about the quality of the offering for Sunday dinner. Lt Palmer offered to "shout the Melbourne lads dinner at the Menzies" if they survived the voyage. Left t
Eight of the Survivors enjoying a drink at Menzies Hotel, Melbourne.The ship's whaler with twenty nine survivors, commanded by Lieutenant L. G. Palmer was also rescued by HMAS Kalgoorlie on 9 December 1942. During the epic voyage in the ship's whaler Signalman George Devlin celebrated his 21st birthday on Sunday 1942-12-06 and complained about the quality of the offering for Sunday dinner. Palmer offered to "shout the Melbourne lads dinner at the Menzies" if they survived the voyage. Left to right: Assistant Cook G. C. Sanderson; Ordinary Seaman J. P. Parker; the hotel manager; Ordinary Seaman R. C. Wilson; Ordinary Seaman V. R. Leonard; Wireman W. N. Lamshed; Signalman G. R. Devlin and Ordinary Seaman R. M. Caro. (Courtesy of Ray Raymond)
 

Further Reading:

  1. Ship's in Battledress by J.H Adams