Teddy Sheean VC, A Selfless Act of Valour, Tom Lewis, Big Sky Publishing, Newport, 2021
Reviewed by Jim Truscott
Having spoken at length to the sole living survivor of the sinking of HMAS Armidale by Japanese air-launched torpedoes on 1 December 1942, as part of research into a battlefield guide to Timor Leste, I was naturally keen to read to read this story. Coming just after the recent award of the Victoria Cross to Teddy Sheean on 1 December 2020, this definitive account addresses the question as to why it took exactly 80 years. While we know now that the Japanese claim that all of their war planes returned to Kupang, we also know that this claim does not in any way diminish the final battle actions of Teddy Sheean.
Tom Lewis is to be commended for forensically reviewing all primary and secondary sources and producing an easy-to-read book about the short 18-year life of Teddy Sheean, as well as the even shorter 173-day life of HMAS Armidale. The story has good context especially for readers without a naval background. The book is particularly useful as a project is underway by the recently formed ‘Remembering HMAS Armidale Association’ to locate the wreck at the bottom of the Timor Sea. While there is no mystery as to her location, the project will bring closure to the next of kin of the Australian sailors and Dutch and Indonesian soldiers who were on board.
The author sets the scene by describing what is what it was like to serve in the Navy, Teddy Sheean’s family, his Navy life in Tasmania, and the changes in technology that were impacting naval warfare and the rise of Japan at the time. The book is most informative on the various types of ships in service and their roles. The author explains how the corvettes were one of the smallest types of warships there were, designed to escort convoys and carry out anti-submarine attacks. Sixty corvettes were built in Australian shipyards throughout the Second World War.
HMAS Armidale was commissioned on 11 July 1942, and after an anti-submarine watch in Sydney Harbour and convoy escorts up and down the east coast to Port Moresby, the corvette was ordered to sail to Darwin in October 1942 to join other corvettes operating as part of the 24th Minesweeping Flotilla. Arriving there on 7 November it is not clear what she did there for three weeks, but she must have endured the air raid on 22 November.
HMAS Armidale left on her final mission as part of a three-ship operation on 29 November to insert 61 Royal Netherland East Indies troops as reinforcements to their forces operating in Portuguese Timor and to evacuate Australian commandos and Portuguese civilians.
The ship was detected by the Japanese within a few hours of leaving Darwin and the crew went to action stations again and again over the ensuring days. While consequentially late for the rendezvous with allied forces on the south coast of Portuguese Timor and the insertion task initially aborted, the Captain was ordered to take the risk of operating without air cover and to go back once again and insert the soldiers onto the beach. The promised air cover did not eventuate and the classic description of the final battle in fighting off the attack by Japanese fighters and torpedo bombers is enthralling reading. It is described by the author as a small ship with limited firepower, fighting for her life. Of interest to me was the description of the ship breaking into halves as this knowledge will assist our sub-sea search project for the wreck.
The book describes the tragic finale with the air and sea search not starting until two days after the sinking. While those men who were in the motorboat were picked up on the sixth day, those men who were rowing the salvaged whaler were not picked up for eight harrowing days. Those men left desperately hanging on to the constructed raft were initially sighted but never seen again. The author quite categorically assesses that there is no evidence of a Japanese submarine being involved in the loss of the raft. While a Naval inquiry was held and Teddy Sheean was Mentioned in Despatches, a recommendation for a higher award was never made.
The second half of the book address the history of the Victoria Cross with the standard for awarding the medal differing from service to service. It has been a long and somewhat inconsistent history, varied and haphazard, with ultimate approval in the hands of the Monarch. The author deduces that the absence of a recommendation for Teddy Sheean was not due to deliberate incompetence, rather just the stresses of war on the chain of naval command. The author also describes the reluctance to re-visit the past which was only overcome by the Defence Honours and Awards Appeals Tribunal recommendation in 2019 and the subsequent review by an expert panel appointed by the Prime Minister.
The book resolves the confusion with the numbers of soldiers on board and as a former soldier, my only minor criticism of the book is that I would have liked to have read a little more about the Dutch/Indonesian troops on board. Many of them were old and there was little experience amongst the officers and non-commissioned officers, but this Timor Company was ordered to deploy into a guerrilla war without any training in guerrilla warfare. They must have been very apprehensive being under near constant attack at sea, and their land war had not even started.
This book about Teddy’s war, a story of a sea disaster and tragedy, should be in the library of every school in Australia and readily available in Timor Leste, Indonesia and Holland. This event was the greatest loss of RAN life after the sinking of HMAS Sydney and HMAS Parramatta in the Second World War. Now that the wreck lays in waters belonging to Timor Leste, the names of those lost at sea in the final battle and ordeal while awaiting rescue should be placed on the honour board in the Australian Embassy’s Sparrow Force House in Dili alongside the soldiers who gave their lives in this campaign.