Anything but an Ordinary Seaman

Eighty years ago, the Royal Australian Navy won its only Victoria Cross. It was awarded 78 years later, after decades of campaigning by a host of advocates, but primarily as a result of the dedication of Garry Ivory, one of Teddy’s nephews, and the tireless Guy Barnett, a veteran MP from Tasmania. For that was where the 18 year old Ordinary Seaman Sheean had hailed from, but it was north of faraway Darwin where he died, as the corvette HMAS Armidale sank under the torment of a host of Japanese aircraft, bombing, strafing and firing torpedoes.

What sort of man was this Sheean? For man he was, not boy, despite his youth. Like so many other Tasmanians – more relatively than any other state – he had joined the Navy, inspired by the call to the colours in the face of the British Empire’s desperate need. He and others had watched as Poland was attacked and finally, France and Britain’s patience at an end, war was declared. But that was in late 1939, and it took time to sign up as a reservist, as he did with many friends, and family too – he was the fourteenth child of 16 children. He had been brought up largely in Latrobe, in northern Tasmania, and had left school early. The family lived in rough conditions, in a very basic house, with most of the boys finding employment on local farms.

The work was hard manual labour of a sort which would raise eyebrows in modern times. Teddy rode a pushbike around the state; working as an offsider to his father in fencing, carrying out basic carpentry, and cutting railways sleepers.[1] If you worked you got money. If you didn’t, there was none. The term “social security” was then unknown, and governments provided little services for Australians beyond defence, basic law and order, some utilitarian infrastructure such as roads and a simple electricity supply, and limited pensions and child endowment. Entertainment at home was non-existent beyond a few library books, family conversation, and the radio, although sets were not cheap. But for all that, in a large family such as the Sheeans there was comfort in the security that relatives supplied.

Nephew Max remembered years later being impressed by his uncle Teddy, firstly because he owned: “…a pet ferret. It would run around under the house; he’d whistle for it, it would run up his arm and off they’d go.” But he recognized Teddy’s strength of character, too.

I remember he went crook at me for swearing one day. He had a reputation. He wouldn’t take crap from anybody. He fought a bloke, I know, who kicked his football away. I spoke to one of the [Armidale] survivors once, Rex Pullen, who said: “You always liked to have Teddy with you on shore; you’d be safe with him.”

Aggression was part of the Sheean tradition. The boys organised boxing matches every Sunday in the backyard.[2]  Teddy, with an average height at five foot eight inches (174 cm), is said to have done well. When the war broke out the family followed its progress closely, with five of the boys enlisting in the Army, and one in the Navy before Teddy, the youngest brother, joined them in the Forces on 21 April 1941, with initial training at HMAS Huon just below the Domain outside Hobart’s central area.

The onset of World War II led to an increase in naval activity. An examination service and Port War Signal Station were in place. Five requisitioned ships acted as examination vessels, stopping and inspecting ships to ensure they were not smuggling prohibited goods or carrying troops. They also fulfilled training roles: Sheean and his mate Jack Bird carried out duties on Coombar and Bombo respectively for several months.[3] The apprentice sailors lived inside the naval establishment, within barrack dormitories. Their training consisted of routine military matters: learning rudimentary drill, handling firearms, and ceremonial duties, as well as maritime skills on the Derwent. For around half of the year this was a cold grey waterway, but in spring and summer it was often hospitable.

Most Australian eyes were fixed on Europe, where mother country Britain was fighting for her life and where Australian forces were already engaged. Sheean and his fellow trainees would have likely assumed that Europe was their destination. Few would have had the capacity to imagine the implications of the gathering might of the Imperial Japanese Empire and its increasingly hostile dealings with the rest of the world.

The pay of the sailors was quite generous. A private in the Army was on eight shillings a day[4] in November 1941, and a sailor’s wage was commensurate but made more complicated by various allowances he received for sea-going; “hard-lying” and various speciality additions.[5] As they were under training, the naval recruits pay was not so lavish. Jack Bird recalls they received 22 shillings and six pence.[6] Given they were clothed, fed and accommodated, this meant a reasonable sum of money to spend every week ashore on whatever delights took their fancies. Admission to a dance[7] was often one shilling and sixpence, a session at the cinema sixpence,[8] the daily newspaper cost twopence, a basic “Brownie” camera[9] eleven shillings and threepence, and a man’s new long-sleeved shirt around twelve shillings.[10] Twenty cigarettes cost one shilling and ten pence, and incidentally were often advertised as having health-giving qualities! [11]

One aspect of the training would have encouraged Sheean and all his classmates in their tasks. That was that they were doing the right thing by their society. On every side was encouragement. Propaganda posters issued messages: exhortations to join the forces; reminders to conserve materials, work for the country, and carry the fight to the Axis – when Teddy joined up the Germans and Italians, but by mid-December including the Japanese as well. Such a spirit of positive reinforcement would have been like living in a warm bath to the young Navy men: they were admired by society, and it would have lifted every weary step and brought strength to every tired arm.

Sheean did well in training, and got on well with his messmates. Jack Bird recalls his friend as possessing a great sense of humour: he was once met by bemused fellow sailors dragging a dead crayfish across a parade ground; he was taking it for a walk, he explained to the other ratings he encountered, and departed talking to it. On another occasion, on a boat trip to nearby Port Arthur, Sheean led the way in persuading a pack of seven dogs to board their launch back to Hobart, where the animals were let out into a minesweeper which was tied up alongside the wharf. [12] Although Sheen was the type that “let hammocks down”, as Jack put it, he was also very loyal to his friends, and already noted as full of courage.[13]

“How Australia Will Face Pacific Crisis,”  was the front page headline after December 7. The war was suddenly a lot closer.

At the end of his initial training time Sheen was rated as “VG” or “Very Good” in “Character; “Satisfactory” in Efficiency, and then saw some sea-going experience aboard the auxiliary minesweeper HMAS Coombar. Bird and Sheean were then sent to the shore base HMAS Cerberus, or Flinders Naval Depot, some 90 kilometres south of Melbourne on the Mornington Peninsula. Cerberus is still the centre for initial naval rating training today. In the winter it is a cold windswept area, but in the summer, towards which the trainees were progressing, it can be hot and humid. Jack recalls they completed courses in “gunnery, depth charges and torpedoes.”

Sheean’s actual position on board Armidale was to be a gun loader on the 20mm Oerlikon anti-aircraft cannon.[14] Each mount was operated by a gunner with his shoulders tucked firmly into supports to assist in maneuvering it. The gun could be operated by two crewmen, a gunner and loader, but an additional loader was usually allocated to each gun. Crews regularly trained in all positions so they could assume any of them in action.

At the time of Teddy’s training the world of aircraft and ships was undergoing a revolution, with the aircraft becoming more dangerous and the world of navies playing catch-up, although this was an informal adjustment, with debate still raging about the exact nature of the air threat and how – or whether at all – to adjust to cope with it. Machineguns were found to be insufficient against aircraft that flew at heights of several kilometres above the earth, so anti-aircraft cannon such as Teddy’s Oerlikon were developed. Furthermore, aircraft flew rapidly, and deflection fire – firing ahead of the aircraft so the projectile and the aircraft collide – was essential. Exploding shells, which dispersed shrapnel over a wide area, were developed, and the concept of fusing them to explode at the same height as the aircraft was refined. Much training took place on the gun systems. Some of this was carried out in the shore base HMAS Penguin in Sydney, with the young Tasmanian being billeted on board a converted ferry, HMAS Kuttabul, moored alongside in Garden Island.

On May 31, 1942, when three Japanese midget submarines attacked shipping in the Harbour,  a torpedo hit the Kuttabul (above) and killed 21 naval ratings. Sheean was lucky not to have been on board, for he had been given leave in Tasmania prior to joining his first ship, HMAS Armidale. That was when he saw girlfriend Kath Lapthorne for the last time.

While beginning to concentrate more on the oceans nearer to home, Australian naval forces had fought well in the Mediterranean and the Atlantic, and the RAN had expanded tremendously in size and capability. A high point had been the engagement of the cruiser HMAS Sydney and several British destroyers in sinking the Italian cruiser Bartolomeo Colleoni. The lowest point of the war for the Navy had quickly followed, however, when HMAS Sydney was lost with all 645 crew off Western Australia in a battle with the raider Kormoran. A few weeks later the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, catapulting the United States into the war.

The Japanese were doing extremely well. They hit hard at the Philippines, were already involved in China and now quickly overran various Asian countries, including strongpoints of the Allied presence. The British fortress of Singapore collapsed, taking down with it thousands of British and Australian military personnel, dead, missing or captured. On February 19, 1942, the Japanese struck at Darwin, killing 236 people, destroying 30 aircraft, and sinking 11 ships.[15] Air raids would continue for the next two years across all of northern Australia. The Imperial Japanese Navy waged an effective campaign against shipping off the east Australian coast.  They were fought to a draw in the Battle of the Coral Sea, then defeated at Midway in June 1942, at the height of their power.

This earlier part of the year for Armidale saw more anti-submarine watches; an exercise for three days against aircraft attack, and then the escorting of the freighter SC Sorenson to the port of Newcastle. Now the corvette had graduated from the school of hard knocks; and her new routine saw her outside protected harbours, escorting convoys along the east coast of Australia and as far north as New Guinea for the first six months of her commission.

In October 1942, Armidale was ordered to Darwin to join a group of other corvettes operating as the 24th Minesweeping Flotilla. The corvette arrived in Darwin on 7 November.

Doubtless the ship’s company spent some time ashore in the doubtful pleasures of Darwin. But there was not much amusement in the town, which was almost completely empty of civilians. The ship’s company would have been familiar with “the Wet” from their northern runs into the tropics on the east coast, with its humidity in the 90% range, and torrential downpours two or three times a day. There was little to do except drink a few beers under the watchful eyes of the shore patrol – Darwin had been cleaned up after some riotous times following the initial raids – and wander the streets. When on board they often had to go to Action Stations to fire weapons against the raiding aircraft of the Japanese Navy – attacks were common, and often more than one a week.

After just three weeks in Darwin[16] Armidale was ordered to make a voyage to Timor in company with another corvette, HMAS Castlemaine.[17]

The corvettes were already crowded vessels, with their original design of living space being further constricted by the addition of radar operators. However on this mission both ships each had an additional complement of several dozen Dutch soldiers being ferried into Timor. For the return, it was planned to extract larger numbers of military and civilian personnel. During the first day north the two corvettes managed to avoid at least two more air attacks.

However because of changes, the carefully planned night-time rendezvous arrangements were greatly delayed. As a result by 11am the following morning Castlemaine was ordered to return to Darwin, having completed her transfer of incoming and outgoing personnel. However, Armidale (below) was not to be so lucky. With her Dutch soldiers still onboard, she was ordered to continue to the Timorese coast. For the next days the ship was continually attacked. The ship’s company went to action stations again and again, the alarms ringing and every man racing to his station, cramming his helmet on and readying the guns, with the gunners opening fire as soon as they had swung their weapons onto the target, using their own judgement as to when to depress the triggers.

Teddy Sheean was on the aft Oerlikon, the one closest to the stern. The gun crew alternated positions when they could, partly for experience, and partly to relieve the heavy physical exercise. Added to the hard work of training, firing, removing and replacing the magazines, was the added tension and fear of what failure could mean. The metal gun shield and the crews’ helmets were not much protection, and the ship’s company by now had seen enough action to realise injury and death were their constant companions. In their hearts they would have been afraid, but action left them too busy to dwell on grim thoughts.

In between engagements against aircraft the crews were not allowed to leave their positions; indeed the main gunner stayed ready in the harness with the weapon loaded. This meant that the whole crew ate when they could, usually sandwiches, and drank warm water from canteens. During the engagements they were deafened by the explosions of the three Oerlikons firing, joined by the ship’s several machineguns.[18] At nightfall the ship was brought onto a course for Betano, on the southern coast of Timor, with the weary crew at defence watches, four hours on and four hours off, but always ready for action stations. Those off watch crammed down food and snatched sleep where they could, nodding off with head on arms at the messdeck tables. The corvette was much delayed by the bombing. She was due to meet HMAS Kuru, and to land her cargo of soldiers on the beach where they would meet up those already there. But neither Kuru nor the land force made the rendezvous, and so, somewhat after 0200 in the morning, without landing the soldiers, Armidale withdrew, and set course for Darwin. [19]

On the afternoon of December 1, the corvette was subjected to a more vigorous attack which included torpedo bombers attacking simultaneously at opposing angles; Betty twin-engine machines carrying one massive torpedo each, a weapon now first being used in such waters.[20] [21] At 1450 Armidale’s captain, Lieutenant Commander David Richards, registered the sighting of the incoming force of 13 aircraft and increased the ship’s speed to her full 15 knots.[22]  At 1505 the aircraft took up their attacking positions, and Richard commenced zig-zagging the vessel to throw off the bombardiers’ aim.

This was confirmed by the analysis of the later Board of Inquiry. At 1515 (3:15 pm) Armidale was under full attack: “9 bombers and 3 fighters took part.” The fighters strafed the ship with their guns, while the bombers made approaches to release their main ordnance. [23]  The small warship was hit by at least one torpedo, perhaps two, and began sinking fast, with the order ‘Abandon Ship’ being almost immediately given.

The explosions had been massive. Many of the Dutch soldiers were killed. The corvette was heeling over, and taking on the sea at speed, and it was now that Teddy Sheean determined to stay on and fight. Ordinary Seaman RM Caro wrote later:

Teddy died, but none of us who survived, I am sure, will ever forget his gallant deed which won him a Mention in Despatches. He was a loader number on the after Oerlikon gun. When the order “Abandon Ship” was given, he made for the side, only to be hit twice by the bullets of an attacking Zero. None of us will ever know what made him do it, but he went back to his gun, strapped himself in, and brought down a Jap plane, still firing as he disappeared beneath the waves.[24]

Of the 149 men onboard, perhaps up to 50 were killed in the initial torpedo and strafing attack. At 3:20pm the ship was fully sunk, well north of Darwin. The survivors took to the ship’s boats and rafts. There was a big delay in rescue operations mainly as it was assumed Armidale was maintaining radio silence. A search was commenced around midday two days after the sinking.

Teddy Sheean was only awarded the Mention in Despatches, the only posthumous award other than the VC. Long after the war, Senator Chris Schacht was one of many who wanted more when he said in Parliament:

From the moment he took the decision to strap himself into the gun mount Sheean must have known he was not going to survive. His actions were pure, selfless heroism.[25]

Schacht’s comments were typical of people from all sides of politics who discovered the Sheean story and determined that here was the best sort of naval hero. It was the start of a long campaign for the best award. Now, 80 years on, we know it has been rewarded.

Dr Tom Lewis OAM, a military historian and retired naval officer, wrote Honour Denied in 2017 (Avonmore) and Teddy Sheean VC, released by Big Sky in 2020.


[1] Bird, Jack. Written notes to the author, September 2015.

[2] Bradford, John. In the Highest Traditions…RAN Heroism Darwin 19 February 1942. Seaview Press, South Australia, 2000. Despite the title, this book examines the fate of Sheean’s ship, HMAS Armidale, in some detail. Information about Sheean’s history was given during an interview with Bradford and the author’s representative on 13 January 2011.

[3] Bird, Jack. Interview with the author, August 2015

[4] Army News. “Budget Increases Clearly Explained.” 2 November 1941. (p. 2) http://trove.nla.gov.au/ndp/del/article/38326104 Accessed July 2014. See also Ross, WH. Lucky Ross. Western Australia: Hesperian Press, 1994, where John Ross noted he received a pound a day as a Lieutenant in WWII. (p.15)

[5] Lieutenant John Ross noted in 1939 he received one pound a day. By comparison Sub-Lieutenant Marsden Horden on combat operations in New Guinea waters in 1943 recalled he received three pounds a week, which sounds rather odd. See Ross, WH. Lucky Ross. Western Australia: Hesperian Press, 1994, (p. 15) and Horden, Marsden. A Merciful Journey. Victoria: The Miegunyah Press, 2005. (p. 81)

[6] Bird, Jack. Interview with the author, August 2015.

[7] Hobart Mercury. 7 October 1941. (p. 7) http://trove.nla.gov.au/ndp/del/page/1858852

[8] Hobart Mercury. 8 November 1941. (p. 8) http://trove.nla.gov.au/ndp/del/page/1859124

[9] Hobart Mercury. 8 November 1941. (p. 4) http://trove.nla.gov.au/ndp/del/page/1859120

[10] Hobart Mercury. 9 December 1941. (p. 3) http://trove.nla.gov.au/ndp/del/page/1859379

[11] Hobart Mercury. 9 December 1941. (p. 1) http://trove.nla.gov.au/ndp/del/page/1859377

[12] Bird, Jack. Written notes to the author, September 2015.

[13] Bird, Jack. Interview with the author. Launceston, April 2011.

[14] Australian Dictionary of Biography. Sheean, Edward (1923 – 1942) http://adbonline.anu.edu.au/biogs/A160265b.htm Accessed May 2011.

[15] See the same author’s Carrier Attack and The Empire Strikes South. The number of people killed in the first raids remained hazy for many years, but eventually sterling work by the NT Library, particularly by staff member John Richards, confirmed the total dead on the Australia side at 235. Another has been added in recent years due to further research. The Japanese lost four, possibly five, aircraft with two aircrew dying. This number was evened over the next two years as raids continued, with a probable 1,672 Allied war fatalities, balanced by 186 deaths in total from Japanese aircrew crashes and 80 in the submarine I-124.

[16] Gill (pp 214-215)

[17] The description of events is drawn largely from Gill, with reference to Bradford and Frank Walker’s HMAS Armidale – The Ship that had to Die.

[18] There are very few accounts of life on the guns in the Royal Australian Navy, but an excellent narrative about time in the USN on anti-aircraft guns is given in Pacific War Diary 1942-1945, by James J. Fahey. 

[19] Naval Historical Society of Australia. Naval Historical Review – September 1983. Sullivan, John. (Ed.) “The Loss of HMAS Armidale.” http://www.navyhistory.org.au/the-loss-of-hmas-armidale/  Accessed June 2012.

[20] Author Bradford’s website at http://users.picknowl.com.au/~wjb718/hmas armidale.html analyses the aerial attacks in much detail, including the use of torpedo bombers. Commodore Pope, commanding the naval vessels from Darwin, said in his post-action report: ‘I naturally hoped that these small, maneuverable and (as against low level attacks below Oerlikon range) fairly well armed vessels would escape serious damage. Unfortunately this was not the case and Armidale was finally sunk by a heavy and well coordinated attack which included torpedo bombers, a new factor in these waters, without which the ships would probably have escaped serious damage. This is also the view of the CO Armidale, expressed to me verbally.’”

[21] There seems little doubt of what was the size and nature of the force attacking the ship. The Inquiry arrived at this composition after exhaustive analysis, and it is repeated in modern accounts – see for example Royal Australian Navy. http://www.navy.gov.au/hmas-armidale-i  Accessed February 2012.

[22] National Archives of Australia. “Naval Operations – Report by Naval Board on loss of HMAS “Armidale” 4/12/42 – 12/1/43.” MP138/1, 603/280/945.  (Page 24 of this document.)

[23] National Archives of Australia. “Naval Operations – Report by Naval Board on loss of HMAS “Armidale” 4/12/42 – 12/1/43.” MP138/1, 603/280/945.  (Page 5 of this document.)

[24] Gill. (p.218)

[25] Commonwealth of Australia. Parliamentary Debates. Senate. Official Hansard. No. 5, 2001.

Wednesday, 4 April 2001. Thirty-Ninth Parliament. First Session-Eighth Period. “Award of Victoria Cross for Australia Bill 2001.  http://www.aph.gov.au/Hansard/senate/dailys/ds040401.pdf   (p. 23697)

6 thoughts on “Anything but an Ordinary Seaman

  • Occidental says:

    The hagiography of Sheehan continues. There is no doubt from the version of events related by Seaman Caro that Sheehan did his job. He kept firng his weapon which as a gunner was his role. What was his alternative, get in the water and be straffed by Jap aircraft. We now live in times when merely to survive a brush with possible death makes you a hero. Remember the runners from the Lindt Cafe were lauded as “heros”. So now we are applying our standards to selected events in the past, when will it end. There are so many stories of heroism in times gone by that we would need a factory to mint VC’s to individuals every bit as deservng and more so than Sheehan. Perhaps the decision to award an historical VC to Sheehan was really intended to improve RAN recruitment, not that it will work.

    • Trevor Bailey says:

      What a puzzling attitude lies behind your confused argument, Occidental. Sheean VC ran back to engage the enemy, not away from it in the hope he may survive, as others did. How you conflate this with contemporary standards and media hyperbole is beyond me. And criticising those who died in the service of their country from behind a pseudonym makes your opinion contemptible.

      • Occidental says:

        Now read my post carefully, Trevor Bailey, or whatever name you choose to use. Which words did I use which are critical of Seaman Sheehan? Yes I am critical of giving historic awards 70 or so years after the event. There are so many problems with such awards that surely anyone with a scintilla of reasoning can discern them. While it might seem somewhat mean to criticise the granting of an award, what are thinking individuals meant to do? If we say nothing then it is taken to mean we agree with the current stupidity, hence my comment. Finally if you have family alive who have fought in a war talk to them and ask them if they saw anything comparable to the bravery related by Seaman Caro. I would be shocked if they can not give numerous anecdotes of acts by individuals every bit as courageous as that shown by Seaman Sheehan. That is not a criticism of Sheehan but merely of the current culture which for some strange reason, results in his acts being singled out for an award, when he and all his contemporaries are long dead. It is all very strange.

  • brennan1950 says:

    I suggest Occidental clear out to the orient and doesn’t come back.

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