75th Anniversary of the sinking of HMAS Armidale

Throughout 1942 the Royal Australian Navy lost seven ships and 670 crew members to enemy action, as well as many more officers and sailors who later died in captivity. HMAS Armidale, one of 60 Bathurst-class corvettes constructed during World War II and commissioned in Sydney on 11 June 1942, was one of those ships.

Earlier that year a series of victories had brought Japanese forces into Australian territory in New Guinea and within a few hundred kilometres of the mainland. The bombing of Darwin in February intensified fears that an invasion was a possibility and Australians felt more exposed than at any other time during World War II.

56 corvettes were commissioned for service in the Royal Australian Navy during World War II. These smallest of Australia’s warships, named after Australian towns, were originally designated ‘Australian Minesweepers’ and performed a range of roles such as sea rescue, convoy escort, supply and evacuation in the Mediterranean, the Indian Ocean, the Persian Gulf, the South-West Pacific as well as in Australian waters. Corvettes were lightly built and while initially carrying 60 to 80 men, the number could increase to around 300 following a rescue or when used for transporting troops.

HMAS Armidale was initially assigned to convoy escort duties before being transferred to Darwin in October 1942. In November she was ordered, along with HMAS Kuru and Castlemaine, to resupply and evacuate troops and civilians from Betano Bay, on the south coast of Portuguese Timor.

While the plan was for the three ships to work together, Armidale and Castlemaine were the subject of repeated air attacks after being spotted by Japanese reconnaissance aircraft as they left Darwin and subsequently reached Betano Bay too late to rendezvous with Kuru. The rendezvous then took place 110 kilometres from Timor where the refugees were transferred to Castlemaine which then returned to Darwin. In the ensuing daylight attack, Armidale was sunk at 3.15pm on 1 December 1917 after being struck by torpedoes from Japanese Zero fighters and Betty bombers.

The survivors constructed a makeshift raft from the ship’s debris, to which they attached a half-submerged and badly-damaged whaler. The wounded were assisted aboard the ship’s remaining small motor boat. When it became clear that rescue was not imminent, the Captain and 21 other men made for Australian waters in the motor boat, rowing most of the time due to a damaged engine. Two days later, another 29 men began the same journey in the whaler, which they had managed to salvage but was still in need of constant baling. The remaining survivors clung to the raft to await rescue. As one survivor recalled, ‘the sun was hellish by day but after sundown and during the night the air was freezing. No wonder we found a few missing at the sunrise roll call.’ After what could only be described as a harrowing journey of several days, the men in the motor boat and the whaler were rescued. Those on the raft were never recovered.

In this tragic story of bravery, sacrifice and endurance, only 49 of the 149 on board the Armidale survived the ordeal after a gruelling eight days at sea. This loss of life was the highest for any corvette in World War II.