When war looked imminent after the Munich crisis in 1938, the Royal Australian Navy realised it needed a fleet of escort ships to guard convoys and keep the sea lanes open - and needed them urgently. First it looked for ships in Britain, but it was like Goldilocks trying out the porridge and beds - none was just right, so there was no alternative. Australia would have to design and build its own escort ships.
The result was a ship as Australian as a kangaroo - designed by Australians who had never designed warships before, built by Australians who had never built ships before and manned by Australians most of whom had never been to sea before. They were 700 tonnes, could do 16 knots, had a crew of 67 ratings and five officers and were called corvettes. By the end of the war they had so much extra equipment that they were 1000 tonnes and had a ship's company of about 100.
The keel of the first was laid down in February 1940. She was launched in August 1940 and commissioned in December as HMAS Bathurst. In accordance with naval tradition, the entire class was called the Bathurst class.
Ships were soon sliding down the slipways of eight shipyards and corvettes were being commissioned at the rate of one every 26 days. The program called for ingenuity as well as hard work - when one shipyard in Queensland could not get tallow to grease the slipway they used bananas. The engines were made in railway workshops all over Australia. In all, 60 were built, four of which were for the Indian Navy.
Corvettes were to the Navy what jeeps were to the army and DC3s to the Air Force - they did everything, everywhere, and they did it with grit and dash. They served in every theatre of war, from the Atlantic to Tokyo. They served along the Australian coast, around New Guinea, the Halmaheras, Borneo, Brunei and took part in the island-hopping right up to Okinawa and Tokyo Bay. They served in the Indian Ocean, the Persian Gulf, the Mediterranean and the Atlantic. Two of them, HMA Ships Maryborough and Wollongong, served in every theatre of war except the Arctic.
They escorted convoys, sank submarines, shot at and sometimes shot down planes, swept mines, ferried troops, bombarded enemy shore guns, surveyed uncharted waters under the noses - and the guns - of the Japanese, towed damaged ships to safety and they even landed spies. The only thing they did not do was to stay long in harbour. They steamed a total of 11 million kilometres during the war, nearly all of it in dangerous waters, often behind enemy lines.
In 1942 HMA Ships Maryborough, Wollongong, Toowoomba, Bathurst, Burnie, Goulburn and Ballarat fought in the Malayan campaign in the waters around Singapore. They were the last Allied ships to leave Singapore when it fell, then the last to leave Java when it, too, fell. They sneaked through Japanese naval patrols, hid in rain squalls, dodged enemy bombs and got safely back to Australia.
While the seven corvettes were battling it out with the Japanese around Singapore and Java, other corvettes were tackling the Japanese around Darwin and across northern Australia. HMAS Deloraine, which had been in commission only eight weeks, took on a huge Japanese submarine, the I-124, 80 kilometres west of Darwin and sank it.
By June 1942, there were 24 corvettes based on Australian ports, convoying merchant ships around the coast where Japanese submarines were operating. One of the heaviest attacks by Japanese submarines came on June 15, 1943, when the five corvettes, Warrnambool, Deloraine, Kalgoorlie, Cootamundra and Bundaberg, were escorting ten merchant ships and three landing ships. They were 150 kilometres off Smokey Cape when two of the ships were torpedoed. Warrnambool and Kalgoorlie carried out depth charge attacks and the rest of the convoy escaped unharmed.
In the first half of 1943, the RAN kept up a hazardous ferry service on the northern coast of New Guinea, transporting soldiers and equipment between Milne Bay and Oro Bay, where some of the fiercest fighting of the campaign was raging. It was much the same as the RAN ferry service between Alexandra and Tobruk, except that the Oro Bay run was done not by destroyers but corvettes, and the sailors were not seasoned veterans, but Reservists getting their first taste of battle. The corvettes were HMA Ships Ballarat. Bendigo, Bowen, Broome, Bunbury, Colac, Echuca, Glenelg, Gympie, Kapunda, Katoomba, Latrobe, Lithgow, Pirie, Wagga and Whyalla.
On April 11, 1943, HMAS Pirie was making her fifth trip to Oro Bay when the Japanese attacked the troops ashore with a force of 22 bombers and 72 fighters. Twelve of the force broke off and tackled the corvette at mast height. A bomb hit the bridge, killing the Gunnery Officer, then exploded on the upper deck, killing all but one of the seven sailors manning the for'ard gun. Pirie managed to get back to Australia, where it was patched up and sent back to the war zone.
Corvettes were required not only to get troops there but also to go in beforehand to reconnoitre new areas and act as pathfinders. The Pacific war presented special problems because very little surveying had been done. As a result, eight corvettes were converted to survey ships - HMA Ships Whyalla, Shepparton, Benalla, Broome, Echuca, Castlemaine, Horsham and Junee. Since they had to work close in-shore, they were painted the same colour as the shore - some were olive with chocolate patches, others a mixture of pale and dark green. They carried out the meticulous task of surveying, often in full view of the Japanese, from New Guinea right up to Leyte Gulf, in the Philippines.
Meanwhile RAN corvettes were making a name for themselves with the British Eastern Fleet. They were HMA Ships Bathurst, Burnie, Cairns, Cessnock, Gawler, Geraldton, Ipswich, Launceston, Lismore, Maryborough, Tamworth, Toowoomba and Wollongong. They ran convoys and patrolled the seas between Madagascar and Aden, around the coast of India and in the Persian Gulf.
In May 1943 eight RAN corvettes, comprising the 21st Minesweeping Flotilla, began their service in the Mediterranean, conscious of the fact that they were following in the wake of the famous "Scrap-iron flotilla" of Australian destroyers. The corvettes were HMA Ships Gawler, Ipswich, Lismore, Maryborough, Geraldton, Cairns, Wollongong and Cessnock. Under the guns and planes of the enemy off Sicily, they swept a mine-free channel for the invasion force, then protected the Allied ships from submarine attack while the troops and equipment were landed. They were the last Australian warships to serve in the Mediterranean.
In February 1944, HMA Ships Launceston and Ipswich reduced the number of enemy submarines by one. They were escorting a convoy from Colombo to Calcutta when one of the merchantmen was torpedoed. The corvettes tracked own the submarine and beat the life out of it with depth charges.
When Britain sent its fleet to the Pacific after the German surrender, Australia was asked to supply two minesweeping flotillas. The RAN immediately assigned 17 corvettes to the Royal Navy and they took part in operations in the Philippines and at Okinawa. Two of them - HMA Ships Pirie and Ipswich - were in Tokyo Bay for the Japanese surrender.
Throughout all of this extensive world wide service, the corvettes suffered bombing, strafing, shelling and torpedo attacks. They battled against cyclones and mountainous seas which wrecked ships much larger than corvettes. They were tough and sturdy, like the sailors who manned them. Their survival was not a matter of luck. It was due to their manoeuvrability and the skill of the men who handled the ships and fired the guns. Two were lost in collisions at sea, one was sunk by a mine and others were damaged by enemy action.
Only one, HMAS Armidale, was sunk by enemy action. She went down on 1 December, 1942, off Timor, while taking supplies and reinforcements to the commandos fighting ashore. The ship had been hit by two torpedoes and a near-miss bomb had helped by blowing a hole in her side. The Captain, Lieutenant-Commander David Richards, gave the order to abandon ship but one man refused - Ordinary Seaman Teddy Sheean. He struggled back to the after Oerlikon gun, strapped himself in and fired at the planes strafing his shipmates in the water. The ship was sinking so rapidly that when he fastened those straps he must have known he would go down with the ship.
He poured a stream of 20mm shells at the planes and sent one cartwheeling into the sea. A Zero flashed in, its guns blazing, and slashed Sheean's chest and back wide open. With blood pouring from his wounds he kept fighting. The ship was now sinking faster and with water lapping his feet he kept shooting. The men in the water gasped in amazement as they saw the blood-stained, desperate youngster wheel his gun from target to target, his powerless legs dragging on the deck.
Then came the most incredible sight of all - the ship plunged down and the sea rose up past Sheean's waist to his shattered chest, but still he kept firing. Even when there was nothing left of the ship above water, tracer bullets from Sheean's gun kept shooting up from under the water in forlorn, bizarre arcs.
Armidale and Sheean had kept fighting to the end. It was valour above and beyond the call of duty.
Sheean was not the only hero that day and on the grim days that were to follow. Ten of the crew and 37 soldiers had been killed in the action. In the water now were 102 men - 73 of Armidale's crew and 29 soldiers, including three AIF men, two Dutch army officers and 24 Javanese troops. And, of course, sharks and deadly sea snakes. They were 110 km from Timor, 470 km from Darwin and 400 km from the nearest Australian land, Bathurst Island.
Next day the Captain, Lieutenant Commander David Richards, left with 21 others in the 5.3-metres motor-boat to try to get help. It was not until four harrowing days later - six days since the sinking - that the motor-boat was spotted and the survivors rescued, by the corvette HMAS Kalgoorlie.
Meanwhile back at the scene of the sinking, something approaching a miracle had taken place. The sailors managed to salvage the derelict whaler - an eight-metre-long lifeboat - which was peppered with holes and gashes from shrapnel and bullets.
The Gunnery Officer, Lieutenant Lloyd Palmer, left with 29 men in the patched-up boat to try to get help and nine harrowing days after the sinking they were sighted by an RAAF plane and rescued by HMAS Kalgoorlie.
Fate dealt cruelly to the 47 men left behind on the raft. On the eighth day after the sinking, a RAAF Catalina flying boat sighted them, but could not land because the sea was too rough. The airmen dropped food and water to them, but despite searches by the Catalina, Hudsons and Beaufighters they were never seen again. Somehow or other, fate snatched them away just when they thought they were about to be rescued.
The RAN has now named one of its submarines HMAS Sheean and named the first of its new patrol boats HMAS Armidale in recognition of the courage and ingenuity that characterised the Australian corvettes in the Battle for Australia.
Ships in Class; Ararat, Armidale*, Ballarat, Bathurst, Benalla, Bendigo, Bowen Broome, Bunbury, Bundaberg, Burnie, Cairns, Castlemaine, Cessnock, Colac, Cootamundra, Cowra, Deloraine, Dubbo, Echuca, Fremantle, Gawler, Geelong*, Geraldton, Gladstone, Glenelg, Goulburn, Gympie, Horsham, Inverell, Ipswich, Junee, Kalgoorlie, Kapunda, Katoomba, Kiama, Latrobe, Launceston, Lismore, Lithgow, Maryborough, Mildura, Parkes, Pirie, Rockhampton, Shepparton, Stawell, Strahan, Tamworth, Toowoomba, Townsville, Wagga, Wallaroo*, Warrnambool**, Whyalla, Wollongong.
* Sunk during World War II