One of the first public interviews of survivors was conducted by the ABC Radio war correspondent Peter Hemmery. The interview of Leading Signalman Arthur Lansbury and Able Seaman Jack Duckworth, was conducted in January, 1943, just weeks after the Armidale’s sinking. Unsurprisingly, given wartime censorship and the need to maintain public morale after the loss of a warship and part of her crew, there are no criticisms or revelations of details that would damage the reputation of the Royal Australian Navy.
The critical moments for the Armidale came in the afternoon of the 2nd of December, 1942, south of the island of Timor. Thirteen Japanese aircraft, including 9 torpedo bombers, concentrated their attack on the small, lightly-armed vessel.
Leading Signalman Lansbury, who was Signalman of the Watch on the bridge of the corvette, described the first torpedo strike from a Japanese aircraft:
“When the first one hit, it threw me to the deck, and when I got on my feet again, I raced to the voice pipe down to the radio room to try and send out a distress message, but couldn’t raise them. I found out later a piece of shrapnel about the size of a bucket went straight through the [radio] transmitter which fell to pieces about the radio operator’s head.”
Able Seaman Duckworth was in the stern of the Armidale and was “swept away by the water rushing through” the gap in the hull blown by the first torpedo strike, which had slammed into the crowded mess deck. He and others began to cut loose and release anything that would help the men float in the water if the ship was to sink or be abandoned, including the ship’s motor boat. Those who survived the first torpedo blast and machine-gunning from enemy fighter aircraft jumped into the water. Shortly after Duckworth did so, the Armidale was hit by another torpedo amidships.
“She went straight down,” recalled Duckworth in the radio interview, “I could see the starboard propeller just above me … it was still revolving.”
In the same moment, Arthur Lansbury was attempting to abandon ship on the starboard side of the Armidale, which was listing to port so badly that the steepness of the deck made it impossible to traverse, when the second torpedo detonated and he found himself in the water. “… the ship just seemed to fall apart,” he told his interviewer Peter Hemmery.
Oerlikon gunner ‘Ted’ Sheehan, though wounded by cannon fire, managed to shoot down one of the Japanese fighter planes before being dragged under the water while strapped to his gun.
The motor boat which had been holed in numerous places by machine-gun fire, a whale boat with a badly damaged stern, and numerous smaller floats among the flotsam and jetsam of a Royal Australian Navy corvette blown apart were all that the survivors, quite a few of whom were wounded – some seriously – had to cling to.
“For twenty minutes, the Japs machine gunned us,” recalled Jack Duckworth, with Leading Signalman Lansbury adding: “Practically every man in the motor boat was either killed or wounded.”
When the enemy aircraft finally flew away from the carnage, the unwounded survivors drew together the remaining crew and attempted to salvage usable wreckage, managing to construct a raft.
Naturally, given this was a public interview, neither man mentioned the death of survivors overnight, either from their wounds, shock, or the circling sharks.
“… our smallest meal,” while waiting for rescue, recalled Lansbury,”was a piece of carrot about an inch long … with a slice of peach for our second meal of the day.” Duckworth mentioned that paper money – ‘ten bob notes’ – were used to roll a very small amount of tobacco for those who were smokers.
The engine in the motor boat was pulled to pieces and dried out, a painstaking process that took about 30 hours, according to Arthur Lansbury. When the motor boat with the seriously wounded set off for Australia, the rebuilt engine lasted just 20 hours.
The whaleboat was repaired also, using just a knife apparently, and 29 personnel set about rowing to Australia.
The occupants of both the motor boat and the whale boat were eventually rescued, however those remaining on the flimsy raft, as we know now, disappeared forever.
[References are available on request].