- Bradford, John
- History - general
- RAN Ships
- HMAS Armidale I, HMAS Yarra II, HMAS Australia II, HMAS Kara Kara
- September 1994 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
As part of the media countdown to the launching of HMAS COLLINS in August of last year, the Adelaide `Advertiser’ ran an article under the banner heading: `SUB NAME TO HONOUR TEEN HERO”.1 So began an interest on my part into Teddy Sheean of HMAS ARMIDALE fame – and the circumstances whereby he was awarded `only’ a posthumous mention in despatches (MID) for his great act of valour in protecting the lives of shipmates who were being machine-gunned in the water.
Subsequently, the more I looked into procedural matters associated with the WW II military decorations system, the more I realised there were other RAN servicemen whose gallantry had merited scant recognition from the nation they had served so nobly; for example there is little or nothing written about them in any of the WWII RAN histories, naval warfare literature, etc. The purpose of this article is, therefore, twofold: first, I believe it appropriate, particularly when commemorating so many 50th anniversaries of WW II events, that we pause to reflect and acknowledge the bravery of some very fine men; second, by detailing their actions, perhaps it may persuade those who were cast as eye-witnesses of those times to contribute something to our knowledge of the individuals, events and issues concerned.
At the top of a very select list of sailors is Ordinary Seaman Ian Dennis Rhodes, RANVR, the sole Australian recipient of the Conspicuous Gallantry Medal (CGM) – awarded when HMS KASHMIR was sunk, along with Mountbatten’s HMS KELLY. Rhodes remains, by definition, the highest-decorated Australian navy rating. (A measure of the uniqueness of his award is provided by comparing the equivalent, Distinguished Conduct Medals (DCM) and CGMs (Air) won by the Army (197) and the RAAF (10) over the period 1939-45. Rhodes’ CGM citation read:2
`For outstanding gallantry, fortitude and resolution during the Battle of Crete. After HMS KASHMIR had been hit amidships by a bomb and was sinking, after part was machine-gunned at short range by a JU.87 bomber.
Ordinary Seaman Rhodes was gunlayer of the Port Oerlikon which at that time was going under water. In spite of the fact that the ship was sinking rapidly, he climbed up to the Starboard Oerlikon and opened fire on the aircraft, which was hit and crashed a few cables away. (8th January, 1942).‘ During a recent visit to the Australian War Museum (AWM) I found that Rhodes received his CGM from King George VI at an Investiture held at Buckingham Palace on 24th February, 1942, and that resulting from his initiative and bravery he was promoted to Temporary Sub-Lieutenant on 22nd January, 1942 and to Lieutenant on 18th August, 1942. He later served on HMS SHEFFIELD and HMAS SHROPSHIRE and after the war at the Gunnery School at HMAS CERBERUS. I understand he left Navy sometime in 1946-7.
In WW II there were close to 600 MIDs awarded Australians, but of these there were only a handful – eight by my count- awarded posthumously, and four of them (including Sheean’s) were awarded to A/A gunners. The first, Midshipman Robert Ian Davies, lost his life while defending HMS REPULSE that fateful day when both she and HMS PRINCE OF WALES were sunk. His MID citation read:3
`For great bravery and devotion to duty when HMS REPULSE was sunk by Japanese aircraft on 10th December, 1941. At the time of her loss, this very gallant young officer was last seen firing an Oerlikon gun at enemy aircraft when he and the gun mounting were slowly submerging. Prior to this he had shown himself to be outstanding as Officer of Quarters of close-range guns. (13th October, 1942).‘ The following posthumous MID citations are more action-specific than those listed in Atkinson’s “By Skill and Valour” and were obtained from files housed at the Public Records Office (PRO), Kew, London. One was awarded to Leading Cook Francis Bassett Emms, who lost his life in the Darwin air raids of 19th February, 1942. His citation read:4
`For courage and devotion to duty in action. Whilst seriously wounded he continued to fire his machine gun on HMAS KARA KARA during a continuous machine gun attack by enemy aircraft, thereby saving the ship and many of the ship’s company. He eventually succumbed to his injuries. (1st September, 1942).‘ Another posthumous MID was awarded to Leading Seaman Sidney Charles Rowley while serving on HMAS AUSTRALIA in the Lingayen Gulf operations of early January 1945. His citation read:5
‘Brought up from 8″ (gun) Lower Quarters to lead a scratch crew at S2 gun, he displayed courage and leadership and got his crew working well. On the occasion of the second attack the crew remained at their gun and continued to fire under his leadership until they were hit. Leading Seaman Rowley was killed at his post. (1st May, 1945).‘ While at the AWM I discovered there were other gunners who had been completely overlooked in the awards process. On 5th February, 1942, HMAS YARRA was escorting what was to be the last convoy to reach Singapore when, shortly before reaching its destination, it came under heavy air attack. In the final `Report of Proceedings’ (ROP) for the period 1st/10th February, 1942, YARRA’s captain, Commander Wilfred Hastings Harrington, RAN, had this to say of one of the gun crews on that day:6
`No. 3 Gun shot down one aircraft in barrage fire. This came down 2000x on starboard quarter. Two others are believed to have come down but I have been unable to obtain evidence which would enable me to report they were destroyed. Lieutenant Commander F.E. Smith, RANR – the O-O-Q of 3 Gun – Able Seaman George Joseph Frederick Lloyd, O.N. 18037 Captain of Gun and Able Seaman John Roland Oliver, O.N. 6/2284, RANR, and Geoffrey George Kimmers, O.N. 22898, the layer and trainer respectively are thought to have shown merit in bringing down this aircraft and it is submitted that consideration might be given to their receiving some recognition of their conduct …‘ He continued:
`In the organisation of this embarkation I was much assisted by Lieutenant Commander Robert William Rankin, RAN, who had embarked in HMAS YARRA for passage prior to relieving me on return to Batavia …
My officers and men performed their various tasks with that coordination and cooperation which they are accustomed to show in unforeseen circumstances.7 Acting Leading Seaman Ronald Taylor, O.N. 20863, the Captain of Gun No. 2 deserves commendation in that, on this occasion, as on many others, he controlled his Gun with judgment and determination. This rating’s keenness and courage are a good example to all those in his vicinity 8… 11th February. At 01302/11 I relinquished command of HMAS YARRA.‘ It was to prove a fateful changeover of command. Harrington went on to serve on HMAS AUSTRALIA from 1942-4, during which time he received his second MID – to add to the DSO and MID he had gained with YARRA while stationed in the Persian Gulf.9 In 1945 he commanded the destroyer HMAS QUIBERON. In the post-war years his career flourished such that by the early 1960s he had reached the rank of Rear Admiral. Finally he was appointed Chief of Naval Staff (CNS), with the rank of Vice Admiral, a position he held till February 1965.10 On the other hand, Rankin was to be killed in action within a month.