Teddy Sheean. (Photo: Australian Navy)

Director Craig Monahan’s next feature is set to explore the story of HMAS Armidale, an Australian ship sunk by the Japanese in WWII in a three-minute hellfire off the coast of East Timor.

Titled Armidale, the project has been in development for more than 20 years, written by John Cundill and Monahan, and produced by Monahan and Ross Matthews, former Screen Australia head of production investment.

Rob Slaviero and Michael Selwyn have come on board as executive producers.

Monahan said the recent controversy around the HMAS Armidale’s 18 year old gun loader Edward ‘Teddy’ Sheean, who was denied the Victoria Cross despite the recommendation of the Defence Honours and Awards Appeals Tribunal, demonstrates the national interest in this story.

“Teddy Sheean stayed at his post during the three-minute firefight and went down with the ship, his gun still firing. Sheean was extraordinary, but his actions are but one part of the fascinating and multi-layered Armidale story,” Monahan said.

When Armidale left Darwin in late 1942, the task for the crew under Captain David Richards was to transport 53 Dutch East Indies (Javanese) specialist fighters across to Timor. However, adverse conditions and the attentions of the Japanese Air Force meant that the rendezvous was missed. With his position known by the enemy, Captain Richards requested permission to return to Darwin. Commodore Pope, Naval Officer in Charge in Darwin, believed that the Japanese Air Force did not represent a significant threat, denied the request and ordered Richards to return to Timor to complete the mission.

Exposed in the Timor sea, Armidale was located by the Japanese Air Force and attacked by three fighters and nine bombers armed with aerial torpedoes. Many died in the initial battle and nearly 100 were left in the water, split between a small leaking motorboat, an old whaler and a cobbled together raft.

Captain Richards, the only officer with navigational skills, took the wounded in the motorboat and headed for a known reconnaissance area. He and the men were spotted and rescued. Richards was then able to direct the air search to find his crew. Despite desperate searches over an extended period of time, these men were never seen again.

Back in Darwin, there was a full inquiry, but the results were never made public and remained classified for over 50 years. Consequently, the story of the Armidale and the incredible bravery of the men was never acknowledged or rewarded. In total, only 46 of the 149 men aboard survived.

“This a story that needs to be told” says Monahan. “It is an extraordinary true story, with great heart and emotional depth with a political sting in the tail.”

“There is great heroism and tragic loss which, sadly, might have been avoided. It is above all, the story of the individuals involved and the people at home waiting for their loved ones to return.”

“Within the Australian Navy, the story of Armidale is legendary. The Australian Navy Patrol Boats are called Armidale Class and in 1999 a Collins-class Submarine was named The Sheean – the only ship ever named after an ordinary seaman.”

“I will be very proud to bring this story to the screen.”

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