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Gallantry honours.

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Thursday 1 September 2005

John Bradford, military historian


Gallantry Honours  


After a 32-year career in Defence Science - the majority spent conducting studies of the air-defence capability of our Navy ships - I retired from the Government Defence Science and Technology Organisation in 1992. One year later I came across a newspaper article which related how our navy had chosen to name the fifth Collins-class submarine after Teddy Sheean, an 18-year-old Ordinary Seaman from Tasmania. Sheean had sacrificed his life, single-handedly defending shipmates struggling in the water after their ship, the corvette, HMAS Armidale, had been torpedoed by Japanese aircraft. I was intrigued to find there was no reference in the article to any gallantry award being conferred on Teddy. This omission was to change the course of my life.  


What began as a single-issue case study, blossomed later into a wide-ranging investigation of the gallantry awards system as it was applied, not only to our navy in World War 2 but also, in certain instances, our army and airforce. My research focused principally on the rules governing posthumous awards - and various anomalies associated with such awards - that operated throughout World War 2. Files held at the Public Record Office in London show that British military authorities were well aware of specific shortcomings in the awards system - during the war, they were in no position to ‘change horses in mid-stream’. 


In World War 2, the British classified gallantry ‘in the presence of the enemy’ by means of a four-tier system of awards. The highest award, of course was the Victoria Cross; the lowest, the Mention in Despatches - or ‘mention’ as it was more commonly known. But for posthumous gallantry there were only two awards possible: again the Victoria Cross and the ‘mention’. There was nothing in between. The situation could arise where, if a recommendation for the highest award were not successful then the only recourse available was to grant the ‘mention’. In passing, Sheean was one of those who received a posthumous ‘mention’, he was not recommended for a Victoria Cross as many observers believe he should have been.  


While it was never my intention for my research to become embroiled in controversy, I hold the view that where it could be shown that Australian servicemen did not receive recognition because of known shortcomings in the system, then it would certainly be justifiable for me to bring such issues to the attention of present-day Australian government authorities, in the hope that where injustices can be shown to have occurred, they might - even 60 years on - be rectified.  


But before I could do this, I first needed reassurance that such a course could be justified and would not result in unnecessary hurt for either the next-of-kin, or the men who had served with the personnel concerned. I was acutely aware that raising sensitive issues with loved ones might re-kindle memories of those painful times and might therefore prove counter productive. Even so, I felt they had a right to know what the authorities had done in their name. The only other alternative really was to let ‘sleeping dogs lie’.  


What helped materially to resolve this ethical dilemma was my being contacted by a lady following an interview I gave on an Adelaide radio station concerning the loss of the Armidale. This lady - who would only have been 18 when Armidale was lost in 1942 - told me her fiancé was serving in the corvette and was among those who had not survived. Suddenly confronted by all of those tragic memories of all those years ago, she told me that, ‘yes’, some tears had been shed; nonetheless she was profoundly grateful for at last knowing something of the circumstances of how her fiancé had met his death.  


Four years ago I discovered that, in line with a decision taken by the British in November 1943, Australian Prisoners of War executed by the Japanese for attempting to escape had been approved for posthumous recognition. Post war, Australian military authorities had failed to confer the awards; worse still, those who had the most right to know were never told anything of the failure to grant this recognition. Despite this issue having received occasional yet widespread coverage by the media and having been the subject of a speech in the House of Representatives, the government still declines to take any positive action on these men’s just claims for recognition. All those years ago these men were let down by the system, today their sacrifice and devotion to duty still remains unrecognised. This, as we commemorate the 60th Anniversary of the end of World War 2, I find totally inexcusable.  


Guests on this program:

John Bradford