By LCDR Desmond Woods, RANR
Karl von Clausewitz famously wrote that war is the realm of uncertainly. The lived experience of war at sea bears this out. Ships like people can be the Victims of Circumstances, not of their making. So it is with the story of the RAN’s Heavy cruiser HMAS Canberra.
It can take many decades for the fog of war to be dispersed and the truth to become visible. When the survivors of Canberra arrived back in Sydney the ill informed told them that they should be ashamed because their ship had been shelled and lost without them having fired back. It was claimed that they were not were not battle ready. In fact nothing could be further from the truth.
CANBERRA at Tulagi
Listen to the eye witness account of Midshipman, later Commodore Bruce Loxton, RAN who was seriously wounded on the bridge of Canberra. He robustly rebutted all claims that Canberra was not ready for action on the night she was lost. He was an eye witness on the bridge and he wrote:
Ammunition and medical parties were standing by. In the boiler rooms all sprayers had been connected and were responding as the senior engineer opened the throttles. The engines had achieved the revolutions for 26 knots when all steam pressure disappeared. All four 8- inch turrets were fully manned the guns loaded and all control personnel were at their stations. The turrets were moving in unison as they sought their target. Torpedo tube crews and searchlight control parties were standing by. In short before power was lost, Canberra was ready in all respects to go about the business of engaging the enemy. The ship was working up to full speed. All that was lacking was an aiming point before opening fire and a little more time, because, just as power was lost the gunnery director saw the first Japanese cruiser on the port beam.
CANBERRA’s 8 inch guns
As we know at that moment a torpedo slammed into Canberra’s starboard side. Where that torpedo originated from has been extensively written about over many decades and this is not the time or place for such a discussion. What we do know is that three minutes after Captain Frank Getting took command of his bridge his ship was no longer answering her rudder and was unable to train or fire her main armament. She took on a 7 degree list to starboard as her boiler rooms flooded and she lost way.
Simultaneously Japanese float planes dropped brilliant flares which perfectly illuminated all the allied cruisers in what came to be known as Iron Bottom Sound. In just two minutes twenty eight heavy calibre shells rained down on Canberra like a drumbeat and destroyed her as a fighting ship. Two salvos hit the bridge and killed or wounded the command team. The Executive Officer, Commander Walsh, was summoned to the bridge from his action station in the aft conning position. It was a scene of carnage. Captain Getting was clearly mortally wounded. Before becoming unconscious he acknowledged his XO’s presence and told him to “Carry On” and through the night Commander Walsh led the fight to save the ship.
A tremendous battle to control flooding and to put out fires with buckets and blankets ensued. There was no water main pressure because there was no power.
Fires on the upper deck were controlled but those between decks raged on unchecked.
Sailors threw ammunition over the side to ensure that it could not explode. They flooded magazines before fire could reach them. The dead were brought onto the upper deck. The wounded were found and taken to the wardroom which was converted into an operating theatre, lit by paraffin lanterns, where the medical team treated shattered limbs and terrible burns.
Captain Frank Getting, was taken below to be attended to by the medical team. Eye witnesses said that he knew he could not survive his wounds and insisted, when conscious, that Surgeon Captain Downward and his sick bay attendants leave him and work on his injured sailors who could be saved. By dawn it became clear Getting’s life could not be saved and neither could that of his ship. They were both stricken and barely alive. Canberra was beyond repair by the ship’s company and far from dockyard support.
She could not take her place in what remained of the fleet defending the Guadalcanal beachhead and the Marines transports.
Canberra’s dead were committed to the deep from the quarterdeck and her wounded and exhausted survivors prepared to be taken off by the destroyer USS Patterson which came alongside and, at the insistence of Canberra’s men, started embarking the stretcher cases first, including the unconscious Frank Getting.
Writing later to Rear Admiral Crutchley, RN, the Commander of the Task Force, Patterson’s Captain, Commander Frank R Walker, USN, chose to pay this tribute to the steadiness of Canberra’s exhausted men:
The Commanding Officer and entire ship’s company of the USS Patterson noted with admiration the calm, cheerful and courageous spirit displayed by officers and men of Canberra. When Patterson left from alongside because of what was then believed to be an enemy ship close by there were no outcries or entreaties — rather a cheery ‘Carry on Patterson, good luck!’ — and prompt and efficient casting off of lines, brows etc. Not a man stepped out of line. The Patterson feels privileged to have served so gallant a crew.
This remarkable letter was a most gracious gesture from a Commanding Officer who had just lost 10 of his own men killed when his ship was raked by Japanese shells.
The destroyer USS Blue then came alongside and took off 343 survivors including 18 seriously wounded. Patterson returned to Canberra, as her CO Frank Walker promised she would, and took another 398 men to USS Barnett.
Captain Getting was operated on by American surgeons but died of his wounds on board USS Barnett on passage to Noumea. He was buried at sea on 9 August. Of the 819 serving in Canberra, 193 were casualties of whom, 84 were dead.
It took 263 rounds of 5 inch shell and two more torpedoes from US destroyers to sink the still burning, abandoned hulk that was Canberra.
This was a traumatic moment in the history of the RAN. This was the third Australian cruiser to be lost in war since December 1941; the light cruisers Sydney and Perth had been destroyed in battle and now the heavy cruiser Canberra was also gone.
In London PM Winston Churchill, on hearing the news of Canberra’s destruction, decided that Australia should be given a Royal Navy cruiser to replace Canberra. He wrote privately to the First Sea Lord: ‘the Australians have lost their 8 inch cruiser Canberra. It might have a lasting effect on Australian sentiment if we gave freely and outright to the Royal Australian Navy one of our similar ships. Please give your most sympathetic consideration to this project.’
HMS Shropshire, a County class heavy cruiser, a sister ship to Canberra, was chosen as the ship to be transferred. It was intended to change her name to Canberra. But before that announcement was made the USN announced that President Roosevelt had chosen to name the next Baltimore Class heavy cruiser to be launched USS Canberra. This was the first and only time that an American warship has been named for a foreign warship. It was tribute and compliment to the courage shown by Canberra’s crew at Savo Island.
Canberra‘s battle scarred survivors came home to Australia to be treated and sent back to war. They were supplemented with new recruits and sent to Chatham dockyard in UK to pick up Shropshire and steam her back to the Pacific. Captain John Collins and the ship’s company were pleased to get to sea as the Chatham dockyard was a target for regular Luftwaffe air raids and Shropshire’s anti-aircraft guns crews engaged the bombers night after night joining the Ack Ack defence of the naval town. Her Gunnery Officer, CMDR Bracegirdle, wrote of Shropshire’s ship’s company: The welding together of Canberra’s veterans and young sailors with keenness and the possibility of retaliation against the King’s enemies in the Pacific, was quite astounding. The ship was happy and efficient from the very first. A fine ship sailed into Sydney Harbour ready for battle and action.
All on board were burning for a chance to hit back and avenge their lost comrades and to show what they could do in battle when they were able to train their turrets and fight.
Inside Shropshire‘s 8 inch gun turrets the crews stencilled the name CANBERRA so that no one would doubt what the guns crews were fighting for. This was now a very personal war. They got their chance. Shropshire was in the thick of the fight for 18 months in 15 battles starting in the South West Pacific. She provided deadly accurate bombardments destroying Japanese shore batteries for the Australian and American armies.
In the mid Pacific she closed up to action stations to fight off waves of kamikaze suicide attacks and shot down at least eleven aircraft. Twice this lucky ship avoided torpedoes that passed within feet of her bow and stern. Her greatest chance to hit back at the Japanese fleet was at the Battle of Surigao Straits in the Philippines in October 1944. Her target, along with other allied ships, was the powerful Japanese battleship Yamashiro. Shropshire’s gunners fired thirty-two broadsides, closing in to 12,700 yards to do so.
They achieved nineteen straddles and sixteen broadside hits – superb shooting by the standards of that era. Shropshire‘s gun crews achieved their thirty two broadsides in fourteen minutes forty seconds – an amazing feat of strength and determination – worthy of highly trained athletes. Yamashiro fired back and straddled Shropshire with massive 14 inch shells any one of which might have destroyed her. The weary but jubilant gunners stopped firing to witness the sinking of the huge Yamashiro by USN ships and aircraft ably assisted by the Australian destroyer HMAS Arunta. The 84 dead from Canberra and Captain Frank Getting were well and truly avenged.
SHROPHIRE carrying out bombardment
In August 1945 Shropshire steamed into Yokohama Bay and witnessed the surrender of Japan to the Allies on board the USS Missouri. Then she carried home from Japan, sick and emaciated Australian and British Prisoners of War. They were some of the last survivors from Japanese slave mines and included RAN who had survived the sinking of HMAS Perth in Sunda Strait in 1942.
Shropshire‘s was chosen to represent Australia and the RAN at Spithead and in in the London Victory March in 1946. Among the men marching were Canberra survivors. It was a long way from the Ironbottom Sound. It was very fitting that they should be given this high honour. They were representatives of all those RAN officers and sailors, living and dead, including their 84 lost shipmates, who had made victory a reality. There has not been another RAN seagoing ship named HMAS Shropshire but her name lives on as a Training Ship for Australian Navy Cadets.
It lived on in the memories of men who took her to war and lives still in the annals of the RAN. These young men brought great glory on their ship, on their Navy and on their homeland. Shropshire was manned by many men who had endured horror, fear and what we now call battle shock, yet they came back from death and defeat at Savo Island fighting hard and in doing so earned a very personal Victory in the Pacific.
At this memorial we remember Canberra’s 84 dead every year. We remember that members of the Royal Navy serving in Canberra were among her dead. And we remember all those USN who died defending the Marine Beachhead. When they sank USS Quincy lost 370 men, Astoria lost 219, and Vincennes lost 332. In total the United States Navy lost 1024 killed at Savo Island in cruisers and destroyers.
It learned the hard lessons of this battle. Sun Tzu, the Chinese Military strategist wrote 2000 years ago: Do not presume that the enemy will not come – prepare to meet him.
That age old lesson was re learned and the USN, RN and RAN went on the offensive and went on to win the Pacific War and destroy the Imperial Japanese Navy just three years after the Battle for Guadalcanal was won.
The USS Canberra went to war in 1944 and was hit by an air torpedo off Formosa. Ten of her sailors were killed. We remember them too.
Next year it will be 75 years since the Battle of Savo Island. The number of veterans of the RAN and USN who were there is now small indeed. We remember them all today with pride, respect and affection. We remember those who were lost with Canberra, whom we never knew, and those who survived to fight another day in Shropshire returned to Australia to lead their civilian lives.
Many of us gathered here knew those brave men well. I am very aware that some of the veterans gave this memorial address in years gone by. They were our fathers, grandfathers and RAN colleagues and our friends. They were also lifelong members of the naval family and the Canberra-Shropshire Association.
Here at their memorial today the Last Post will sound for them all.