Remembering 1942: The Loss of HMAS Canberra Dr Chris Clark

Originally presented by Dr Chris Clark on Friday, 9 August 2002 beside the Roll of Honour at the Memorial, as part of the Roll of Honour Talks series.

Download the talk - 10:21 min (2.4 Mb Mp3)


This day sixty years ago the Australian heavy cruiser HMAS Canberra was lost in action in the Solomon Islands, some eighteen hundred kilometres off the North Queensland coast. Crippled in a short but ferocious engagement with a force of Japanese cruisers in the early hours of the morning, the RAN ship was abandoned and sunk at 8 a.m. by allied vessels before they withdrew from the area.

Accompanying Canberra to the depths of Ironbottom Sound were the bodies of nine officers and 64 men - the first of a total of 84 personnel who would die as a result of what is now known as the "Battle of Savo Island". Also killed in this action were 939 American officers and sailors, mostly from three US heavy cruisers that suffered the same fate as the Australian ship.

Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. I am Chris Clark, an historian here at the War Memorial, and it is my privilege to welcome you to this special commemorative presentation. Throughout this year, the Memorial is conducting a series of "Roll of Honour" talks to mark the anniversaries of the many momentous events of 1942. Today we specially remember the men of Canberra lost at Savo Island.

It is one of the ironies of the event we are recalling that such carnage and tragedy should have come from what initially seemed an important allied success. The presence of the allied cruisers, which included the RAN ships Australia and Hobart in addition to Canberra, was part of an operation intended to wrest back territory which Japan had earlier seized in its seemingly unstoppable campaign of conquest across Asia and the Pacific, begun just nine months before.

Prompting the allied operation, called "Watchtower", was the urgent need to seize control of a major airfield on the northern shores of Guadalcanal which occupying Japanese forces were building. Once the airfield was complete and brought into use, the Japanese would be able to extend their reach across the southern Pacific and put themselves astride the main routes of sea communication between Australia and its American ally. If this could be accomplished, Japan had no need to invade and conquer Australia, since this country could be largely isolated and its usefulness as a base for an allied fight-back effectively neutralised.

Recognising the strategic reality of the situation, the American Joint Chiefs of Staff began planning in July to make an early return to the Solomons, using the 1st Marine Division which was then in the process of moving to New Zealand. On 7 August the Marines were put ashore on Guadalcanal and other nearby islands, under cover of a large naval force which included three aircraft carriers.

The Japanese reaction to these landings was swift and deadly. The commander of the Japanese Eighth Fleet at Rabaul, Vice-Admiral Gunichi Mikawa, immediately assembled a striking force of five heavy cruisers, two light cruisers and one destroyer, and sailed towards the southern end of the Solomon Island chain with the intention of causing maximum disruption and damage to the allied operation.

Although much of Mikawa's passage had to be made during daylight hours, a series of mistakes and failings in the allied reconnaissance and intelligence reporting system allowed his progress to go undetected. Shortly before 1 a.m. on 9 August the Japanese ships were preparing to sweep around the southern side of Savo Island in a single column four and a half miles long, moving at a speed of 24 knots.

Sailing through a gap in the picket lines patrolled by US destroyers, the Japanese entered Ironbottom Sound and almost immediately came across one of two cruiser forces which had been positioned to deal with precisely the sort of threat which Mikawa's ships now posed. This allied group comprised Canberra and USS Chicago, along with several destroyers. Ordinarily it would also have included HMAS Australia, the flagship of the RAN's fleet commander, Rear Admiral Sir Victor Crutchley, but at this moment Australia was away delivering Crutchley to a commander's conference.

Contrary to a popular belief that has long been current, Canberra was not caught napping by the unexpected appearance of the enemy. Alert personnel on watch had, in fact, detected the presence of strange warships in the Sound. The ship's commander, Captain Frank Getting, had been summoned from his sleeping quarters and gun teams called to their action stations. Meanwhile, the cruiser began putting on speed and turning sharply to stay positioned between the unidentified intruders and the areas further inshore where unarmed troopships involved in the landing were sheltering.

Canberra was seconds away from opening fire, just as soon as an aiming point could be established in the dark, when she was hit with a torrent of shellfire from the Japanese at 1.44 am. Within minutes the ship's port side was smothered by at least 27 hits, leaving her on fire amidships. One enemy shell had struck the radio room, preventing the sending of a warning message to other ships that had been ordered. Japanese shells and torpedoes also damaged Chicago, and although this was nothing compared to the devastation caused to Canberra, it was enough to render the American cruiser ineffectual.

Canberra had not even fired a shot in her own defence, because within moments of the enemy's opening fire, the Australian cruiser had abruptly lost all power. There are good grounds for suspecting that she had been inadvertently struck on her starboard side by a torpedo fired by an American destroyer, Bagley, which was also attempting to engage the Japanese but had failed to take account of the evasive manoeuvres by Canberra.

Having brushed aside this first defensive group, Mikawa's ships steamed on by to engage a second force which had been sighted some ten kilometres away covering the northern passage around Savo Island. This was similarly composed to the southern group, and comprised three American heavy cruisers - Vincennes, Astoria and Quincy - with accompanying destroyers. Failing to properly heed the sounds of battle away on their flank, these ships were promptly overwhelmed with similar ease before the Japanese raiders sailed off again into the night at 2.20.

In the space of barely forty minutes, the Japanese had crippled and put out of action four allied capital ships, killing and wounding over a thousand personnel in them. As the battle ended, Canberra had been left a burning, drifting and listing hulk, Quincy was on the point of sinking, followed by Vincennes which finally capsized at 2.50. Astoria was - like Canberra - stopped and on fire, and, despite hopes that she could be salvaged, she went down at midday on 9 August.

In the stricken Australian cruiser, assistance was received from the American destroyers Patterson and Blue, which took off survivors and the wounded, and helped fight the fires that raged on board. The survivors were transferred to American transports, Fuller and Barnett, which were better equipped to deal with hospital cases. Many of the injured men were in poor condition, and several (including Captain Getting) died of their wounds. The fate of Canberra itself was sealed a few hours later when orders were received that, if she could not be got underway again, she was to be sunk. Accordingly, it fell to other US destroyers, Selfridge and Ellet, to send her to the bottom.

While Savo Island was a disastrous action for the allies, in the larger picture the operation that triggered it proved to be an important stepping-stone. The fight for Guadalcanal went on for months, but ultimately the vital airfield stayed in allied hands. The loss of Canberra, coming after the wartime sinkings of the cruisers Sydney and Perth, was a severe blow to such a small navy as Australia possessed. It was, however, eased a month later when the RAN received the gift from Britain of the eight-inch cruiser Shropshire as a replacement. When this ship was commissioned in the RAN in April 1943, her crew included a nucleus of men who were survivors of Canberra.

Perpetuating the Canberra name was a new heavy cruiser which the Americans decided to name for her as a special tribute. The christening of USS Canberra took place early in 1943, the ceremony being performed by Lady Dixon, the wife of the Australian Minister to Washington.

In 1981 the RAN received its own namesake of the original Canberra, in the form of a guided missile frigate of the US-built Oliver Hazard Perry class. This vessel has continued the tradition of service established by the first ship of the name, through several tours of duty in the hazardous Persian Gulf enforcing United Nations sanctions against Iraq and more recently as part of the international coalition against terrorism.

But today we recall the events of sixty years ago, when Australia – with our American allies – were confronted with the stern test of meeting a skilful, determined and brave adversary. We particularly remember the eight officers and 68 ratings of the RAN, recorded here on the Roll of Honour, along with two Royal Navy ratings, five members of the Royal Australian Air Force (shown elsewhere on these walls), and one US Navy officer, who died as a result of the Savo Island engagement of 9 August 1942.