The Australian heavy cruiser, HMAS Canberra, was sunk without firing a shot early on 9 August 1942. The loss was a heavy blow to the small Royal Australian Navy contingent in the south-west Pacific as the Allies, on land and at sea, struggled to fend off an aggressive series of Japanese thrusts into the region.
Off to the west, in Papua, the Australians were in full retreat on the Kokoda Track, while the US Navy tried to wrestle the initiative from the Japanese on the strategically critical island of Guadalcanal.
In the midnight Battle of Savo Island, the British-built Australian cruiser was mortally wounded in the devastating surprise attack boldly launched by a Japanese strike force led by Vice Admiral Gunichi Mikawa.
The Solomon Islands chain formed a vital link in American communications and supply to Australia. Likewise, controlling the Solomons secured Australia’s vulnerable maritime flank. When the Americans learned the Japanese had started bulldozing an airfield out of the jungle on Guadalcanal’s long eastern shore, they hastily launched Operation Watchtower, landing the 1st US Marine Division on 7 August.
The task force under Rear Admiral Victor Crutchley (a Briton seconded to the Australians), and headed up by American Rear Admiral Richmond Kelly Turner, had been drawn up at one of three possible entrances to the sound between Guadalcanal and Savo Island to guard the Americans’ landing beaches.
That evening, a conference of the senior commanders – Turner, Crutchley and the marines’ commander, Major General A. Archer Vandegrift – decided the enemy convoy sighted off Bougainville that morning was headed elsewhere.
Shock and gore
Aboard the HMAS Canberra, Captain Frank Getting was tired but seemed relaxed when he ordered the cruiser into position astern of the squadron’s flagship, HMAS Australia, to start the night’s patrol in the southern entrance to the waters between Florida Island and Guadalcanal.
Midshipman Bruce Loxton recalled:
‘The scene was set for another quiet night on patrol, screened as we were by the US destroyers Bagley and Patterson on each bow, and with the radar pickets Blue and Ralph Talbot patrolling to seaward of Savo. Even the unexplained presence of an aircraft soon after midnight did nothing to alert us to the possibility that things were not quite as peaceful as they seemed’.
Officer-of-the-watch, Sub Lt Mackenzie Gregory, reported bad weather ahead of the screening force made seeing much through the murk that night incredibly difficult.
‘Savo Island was cloaked in rain, mist hung in the air – there was no moon. A light N.E. wind moved the low-lying cloud, thunder rolled across the sky.’
Lightning flashes broke the darkness and rain brought visibility back to about 100 yards. Visibility was so poor that one of the American guard ships, USS Jarvis, had already let the Japanese attackers slip past unseen. Then, at 1.43am, just before a scheduled change of course, everything happened at once.
On the Canberra’s port bow, the USS Patterson signalled ‘Warning. Warning. Strange ships entering harbour’, increased speed and changed course. Canberra’s duty principal controlling officer, Lt Commander E.J.B. Wight, caught sight of three ships looming out of the darkness off the starboard bow, gave the alarm and ‘the order to load the eight-inch turrets’.
As Capt Getting pounded up the bridge ladder from his cabin, Gregory ‘sighted torpedo tracks approaching down the starboard side – the captain ordered full ahead and starboard 35 to quickly swing the ship to starboard’.
Loxton was called out of his bunk nearby as Getting issued his orders.
‘I could see nothing through the binoculars. The night was as black as the inside of a cow and the rapid movement of the ship did not make searching any easier.’
The bridge smashed by shellfire
Illuminating shells lit up the channel and Japanese planes dropped flares on the Canberra’s starboard side to silhouette the Allied ships for their hunters powering in from the other direction.
Sub Lt Gregory stared with sudden shock as the lenses of his binoculars filled with enemy cruisers speeding towards them.
‘There was an explosion amidships, we were hit on the four-inch gun deck, the Walrus aircraft was blazing fiercely on the catapult,’ he remembered. ‘A shell exploded on the port side just below the compass platform and another just aft of the fore control.’
Lt Commander Donald Hole was decapitated in the blast and Lt Commander James Plunkett-Cole at the bridge port torpedo station was sent sprawling. Another shell plunged into the bridge.
The ship’s navigator, Lt Commander Jack Mesley, was temporarily blinded by the explosion that smashed into the plot office. As his sight cleared, he saw that Hole was dead and the compass platform was littered with bodies. Gregory recalled:
‘The shell that demolished the port side of the compass platform mortally wounded the captain, killed Lieutenant-Commander Hole, the Gunnery Officer, wounded Lieutenant-Commander Plunkett-Cole, the Torpedo Officer and severely wounded Midshipmen Bruce Loxton and Noel Sanderson. I had virtually been surrounded by shell hits but luckily remained unscathed’
Capt Getting was hurt, badly. By his side, Lt Commander Donald Hole, lay dead. Getting struggled to sit up and asked for a damage report. His right leg had in fact been virtually blasted off, both his hands were bleeding, and he had head and face wounds.
Only dimly did the wounded officers realise the ship had lost power and was listing to starboard. The four-inch gun deck was ablaze, the lights below decks went out, leaving the wounded and their rescuers virtually helpless in the dark. No-one was sure exactly what had happened, and although the ship had dodged several torpedoes in the first moments of contact, it had been pounded by shellfire from the Japanese cruisers.
With the captain down, the ship’s wounded second-in-command, Commander John Walsh, took over.
Cruiser dead in the water
The Canberra had been smashed by more than two dozen direct hits as the Japanese force, comprising the heavy cruisers Chokai, Aoba, Kinugasa, Furutaka and Kako, the light cruisers Tenryu, Yubari and the destroyer Yunagi, surged past on their way to attack a screening group of American ships.
Left a burning wreck and virtually dead in the water, the Canberra wallowed in the gentle swell of the channel. It had not been able to fire even one shot.
Crutchley returned from his conference at dawn to find the Canberra still ablaze – he ordered it sunk if it could not withdraw with the main naval force. With no power aboard, bucket brigades were the only means by which the crew could fight the fierce fires.
The 626 unwounded members of Canberra’s 816-strong crew were taken off by American destroyers and she went to the bottom at 8am after the Americans pasted her with 369 shells and four torpedoes (only one of which detonated).
The USS Ellet was called on to deliver the final blow by firing a single torpedo into the dying Canberra’s hull. She took with her the bodies of 9 officers and 64 men.
To rub salt into the Allies’ wounds, Mikawa and his strike force steamed back to Rabaul virtually unmolested. The US Navy lost two heavy cruisers, the USS Vincennes and the USS Quincey, saw the heavy cruiser, USS Astoria, reduced to a burning wreck, while the USS Chicago took two torpedo hits.