HMAS Canberra and HMAS Shropshire – “Never Say Die “

HMAS Canberra and HMAS Shropshire. “Never Say Die”. Address at Canberra Memorial – Lake Burley Griffin. 9 August 2017. Lieutenant Commander Desmond Woods, RANR.

Chief of Navy, Chief of Air Force, Representatives of the ACT Government, the United Kingdom, the United States and New Zealand, Veterans, Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen.

On the last day of June this year one of our HMAS Canberra (I) sailors, Lieutenant Commander Henry ‘Nobby’ Hall, MBE, OAM died peacefully at his home in Shoalhaven. He was in his 95th year. Henry was a highly respected sailor and officer. Navy blue blood ran in his veins. He was given a naval ceremonial funeral at HMAS Albatross with a guard from the ship’s company firing volleys and Fleet Air Arm helicopters flying over his funeral cortege. His action station in August 1942 was as a rangefinder half way up Canberra’s foremast and that meant that he witnessed, and was exposed to the inferno, that destroyed his ship on this day 75 years ago. Aged just 20 he was mentioned in despatches for his tireless efforts assisting medical teams for the days and nights which followed the attack.

He narrowly survived the war at sea and then devoted himself to looking after his sailors while serving a forty three year long career. He continued to mentor young officers during his four decades long retirement. He lived for nearly 75 years after he lost his 84 shipmates at the Battle of Savo Island. He never forgot them. Now he has joined them. Henry’s daughter Gwyneth and his partner Joyce are with us this morning.

This morning at dawn the ashes of Petty Officer Reginald Surawski from Canberra (I) were scattered into the sea off Eden in the presence of the ship’s company by the Commanding Officer and Chaplain of HMAS Canberra (III). Vale Henry. Vale Reginald.

Karl von Clausewitz famously wrote that war is the realm of uncertainty and chance. The lived experience of war at sea bears this out. Ships, like people, can be the victims of circumstances, not of their own making. So it is with the story of the loss of the RAN’s heavy cruiser HMAS Canberra at Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands.

It took many decades for the fog of war and operational secrecy to lift 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 battle-ready. In fact nothing could be further from the truth. 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 wrote:

“Ammunition and medical parties were standing by. In the boiler rooms all sprayers had been connected and engines 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 engage 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.”

As we know at that moment a torpedo slammed into Canberra’s starboard side and flooded both her boiler rooms. Three minutes after Captain Frank Getting took command of his bridge his ship was no longer answering her rudder and as she had lost electric power she was unable to train or fire her main armament. She quickly took on a 7 degree list to starboard.

Captain Frank Getting

Simultaneously Japanese float planes dropped brilliant flares which illuminated the allied cruisers in what came to be known as Ironbottom Sound. In just two minutes at least 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. The gunnery officer was dead and Captain Getting was clearly mortally wounded.

Before becoming unconscious he acknowledged his Executive Officer’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 milk churns filled with sea water ensued. 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 quarterdeck. The wounded were searched for below decks, 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 Getting was attended to by the medical team. Eye witnesses later reported 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 the captain and his ship were both stricken and barely alive. The ship was still on fire and was now listing 17 degrees.

In heavy rain, with thunder and lightning illuminating the sombre scene, Canberra’s seventy dead who could be found, were committed to the deep from the quarterdeck. Her wounded and exhausted survivors prepared to be taken off by the destroyer USS Patterson which came alongside.
Patterson’s crew played hoses on a large fire which was setting off anti-aircraft ammunition. 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 allied fleet defending the Guadalcanal beachhead and the Marine’s transport ships. The decision was made that Canberra had to be abandoned and then sunk.

But exhausted officers and sailors would not leave their ship until every accessible compartment had been searched for anyone left alive but trapped below decks. Then, when that was done, at the insistence of Canberra’s men, the stretcher cases went across to Patterson first, including the now unconscious Frank Getting.
Writing later to Rear Admiral Crutchley, RN, the Commander of the Task Force, Patterson’s Captain, Commander Frank 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 gracious gesture from a Commanding Officer who had just lost ten of his own men killed when his destroyer was raked by Japanese cruiser’s shells. The destroyer USS Blue then came alongside Canberra and took off 343 survivors including 18 seriously wounded. Patterson returned to Canberra, as Frank Walker had promised, and took another 398 of Canberra’s men to the transport ship USS Barnett. Seventy survivors were badly wounded including Commander Walsh whose facial wounds were bandaged and therefore could no longer see. As the Blue moved away from Canberra he heard his men give three cheers for their ship. He asked if her white ensign was still flying and was told that it was there streaming in the storm from her mizzen mast. Canberra went down with her colours flying. This evacuation by two small destroyers of so many men was a feat of courage, compassion and seamanship by the United States Navy which saved the lives of 745 of Canberra’s crew and is never forgotten by the RAN or the descendents of those rescued.

Captain Getting was operated on by American surgeons but died of his wounds on board USS Barnett on passage to Noumea. He had just turned 43. He was buried at sea. Eleven more of his crew died of wounds after the battle. Of the 819 serving in Canberra, 193 were casualties. Of these 84 were dead. We need to remember the scale of American lives lost. The United States Navy lost the cruisers USS Quincy, Astoria, and Vincennes. In total the USN lost 1024 men killed at Savo Island in cruisers and destroyers. A further 709 were seriously wounded. We remember that among Canberra’s dead were members of the Royal Navy on loan service to the RAN.

The RAAF pilot of Canberra’s aircraft, Flight Lieutenant Duncan Murchison, and four of his airmen were killed. We know that Duncan Murchison knew that his wife had a baby girl Robyn born in the days before he was killed. Robyn is with us this morning and later today she will attend the Last Post ceremony at the Australian War Memorial to be held in her father’s honour where she will lay a wreath to his memory.

It took 263 rounds of 5 inch shell and four torpedoes from US destroyers to sink the still burning, abandoned, listing hulk that was Canberra. She was a tough ship to sink.

This was a traumatic moment in the history of the RAN. This was the third Australian cruiser to be sunk 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 Prime Minister 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 RN’s 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 to the RAN. It was intended by the Australian Government 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 or capital city. It was a remarkable decision from a great President and a generous tribute from the USN to the courage shown by Canberra’s crew at Savo Island.

Allied naval commanders learned the hard lessons of this lost battle. Sun Tzu, the Chinese Military strategist wrote more that 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, RAN and RNZN went on the offensive and won the Pacific War and destroyed the Imperial Japanese Navy just three years after the defeat at Savo Island. The cost of victory was very high in ships, aircraft and allied lives.

Canberra’s battle-scarred survivors played their part in that victory. They came home to Australia to be treated, took leave, joined with their new shipmates and then in October 1942 were sent across the Pacific, North America and the Atlantic. They went to Chatham dockyard in UK to take over HMAS Shropshire and steam her back to Sydney. Captain John Collins and the ship’s company were pleased to get to sea as the Chatham dockyard was a target for Luftwaffe air raids. Her Gunnery Officer, Commander 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 training and waiting for a chance to hit back and avenge their lost friends 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 guns crews painted the name CANBERRA, so that no one would doubt what the ship’s company were fighting for. This was now a very personal war.

Shropshire was in the thick of the fight for 18 months. She supported 15 landings, provided 56 shore bombardments, destroyed 9 batteries of enemy guns, and saved the lives of countless US and Australian troops heading for enemy occupied beaches. She shot down 19 attacking aircraft. In the mid Pacific she fought off waves of kamikaze suicide attacks. 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 – recognised by the Americans as being superb shooting. Shropshire’s gun crews achieved those thirty two broadsides from eight guns in fourteen minutes forty seconds – four rounds per gun every minute, an amazing feat of strength and determination – worthy of highly trained athletes.

Yamashiro fired back and straddled Shropshire with six massive 14 inch shells any one of which might have destroyed her had it hit a vital place. Shropshire’s weary but jubilant gunners stopped firing to witness the final sinking of the Yamashiro by USN and RAN destroyers and by aircraft. The 84 dead from Canberra and Captain Frank Getting were now well and truly avenged

In August 1945 Shropshire steamed into Yokohama Bay and later witnessed the surrender of Japan to the Allies on board the USS Missouri. Then she carried home from Japan to Sydney, emaciated Australian and British Prisoners of War.

These were some of the last survivors from Japanese mines and factories and included RAN sailors who had survived the sinking of HMAS Perth in Sunda Strait in 1942 and the building of the Thai-Burma railway.

Shropshire was chosen to represent Australia and the RAN at the Spithead Naval Review and the London Victory March in 1946. Among the men marching past the cheering crowds down Whitehall were Canberra survivors. It was a long way from the tragedy and loss of Ironbottom Sound where their ship lies.

It was very fitting that these men should be given this high honour. They were representatives of all those RAN and RAN Volunteer Reserve officers and sailors, living and dead, including their 84 lost shipmates, who had helped make an allied victory at sea a reality.

These young sailors brought great glory on their ship, on their Navy and on their homeland. Shropshire was manned in part by Canberra’s survivors who had endured horror, fear and what we now call battleshock. Yet they came back from death and defeat fighting hard and in doing so earned their personal Victory in the Pacific Day.

At this memorial every year we remember Canberra’s dead. Six of Shropshire’s men died on active service we remember them too. We remember all those US Marines who died in the ‘Green Hell’ of Guadalcanal seventy five years ago. We remember our RAN Coastwatchers who were essential to the US success in the South West Pacific and who so often paid for their bravery with their lives when they were caught and executed.

The new USN heavy cruiser USS Canberra went to war in 1944 and was hit off Formosa by a guided bomb. Ten of her sailors were killed. We remember them here today.

Our wartime sailors returned to Australia, some to stay in the Navy and become our professional forebears and others to return to their civilian lives. They were all forever changed by the realities of war they had witnessed and endured. We remember collectively that passing generation today with pride, respect and affection. We remember those young men who were lost with Canberra, whom we never knew. We remember those who like Henry Hall survived to fight another day and to serve the nation and Navy and are now gone from among us.

Some of us gathered here knew these veterans well. They were our fathers, grandfathers, shipmates, mentors and our friends. They were lifelong members of the naval family and they founded the Canberra-Shropshire Association. Canberra survivor Admiral Sir Victor Smith dedicated this memorial to his shipmates and I am very aware that he and many other Canberra veterans gave this annual memorial address.

Here, at their memorial, in 2017, on the 75th anniversary of the loss of their gallant ship, in our national capital, in the heart of the land they loved, HMAS Canberra ship’s company mounts a catafalque guard in their honour and the last post sounds for them all. We do this for them and we do it for ourselves.

Lest we forget.

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