By Kathryn Spurling, Publishers New Holland, Sydney, 2016. Paperback, 255 pp with b & w illustrations, maps and portraits. Available most bookshops from $33.00 with discounts available.
The author served in the WRANS then devoted her career to history. For 15 years she was on the staff of ADFA and she has published histories of HMAS Perth Iand Bomber Command during World War II. This book covers the story of the County Class cruiser, HMAS Canberra, from building in 1928, commissioning, service during the financially constrained years of the Great Depression and preparation for operational service from 1939. The Washington Treaty of 1922 sought to prevent another arms race among the major navies by limiting naval construction. To wriggle within constraints of the treaty the County class cruisers were built without 100 mm of armour plating, a common feature of heavy cruisers of the day. As the dark clouds preceding World War II gathered, armour plating was added to HMAS Australia, but not Canberra. All three services were drastically reduced during the 1930s and the RAN was diluted to 3200 officers and men to retain two heavy cruisers and two destroyers in commission. During those years Canberra was limited to home waters, showing the flag and training ordinary seamen emerging from Recruit School at Flinders Naval Depot. Examples of a lackadaisical Navy have been taken from journals, letters and interviews. Unrest on the lower deck was aggravated by reduced rates of pay, poor food and personnel policies the author relates to the Naval Board’s strict adherence to attitudes in the RN that had failed to keep pace with a changing society. All impacted on the operational effectiveness of the Navy. There are many references to aspects of junior officers’ training which required them to spend many years serving in ships and training establishments of the RN, implying that thismouldedtheir attitudes more closely to the stratifications of British society, thus creating officers who did not suit the mores of the less stratified society from which Australia’s ratings were recruited. Ratings that had transferred from the RN were preferred to men who had been recruited and trained locally. Aspects of class related attitudes are also mentioned when covering senior officers loaned from the RN during the 1920s and ’30s.
Following the declaration of war in 1939, Canberra’s Engineer Officer, Commander (E) ‘Spanner’ McMahon, made numerous appeals to his superiors to highlight inadequate maintenance and modifications. He warned of the reduced levels of skill and experience arising from rushed training and erratic drafting policies. The outbreak of war saw Canberra involved in convoy duties, a role that irked her ship’s company as they followed the active involvement of their colleagues in the Mediterranean. Her only action prior August 1942 was to force the scuttling of two German support ships in the Indian Ocean.
Following Pearl Harbor and the invasion of Malaya and the Philippines, the military might of Japan continued unabated. By early May 1942 the Japanese were established at Rabaul and had landed in Tulagi in the Solomon Islands to strengthen their plans to continue on to Port Moresby. Although the battle of the Coral Sea interrupted Japan’s plans for Port Moresby, the Solomons had to be secured to stem the tide. The first amphibious operation by Allied forces in the Pacific was planned in mid-July to achieve this goal. A force of 48 warships and 27 transports formed to land US Marines at Guadalcanal. Canberraand HMA Ships Australia and Hobart formed part of this task force. The landing of the Marines was lightly opposed, then followed by an air strike from Rabaul that was repelled. A Japanese fleet of cruisers and destroyers sailed from Rabaul and was able to attack part of the Allied force without warning. Poor intelligence, poor communications between American and Australian ships, delayed and unheeded information from RAAF patrols and coast watchers resulted in Canberracoming under heavy fire during the middle watch of 9 August. Canberratook 29 shells within two minutes. The boiler room fans were destroyed leaving the ship without steam and electrical power. Two hours later USS Patterson came alongside to assist with firefighting and rescue of ship’s company. Subsequently USS Chicago opened fire before realising she had a friendly target. The Japanese sank four cruisers and severely damaged one cruiser and two destroyers with a heavy loss of life, whilst losing just 53 of their own men. The press in Australia attempted to present the disaster in favourable terms; however Commander Walsh, XO of Canberra, admitted the Allies had grossly underestimated the Japanese who had proved to be an efficient and daring fighting force.
Controversy followed as various authorities ducked for cover and Americans wanted to know why an English Admiral (Crutchley) had commanded ships of the USN. Both the USN and the RAN conducted boards of inquiry. Admiral Hepburn, USN concluded that there was inadequate preparedness for night attack, failure to recognise the implications of the presence of enemy aircraft, poor communications and intelligence and that the US carrier force had withdrawn at a critical time. Rear Admiral Muirhead-Gould in Sydney greeted survivors with ‘You should be ashamed, losing your ship without firing a shot.’ His board was made aware of the poor preparedness of Canberra through lack of modernisation, limited maintenance, rushed training and turbulence in changes to ship’s company. The board members seemed unable to comprehend the situation in a ship that was without power, on fire and listing with a tenth of her company dead. The author closes with ‘Eighty-four men onboard HMAS Canberra died. They and the families they left behind were casualties of circumstances beyond their control.’
This book gives an extensive coverage of the RAN during the Great Depression and how our Navy was left ill-prepared for the conflict ahead. In general it is a well prepared naval history. Regrettably this book has been poorly edited by someone lacking a maritime experience and there are quite a few minor errors which may cause a smile to those with a naval background.
Reviewed by J.W. Ellis