Their Excellencies the Governor-General the Right Reverend Doctor Peter Hollingworth AC OBE and Mrs Hollingworth attended the 60th anniversary, Memorial Service in Canberra to commemorate the loss of the first HMAS Canberra, and to remember the 84 members of her Ship’s Company – men of the Royal Australian Navy, Royal Navy, United States Navy and the Royal Australian Air Force – who were killed in action or later died of their wounds.
His Excellency Dr Hollingworth made the formal address on this occasion and wreaths were laid by him, Chief of Navy (VADM Chris Ritchie AO RAN), Chief of Air Force (Air Marshal Angus Houston AM AFC), and representatives of the Commanding Officer and Ship’s Company of HMAS Canberra II, the British Naval Adviser (for the Royal Nay), the United States Naval Attache (Captain Dan Sloss USN), Mrs Margaret Booth (on behalf of the HMAS Canberra/Shropshire Association), other veterans and naval associations, including the catafalque party drawn from members of TS CANBERRA and pupils from nearby Torrens Primary School.
Proceedings were conducted by LCDR Peter Sinfield RANR, Chairman of the ACT Chapter of the Naval Historical Society.
The Battle of Savo Island
By mid 1942, the southward thrust by Japan had been halted and, despite the “Beat Germany First” strategy, the Allies went on the offensive in the Pacific. Operation Watchtower – the landing of the US 1st Marine Division at Tulagi and on Guadalcanal – was intended to forestall any Japanese threat to the sea lanes between the United States and Australia, and thus secure this country as a base for counter-attack.
The landings, supported by strong naval forces, including three Australian cruisers, took place on 7th August 1942 and achieved complete surprise.
However, they galvanised the Japanese Admiral Mikawa at Rabaul, some 500 miles to the north-west; air strikes were ordered and he put to sea immediately with seven cruisers and a destroyer. After passing through what was to become known as `The Slot’ (between Santa Ysabel and New Georgia islands) Mikawa’s force arrived undetected off the western end of Guadalcanal some 30 hours later – about 0100 on 9th August.
Inside the sound separating the islands of Guadalcanal and Florida seven Allied cruisers and six destroyers guarded the approaches to the landing beaches, with another two American destroyers posted as radar pickets further west. Inexplicably, the latter did not pick up the Japanese ships, which steamed between them at high speed into the passage between Guadalcanal and Savo Island. Here, they ran into the cruisers of the Southern Screening Group – HMAS Canberra (Captain F.E. Getting RAN) and USS Chicago – with their attendant destroyers, USS Patterson and USS Bagley.
At 0137 the Japanese flagship fired torpedoes at the lead ship of the screening group (Canberra) while, almost simultaneously, an enemy seaplane dropped a parachute flare to illuminate the scene. The torpedoes missed, but the three leading Japanese cruisers all opened fire on Canberra at close range. She was deluged by more than 24 shells, hitting her in the engine rooms and knocking out all power and communications. Within minutes she was stopped, ablaze amidships and below decks, and listing about 8 degrees to starboard; a sixth of her complement had been killed or wounded, including Captain Getting and the Gunnery Officer, Lieutenant Commander Hole.
Not waiting to assess the damage it had inflicted, the Japanese squadron sped on. Chicago was hit by a torpedo and shellfire and Patterson also suffered hits from the enemy guns. The landing beaches of Guadalcanal were now open but Mikawa’s force steamed around the eastern side of Savo Island and then swung northwest. In so doing, it split into two columns before encountering the Northern Screening Group – thus capturing the latter in a cross-fire. The American ships were also caught almost unawares and suffered accordingly – the heavy cruisers USS Quincy and USS Vincennes were sunk within an hour of the first shots being fired, while their sister ship, USS Astoria, sank just after noon. Incredibly, Mikawa again ignored the now virtually defenceless transports and withdrew, returning to Rabaul.
The tropical dawn of 9th August revealed the magnitude of the disaster – two heavy cruisers sunk, with another two badly damaged and Chicago less so; and three destroyers badly damaged. An earlier decision to withdraw all shipping from Guadalcanal led to Commander Walsh in Canberra being instructed that, unless the ship could be made ready to steam by 0630, she was to be abandoned and destroyed. This proved impossible and USS Patterson began taking off survivors. In a letter four days later, Patterson’s Commanding Officer wrote:
The Commanding Officer and entire ship’s company of the Patterson noted with admiration the calm, cheerful and courageous spirit displayed by Officers and men of the 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 with so gallant a crew.