Some months ago the Naval Historical Society (NHS) was approached by Mrs Kylie Lee from Toowoomba, who from her mother’s estate came into possession of a white ensign from HMAS Canberra circa 1942, and Mrs Lee wished to donate the flag to the RAN.
Mrs Lee’s mother had received the flag from Stephen St George, an Able Seaman on board Canberra, who salvaged the ensign before his ship sank on 9 August 1942 at the Battle of Savo Island. In later life the mother, who became friendly with Mr St George, was executor of his estate and when he died in 1987 was instructed to place the flag over his coffin and then retain it for posterity.
Mrs Lee visited Garden Island on Monday 04 June when the ensign was transferred to CMDR Burroughs on behalf of the NHS and we received a notebook containing manuscript and typewritten notes of made by AB St George of his exploits in Canberra. There was also a copy of a 1987 obituary from a local newspaper, which is summarised below.
Toowoomba’s inimitable Steve St George has gone and amateur radio is very much the loser with the death on 10 July of “VK4 Sugar Easy”, as he wished to be known. This entertaining raconteur finally lost his last battle against illness which plagued him for the past few years.
He was born in 1916 and his RAN service began on enlistment in 1934. He saw service in various naval vessels including the cruisers HMA Ships Canberra and Shropshire. During WW11 he was aboard Canberra when she was sunk at the Battle of Savo Island. The ship’s ensign which draped the casket at his funeral was heroically rescued by him just before the sinking. Very few of his friends knew of his dedication to the naval tradition and the part he played.
As a civilian he retained his interest in radio and television and worked for the ABC in Toowoomba and Sydney as well as for the local commercial and interstate stations. After his retirement he became very interested in amateur radio and was a foundation member of the Darling Downs Radio Club, a past president and long-time member.
Steve’s wife predeceased him 18 years ago. He is survived by his daughter Anne and son John. The large representation of district amateurs and ex-servicemen at the funeral service was an indication of their high regard for their colleague.
Unfortunately, Steve’s copious notes which appear to have been compiled in 1974, many years after the event, have no mention of removal of the ensign. The white ensign, contemporary with those found in war-time cruisers, is in very good condition and fitted with Inglefield clips. At the top of the hoist it bears the initials of the Commonwealth Government Clothing Factory (CGCF), the letters RAN with a broad arrow, and, Ensign White 6 Breath.
In reading Steve’s notes we gain the impression of a Three Badge Able Seaman who expresses himself with plenty of lower deck jargon and the possible resentment of authority by someone who could have made more of his life in the RAN. His service records show he made Acting Leading Seaman but only held the rate for a short while and, he was recommended for Radio Mechanic training, but this came to nothing. Still an Able Seaman he was discharged in 1949 after 15 years’ service.
Stephen St George did however serve in HMAS Canberra and from his own testimony and that of others did sterling work in the care for wounded when his ship was critically damaged by first enemy and then friendly fire. In escaping from the inferno he entered the water and attempted to cut free life rafts which had become entangled and later found space in a Carley float before being rescued by the destroyer USS Blue. Most of those rescued were taken to Noumea before joining the troopship General Grant and then brought back to Sydney. Many of these men including Able Seaman St George later joined HMAS Shropshire and performed with distinction in the latter part of the Pacific War.
Further mention of Stephen St George is to be found in Kathryn Spurling’s book “HMAS Canberra – Casualty of Circumstance” published by New Holland in 2016. From this it appears that her research had taken her to the above mentioned note books. A summary of Kathryn’s description on pages 211 and 212 is enlightening.
During the Battle of Savo Island it was not necessarily the most likely who demonstrated initiative and courage. AB Stephen St George whose background and heritage was as problematic as his RAN service card, had been referred to in many disparaging ways, the least offensive being ‘larrikin’. Resilience may have been the best way to describe this young man as he aided many in the early hours of 9 August. A member of the “Y” turret shell handling crew, he was knocked off his feet by an explosion. He then wrenched open the magazine door to allow the men below an exit before struggling with others to lift “X” turret hatch to free more. He and another AB carried the men to a medical post. St George continued to search for wounded and found the badly wounded PO James Haining.
Later St George told a Board of Enquiry administered by high ranking RAN officers that they should ensure ‘there was a drastic revision of the type of stretcher’ employed on warships because he found assembling a stretcher for PO Haining was ‘more difficult’ than assembling a radio set. St George ferreted below decks for rope which he sliced up for bucket brigades helping subdue fires on the upper deck. He visited any cabin, including those of senior officers, helping himself to anything which could cover the wounded. Returning to the first medical post, he found two Stokers he had carried, now dead. For other wounded he scavenged cigarettes and then located the beer and gave them a glass each. St George offered one of the Chaplains a beer but he refused. ‘I drank his share’. He was then asked to find blankets so again he picket his way through debris, falling through a hole or two, being burnt by steam, until he could raid the Pay Commander’s cabin and grabbed an armful. On the way out he helped himself to a greatcoat because his coat was wet.
One of the earlier narratives on the life of this ship “HMAS Canberra” by Alan Payne was published by the Naval Historical Society of Australia in 1973, when numerous survivors were available to provide first-hand accounts of their experiences, including Stephen St George. This small volume with a print run of 1000 copies must have been popular as it was reprinted in 1991. The book also provides a summary of Canberra’s war-time service with considerable time spent in the Indian Ocean during the early part of the war, it was not until June 1942 that she joined Task Force 44 and saw service in the Pacific theatre leading to the Battle of Savo Island. At least two short refits were undertaken in Sydney and she was under refit at the time of the attack on Pearl Harbour in December 1941 and again at a buoy in Sydney in May 1942 when Japanese midget submarines attacked the harbour.
Stephen St George was a colourful character who could be capable of many things including ‘liberating’ useful come in handy material which may well have included a naval ensign. The Battle of Savo Island was a life and death situation and according to St George’s notes he had been in a Carley float before being rescued by USS Blue– this is hardly the time to have been worrying about an ensign.
The ensign is in very good condition and if it has been flown by a warship then only very briefly, not what is expected from the wreck of a ship that has been ravaged by torpedo and shell fire and subject to raging fires on the upper deck. The ensign however appears contemporary with the early 1940s and obviously meant much to Stephen St George. There is no obvious reason to doubt that it came from HMAS Canberra but the timing of its removal from the ship appears dubious. Could this ensign have been ‘liberated’ from a flag locker during a refit in Sydney just before her final voyage to Savo Island?