The sinking of HMAS Canberra

Name: Francis Pickup
Date: 1942
Unit: HMAS Canberra
Location: the Battle of the Solomon Islands

Francis Pickup was a signaller on board HMAS Canberra in August 1942 when the ship, along with HMAS Australia and HMAS Hobart (light cruiser 6 inch guns) plus a large American Amphibian Force of aircraft carriers, heavy cruisers, destroyers and transports, with accompanying support vehicles, was involved in the Battle of the Solomon Islands.

The objective, according to Francis Pickup, was to recapture the Japanese-held Guadalcanal Island as part of the island hopping strategy by Allied forces to counter the aggressive Japanese onslaught in the Pacific Ocean.

Francis Pickup takes up the story:

"The American Marines began the landing. I was a signalman aboard HMAS Canberra. During the whole engagement the entire ship's company was closed up to second degree of combat except when air raids occurred when first degree of readiness prevailed. Second degree allowed half the crew to relax adjacent to their appropriate action stations but ready to respond immediately the Action Alarm sounded.'

"During the Saturday afternoon a flight of torpedo bombers appeared whereupon the whole fleet opened fire with a large assortment of anti-aircraft guns. The Canberra fired a full calibre broadside of eight 8" guns. Fortunately we were not hit. Several of the Japanese plans were destroyed.

"With each sunrise and sunset, the entire ship's company during sea time, always closed up to first degree of readiness as a precaution."

Knowing that HMAS Canberra would very likely be engaged in action, Francis Pickup prepared a small kit bag for any emergency. The contents were: a pair of socks, handkerchief, singlet, underpants, shirt, torch (capable of being used for morse signals) toothbrush and paste, comb, piece of soap, small hand towel and mirror. He carried small pot of Vegemite, tin of peaches, and his seaman's knife plus an inflatable life jacket. First aid consisted of a few band aids. The kit was made very compact by rolling the clothing together with the aid of rubber bands.

"At 0143 on Sunday 9 August, the action alarm sounded and I proceeded from the flag deck down the galley hatch (1st deck below) to the wireless office aft in the ship. During the battle engagement, the ship received many shells, one of which penetrated the ship's main steam line. As a result all main lighting failed. Several fires broke out and smoke filled the passage ways.

"I immediately made my way aft to the ward room (Officers Mess) hatch and ascended to the quarterdeck. A Sub Lieut Gregory was the officer in charge. Gregory issued various orders to the able surviving crew in the vicinity. Due to the loss of steam all electricity and fire fighting equipment was U-S. A bucket brigade was then formed but proved futile in the fight against the raging fire which raged throughout the ship.

"A US destroyer pulled alongside the Port Quarter and passed several fire fighting hoses aboard but the ferocity of the inferno proved too much. Several of the injured were taken on board the destroyer and tended by medical staff.

"Some while after the initial action, a violent thunderstorm broke. Hence Sub Lieut Gregory detailed a couple of volunteers, of whom I was one, to go below to the officers cabins and retrieve blankets and overcoats to keep the injured men as warm as possible. I sighted an officer's copper water jug which I added to my collection for the purpose of holding fresh water in the event of using a life boat. The binoculars were part of the equipment issued to me for the purpose of signalling from the aft emergency steering position.

"During the storm the protective lens cap was inadvertently dislodged, hence they became water damaged. Several attempts to remedy the fault failed. The binoculars are known as Admiralty Pattern 1900A.

"The fire raged and cancer like, the flames, fuelled by several coats of paint since 1925, spread uncontrollably. Much was done between the hours of 0143 to 0600 to attend the wounded and dying men. I was amongst the group gathered on the quarterdeck. Everybody kept calm despite the situation. Flames burned amidships and at one stage were licking at the Walrus amphibious aircraft mounted on the catapult. The bombs on both wings seemed likely at one stage to explode. The fuel tank of 2000 gallons was in danger of catching alight. Thankfully nothing eventuated.

"At 0600 the order to "abandon ship" came and the US destroyer received the survivors after a slide down the life lines on the port side. The rescued were sped away and transferred to the liberty ship President Grant. The wounded received help and accommodated in bunks and cabins. The remainder were housed in the ship's holds, ever grateful to have food and an issue of warm clothing. The ship then sailed to Sydney via Noumea."

"On arrival in Sydney Harbour, the survivors were kitted out aboard either Tanunda or Tancord (both peacetime coastal passenger ships. Fourteen days leave was granted to all crew except for the wounded. The injured were hospitalised and rehabilitated as recovery was achieved. Leave became their next move. So concluded a rough outline of the loss of Canberra."

Footnote: HMAS Canberra lost 84 men killed or died of wounds and had to be sunk next day when unable to sail with the fleet.

The material for this article was supplied by Francis Pickup of Queensland

Last updated:

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DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) ( ), The sinking of HMAS Canberra, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 1 March 2024,
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