Canberra 1961-1997
Canberra.  Beloved by so many but gone since the 10th October 1997 when she left her home port of Southampton at 9pm for her final ever voyage to a breaker's in Karachi.  Envisaged by P&O for their profitable Southampton to Australia route, this 45,270grt liner (increased to 49,073grt by the time she went to Pakistan) was partially revolutionary.  Although Shaw-Savill Line's 20,204grt Southern Cross (1955 and also built at Harland & Wolff in Belfast) was the pioneer of aft engines (also included on their 20,733gt hastily cobbled together  Northern Star which sailed from 1962-75 to cash in on the £10 assisted passage Australia run), while Holland-America Line's 38,675grt Rotterdam (V) (1959 until coincidentally the same date as Canberra ended her cruising life before being sold but was luckier than Canberra as she cruised as Rembrandt until 2002 and is currently being restored even though she will never sail again) had twin aft funnels and the whole design similar to what Canberra's would be, the lifeboats on Canberra's Promenade Deck was a radical change whch continues to this day.  The was the largest post-war liner built in the UK and the top of her funnels were originally buff with the black extensions added to cover soot deposits a few months later.  Her Godmother was Dame Pattie Menzies, wife of the then Australian Prime Minister and Canberra (the aboriginal word for meeting place) was launched with a bottle of Australian wine smashing against her hull, her maiden voyage to Australia on the 2nd June 1961.  Disaster struck in 1963 when and electrical fire broke out rendering the ship compeletely lifeless.  The following day she limped to Malta doing four knots after engineers got her engines going where repairs were carried out.  It didn't sully her reputation as people were still keen to sail on her.  As the 1960s drew to a close and the 1970s arrived she appeared in the James Bond film, Diamonds Are Forever in 1971 but began to lose money as more and more people flew to Australia.  She had a couple of disasterous American cruising seasons to the Caribbean and in 1973 P&O announced she would be withdrawn after a mere twelve years service.  They had a change of heart though when bookings increased rapidly so decided to pull down the class barriers and turn her into a cruise ship for the UK market as well as her annual world cruises, thus reducing her passenger capacity from 2272 to 1700.

In April 1982 this loved ship became the nation's darling.  Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands.  In Gibraltar, on the last leg of the world cruise, the Captain received orders the ship had been commandeered for war duty.  She returned to Southampton on the 7th April and after a very quick conversion leaving everything as it was on board, set sail to the South Atlantic on the 9th.  She stayed in safe waters for a while as she unloaded her troops but then she was needed in the trecherous San Carlos waters.  She narrowly avoided being hit in San Carlos Bay when she had moved position, HMS Antelope taking hers.  Two Argentinian Skyhawks flew over a hill, the first one firing where
Canberra had been, the second shot down but one had reported Canberra had been hit which pleased the Argentinians.  Canberra returned to her duties, carrying troops from the QE2 and others.  Then the war was over, by which time QE2 was long gone having spent a mere eight days in safe waters.  Canberra's work wasn't done yet though.  She returned prisoners of war back to Argentina, who didn't believe she hadn't been hit at all, and repatriating British troops before heading home to receive a welcome on the 11th July Southampton had never seen before or since.  Some of the troops had banners declaring:
Canberra cruises where QE2 refuses.  Her reliability after the world cruise and then war had been astounding and the rust-streaked but proud Great White Whale, as former ITN reporter Jeremy Hands had dubbed her, went back to normal cruising that summer after her experiences, firmly placed in the nation's hearts and psyche.

During the ensuing years her popularity never waned but was showing signs of wear and tear.  She had doubled for former P&O liner,
S.S. Ranchi in the final episode of the popular BBC TV series Tenko about women prisoners of war in the Far East in 1984, despite Ranchi's hull being black.  In 1994 she carried D-Day veterans back to Normandy and was part of the Spithead Review, along with QE2, inspected by the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh who sailed past on the Royal Yacht Britannia.  The end was nigh when on the 25th June 1996 P&O announced the end of the nation's favourite cruise ship. With the introduction of the new Oriana in 1995 which was intended to be her replacement, had part of her design based on Canberra and became flagship, it was only a matter of time it would happen regardless of the new SOLAS regulations coming into force
on the 1st October 1997.   

On the 30th September 1997 she returned home for the final time, her 360-foot paying off pennant attached to her mast (ten feet for each year of service) and billowing towards the funnels.  There was thick fog that day which rather too slowly lifted.  People on the Isle of Wight could see nothing, just hear the mighty whistles.  She was escorted up Southampton Water by five warships.  A Canberra bomber flew overhead and the Red Devil's parachuted into Mayflower Park.  The reception for this grand old lady was staggering and nothing had been seen on such a scale since her return from the Falklands fifteen years earlier.  I was disappointed I was unable to go down because I had flu and could just about see her in the fog from the window.  At 12.15pm, once she docked in 106 berth for the very last time, Captain Rory Smith gave the orders to finish with engines.  That was it.  Thirty-six years over.

The following night she was moved to the QEII terminal at 38/9 after
QE2 had sailed as Oriana was due on the 2nd October.  As well as the onboard aution during her farewell cruise, most of her was stripped some items going to public aution while others going over to Victoria, Oriana and Canberra's replacement, Arcadia (III) which was being tranferred from her role as Star Princess (I) that December along with Captain Rory Smith and most of her crew.  Yet there was no word of Canberra's future.  The days passed and still nothing was announced by P&O.  Some very odd things began happening on the 9th October.  Her sailing was announced in the Echo as 2100 on the 10th.  When asked by the paper, all P&O would say was it was a provisional booking and they had decided not to sell her as a cruise ship.  The next day the sailing was changed to just pm.  I wondered what was going on so telephoned P&O Administration (then based in London) just after 9am to find out if she was sailing or not.  The first woman I spoke to replied, "Is it?".  She asked her collegue who also knew nothing about it.  She put me through to another woman who also said she had no idea, told me she'd find out and asked me to call back that afternoon.  I never got the chance as two hours later P&O issued a very cold two-line statement saying no ship lasts forever and basically Canberra was past it.  It was as though they wanted
to sneak her out without anyone knowing instead of giving her the send off she truly deserved.  I wouldn't have been surprised if they had issued the statement after she had gone.  She didn't go easily though.  Her deep draught, which had been a hindrance throughout her entire career, caused her to beach well away from her intended place and proved very difficult to break up but provided her breakers with a bounty for the extra time it took.  A year later she was gone.  Nothing more than a pile of scrap metal and memories.

Farewell, Great White Whale.  There never was a ship like you and there never will be again in this age of clones. You should have had a better send off than you got.  You will never be forgotten by true ship enthusiasts and I hope now Carnival Corporation own P&O they
never name another ship Canberra.  There was only one and that's the way it should remain.

The following photos are sadly nowhere near as many as I should have of this great ship but you tend to think they'll be around forever.  The first are passing my window in September 1987 when I first started taking a proper interest in ships.  I must have had more but I think I gave them away.
For photos of Canberra with QE2 at Calshot in 1988, click here.

Lastly are my very final ones of
Canberra taken on the 6th October 1997, just four days before she left to be scrapped.  Click
here to see some video of her last arrival, in port and sailing to Karachi.


© Patricia Dempsey 1987-2006
Not to be reproduced without permission