1961 - 1997
the wake of the Second World War, Great Britain found itself in a precarious
situation. Although the allied forces had emerged victorious from the great
conflict, peace had been achieved at a high cost. The nation was facing
virtual bankruptcy, and its inhabitants were getting tired of the poor
living circumstances. Many of them were now beginning to look for a place
to start over.
like in the late 1800s and early 1900s, a wave of
emigration started. But unlike their countrymen before them, these new
emigrants would not travel west across the North Atlantic to the United
States. Although some found their way to Canada, most of these new migrants
set their sights for Australia and New Zealand.
trade to Australia flourished. But ironically, the British emigrants could
not be guaranteed passage on a British liner. Half of Britain’s merchant
fleet had been destroyed during World War II, and due to the bad economics
and material shortage, British shipyards could not build new ships at the
rate they wanted to.
|The magnificent Canberra,
shortly before her forthcoming launch.
the mid-1950s, the Marshall-plan had helped the financial situation
in Europe to recuperate. Things were looking better and better, and this
was also reflected in the shipping companies. Business was improving, and
with this in mind the P&O Line placed an order for two new large liners.
One of them would be built in the famous yards of Harland & Wolff in
23rd 1957, the first keel plates of yard no. 1621 was laid down
on Harland & Wolff’s slipway 14. For months, engineers from the shipyard
along with P&O men had pondered over plans and designs in order to
create the finest ship possible. The building of the ship went on, but
it took six months before its name was decided upon. In March of 1958,
it was publicly announced that she would bear the name Canberra,
an aboriginal word meaning ‘meeting place by the water’.
ship now growing on the stocks soon became a great symbol of better times
to come. She was the largest ship built at Harland & Wolff since White
Star’s Britannic in 1914. Finally, after two and a half years of construction,
the new ship was ready to enter her proper element. March 16th
1960 was a cold and wet day in Belfast. Nevertheless, this great event
had not failed to attract its share of spectators. 300 invited guests were
present, in addition to the 11,000 people crowding the banks of the Musgrave
Pattie Menzies, wife of the Australian Prime Minister had been given the
honour of christening the new ship. Instead of the traditional champagne,
she had brought with her a large bottle of Australian wine for the ceremony.
Smashing it across the bows, she baptised the ship, which then slipped
majestically into the waters. The great Canberra was born. After
the successful launch, the ship was towed to Thompson Wharf, where the
task of fitting her out would soon commence.
of 1961, the Canberra had been completely fitted out and was ready
for her sea trials. These took place in Belfast Lough on April 29th.
The ship sported a very modern profile, as she had been built after the
very latest standards. Her machinery had been placed aft, leaving the best
parts of the ship for passenger areas. As a result, the ship’s funnels
were also placed towards the stern. The pair of yellow funnels had been
placed side-by-side, instead of the older style of placing them after one
another. The engines themselves were also of a quite different type. Like
on the Normandie 25 years earlier, the Canberra was equipped
engines powered by steam
|The Ocean Room on board
the Canberra. (Picture courtesy of Steve Matthews)
perhaps the most striking feature was the arrangement of the ship’s lifeboats.
Instead of placing them up on a boat deck, they were stationed in bays
in the hull closer to the waterline. This innovative arrangement is still
used on modern cruise ships like the Destiny or Grand Princess.
Furthermore, much of the superstructure had been constructed out of aluminium,
thereby making the ship lighter and therefore causing less fuel consumption.
her sea trials, a major flaw was discovered in the Canberra’s design.
When going at high speed, the bow lifted itself out of the water because
of the weight of the engines. To remedy this problem, the ship was sent
to Southampton where some of her forward compartments were filled with
ballast as counterweight. Otherwise, the trials had been successful. Canberra
performed various manoeuvres and managed to achieve a top speed of 29.27
knots over the measured mile.
the Canberra was officially handed over to her owners – P&O.
She was sent to Southampton, from where she would soon sail on her maiden
voyage to Australia. When the ship docked at the new £300,000 cruise
terminal, Harland & Wolff workers were still busy inside, finishing
the final touches on her interiors.
2nd 1961, the time had arrived for the Canberra to enter
service on the Australian run. The anticipation of the public could not
have been mistaken, as the ship was booked almost solid in spite of the
somewhat off-season voyage. Calling at such ports as Gibraltar, Naples,
Colombo, Fremantle and Melbourne, the Canberra finally arrived in Sydney.
The maiden voyage had not been as successful as P&O had hoped for,
though. Leaking tubes had caused problems with one of the condensers, and
this had resulted in a complete power failure. As a result, the air condition
malfunctioned, and the passengers were soon facing a very unpleasant heat
on board. The condenser problem continued, and when Canberra arrived
in Sydney she was some 24 hours behind schedule. Nevertheless, she was
given a hearty welcome by the city, where a great flotilla of small boats
escorted her into the harbour. While in port, the crew managed to fix the
troubling condenser, and the voyage could continue.
the Pacific, the Canberra arrived at Honolulu on July 12th.
She then continued to Vancouver, San Francisco and Los Angeles. She then
made a complete turnaround, and headed back to Southampton more or less
the same way. On September 4th, she was back in her familiar
port, after having steamed 42,000 miles. A great ship, she and her running
mate, the Oriana, had cut the passage from Southampton to Sydney
by a whole week.
as the Canberra was about to settle into her service, she once again
encountered problems on her fourth round voyage. The boilers were once
again misbehaving, and the turbo generators were also not working well.
So it was decided that instead of turning around in Sydney and head for
home as usual, the Canberra would instead be sent east and through
the Panama Canal, from where she would then cross the Atlantic and continue
her return to Southampton, the Canberra was taken in for an overhaul.
Her machinery problems had to be solved before she
could re-enter service. While
this was done, the ship was also given a small exterior facelift. Her funnels,
which had been stained by the smoke at the tops, where given two black
five-foot extensions, giving them a better appearance.
|A fantastic view of P&O's
the Canberra returned from the overhaul, her performance was much
better. She continued her Southampton-Australia service and sometimes made
occasional cruises to destinations such as Gibraltar and Madeira. But another
serious incident wasn’t far off in the future. On January 4th
1963, a fire broke out in the engine room. The fire completely destroyed
the electrical switchboard, and the ship lost all power. Fortunately, the
fire was soon under control, but the Canberra was still dead in
next morning, the engine room crew had managed to partially restore electrical
power, and the ship headed for Grand Harbour where repairs could be carried
out. It did not go very fast, though. Going along at only four knots, the
engineers could later increase it to ten. The Canberra limped to
Malta, where she arrived the next day.
were brought to their destinations by aeroplane, and when temporary repairs
had been made, the Canberra was sent to her builders in Belfast
for yet another overhaul. This lasted until the following May, and the
ship then went through new sea trials. Everything was OK, and the Canberra
could return to service again.
incident could have damaged the Canberra’s reputation severely but
strangely, this did not seem to be the case. On May 24th, she
left Southampton with a new record of passengers on board – 2,266 people.
The public did indeed have a great affection to the great Canberra.
the 1960s, the Canberra enjoyed a career with few mishaps and she
was one of the most popular ships on the run, along with the Oriana.
However, by the end of the decade, the scene was changing. The emigration
to Australia stagnated, and the commercial airliners were swiftly taking
over the trade. If the Canberra was to stay in business, P&O
would have to come up with new duties for her.
P&O decided to try an old recipe – cruising. Canberra was sent
to New York, from where she would sail on Caribbean cruises. But this venture
was an utter failure. Bookings were low, and after only two cruises, P&O
decided to have Canberra laid up at the mouth of the Cape Fear River.
Although she then returned to New York and made another nine cruises, P&O
soon announced that the Canberra would be sent to the ship breakers
at the end of the 1973-season.
this would not be the case. Suddenly, there was an increase in P&O’s
cruise bookings. So, they decided to keep the Canberra, and have
her refitted as an all-out cruise ship with only one class. During the
refit, more cruising-suitable amenities were added, and the ship’s capacity
was decreased to only 1,700 people.
the Canberra soon turned out to be just the magic stroke she needed.
Operating from Southampton with shorter cruises in the summer and a world
cruise in the wintertime, the Canberra was soon known as one of
the most popular cruise ships. P&O was indeed enjoying booming business,
and this was not least evident in the company’s profits - £4.1 million
in 1976, as opposed to a loss of £6.9 million in 1975.
with these duties, the Canberra went on making money for her owners.
But as a new decade arrived, it brought along some changes. Fuel costs
were soaring high and with this in mind, Canberra was taken in and
fitted with new combustion equipment and a new set of propellers. Thus,
her service speed would be slightly reduced but she would be more economical
to operate. With the fact that P&O spent money on her, it was evident
that the Canberra would be around for a while longer. And she the
passengers still loved her. But no matter how successful the Canberra
was in her cruising duties, her most famous time would come in 1982.
of 1982, the British colony of the Falkland Islands was invaded by Argentinean
troops. Argentina had claimed the rights to these islands for years, because
of their geographical location. Soon they controlled the only major airstrip
on the islands, and Britain no longer had the possibility of bringing in
troops by air. Any military actions had to come by sea.
many times through the history of the British Empire, the nation was forced
to turn to its merchant liners for help. There was one problem, though.
In earlier conflicts, there had been a great amount of vessels flying the
British flag. Now, there were only two liners that did so – Cunard’s Queen
Elizabeth 2 and P&O’s Canberra. Joining their earlier counterparts
in the annals of history, these two ships were now called in to do war
was steaming homeward through the Mediterranean when she on April 2nd
1982 received a message from head
office informing the crew that
the ship was to be taken in as a STUFT (Ship Taken In From Trade). Five
days later she arrived in Southampton, and as soon as her passengers had
been offloaded, work began on preparing the Canberra for wartime
use. The most apparent change was the three helicopter pads that were welded
onto the ship’s superstructure. Only two days later, the Canberra
left for the Falkland Islands. On board were members of the 40th
and 42nd Commando Royal Marines and 3rd Para.
|The grand homecoming
of the Canberra - The Great White Whale.
soon reached the war zone. On the morning of May 21st, the Canberra
was given orders to enter the Bay of San Carlos and start disembarking
troops. She was accompanied by various navy vessels. An extremely risky
operation, the Argentinean airforce was swarming around them. The British
vessels were under heavy fire, and the crew on board the Canberra
was worried. With the ship’s superstructure largely made out of aluminium,
a fire would have been devastating.
started off-loading troops at 10 a.m., with enemy aircraft all the time
coming over the hills with orders to attack her. This dangerous task continued
through the afternoon, and that night the ship weighed anchor and left
San Carlos. Miraculously, she had not been hit a single time. How the Argentinean
pilots had managed to miss her again and again was indeed a great mystery.
The Canberra had been a virtual sitting duck, with her white, gleaming
hull making her an easy target. But she had been very fortunate, and had
done her job brilliantly.
duties were not over yet. The QE2 had also been requisitioned as
a trooper, but it had been decided that she was not to enter the war zone.
A possible loss of the ship bearing the name of the Sovereign was more
than the British politicians could bear, and so it was up to the Canberra
to face the real danger. The two ships rendezvoused at South Georgia, and
the troops on the QE2 were transferred to Canberra. She then
turned around to head back to the Falklands.
time, the disembarkation of troops went off more or less undramatically.
Protected by fog, the troops on the Canberra were carried off by
small landing crafts or helicopters. By the next morning the off-loading
14th, the Argentines surrendered. The Canberra was used
to transport prisoners of war, and she was then ordered to repatriate British
troops. On June 25th, she finally set off for home.
more than two weeks later, the Canberra arrived off Southampton
on July 11th. Although streaked with rust and a bit worn-down
looking, she still looked every inch a lady when she entered the waters
of this legendary port. She was given a remarkable welcome, as hundreds
of small boats had sailed out to escort her into the harbour. Thousands
of people were lining the docks to greet the Canberra – or ‘The
Great White Whale’, as she had now become known.
this remarkable time in her life, the Canberra was taken in to be
turned back into a luxury cruise ship. At the end of the summer, she was
ready to resume her regular service. On September 11th, she
left on her first post-war cruise. Her popularity had not faded during
the war – more the opposite – and she was fully booked for a number of
very profitable and popular service continued, and in 1986 the Canberra
was given a rather extensive overhaul at the yards of
Lloyd Werft in Germany. With
this overhaul, the Canberra’s interiors were brought up to date
and the whole ship was more or less renewed. Even the crewmembers were
given a new style of uniforms.
|The end of the great
Canberra. (Picture courtesy of Steve Matthews)
the end of the 1980s, the Canberra began showing signs of age. In
1989, one of the ship’s propulsion motors malfunctioned and resulted in
costly repairs. The Great White Whale was getting old, and in 1991 P&O
announced that a replacement ship was to be built in the coming years.
The following year the order was placed for a new 67,000-ton vessel at
Lloyd Werft. For Canberra, the writing was on the wall.
years later, in 1996, P&O officially announced that the Canberra
was to be taken out of service on September 30th, 1997. And
so she was, but only after she had made a final farewell cruise to the
Canberra was awaiting her future. Although Premier Cruise Line had
made a bid for the old ship, P&O had already decided that they did
not want the Canberra to operate under a different flag. On October
10th, P&O announced that the Canberra had been sold
to ship breakers in Pakistan. Indeed, the end was nigh.
sailed to her place of final demolition under her own steam. She arrived
off Karachi on October 28th. The scrappers had decided to beach
the ship and then cut her up as she lay. On October 31st, the
Canberra beached herself at almost full speed, and the actual breaking
up could soon commence.
did not go quite as planned, though. The scrappers had expected to cut
the ship up in a matter of three months, but it would take them well over
a full year. Nevertheless, the Canberra was finally completely gone
by the end of 1998. All that is left now, are the memories of The Great
|The Canberra - Specifications:
||818 feet (249.9 m)
||102 feet (31. 2 m)
||45,733 gross tons
engines turning two propellers.
||Originally 2,272 people,
reduced to 1,700 when refitted as a cruise ship.