H.M.A.S. Canberra and the Battle of Savo Island

Hepburn's Conclusions

The primary cause of defeat was complete surprise achieved by the Japanese. The reasons for this surprise were-

1. Inadequate condition of readiness on all ships to meet sudden night attack.

2. Failure to recognize the implication of the enemy planes in the vicinity prior to the attack.

3. Misplaced confidence in the capabilities of radar in BLUE and RALPH TALBOT.

4. Failure in communications which resulted in the lack of timely receipt of vital enemy contact information.

5. Failure in communications to give timely information of the fact that there had been practically no effective reconnaissance (my emphasis) covering the enemy approach during 2 Auqust. Finally Hepburn noted "as a contributory cause, must be placed the withdrawal of the carrier group by Fletcher, on the evening before the battle".

This withdrawal was responsible for the calling of Turner's conference and for the fact that there was no force capable or available to inflict damage on the withdrawing enemy. It also meant that AUSTRALIA was not leading the Southern Force; but who could have predicted the final outcome of the Battle of Savo Island, had AUSTRALIA been present on that fateful night?

The Australian Commonwealth Naval Board set up a "Board of Enquiry" to hold a full and careful investigation into the circumstances attending the loss of HMAS CANBERRA. The Board made two reports, one dated 23 August 1942 and the second report dated 30 September 1942. The latter report found that CANBERRA was not torpedoed, but was hit by 24 Japanese shells.

Rear Admiral Crutchley disagreed with this finding, as did a number of other witnesses from CANBERRA. I had told the Board of Enquiry I did not know if CANBERRA had been torpedoed. Since that fateful night, I have given a great deal of thought, reflection and research to this subject. Thus, in hindsight, and the evidence in Bruce Loxton's book The Shame of Savo, I now believe we were hit in the starboard side by a torpedo which emanated from our destroyer escort USS Bagley.



CANBERRA 84 / 109
US NAVY 939 / 654

The US Submarine S44 sank one of Mikawa's force, the cruiser KAKO, before they reached the safety of their base, but KAKO only lost 34 of her ship's company.

In this night action, the Japanese fired 1,028 x 8" shells, 768 x 5" or 5-1/2" shells, 1,000 rounds of smaller calibre ammunition and an amazing 61 x 24" torpedoes, each with a war head carrying 1,200 pounds of explosive.

Although Mikawa had won a brilliant victory, he subsequently had his critics for not pressing on to attack and destroy the transports that were so vulnerable. Although the Allies paid a heavy price with the loss of 4 x 8" heavy cruisers, 1 x 8" heavy cruiser damaged, 1 destroyer sunk and 1 destroyer damaged, all but one transport survived and Guadalcanal remained In US hands.

On 15 August 1942, Churchill had met with Stalin at the Kremlin - he later cabled to Rooseveldt (who had been unable to go Moscow) his report of this meeting. Rooseveldt then cabled Stalin his regret at his absence and included "we have gained, I believe, a toe hold in the South West Pacific, from which the Japanese will find it very difficult tn dislodge us. We have had substantial naval losses there, but the advantage gained was worth the sacrifice, and we are going to maintain hard pressure on the enemy." The toehold in the South West Pacific" , to which Rooseveldt referred, was, of course, the landings by US Marines on Tulagi, Florida Islands and Guadalcanal on 7 August, 1942.

It is of interest, that Sherwood in his second volume of "The White House Papers of Harry L. HopkIns" noted,

"on September 7, three American cruisers and an Australian Cruiser were surprised and sunk in the slot between GuadalcanaI and Savo Island and the position of the land forces was critical and terrible, with the Japanese largely in control of the sea communications."

Sherwood, was of course referring to the Battle of Savo Island on the night of 9 August, 1942, during which the US cruisers QUINCY, ASTORIA, VINCENNES and the Australian cruiser CANBERRA were all sunk. I find it very difficult to comprehend how the "Hopkins Papers" could record the loss of the 3 US cruisers and CANBERRA as 7 September instead of 9 August. Hopkins was very much a trusted personal aide to Rooseveldt. He wielded great influence and used the President's authority to the utmost through the years of 1939-45 and would have had access to all of Rooseveldt's service intelligence and records.

Captain Bode in CHICAGO was in command of the cruiser force covering the western approaches between Savo and Guadalcanal, whilst Crutchley in AUSTRALIA was absent meeting with Turner, off Guadalcanal. He was criticised for not leading CANBERRA, but staying in the rear, for not warning the Northern Cruiser Force and for his general conduct at Savo on 9 August. He later committed suicide.

PATTERSON'S Commanding officer, Commander F. R. Walker USN, in a message sent to Rear Admiral Crutchley, paid this tribute: "The C.O. and entire ship's company of the PATTERSON noted with admiration, the calm, cheerful and courageous spirit displayed by the 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 so gallant a crew".

USS BLUE, which rescued many of CANBERRA's survivors, myself included, was herself sunk off Guadalcanal on 23 August 1942. I felt great sadness and a sense of personal loss when I read this report.



"Australia have lost their 8" cruiser CANBERRA. It might have lasting effect on Australian sentiment if we gave freely and outright to Royal Australian Navy one of our similar ships. Please give your most sympathetic consideration to the project and be ready to tell me about it when I return. Meanwhile I am not mentioning it to any one."

This suggestion by Churchill was adopted and the cruiser SHROPSHIRE was presented to the Australian government.

Shropshire's crew, Lingayen Gulf, January 1945


Shropshire's crew, Lingayen Gulf January 1945.

Many of CANBERRA's crew, including myself, were to join SHROPSHIRE and were present in Tokyo Bay for the Japanese surrender on 2 September 1945. SHROPSHIRE and her company made a magnificent team and did not lose one man to enemy action.

It was Admiral Bill Halsey, USN who said "The Coast Watchers saved Guadalcanal and it was Guadalcanal that saved the Pacific".

In 1943, Lady Dixon, the wife of the then Australian Minister to Washington, launched a US cruiser and named her CANBERRA. (This was the first time the US Navy had named a ship after a foreign warship). In May 1967, the USS CANBERRA visited Australia for her only visit since the ship made an 8 month world cruise in 1960, and visited both Sydney and Melbourne.Alongside Station Pier at Port Melbourne on 15 May,  our only son, Raymond, was christened on board, using the struck ship's bell as the font. Lady Dixon and the CANBERRA's CO, Captain Edwin Rosenberg, USN, became his Godparents. CANBERRA will always be a proud name for my family, but especially for me.

The Battle of: Savo Island 9 August 1942, Navy Department, Office of Naval Intelligence, Combat Narrative


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