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

Fletcher to depart, meeting at Guadalcanal, Middle watch

Shortly after we had taken up night patrol positions, Rear Admiral Turner intercepted a message from Vice Admiral Fletcher to Vice Admiral Ghormley

"fighter strength reduced from 99 to 78 in view of large number of enemy torpedo planes and bombers in this area. I recommend the immediate withdrawal of my carriers. Request tankers be sent forward immediately as fuel running low".

Fletcher, in fact did not wait for Ghormley to approve or reject his withdrawal of the carriers, he headed South immediately away from his support role of the Beach Head. In fact, it was some hours later before Ghormley gave his approval for Fletcher to withdraw. There was no way Fletcher was going to risk losing his third carrier - he had gone!! Turner was appalled. This removal of carrier support after only 2 days (instead of the 3 days promised at the Koro meeting) meant his transports, still unloading, would be naked and vulnerable to Japanese aircraft attacks the next day - there would be no air cover.

The Marines ashore would lack equipment and necessary food. Larrabee in "Commander-in-Chief" having examined the ships' logs says Fletcher's fuel was not running low. The carriers had oil for 17 days, the NORTH CAROLINA for 18 days, the cruisers for 11 and the destroyers for 7 days. As for enemy air attacks, the Japanese had not sighted his carriers and Fletcher had no reason to suggest they had. Morison's verdict on this desertion by Fletcher - "his force could have remained in the area with no more severe consequences than sunburn".

At 2045, Turner summoned Rear Admiral Crutchley and Major General Vandegrift to his Flagship McCAWLEY, anchored with the transports off Lunga Point. Crutchley had some 20 miles to cover to attend this meeting, whilst Vandegrift had to leave Guadalcanal to meet Turner. At 2005, Crutchley decided to pull AUSTRALIA out of the line leaving Captain Bode in CHICAGO in command of the Southern Force. Turner informed this meeting that he intended to withdraw all surface forces at 0730 the next morning, 9 August. The sighting of Mikawa's force was discussed but Turner believed its' destination was Rekata Bay.

At 2400 as 8 August became 9 August, I took over the middle watch (2400 - 0400) as Officer of the Watch in CANBERRA. Sub Lieutenant Dawborn, in handing over the watch indicated: course was 130deg, speed 12 knots, reversing that course on the hour by turning to starboard without signal.

CHICAGO was stationed 3 cables (600 yards) astern, PATTERSON and BAGLEY 45deg on our port and starboard bow respectively, each at a distance of 5 cables (1,000 yards). He told me that AUSTRALIA had left the group as Crutchley had been summoned by Turner. Captain Bode in CHICAGO whilst senior to Captain Getting in CANBERRA had decided to follow us rather than lead - as AUSTRALIA was expected to return. The ship was in the 2nd degree of readiness, with 2 X 8" turrets "A" and "X" manned.

A 4" gun crew was manned both port and starboard sides. The guns were not loaded. Part of the damage control crews were in place. Dawborn finally told me that during his watch, aircraft engines had been heard and the Captain had been informed. My Principal Control Officer was Lieutenant Commander E. J. Wight. The Captain and the Navigating Officer Lieutenant Commander J. S. Mesley were both on the bridge when I took the watch, but shortly after midnight they left the bridge for their sea cabins.

Savo island was cloaked in rain, mist hung in the air - there was no moon. A light N.E. wind moved the low-lying cloud, thunder rolled across the sky. I particularly remember the phosphorescence of the ship's wake and that of our 2 destroyer escorts. At 0100, CANBERRA and CHICAG0 (then at the transport end of our patrol) altered course 1800 to starboard to a course of 310deg.

At about this time we heard aircraft engines overhead, Lieutenant Commander Wight reported this fact to the Captain. (The Japanese had catapulted 2 seaplanes from 2 of their cruisers - their task to reconnoitre the anchorages and illuminate the transports at the appropriate time). RALPH TALBOT on the seaward side of Savo actually reported sighting an aircraft before 2400; she reported by T.B.S. (talk between ships), CANBERRA was not fitted with T.B.S. and thus did not receive this report.

Just prior to 0100. Mikawa in CHOKAI, leading the Japanese column of 7 cruisers and 1 destroyer were steaming on a course of 120deg at 26 knots. He was steering for the centre of the 7 mile gap that separated Savo Island from Guadalcanal. CHOKAI sighted BLUE on their starboard bow, distance about 5 miles. Mikawa reduced speed and held his fire - BLUE continued to close his force.

But after a few more minutes BLUE reversed course, Mikawa breathed again. The whole Japanese column passed very closely to BLUE but were undetected either visually, or picked up on BLUE's radar. The US destroyer JARVIS which had been damaged earlier during one of the air raids was all alone, limping along at 10 knots on her way to Australia for repairs. She was South of Savo Island at 0134, when she was sighted from CHOKAI 1.5 miles on her port bow.

Once again, the Japanese force held its' fire and sailed past. JARVIS didn't see a thing! JARVIS was sunk by a large group of Japanese aircraft the next afternoon (9 August) and was lost with all hands. For Mikawa, the gate was open and his fleet sailed through. At 0130 at a range of 6 miles, the Japanese sighted CANBERRA and CHICAGO. In CANBERRA we were approaching the Savo Island end of our patrol - I was very conscious of the fact that I had to call the Navigator at 0145. He wanted to fix our position prior to the scheduled course alteration at 0200.

I had just checked the chart table clock, It was 0143 (this time is still engraved in my memory) several incidents crowded in - an explosion almost due north, the Captain was called by the Principal Control Officer. The port lookout reported a ship ahead but neither the P.C.O. , the Yeoman of Signals nor myself could discern anything. PATTERSON on our port bow signalled to us by blinker tube. The action alarms were sounded and we assumed the first degree of readiness.

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