The World of the 1950s was witnessing the jet age when P&O made plans for their newest ship. Designed for the Australia service, she was built at Harland & Wolff in Belfast, the same yard that built the infamous Titanic of 1912. Named for Australia’s capital city Canberra, she would operate jointly with Orient Line’s new Oriana, also under construction at the time. The two companies had for some years shared the lucrative mail contract between Australia and the UK but no sooner had the two ships been launched, both companies officially merged to form P&O-Orient Lines in 1960.
Canberra was designed as a 2-class Liner, with First-class occupying the forward section and Tourist Class in the remainder, the latter most frequently filled on the outward voyages with “Ten Pound Poms” emigrating to Australia.
Her layout changed very little over the years.
Like RMS Strathnaver and RMS Strathaird that she replaced on the Tilbury – Brisbane route, Canberra had turbo-electric transmission. Instead of being mechanically coupled to her propeller shafts, Canberra’s steam turbines drove large electric alternators that provided current for electric motors that, in turn, drove the vessel’s twin propellers. They were the most powerful steam turbo-electric units ever installed in a passenger ship; at 42,500 hp (31,700 kW) pershaft, they surpassed SS Normandie’s 40,000 hp (30,000 kW) on each of her four shafts. This would give her a speed of about 27.25 knots (50.47 km/h). She also had a bow propeller for maneuvering in port and docking maneuvers. She was also the first British passenger liner to use alternating current as power.
There are several operational and economical advantages to such electrical de-coupling of a ship’s propulsion system, and it became a standard element of cruise ship design in the 1990s, over 30 years after Canberra entered service. However, diesel engine and gas turbine driven alternators are the primary power source for most modern electrically propelled ships. She also had a bulbous bow, two sets of stabilizers, and two funnels side-by-side. The lifeboats, which were made from glass fibre, were placed three decks lower than usual for ships of her type, and were recessed into the hull to allow improved view from the passenger decks.
On 2 April 1982, Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands, which initiated the Falklands War.
At the time, Canberra was cruising in the Mediterranean. The next day, her captain Dennis Scott-Masson received a message asking his time of arrival at Gibraltar, which was not on his itinerary. When he called at Gibraltar, he learnt that the Ministry of Defence had requisitioned Canberra for use as a troopship. Canberra sailed to Southampton, Hampshire where she was quickly refitted, sailing on 9 April for the South Atlantic.
Nicknamed the Great White Whale, Canberra proved vital in transporting the Parachute Regiment and Royal Marinesto the islands more than 9,000 nautical miles (17,000 km) from the United Kingdom.
While the Queen Elizabeth 2 being named after the ruling monarch was held to be too vulnerable politically to enter the war zone,Canberra was sent to the heart of the conflict.
Canberra anchored in San Carlos Water on 21 May as part of the landings by British forces to retake the islands. Although her size and white color made her an unmissable target for the Argentine Air Force, Canberra, if sunk, would not have been completely submerged in the shallow waters at San Carlos. However, the liner was not badly hit in the landings as the Argentine pilots tended to attack the Royal Navy frigates and destroyers instead of the supply and troop ships. After the war, Argentine pilots claimed they were told not to hit Canberra, as they mistook her for a hospital ship.
Canberra then sailed to South Georgia, where 3,000 troops were transferred from Queen Elizabeth 2. They were landed at San Carlos on 2 June. When the war ended, Canberra was used to repatriate captured Argentine soldiers, landing them at Puerto Madryn, before returning to Southampton to a rapturous welcome on 11 July. Captain Scott-Masson, who had started his apprenticeship on the Shaw, Savill & Albion Line troopship Empire Deben in the late 1940s, was awarded a CBE and made an Aide-de-Camp to Her Majesty The Queen.
After a lengthy refit, Canberra returned to civilian service as a cruise ship. Her role in the Falklands War made her very popular with the British public, and ticket sales after her return were elevated for many years as a result. Age and high running costs eventually caught up with her though, as she had much higher fuel consumption than most modern cruise ships.
Canberra was withdrawn from P&O service in September 1997 and sold to ship breakers for scrapping, leaving for Gadani ship-breaking yard, Pakistan the next month. She did not give up without a fight however; her deep draft meant that she could not be beached as far as most ships, and due to her solid construction the scrapping process took nearly a year instead of the estimated three months, being totally scrapped by the end of 1998.