The last hours of HMAS Canberra

A graphical account of the brief encounter and final hours of the Canberra was provided by Brisbane’s Able Seaman PD Mackintosh. He was working at an aircraft defense post when he made one of the first reports of the ship being attacked at about 1.50 am. He saw gunshots and a star grenade on the starboard side, and a few seconds later he reported two torpedoes coming down on the port side. They missed the ship.

Mackintosh said: “After seeing the torpedoes coming down the port side, a shell hit us just below the bridge, killing an artillery officer and wounding the captain. We heard planes overhead, but couldn’t tell if they were Japanese or ours. At about 4 a.m., an American destroyer came alongside and began to clear the wounded. However, an alarm went off while the operation was underway, and the destroyer crashed without releasing the ropes.

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“About 6.40 am another destroyer came and took away the rest of the wounded and the survivors. As we took off, I saw two explosions on the horizon. It was two warehouses going up and I believe they announced the end of an enemy cruiser. Before we were disabled, we had experienced everything unscathed. On the morning of August 7, the Canberra and other ships were attacked by 18 Japanese bombers and 17 Zeros. More appeared in the afternoon. The next day 22 torpedo bombers attacked, and we have six.”

Mackintosh told how Captain Getting, although mortally wounded, refused medical attention, continued to direct operations and protested when he was carried aboard a rescue vessel.

Mackintosh has the unique experience of being associated with two other Australian cruisers that were sunk. He was attached to HMAS Sydney, but left the ship in Sydney due to ill health. He tried to rejoin the ship at Fremantle before sailing it on its ill-fated voyage to the Indian Ocean, but missed a few days. Mackintosh returned to Sydney to join the Perth as a steward, but could not find a bat. He was then transferred to the Canberra.

Several of the survivors praised the way the doctors and nurses did their job. For more than two days, they had very little sleep while tending the wounded. Surgeon-Commander Downward, Lieutenant-Surgeon Warden and Lieutenant-Surgeon Morrison came in for special commendations.

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Many of the men and officers had notable escapes from death or serious injury. Typically Paymaster was Lieutenant WH Ross, who was on watch when the alarm went off. His action post was on the bridge and he ran on deck. He had just left the 4-inch gun dock when a shell landed, causing many casualties. Another grenade burst behind Ross before he reached the bridge, and he was thrown on his face. Had he reached the bridge a few seconds earlier, he would have encountered the shell that killed the artillery officer and wounded the captain and commander.

Lieutenant Commander Mesley, the navigation officer on the bridge, also had several great breakouts. He was on the bridge when the artillery officer was killed and the captain and commander and other sailors were wounded, but he escaped without a scratch. One Petty Officer who was on the bridge and who escaped injury was Second Lieutenant WJ Gregory of Melbourne.

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