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The End of the SS Canberra

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Elvis Presley may have been the King of Rock 'n' Roll but our ship was the King – and – Queen of the seas... truly one of the greatest PEOPLES' ships in the world.
– James Homer
The photos of her demise are heartbreaking.
– Matt Welsby

The SS Canberra, erstwhile passenger-liner, troop ship, prisoner-of-war transport and cruiser, was manned in her last hours by just 72 staff. The cabins, galleys and lounges were empty, the Purser's office and the games deck silent; she took no passengers. In better days it took a company of close to 800 to run the busy communities of immigrants, soldiers, and holidaymakers she carried.

It had taken nearly two years to build 'yard number 1621'; she was twice the length of a football pitch1, towered ten storeys above the waterline, accommodated 2,238 passengers and had cost P&O a cool £15 million. In 1960 the Australian Prime Minister-of-the-day's wife and a bottle of Australian wine had launched her into Belfast's Musgrave Channel. And into a popularity many a Prime Minister would be envious of — she gained a place in the hearts of thousands — some crew, some passengers, some merely onlookers. The comments at the top of the Entry are quoted from and are typical of those found in guestbooks and forums on webpages dedicated to the Canberra and there are many, many such messages.

Nearly 40 years on from her launch, on 10 October, 1997, the Canberra left the UK from Southampton docks for the last time, in the dark, to the accompaniment of bagpipes playing 'Dark Isle', 'Flowers of the Forest' and 'Flower of Scotland' on a cassette tape her Captain had had made for the occasion. Only a handful of ex-crew were there to see her off. It was a far cry from the throngs who'd crowded the dock in the 1960s and 70s to send off those bound for £10-a-ticket new lives in the New World with thousands of coloured paper streamers, symbolically tearing the links to the Old World apart one by one as the great ship pulled away from the harbour wall.

For a decade she had plied her passenger trade between the continents, then the war-closed Suez Canal, the take-off of mass air travel and restrictions on immigration raised costs, reduced passengers numbers and nearly led to her being prematurely scrapped. Reprieved by the burgeoning cruise industry, Canberra had switched to ferrying holidaymakers with ease and to great success.

She'd come and gone from Southampton many times in her career. Her most glorious Southampton homecoming was in 1982 when she'd been escorted there in sunshine by a flotilla of boats, fire-tugs, helicopters and airplanes to the sound of 'Land of Hope and Glory' played by the Royal Marines' band and a chorus of ships' hooters. Crowds lined the water-edge shouting, cheering and waving banners. That was on her return from service in the Falklands when she'd exchanged cruise-takers for soldiers, and Port Said and Sydney harbour for Port Stanley and Goose Green.

After being commandeered by the British Government at very short notice she'd transported and landed more than 2,000 soldiers under fire in San Carlos Water, taken 3,000 prisoners of war back to Argentina, served nearly 650,000 meals, 660lbs of coffee and five tons of cheese. All of her cheese wires had gone from her galleys, converted by the soldiers into garrottes. The Government wrote her off as a war loss. They were close to right; a missile heading for the Canberra was shot down within 300 metres by HMS Fearless. She returned but her formerly pristine white sides were rust-streaked with telling corrosion.

Back on that October night in 1997 Canberra gave three long whistle blasts as she made her way down Southampton water. A few ships in the vicinity returned the call. She was supposed to be sailing with all lights off. That order had been disregarded and seeing her go, cars along the bank flashed their headlights in farewell.

After the Falklands, her war history had made her more popular than ever as a cruise-liner but there was, in the end when her age really began to tell, no long retirement as a hotel ship or visitor attraction. Three weeks after that last casting-off from Southampton, at anchor just off Karachi, Canberra's prospective new owners came aboard for a meeting. P&O had been quoted as saying that no ship purpose built for P&O would ever sail for another company — no exception was made for the Canberra. The beaching party boarded two days later and there was to be no possibility of her ever sailing, or even floating, again; her propeller blades were to be cut and removed, and the vessel herself dismantled to the point that rebuilding would be impossible.

Early in the morning of 31 October, 1997, Captain Mike Carr brought Canberra's engines up to almost full speed. He then set the piped laments to play full volume through all the deck speakers and brought 40 years of ocean crossings to a close when he steered her straight at Gadani beach and into the hands of the disembowellers.

The Aftermath

Dismantling her was not trouble-free. Her draft had always caused difficulties. She'd run aground twice: on one occasion taking four days to be set loose. Now a sandbar brought her to an inconveniently distant standstill. But even though it took a year instead of three months, the scrap merchants succeeded. And in dismantling every steel plate of her they let memories loose too.

Memories of the washrooms and drying rooms where the tourist classes did their laundry, kids sliding underfoot on the soap-sud slippery wood-slat floors. Of the gangways and bulkheads that lent themselves to assignation. Dining rooms where soldiers had taken cover under tables, bluffing fear in camaraderie, cabins where conscripted teenagers slept nose to tail dreading their return home to Argentina in surrender.

Of the two 15-year-old stowaways who escaped discovery for two weeks. Of the rescue in rough seas of the Jones family from the Dorothy Anne. Of the pools the cruise-takers had flirted beside, of the many celebrations of anniversaries. Of the Captain's Table and white-clad, gold-braided stewards, of engine rooms and boiler-suited engineers. Everything was picked apart and hoisted ashore on pulleys.

The Falklands soldiers had nicknamed Canberra the 'Great White Whale'; the fates planned for her and Moby Dick were not too different. Ahab's great white escaped him, the Canberra's dissection and gutting was merciless.

1English football.

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