The Great White Whale, S.S. Canberra

Liberia - StampWorld #2633 (1999)
Liberia – StampWorld #2633 (1999)

On March 16, 1960, S.S. Canberra — an ocean liner that was to enter service for the Peninsular & Oriental Steam Navigation Company, or P&O-Orient Line — was launched at the shipyards of  Harland & Wolff in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Named after the federal capital of Australia, she entered service in May 1961 ad made her maiden voyage starting in June. The liner appeared in the 1971 James Bond movie Diamonds are Forever. During the 1982 Falklands War, Canberra served as a troop ship. In 1997, the singer and songwriter Gerard Kenny released the single “Farewell Canberra” which was specially composed for the last voyage. She was scrapped at Gadani ship-breaking yard in Pakistan, a process fraught with difficulties with her solid construction causing the scrapping to take twelve months in 1997-1998 instead of the planned three months.

In the mid-1950’s, P&O began planning for the replacement of several aging ocean liners on its regular service between the United Kingdom and Australia. The naval architects responsible for the design of what became S.S. Canberra was led by John West with the instruction to provide as much passenger space as possible. Two ships that greatly influenced the team’s drawings was the S.S. Southern Cross of Shaw Savill Lines and Holland America Line’s Rotterdam with her side-by-side stovepipe funnels. The plans were approved by P&O in 1956 and a contract was signed with Harland & Wolff on December 20, 1956. The new liner’s keel was laid as Yard No. 1621 on September 23, 1957, and her name was formally announced on March 17, 1958, by P&O-Orient Chairman Sir Donald Anderson.

As recounted on the excellent history of the Canberra at,

The day of her launching on March 16, 1960 proved to be a miserable British cold and a wet day in Belfast. In fact it was so bad, that a flypast by a Canberra bomber that had been pre-arranged to celebrate this special event was forced to be abandoned. Yet three hundred guests gathered to watch the event, with another estimated 11,000 onlookers were crammed in and around the shipyard and other suitable spaces to watch her launching and slowly slipping into the Musgrave Channel.”

Program for the launch of S.S. Canberra on March 16, 1960.
Program for the launch of S.S. Canberra on March 16, 1960.

The launch was sponsored by Dame Pattie Menzies, GBE, wife of the then Prime Minister of Australia, Robert Menzies. The Canberra was then towed to Thompson Wharf where she was fitted out with her upper superstructure and masts and funnels added. Construction mostly complete, she underwent her builders trials on April 29, 1961, in Belfast Lough, during which time her massive bulbous bow almost lifted clear out of the water when at full speed. This was due to the lack of ballast in the bow coupled with the rear placement of her machinery. Moved to Southampton for her acceptance trials on May 18, she sailed a measured mile off the Isle of Arran, achieving a top speed of 29.27 knots, with her bow remaining in the water where it belonged.

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) per shaft, they surpassed the Normandie‘s 40,000 hp (30,000 kW) on each of her four shafts. This would give her a service 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 fiber, 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. Canberra was 820 feet (250 meters) in length, had a beam of 103 feet (31 meters) and a draft of 35.5 feet (10.5 m). She measured 45,270 gross registered tons. Her original complement was 548 First Class and 1,690 Tourist Class passengers with a crew of 900.

Canberra departed Southampton just before 5:00 p.m. June 2, 1961, on her maiden voyage to Australia, captained by Commodore Geoffrey Wild with 2,238 passengers aboard. There were several problems encountered during the voyage including a leading distilled water condenser and a complete power failure causing a 14-hour delay in Aden. She was over 31 hours behind schedule by the time she arrived at Fremantle, Western Australia, yet was greeted by thousands of cheering spectators. The ship then sailed along the southern coast of Australia, reaching Melbourne on June 27 and concluding the nearly month-long voyage in Sydney on June 29, 1961, around 24 hours late.

SS Canberra moored in Sydney Harbour.
SS Canberra moored in Sydney Harbour.

Following that, Canberra sailed to New Zealand where she arrived in Auckland on July 6 several hours late due not to mechanical problems but to the worst fog seen in the area for some 30 years. Next up was a voyage that included Honolulu, Hawaii (arriving there on July 12); Vancouver, British Columbia; San Francisco and Los Angeles in California; back to Honolulu; Wellington, New Zealand; thence to Sydney, Melbourne, Fremantle, Colombo, Aden, through the Suez Canal, Gibraltar, and finally arriving back at Southampton on September 4, 1961. Canberra had steamed more than 45,000 miles on this first round-trip voyage.

The start to the second was delayed for five hours by a minor fire in the engine room, so her problems weren’t yet over. These included a broken blade in one of the main turbo-generators on Voyage 2, and problems with her boilers, distilling plant and the main turbo generators on Voyage 4. It was decided to shorten this voyage and so Canberra transited the Panama Canal for the first time on June 11, 1962, the largest ship to pass through the canal up to that time and resulting in a slight scrape to her side. Following stops at Willemstad, Curacao, and Trinidad (where nine stowaways boarded), she headed directly for Southampton. During this final portion of the voyage, the air-conditioning failed forcing passengers to sleep on deck due to the hot conditions below. The liner arrived in Southampton on June 21, 1962 where she received a 29-day overhaul to correct all her recurring problems, and a few modifications to the ship’s appearance. Her Gross Registered Tonnage had increased to 45,733 GRT.

Aerial view of SS Canberra.
Aerial view of SS Canberra.

The ship became the first P&O liner to visit New York in over 100 years on August 6, 1962, but the following January an engine room fire while in the Mediterranean caused the complete loss of power. Once electricity was restored, the Canberra proceeded to Malta at around 10 knots per hour where 14 aircraft eventually evacuated more than 1,700 of her passengers. Forty-six remained aboard for a voyage to Belfast where she received a four-month overhaul at Harland & Wolff Shipyards. Luckily, there were no further major mechanical problems for many years to come.

The arrival of the jet airliner had already caused a drop in demand for this service; a reduction in emigration to Australia and wars forcing the closure of the Suez Canal saw the route become unprofitable. However, a ten=week refit in 1974 saw Canberra adapted to cruising with a one-class capacity of 1,737 passengers served by 795 crew members. Unusually, this transition from an early life as a purpose built ocean liner to a long and successful career in cruising, occurred without any major external alterations, and with only minimal internal and mechanical changes over the years. One of her public rooms included a ‘Cricketers Tavern’, which contained a collection of bats and ties from cricket clubs all over the world; she also had the William Fawcett reading/writing room, named after the engine designer of early P&O ships.

HMS Andromeda and Canberra off Port Stanley, Falkland Islands, just after the surrender of Argentine forces on June 14, 1982.
HMS Andromeda and Canberra off Port Stanley, Falkland Islands, just after the surrender of Argentine forces on June 14, 1982.

On April 2, 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. The liner sailed to Southampton where she was quickly refitted, sailing on April 9 for the South Atlantic.

Nicknamed the “Great White Whale”, Canberra proved vital in transporting the Parachute Regiment and Royal Marines to the islands more than 9,000 nautical miles (17,000 km) from the United Kingdom. She was sent to the heart of the conflict, anchoring in San Carlos Water on May 21 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 returns to Southampton following the Falkland Islands War on July 11, 1982.
Canberra returns to Southampton following the Falkland Islands War on July 11, 1982.

Canberra then sailed to South Georgia, where 3,000 troops were transferred from RMS Queen Elizabeth 2. They were landed at San Carlos on June 2. When the war ended, Canberra was used as a cartel to repatriate captured Argentine soldiers, landing them at Puerto Madryn, before returning to Southampton to a rapturous welcome on July 11. As described on, “she reached the Solent and she headed for her berth, being 106-berth as aircraft overflew her in a welcoming gesture. The ship was also briefly joined by the HRH the Prince of Wales together with other dignitaries who arrived by helicopter to the amidships flight deck. Whilst on the forward flight deck, the Royal Marines Band played, as the Canberra was surrounded by more and more, small boats, fire tugs, passenger craft and all kind of vessels that had come out to greet England’s maritime Heroes the Ship and its Gallant Crew!” 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 by Vosper’s in Southampton, Canberra returned to civilian service as a cruise ship on September 11, 1982. 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. In 1984, Royal British Legion chartered the ship in order that veterans and their families would be able to board her for events commemorating the 50th anniversary of the D-Day landings in Normandy. Canberra departed on June 4 to take part in the Spithead Review by the Her Royal Highness Queen Elizabeth II early the next morning on Sunday, June 5. In addition, there were many small craft. Following the fleet review the Canberra sailed towards the French coast and Commodore Ian Gibb held a remembrance service around the Bonito Pool for the veterans and their families, whilst a Lancaster bomber flew overhead and dropped 850,000 poppies. The Queen Elizabeth 2 and the Royal Yacht Britannia were also a part of the flotilla.

SS Canberra and RMS Queen Elizabeth 2 in the English Channel on June 5, 1984.
SS Canberra and RMS Queen Elizabeth 2 in the English Channel on June 5, 1984.

Age and high running costs eventually caught up with her though, as she had much higher fuel consumption than most modern cruise ships. Although Premier Cruise Line had made a bid for the old ship, P&O had already decided that they did not want the Canberra to operate under a different flag. A replacement for the Canberra, the 1988-built Star Princess was transferred to P&O Cruises and was renamed Arcadia.

On June 25, 1996, P&O announced that the SS Canberra would be retired from service on September 30, 1997,  She departed Sydney for the final time on February 23 during her annual World Cruise with an estimated half a million people cheering her on. Canberra concluded this cruise in Southampton on April 7. A final voyage through the Mediterranean took place from September 10 to 30, 1997. It is said that her last arrival at Southampton rival that of her return from the Falklands in 1982

Canberra was withdrawn from P&O service and moored at berths 38/39 (usually used by the QE2) to await her fate. The process of de-storing was completed by October 10, with the passenger gangways and fire detection equipment being the very last items to go ashore. On that date, P&O announced that the Canberra would be sailing that evening to Pakistan where she would be broken up.

The Canberra departed Southampton for the last time around 9:00 p.m. October 10, 1997, with a skeleton crew of 72 aboard under the command of Captain Mike Carr. It took some force to move her away from the berth with two tugboats assisting. Following a final transit of the Suez Canal on October 19, the ship anchored to await news of her fate and destination. The bill of sale was signed on October 21 between P&O and Eckhardt Marine GMBH of Hamburg who then resold her to the highest bidder, the ship breakers in Karachi, Pakistan, for U.S, $5,640,818.

At 7.30 a.m. on October 28, Canberra dropped anchor off Karachi. The next day, representatives of her new owners boarded to inspect the ship. The next day, the beaching party came aboard, and Canberra headed for Gadani Beach where she arrived at 11:00 p.m. before anchoring. On October 31, 1997, the ship’s draft was trimmed in order for the angle of her bow to be ready for the beaching at Gadani. Steaming at almost at top speed, accompanied throughout the ship by bagpipes played at full volume over the open deck speakers, the Canberra was partially beached at 9.40 a.m. Early in the afternoon, all of the P&O the crew disembarked the ship for the very last time.

Canberra during breaking-up in Pakistan, 1997-1998.
Canberra during breaking-up in Pakistan, 1997-1998.

However, it seemed that Canberra’s very deep draft was going to prove to be a real problem for her new owners, although she had been beached, but she was much too far out for her to be broken up successfully. A number of attempts were made to winch the Canberra closer inshore, but she proved to be a stubborn ship and remained fast were she was. 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.

The singer/songwriter Gerard Kenny released “Farewell Canberra” in 1997, which was written especially for the last voyage and a tribute to SS Canberra. The song mentions the ship giving a home and comfort to the Falklands soldiers who were “so brave and alone” and that for the many people who got to travel on Canberra she remains “always in our memory” and “our wonderful home on the sea.”

Liberia released this 25-dollar stamp on November 22, 1999, part of a set of six stamps with varying denominations, three mini-sheets each containing six Liberian $25 stamps, and three mini-sheets with one $100 stamp each released under the title “The 20th Century by Sea and Air”.  Each of the mini-sheets contains a short paragraph giving a brief history of the stamps or aircraft pictured thereon. The Scott Postage Stamp Catalogue doesn’t list any of the stamps Liberia issued between August 30, 1999 (Scott #1485-1488, featuring dogs) and a set portraying Norman Rockwell paintings released on January 10, 2005 (Scott #2325-2332). This was because the country was “torn by a brutal and chaotic civil war that reduced the nation to a state of anarchy.” They are, however, listed by the StampWorld website (#2611-2637).

Flag of Liberia

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