From the late 1700s through to the early 1900s, the British Royal Navy protected the seas of the British Empire’s Australasian colonies, until the Australasia Station was decommissioned and command handed over to the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) in 1913. Responsibility for the imperial protection of Aotearoa New Zealand and the islands of the South Pacific then fell to the Royal Navy’s New Zealand Naval Force under the command of the China Station. In 1921, the Naval Force became the New Zealand Division of the Royal Navy with command based at Wellington.
While traditionally manned by British sailors, with the formation of the New Zealand Royal Naval Volunteer Reserves (RNVR) in 1926, the New Zealand Division of the Royal Navy became an increasingly Kiwi affair. A decade later, the Division was led by the Leander-class, light cruiser HMS Achilles which took part in the annual naval exercises of 1937 with the RAN cruisers HMAS Canberra, HMAS Australia and HMAS Sydney, held in the North Island’s Hauraki Gulf. After the manoeuvres, the RAN flagship Canberra, accompanied by the Sydney, steamed for Whakaraupō Lyttelton Harbour to pay its third visit to the Port of Lyttelton.
The HMAS Canberra was a Kent-class heavy cruiser built for the RAN by John Brown & Co in Clydebank, Scotland. Laid down on 9 September 1925 she was launched by Her Royal Highness Princess Mary on 31 May 1927 and commissioned on 9 July 1928. At 192 m long, with a 20.8 m beam and 6.5 m draught, she displaced over 10,000 tonnes. Powered by eight Yarrow boilers feeding steam to four Brown-Curtis geared turbines driving four screws at 80,000 shaft horsepower (60,000 kW), she had a range of 4,200 km at top speed of 31 knots, and 19,000 km at 11 knots. With a full crew of 710 men and an armament of eight 8 inch guns in four twin turrets fore and aft, along with four 4 inch and another four 3-pounder guns, HMAS Canberra was a formidable exemplar of modern British naval power in the interwar period.
The Canberra’s first visit to Whakaraupō Lyttelton Harbour in 1933 was welcomed by large crowds of well-wishers, and was almost as popular as the celebrated visit of HMS New Zealand some twenty years earlier in 1913. Likewise, in 1937 the Canberra was eagerly anticipated with the Lyttelton Borough Council coordinating with the Harbour Board on planning for the ‘entertainment of the officers and men’ of the visiting warships. These plans included a dance and picnic, as well as an outing to Ashley Gorge for the men, and a ‘hare drive’ for the officers, with the Canterbury Branch of the Navy League organising an officer’s ball in the Winter Garden.
The combined New Zealand and Australian squadrons had called at Wellington and performed a ‘march past’ of 1000 men in the city on 6 April, with the salute taken by Governor General Lord Galway, and welcomed by thousands of cheering spectators. Following this, and flying the pennant of Commodore Rear-Admiral Lane Poole CB OBE, HMAS Canberra and Sydney arrived at the Port of Lyttelton on 8 April 1937 with Harbourmaster Captain J Plowman piloting the RAN flagship into berth, with the assistance of the Tug Lyttelton, on the east side of No. 2 Wharf. The Rear-Admiral was welcomed by the mayors of both Lyttelton (Mr Sutton) and Christchurch (Mr Beanland), members of the Harbour Board and Navy League, and officers of the Southern Command and RNVR.
Extra trains were scheduled for that weekend on the Lyttelton to Christchurch electric line, to cater for the expected large crowds as well as several hundred Aussie sailors. On Sunday 11 April, hundreds of people queued to board the two warships while many more lined the wharves and other vantage points. A particular crowd pleaser was the sight of the Canberra’s Supermarine Walrus being winched onto the wharf. A recent addition to the warship, the Walrus was newly designed and built at Supermarine’s Woolston, Southampton UK facility. Catapult launched, with a novel all-metal fuselage, the Walrus would serve as a reconnaissance, rescue, and anti-submarine aircraft in the coming hostilities that were already looming large in Europe.
The 1937 visit of the ill-fated Canberra and Sydney to Whakaraupō Lyttelton Harbour would be their last before WW2 broke out. On 6 January 1940, the First Echelon of the Second New Zealand Expeditionary Force comprising almost 7000 men – including 71 officers and 1311 men who had embarked at Lyttelton the day before – sailed from Wellington Harbour in four troop transports escorted by HMS Leander of the New Zealand Division and HMAS Canberra, bound for the Suez. The Canberra would subsequently see action alongside HMS Leander in the Indian Ocean in March 1941 with the sinking of the German supply ship Coburg and the tanker Ketty Brøvig.
On 9 August 1942, HMAS Canberra engaged Japanese warships in the battle of Savo Island in Guadalcanal and took heavy fire with 84 killed. Judged unsalvageable, she was scuttled and sank to the depths of what became known as ‘Ironbottom Sound’. On hearing of this loss, the Deputy-Prime Minister of New Zealand, the Honourable DG Sullivan, conveyed the following in a letter to the Australian Government:
“The announcement of the loss of the Canberra in battle in the Solomon Islands has caused profound regret throughout the Dominion, and on behalf of the Government and people of New Zealand, I ask you to convey their sincere sympathy to the people of Australia, and in particular to relatives of those who so nobly lost their lives in the course of duty. We share with you the knowledge that their sacrifice will not be in vain, but will be fully redeemed by the final triumph of our cause, in the defence of which the armed forces of the Commonwealth are playing so gallant a part”.