Lifting the Shame of Savo Island

Heroes of the Solomons: Captain Frank Getting RAN

One of Australia’s most experienced and capable naval commanders was struck down in his prime during one of the most ferocious naval engagements of WWII. Was he later a cruel victim of a historical cover-up? Roderick Eime investigates.

The US involvement in the many battles of the Solomon Islands campaign are well documented through movies, documentaries and books. Yet, the substantial participation of Australian naval forces in that campaign is far less acknowledged.

When the Allied Forces began their landings on Guadalcanal and Tulagi on 7 August 1942, they were supported by a massive combined naval force which included the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) warships Canberra, Hobart and Australia.

HMAS Canberra proudly in Sydney Harbour pre-war

HMAS Canberra was a British-built County class heavy cruiser of the Kent sub-class commissioned in 1928. At 10,000 tons and 180m in length, she was slightly larger than the more famous HMAS Sydney which had already been lost during her mutually destructive engagement with the German auxiliary cruiser Kormoran on 19 November 1941. Sydney’s sister ship, the light cruiser, HMAS Perth was lost in the Battle of Sunda Strait in March 1942.

Capt Frank Getting

In command of HMAS Canberra was Captain Frank Edmond Getting. Born in Sydney in 1899, he was among the first cadets of the newly-established Royal Australian Naval College at Osborne House in Geelong. He graduated in 1917 with fellow officers Waller, Collins and others who would later rise to the highest ranks of the newly formed RAN.

Getting received his first commission on submarines in 1928 when he was the first Australian to pass the Royal Navy’s submarine commander’s course. With Australia’s submarines ‘gifted’ back to the RN at the outbreak of WWII, Getting was given command of the armed merchant cruiser HMAS Kanimbla. In 1940 he was appointed Deputy Chief of Naval Staff, a post he held until 1942, when he was given command of HMAS Canberra.

Clearly Getting, at 43, was a commander of considerable ability and promise and held one of the most prestigious posts in the relatively small RAN.

In a report dated March 1940, RN Admiral Percy Noble, wrote:

“Although this officer has only served with me for a short time, he has so favourably impressed me with his ability, keenness and power of command … He has a fine physique and a good manner and appearance. His whole heart seems to be in the Service and I am sure he will do very well.”

The Battle of Savo Island (HBO)

Anyone who saw the seminal HBO television mini-series, Pacific, will remember the initial landings by US Marines were only lightly opposed but the Japanese, once aware of the US forces, made numerous concerted efforts to reclaim the airfield they had begun building near Lunga Point (later Henderson Field) after landing there and on Tulagi in May 1942.

One of those dramatic and courageous attacks was by a naval force on the night of August 8/9th that would become known as The Battle of Savo Island. While supporting the landing operations, the Allied naval ships were positioned in Savo Island Strait, the body of water directly offshore from Honiara, between Guadalcanal and Florida Island. The force had been divided into three sections to guard all possible entry points from the anticipated Japanese counterattack. The three RAN ships were divided between each group, with HMAS Canberra in the southern group, close to Savo Island itself.

The Allied crews on the 23 warships were fatigued from several days of ‘action stations’ and, by all accounts, were in a state of semi-preparedness with many of the sailors probably dozing or asleep when the Japanese force of seven cruisers and one destroyer came charging at full speed into their midst.

Vice Admiral Gunichi Mikawa - couldn't believe his luck - and took full advantage of the element of surprise.

Led by Vice-Admiral Mikawa, a veteran Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) commander highly skilled in night tactics, his force left Rabaul the afternoon of the Allied landings and skillfully (and luckily) avoided detection while approaching Savo Island from the west. This was despite the fact a US submarine and two RAAF Hudsons medium bombers flying reconnaissance from Milne Bay had both spotted and reported the approaching task force. In shades of Pearl Harbour, this failure of communication is the first part of the US cover-up that sought to conceal the catastrophe that was about to unfold.

Rear Admiral Samuel Eliot Morison was a Pulitzer Prize-winning naval historian who wrote lengthy and authoritative accounts of the glorious US Navy and its war-winning exploits.

Of the failure of communication, he wrote “first Hudson crew made no attempt to radio their sighting report, routinely and leisurely completed their patrol and then ‘had tea’ before submitting their report at Milne Bay.”

Rear Admiral Samuel Eliot Morison, whose US naval histories have been found to be biased and inaccurate.

As a result, Morison claims, the Japanese strike force were able to take the Allied fleet completely by surprise, which they did with disastrous results. HMAS Canberra was one of the first victims of the rampaging IJN vessels. And again, the historical accounts are murky.

While the Australian crew were at actions stations very promptly with turrets manned, the guns were not loaded and the couple of minutes it took to locate a target and get ready to fire proved crucial.

Some criticism, mostly from amateur historians, had been levelled at Canberra's crew for not having main guns ready and laoded beforehand, but this is contrary to naval practice.

According to Frank Allica, a former Commander RAN PWO (G) and Gunnery Officer, “Guns are not kept loaded - even in wartime. Ammunition is kept available in the hoists and ready use stowages, gunbays, ready to load at a moments notice. They can be available in a matter of seconds. To leave guns loaded invites an accidental discharge and possible friendly fire damage.

“The dominant issue is locating the enemy, tracking them with the visual sights and weapon control director. Canberra had no radar at that time so finding a target and getting a fire control solution is the difficult part - not loading the gun. This would have certainly been the case with Canberra that chaotic night. As a last solution the Captain of the Turret can fire the gun in local but it is a point blank solution and is not accurate - not with the main armament.”

Lieutenant Commander Mackenzie J Gregory RAN (ret) was on the bridge that fateful night as a junior officer:

“I called the Navigating Officer and the Gunnery Officer; the P.C.O. sighted 3 ships on our starboard bow and gave the alarm and the order to load the 8" turrets. The Captain quickly arrived to be first to reach the bridge. I sighted torpedo tracks approaching down the starboard side - the Captain ordered full ahead and starboard 35 to quickly swing the ship to starboard.”


Rear Admiral Gerard Charles Muirhead-Gould said the crew of HMAS Canberra should be ashamed

Canberra managed to avoid the incoming ‘long lance’ torpedoes, but immediately started taking shell hits. In fact, Canberra, illuminated by star flares dropped from aircraft, would suffer a hail of some 24 direct hits at point blank range in the course of a few minutes. One struck the bridge where Gregory was stationed and killed or wounded everyone except himself, including Captain Getting.

Getting, despite being seriously injured, could not be persuaded to leave his station by the ship’s surgeon, insisting the doctor treat the other wounded first. Instead he continued to give orders and direct the battle, which from Canberra’s point-of-view was short and brutal. The ship, which was about to become the third major loss for the tiny RAN in the opening stages of the war, possibly managed just a few hurried rounds before being totally disabled by torpedo hits.

Some sources are critical of Canberra’s lack of readiness as contributing to the defeat of Savo Island, particularly Rear Admiral Gerard Charles Muirhead-Gould, the pompous, English-born commander of Sydney’s defences and a pet of Churchill's. He told the crew they should feel ashamed that their ship had been sunk by gunfire without firing a shot in return.

The subsequent RAN Board of Inquiry made no mention of torpedoes at all and much fuss was instead made of the prowess of our brave American ‘chums’ in rescuing survivors.

Such unjustified criticism naturally falls on Captain Getting himself who, supported by eyewitness accounts was quickly to the bridge as soon as the action began.

Burning and battered, Canberra's survivors are evacuated

Listing, battered and burning, Canberra was abandoned the next morning because she did not have propulsion to join the ships that were leaving the scene en masse and abandoning the partially supplied Marines ashore, an act that would later draw much criticism. Ever defiant, numerous shells and finally a torpedo from a US destroyer were required to scuttle her in the deep waters of what would soon be known as “Iron Bottom Sound”.

The final shame of this chapter was that not only did Australia lose a valuable warship with almost 200 casualties from an excellent crew of more than 800, the critical torpedo blow that sealed her fate may well have been a stray or misfire from the destroyer USS Bagley that struck just as Canberra was preparing to engage the enemy with her 8” main guns.

As more documents are declassified and more thorough research is done, many of these slurs against Australian servicemen are finally being corrected.

Bruce Loxton, who was on the bridge with Gregory and Getting and seriously wounded himself, fought for years to clear the names of his fellow officers and men, ultimately publishing a meticulously researched book, “The Shame of Savo: Anatomy of a Naval Disaster”, where he asserts the Canberra was crippled by at least one torpedo from the Bagley.

Then, just last year, an apology was finally issued to the last surviving aircrew from the RAAF Hudsons, Eric Geddes, who had tried in vain to alert his naval comrades of the impending Japanese attack.

Greg Martin, the assistant director of the US Naval History and Heritage Command, in Washington wrote:
"A new generation of naval historians is questioning previous works, such as that of Rear Admiral Samuel Eliot Morison, often written too close to the end of a recently completed campaign ... RADM Morison's criticism, in particular, was unwarranted."

The apology is too late for the more than 1000 sailors who died that night. Captain Frank Getting, at his own insistence, was among the last eventually evacuated from the smouldering Canberra the following morning but succumbed to his wounds en route to Noumea and was buried at sea.

An HMAS Canberra memorial was dedicated at Kings Park, Lake Burley Griffin in 1981.


Pull Quote:

“The fact must be faced that we had an adequate force placed with the very purpose of repelling surface attack and when that surface attack was made, it destroyed our force.” – RADM R. A. Crutchley, RN, VC.

Further reading:

Loxton, Bruce; Chris Coulthard-Clark (1997). The Shame of Savo: Anatomy of a Naval Disaster. Australia: Allen & Unwin Pty Ltd. ISBN 1-86448-286-9.


Comments (0) Trackbacks (0)
  1. It is astounding that the Navy seems to have such inlceunfe on politicians and defence planners in Canberra considering their many follies.Aircraft carrier operations had to be jettisoned previously because they were not affordably sustainable. The RAN is just not big enough to continually provide escort support for operation of these platforms in active military operations. A few somewhat mythical F-35B or even Harriers would not be adequate to protect the Canberra class if carrying say 1,000 or so troops and their hardware. Just too many eggs in one basket.Serving Admirals, lobby groups and the defence commentariat at large seem to be pushing the line that Australia must have 4,000 tonne submarines with ultra long range to enable covert operations in the South China Sea. DWP2009 correctly envisaged the ADF primary operating environment to be south of the Equator between the eastern Indian Ocean and the island states of Polynesia, but this has been extended to South East Asia in DWP2013, ostensibly at behest of the US. Foreseeably, a regional foreign policy blunder.Neither the former CN or CDF were held accountable for the RAN failing to adequately maintain its warships over a couple of decades resulting in a debilitated fleet, some of which have had to be withdrawn from service and replaced.Nobody was held accountable for the absurd notion to redesign the cockpit and weapons system of the Seasprite just so a bloody Observer could sit up front, resulting in the aircraft having to be operated single pilot over the ocean on dark stormy nights. The Kiwis are now capitalising big time on Australia’s mistake.The architects of DWP2013 have again lost the plot. Australia basically needs and can only afford capabilities to DETER interference with trade routes closer to home and to provide modest forces for regional interventions. Smaller say Type 212/214 submarines would be quite adequate, optimised air mobility along lines being shed and much smaller capacity amphibious capabilites would have been realistic. Senator Faulkner speaking as former MinDef was spot on with his analysis of defence planning shortcomings and especially the non-transparency involved. Maybe that is why he was eased out of that role.

Trackbacks are disabled.