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Classic Cruise Ships: From Cruise Liner To War Hero — The SS Canberra

01 June 2011

Cruise Ship

Updated June 2019

One of P&O Cruises' and indeed Britain's most famous ships, P&O Canberra went from cruise liner to war hero, and will live on in people's memories for years to come.

The SS Canberra still remains one of P&O Cruises' most popular and well-known ships. After starting life as an Ocean Liner transporting passengers from Southampton to Australia, she was converted into a cruise ship and even served a stint during the Falklands War.

P&O commissioned the SS Canberra to operate between Great Britain and Australia in 1957, with the ship coming into service in 1960. Let's take a look at what the ship was like in 1961...

With air travel gaining popularity, and with the closure of the Suez Canal, the ship's route became unprofitable and so in 1974 the Canberra was given a refit and adapted to cruising. Once converted to a cruise ship the SS Canberra became one of P&O Cruises' most popular ships through to her eventual retirement in 1997.


One of the most remarkable features of her design was the turbo-electric propulsion system. As opposed to being mechanically coupled with her propeller shafts, as was then standard, her steam turbines drove large electric alternators which powered electric motors and in turn drove the ship's propellers. They were the most powerful steam turbo-electric unties ever installed on a ship and gave her a speed of approximately 27 knots. She was also the first British passenger liner to use AC as power onboard.  Canberra's innovative power and propulsion system became the blueprint behind cruise ship design during the '90s, over 30 years after she entered service.

The engines may have been ahead of her time, but they weren't the reasons for her popularity. Though she was already proving a popular ship within the P&O fleet, her status as a war hero after being deployed by the MoD as a troopship in 1982 made her a living legend. The Canberra, nicknamed the Great White Whale, transported the Parachute Regiment and Royal Marines to the Falklands islands and was sent to the heart of the conflict, anchoring in San Carlos Waters on 21 May as part of the landings by British forces.

During the conflict the Canberra sustained minimal damage and rumour has it Argentine pilots mistook her for a hospital ship, meaning she escaped the worst attacks. Once the conflict was over she was used to repatriate Argentine soldiers.

On her return to Southampton, SS Canberra was given a rapturous welcome and after a lengthy refit she returned to service as a cruise ship. Her new war hero status made her incredibly popular with the British public which led to sales being elevated for years to come. In 1997 her age and running costs caught up with her, and she was eventually retired from cruising and sold to the ship breakers for scrapping.

P&O Cruises' latest ship announcement is the spectacular Iona.  Set to grace the seas in 2020, the highlight anticipated ship is expected to be a game-changer for the nation's favourite cruise line. Will their latest super liner take the name of this classic ship?

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