Canberra was born in 1947. Despite her British service she wasn't born to the country. In fact, her mother was SS France (a daughter of Normandie and Leviathan) and her father is unknown though it is assumed he was a German stationed in France during the occupation. This assumption made the young shipling unpopular in France and her mother was forced to give her up once she was grown. Britain's P&O graciously took her into their fleet in 1959.
Canberra was a very personable ship and made friends quickly, particularly with Cunard's Queen Elizabeth and Queen Mary. She mourned beside them at the death of their young sister Mauretania 2 a year later. That same year, a ship who would have a big impact on her life was born. Queen Elizabeth 2. Canberra was taken with the sickly shipling from the start and often helped care for her when Queen Elizabeth was off on a voyage. She was the expected candidate to finish raising the child when her mother was pulled from service in 1969.
Declared infertile at a young age, Canberra never expected to have children of her own and yet she found one in QE2. The young Cunard liner, who was really just a teenager when she entered service that year, enjoyed Canberra's company and called her "Aunty Berry". The name she had given her when she was just a shipling. In the summer months the two were often apart, save for a few visits to Southampton as Canberra was off cruising in the Mediterranean and QE2 sailed the North Atlantic. But in the winter the pair were a common sight and rarely left one another's side as they sailed in company throughout the Caribbean.
In 1982 Canberra was the first large merchant ship to be called for service as a troop ship to help Britain in the Falklands campaign. Unlike QE2 who was restricted in where she could go, Canberra sailed repeatedly into the front lines. Meeting with her stepdaughter in South Georgia, she took on the troops QE2 carried before the larger liner returned to Britain her part in the war over. Canberra, who always had a strict discipline for calmness, let that desert her now as she cried as many tears as her daughter. Promising to return, she set out for the frontline. Canberra was a lucky ship, having several close calls in this war. In one of which she was anchored in a bay and witness the destruction of both Antelope and Ardent who were anchored next to her. The experience haunted her the rest of her life as she sometimes heard the destroyer's screams in her sleep. Several Argentinian pilots who were interviewed after the war said they had been given strict orders not to hit Canberra because they believed she was a hospital ship. Her white hull certainly helped to reinforce that believe and so Canberra survived the war intact.
Returning home to a rousing welcome a month after QE2 did, she was immediately put into drydock and underwent the conversion back to civilian service. She was given 50 days at anchor to recover alongside QE2 who now bore Cunard's trademark red funnel, a mark of high honor among ships. The gray coat was dropped swiftly after Canberra remarked that it made QE2 look a bit plump. She returned to civilian service in 1983.
Canberra received the greatest scare of her life when, in October 1984, a week before Halloween, QE2 suffered a heart attack mid-ocean. Adrift, without power, and unable to radio for help, QE2 set off her EPIRB which operated on a battery separate from her own grid. Canberra, though not the closest vessel at the time, swiftly overtook her fleetmate SS Oriana who was QE2's half sister (Her mother was also Queen Elizabeth though neither ship realized her heritage) and had also responded to QE2's distress call. Reaching her stepdaughter first, Canberra acted quickly and performed CPR despite never having training. (One of her passengers was a doctor who directed her through it) By the time the Navy came on the scene, QE2 was stabilizing. Canberra was credited for her actions and awarded a medal by the government. Cunard and P&O both later stated that her quick actions saved QE2's life. QE2 was taken back to her homeport of Southampton where she underwent emergency bypass surgery. It was touch and go for a week before QE2 began to come around. Canberra remained in Southampton for several months after that, not once leaving QE2's side as she recovered. Economics forced her to leave for several voyages before she returned to look after her stepdaughter as she underwent the conversion from steam to diesel. The conversion finally closed the hole in QE2's heart that had plagued her since berth but it did leave her in serious pain that has remained with her to this day.
Canberra herself never underwent this life extending conversion and as a result, got slower with age. Steam ships aren't meant to last longer than 20 years and Canberra was in service for twice that long. In 1992, she had the first of what would be a series of illnesses that would eventually kill her. A case of norovirus left her berth bound for 3 days during which time she was quarantined much to the chagrin of QE2. Canberra was just recovering from this when she got word of her stepdaughter's grounding off Martha's Vineyard. Rushing to Southampton from Liverpool she oversaw the repairs herself, a task that no other ship has ever been given before or sense. Her efforts sapped her strength and the following year she fell seriously ill, unable to leave her berth for several weeks. The illness seemed to have vanished as quickly as it came but it was to have lasting repercussions until the day she died. In 1996 she was diagnosed with terminal cancer and it is believed now that her illness in 1993 was caused by the early stages. Given 6 months to live, Canberra got her affairs in order quickly, handing command of the P&O fleet to the new Oriana, then just 6 months into her service. She gifted the Golden Cockrel, an equivalent to the Boston Cup in the Cunard fleet, to QE2 who returned it to the P&O fleet in 2008.
September 20, 1997. Canberra returned from the states on a transatlantic voyage, docking at her berth in Southampton. She died the following day. Her stepdaughter, QE2 was with her overnight.
"She went peacefully in her sleep which is how we all deserve to go. She might've lived a few more years if she'd transferred to states but she'd made it abundantly clear to everybody that the only flag she ever wished to see flying from her masthead was the Union Jack. And I can respect that. Her love for this country knew no bounds. She had the courage of a battleship under fire and a heart as big as the sea that surrounds the isles. She loved everything and everyone but most importantly she loved life and what life could give her. The opportunity, she reveled in it. And that is how I choose to remember her. How I will always remember her, my Aunty Berry."~ From An Eulogy for SS Canberra by RMS Queen Elizabeth 2