The SS Canberra, an ocean liner in the P&O fleet which later operates on cruises, is launched in Belfast, Northern Ireland on March 16, 1960. She is built at the Harland and Wolff shipyard in Belfast at a cost of £17,000,000.
The ship is named on March 17, 1958, after the federal capital of Australia, Canberra. Her launch is sponsored by Dame Pattie Menzies, GBE, wife of the then Prime Minister of Australia, Robert Menzies. She enters service in May 1961 and begins her maiden voyage in June.
At the end of 1972 she is withdrawn and refitted to carry 1,500 single class passengers on cruises. Unusually, this transition from an early life as a purpose built ocean liner to a long and successful career in cruising, occurs without any major external alterations, and with only minimal internal and mechanical changes over the years.
On April 2, 1982, Argentina invades the Falkland Islands, which initiates the Falklands War. At the time, SS Canberra is cruising in the Mediterranean Sea. The next day, her captain, Dennis Scott-Masson, receives a message asking his time of arrival at Gibraltar, which is not on his itinerary. When he calls at Gibraltar, he learns that the Ministry of Defence had requisitioned SS Canberra for use as a troopship. SS Canberra sails to Southampton, Hampshire where she is quickly refitted, sailing on April 9 for the South Atlantic.
SS Canberra anchors in San Carlos Water on May 21 as part of the landings by British forces to retake the islands. Although her size and white colour make her an unmissable target for the Argentine Air Force, the liner is not badly hit in the landings as the Argentine pilots tend to attack the Royal Navy frigates and destroyers instead of the supply and troop ships. After the war, Argentine pilots claim they were told not to hit SS Canberra, as they mistook her for a hospital ship.
SS Canberra then sails to South Georgia Island, where 3,000 troops are transferred from Queen Elizabeth 2. They are landed at San Carlos on June 2. When the war ends, SS Canberra is 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.
After a lengthy refit, SS Canberra returns to civilian service as a cruise ship. Her role in the Falklands War makes her very popular with the British public, and ticket sales after her return are elevated for many years as a result. Age and high running costs eventually catch up with her though, as she has much higher fuel consumption than most modern cruise ships. Although Premier Cruise Line makes a bid for the old ship, P&O had already decided that they do not want SS Canberra to operate under a different flag.
SS Canberra is withdrawn from P&O service in September 1997 and sold to ship breakers for scrapping on October 10, 1997, leaving for Gadani ship-breaking yard in Pakistan on October 31, 1997. Her deep draft means that she cannot be beached as far as most ships, and due to her solid construction the scrapping process takes nearly a year instead of the estimated three months, being totally scrapped by the end of 1998.
The SS Canberra appears in the 1971 James Bond film Diamonds Are Forever as the liner where Mr. Wint and Mr. Kidd try to kill Bond. In 1997, singer/songwriter Gerard Kenny releases the single “Farewell Canberra” which is specially composed for the final voyage.