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Ten Journeys to Cameron’s Farm

Ten Journeys to Cameron’s Farm: An Australian Tragedy

Cameron Hazlehurst
Copyright Date: 2013
Published by: ANU Press
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  • Book Info
    Ten Journeys to Cameron’s Farm
    Book Description:

    ‘In the whole history of government in Australia, this was the most devastating tragedy.’ Three decades after what he called ‘a dreadful air crash, almost within sight of my windows’ Robert Menzies wrote ‘I shall never forget that terrible hour; I felt that for me the end of the world had come…’ Ten Journeys to Cameron’s Farm tells the lives of the ten men who perished in Duncan Cameron’s Canberra property on 13 August 1940: three Cabinet ministers, the Chief of the General Staff, two senior staff members, and the RAAF crew of four. The inquiries into the accident, and the aftermath for the Air Force, government, and bereaved families are examined. Controversial allegations are probed: did the pilot F/Lt Bob Hitchcock cause the crash or was the Minister for Air Jim Fairbairn at the controls? ‘Cameron Hazlehurst is a story-teller, one of the all-too rare breed who can write scholarly works which speak to a wider audience. In the most substantial, original, and authoritative account of the Canberra aircraft accident of August 1940 he provides unique insights into a critical, poignant moment in Australian history. Hazlehurst’s account is touched with irony and quirks, set within a framework of political, social, and military history, distinctions of class, education, and rank, and the machinations of parliamentary and service politics and of the ‘official mind’. The research is meticulous and wide-ranging, the analysis is always balanced, and the writing at once skilful and compelling. This is a work of an exceptional historian.’ (Ian Hancock, author of Nick Greiner: A Political Biography, John Gorton: He Did It His Way, and National and Permanent? The Federal Organisation of the Liberal Party of Australia) ‘Ten Journeys to Cameron’s Farm is a monumental work of historical research pegged on a single, lethal moment at the apex of government at an extraordinarily sensitive time in Australia’s history. The book embodies top drawer scholarship, deep sensitivity to antipodean class structures and sensibilities, and a nuanced understanding of both democratic and bureaucratic politics.’ (Christine Wallace, author of Germaine Greer Untamed Shrew and The Private Don: the man behind the legend of Don Bradman)

    eISBN: 978-1-925021-01-1
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Part 1 Prologue

    • 13 August 1940
      (pp. ix-xii)

      Melbourne in August. Another chill mid-winter day in prospect. An ‘energetic depression’ moving across the Great Australian Bight. The weather forecast: ‘cold and cloudy with some further showers, but improving to chiefly fine’ — if you could believe it. With influenza and bronchitis rampant, not the kind of morning to choose for a flight to Canberra. But the newspapers on 13 August 1940 made it clear why Australia’s Army Minister Geoffrey Street, the Minister for Air James Fairbairn, and their Cabinet colleague Sir Harry Gullett had no choice. ‘ELECTION PLANS CABINET TO MEET MANY RUMOURS’,The Argussaid on page one....

    • 1. Augury
      (pp. 1-2)

      Jim Fairbairn loved flying. When still only 18, freshly released from Geelong Grammar School, he had sailed to Britain from Australia in 1916 to enlist for service in the Royal Flying Corps. He had been an instructor in England, a combat pilot in France, and a prisoner of war in Germany. Shot down and wounded, he carried the memory of his two months at the front in a crippled right arm. Three thousand flying hours later, his last 200 000 miles had been without an accident. Unusually for one so experienced, he had only once damaged an aeroplane. Today, 1...

    • 2. Leadership, politics, and war
      (pp. 3-26)

      The political world to which Jim Fairbairn and Geoff Street returned in June 1940 had been transformed in the last 15 months. In April 1939 the Prime Minister, Joe Lyons, had died suddenly, precipitating the United Australia Party into an extraordinary leadership contest. The former Deputy Leader of the UAP, Robert Menzies, self-exiled to the backbenches only weeks before, emerged narrowly victorious. A frantic but futile move by the Treasurer Dick Casey and Country Party leader Sir Earle Page to persuade the ex-Prime Minister Stanley Bruce to declare himself a candidate had fizzled out.

      The Melbourne and Sydney power brokers...

  4. Part 2 The Journeys

    • 3. A crew assembles: Charlie Crosdale and Jack Palmer
      (pp. 29-52)

      It was Squadron Leader A. D. Carey’s job. The Station Administrative Officer at RAAF Station Laverton initiated preparations on Friday, 9 August 1940 for a flight on Tuesday, August 13 to ‘Convey Minister for Air and five other passengers to Canberra A.C.T.’ Alfred Carey’s Flying Operation Instruction No. 111 advised that the aircraft would be one of No. 2 Squadron’s latest acquisitions, a Lockheed Hudson bomber, A16-97. The captain and crew for the flight to Canberra were to be detailed by No. 2 Squadron’s commanding officer. When their delivery of important people to the capital was completed the intention was...

    • 4. Second seat: Dick Wiesener
      (pp. 53-70)

      The clutch of new pilot officers who presented themselves for duty at No. 2 Squadron on Monday, 12 August 1940 exemplified the varied backgrounds and destinies of the RAAF’s wartime officer recruits. All but one appeared to meet the threshold criterion of being under 28 years of age when he enlisted — before war broke out they would need to have been under 26 and unmarried. All must have been found by an examining medical officer to be free of scrofula, phthisis, syphilis, defective intelligence, defects of vision, voice or hearing, traces of corporal punishment, marked varicocele ‘with unusually pendent testicle’,...

    • 5. His father’s son: Bob Hitchcock
      (pp. 71-98)

      In August 1940 anyone familiar with Australia’s recent aviation history would probably recognise the name Bob Hitchcock. Not the 28-year-old Flight Lieutenant Hitchcock who was trained to take the controls of the latest Hudson bombers to be delivered to the RAAF’s No. 2 Squadron. But his father, the tragedy of whose death while searching for Charles Kingsford-Smith’s missingSouthern Crosshad been on every Australian front page and silent cinema newsreel in 1929, and in books and countless articles in the years that followed. Henry Smith ‘Bob’ Hitchcock had perished with Keith Anderson in a futile attempt to find the...

    • 6. ‘A very sound pilot?’: Bob Hitchcock (II)
      (pp. 99-130)

      Pilot Officer Robert Hitchcock, protected by an honoured pledge, was transferred to the recently formed Citizen Air Force No. 21 (City of Melbourne) Squadron in October 1936. At his interview with the Air Member for Personnel, Hitchcock had ‘agreed voluntarily to have another try’. Away from the harshly judgmental atmosphere of Richmond he grasped at the chance to redeem himself. With the voluntary nature of the arrangement on the record, Air Commodore Nicholl had satisfied himself that a ‘further trial’ was in everyone’s interests. Initially Hitchcock would be under the supervision of No. 21 Squadron’s CO, Squadron Leader Johnny Summers....

    • 7. Passenger complement
      (pp. 131-138)

      When the new Parliament House opened in Canberra in 1927 many departmental offices remained in Melbourne. Ministers and their staffs had quarters in both cities. They trekked up and down for parliamentary sittings, changing trains at the Victoria/New South Wales border or Goulburn, regularly reminded of the colonial folly of non-standard rail gauges as they transferred four to six steel cases of classified papers from one train to the other.¹ As commercial air services improved in reliability, the journey would sometimes be made by air. Regular schedules with DH-86s were inaugurated by Ivan Holyman’s Australian National Airways in 1936. In...

    • 8. The General: Brudenell White (I)
      (pp. 139-160)

      Silver-haired, lean, and erect, shielded from the chill air by a Service greatcoat, the figure striding across to the waiting aircraft was Australia’s most distinguished living soldier. Garlanded with military decorations and imperial honours — DSO, CB, CMG, KCMG, KCVO, KCB, as well as a quiver of foreign awards — General Sir Cyril Brudenell Bingham White’s reputation was made as the nation’s most senior and accomplished wartime staff officer. So valuable had he been to the Allied cause as a tactician and organiser that he was denied the commands that would have tested his capacity for operational leadership at the very highest...

    • 9. Call and recall: Brudenell White (II)
      (pp. 161-186)

      Brudenell White was on the verge of being drawn into the vortex of politics. On 12 February 1930 he records ‘Visit 12/15 from a Mr Armstrong with a new code book.’ On March 17 ‘C. R. Murphy called on behalf of Pastl Vigilance Cttee & wanted me to go to Canberra re Fed Land Tax Bill. Lobbying!!’ C. R. Murphy, an influential grazier who made no secret of his Nationalist associations, was a fellow director of the Trustees, Executors, & Agency Co. along with Sir John Grice. The Graziers’ Vigilance Committee, as Murphy’s group was properly called, was campaigning against...

    • 10. The Brigadier: Geoff Street
      (pp. 187-218)

      No one in Australian federal politics in 1940 was more deeply rooted in the land than the Army Minister, Geoffrey Austin Street. His great-grandfather John Street, of Birtley in Surrey, had emigrated in 1822, bringing with him merino sheep from Thomas Henty’s flock at West Tarring in Sussex. Taking up property at Woodlands, Bathurst, John Street corresponded with Henty over several years as he worked to improve the breed. A century later Major Geoff Street, back in Australia after five years at war, maintained his forebear’s pastoral tradition, breeding prize Polwarths at his own Victorian property ‘Eildon’ in Lismore.


    • 11. Best man: Frank Thornthwaite
      (pp. 219-238)

      As he crossed the Essendon tarmac to take his place in the waiting Hudson, Geoff Street was accompanied by another old friend. A very dear friend. A neighbouring pastoralist at Derrinallum. A wartime comrade in arms. The man who had stood at his side on his wedding day in London in 1918. The man for whom he himself was best man at St Columba’s Pont Street, London, on 23 November 1918. The man married to his wife’s cousin and closest friend, Lorna Maud Inez Currie, always known as Inez.

      Lieutenant Colonel Francis Thornthwaite, who had driven out to the aerodrome...

    • 12. Patriot: Harry Gullett
      (pp. 239-270)

      First of the passengers to arrive at Essendon aerodrome, a man whose chronicles of battle made him second only to Charles Bean as a historian of the war that Street, Fairbairn, Brudenell White, and Thornthwaite had fought, was Sir Henry Gullett. At 62, silver-haired, bespectacled, stooped a little below his measured five feet eleven, with years of stress, chain-smoking, and illness etched on his face, Gullett was in the twilight of a chequered political career. He had risen rapidly in the conservative ranks in the 1920s after making his name as a war historian and journalist. He was the son...

    • 13. ‘A charming boy who would do big things’: Dick Elford
      (pp. 271-306)

      The youngest of the civilians walking across the tarmac on the morning of August 13 was Dick Elford, the private secretary to the Minister for Air. Stricken with influenza, Elford had risen from his sickbed at 508 Punt Road, in fashionable South Yarra, very early that day to be driven to Essendon. Since joining Jim Fairbairn the previous year, Elford had become accustomed to flying with him and his assistant, Murray Tyrrell, in the Minister’s own sleek DH90 Dragonfly. But now the arrangements for travel to Canberra were different. Along with many other private flyers, Fairbairn had handed in his...

    • 14. A passion for the air: James Fairbairn (I)
      (pp. 307-336)

      James Valentine Fairbairn, grazier, politician, flyer, was a man whose adult life had been shaped by war, theGreat War. Fairbairn, born in Wadhurst, England, in 1897, grew up in Victoria’s Western District. His grandfather George Fairbairn, who died before he was born, was a pioneer pastoralist whose holdings in Victoria and Queensland totalled millions of acres. His father, Charles, the third of six brothers, had been joint general manager with his brother, George, of the Fairbairns’ Queensland properties. At one time, as another brother, the legendary Cambridge rowing coach Steve Fairbairn, recalled, they were running 300 000 sheep ‘the...

    • 15. ‘A minister or a clerk?’: Jim Fairbairn (II)
      (pp. 337-366)

      At last Jim Fairbairn was in a position to apply all he knew and believed about aviation. There was wide appreciation of the Minister’s appointment, not least at Geelong Grammar where the boys were awarded a celebratory half-holiday on 6 May 1939 in honour of the chairman of the school council’s attainment of Cabinet rank.¹ A proud Geoffrey Fairbairn enjoyed universal gratitude at Corio, but his mother was not at home to share her husband’s delight. In mid-March she had left for six months abroad, farewelled at a party for 400 guests. Peggy Fairbairn was now in England and, as...

  5. Part 3 ‘The most devastating tragedy’

    • 16. ‘Not a machine for the careless or the ham fisted’
      (pp. 369-384)

      Settling into the cockpit of Hudson A16-97, Bob Hitchcock, his small suitcase stowed, was secure in a dual-purpose harness. His ‘QC (quick connection) seat type’ parachute allowed for interchangeability with the second pilot or navigator. The Irving parachute pack attached to his harness served as a cushion. Hitchcock faced an array of controls that were now familiar. He could see around him the dials and instruments he had learned to read — the levers, buttons, and switches he knew would respond to his touch, the engine control pedestal with its three cranks for ailerons, rudder and, closest to him, the elevator....

    • 17. ‘A leaf falling off a tree’
      (pp. 385-418)

      Camouflaged though it was with aluminium-doped under-surfaces and regulation RAF dark earth-and-foliage green on the upper surfaces, the Hudson was easily seen by scores of people going about their business in Canberra, Queanbeyan, and the surrounding countryside.¹ One of the first to catch sight of it was Corporal Mortimer G. Ewing, an RAAF fitter with 2A Survey Flight, who heard the motors at about 10.40, he said, and went outside the Officer Commanding’s former office at the aerodrome to see where it was coming from. He could see the aircraft arriving from the southeast at about 6000 feet. Moments later,...

    • 18. Extinguishers
      (pp. 419-448)

      Extinguishing the inferno of a crashed aircraft was never easy and often impossible. Even with enough men, equipment, water, and flame retardant it would be a daunting confrontation for experienced professionals. For the Canberra firemen and RAAF airmen attending A16-97 in Duncan Cameron’s paddock there was no chance that they could repel the unyielding flames. The horror of what assailed their senses would keep them awake that night and bring disturbance to their sleep long into the future. For those charged with guarding the site and searching among the twisted wreckage and charred grass for fragments of past lives there...

    • 19. Obsequies
      (pp. 449-458)

      Understanding the crash was an imperative for the Air Force. The government also had to be seen to be committed to doing all that could be done to advance the quest for explanations. What had happened in Canberra was shocking and bewildering. The tragedy of 13 August 1940 was national. But first it was personal, intimate. For families and friends whose loved ones had been lost in horrific circumstances the grief was natural and intense. No one could predict exactly when and how it would find expression, how long it would last. It was properly private. Yet there was an...

  6. Part 4 Understanding

    • 20. Inquiry and investigation
      (pp. 461-486)

      Whatever might be learned from the inquiries set in train by the Air Force, the Prime Minister and the members of his Cabinet knew that a nation prompted by an inquisitive press would want answers that internal and secret investigations could not give. Hugh Dash, reporting from the crash scene for theDaily Telegraph, had learned that a coronial inquest would be the ‘only public inquiry’. ‘Only an open inquiry will satisfy the public’, theTelegraphsaid on August 14, ‘because of the number of accidents to the type of machine in which the Ministers flew from Melbourne.’ Here was...

    • 21. Expert witnesses?
      (pp. 487-514)

      Charles Lowe had been preoccupied. He had dispensed justice to a procession of innocent men and minor miscreants over the weeks following the Canberra disaster. Judgement on a civil suit involving Sir Brudenell White’s Trustees, Executors, and Agency Co. had been followed by cases of false pretences and alleged larceny of a bicycle. On Monday, August 26, Justice Lowe had sat in the Criminal Court while a Grand Jury — Victoria’s first in 15 years and one of only half a dozen called in the state’s history — was sworn to deliberate on the case of three police constables charged with perjury....

    • 22. Lowe’s last word
      (pp. 515-524)

      To a modern eye one of the most notable aspects of the Air Force Court of Inquiry was the freedom that the RAAF had to guide the proceedings. It did not go unnoticed at the time that the Service had the field to itself. The Court was secretly constrained by the instructions of the Deputy Chief of the Air Staff about what could and could not be asked in public. Counsel assisting had very little time to review the findings of the Service Court and the Inspector of Air Accidents. Just time enough to assimilate the conclusions to which both...

    • 23. Mr Storey’s story
      (pp. 525-550)

      Much about the crash of A16-97 remained inexplicable. As far as the public was concerned, privy only to Justice Lowe’s findings, the story was that the ‘machine stalled’. Whatever might be suspected, nothing had been said directly to suggest that the pilot had erred. Pilot error could be inferred. It could not be proved. No-one was required to believe that Flight Lieutenant Bob Hitchcock had been inadequately instructed in the dangerous characteristics of the new aircraft he was flying. It would not do for there to be a loss of confidence in the RAAF’s selection of prospective Hudson pilots or...

    • 24. Cockpit secrets
      (pp. 551-584)

      In seeking a path through the conflict of testimony and hypothesis about responsibility for the crash, the formal records of Bob Hitchcock’s Service progress are an essential resource. We have seen that he was a slow learner during his initial training. But what seem to be the most relevant official files do not tell the whole story. Whether by accident or deliberate omission, Hitchcock’s personal dossier does not contain the evidence that has led some scholars to conclude that a finding of pilot error in August 1940 was most likely to have been correct. The truth was that the records...

    • 25. Diagnosis and remedies
      (pp. 585-616)

      No contemporary report places the Prime Minister’s assistant private secretary Peter Looker either at the crash scene or the morgue on 13 August 1940. If he accompanied his senior colleague Corby Tritton from the Prime Minister’s office, or his friends Percy Hayter or Murray Tyrrell, to view the bodies, his presence was not recorded. Perhaps he went later and separately. In any event, his testimony that ‘somebody was flying the aircraft who shouldn’t be flying it’ is powerful evidence of what was believed at the highest levels of government. No-one could be sure precisely what had happened. But for those...

  7. Part 5 Reflection

    • 26. ‘That terrible hour’
      (pp. 619-636)

      Three Cabinet Ministers and the Chief of the General Staff killed. Six others dead, flight crew and staff. A terrible inexplicable accident. A story so shocking and sensational galvanised the press. There was a scramble for photographs. Cinesound and Movietone newsreel cameramen sped to the scene. Eyewitnesses, people who were happy to tell of what they had seen, would be questioned repeatedly over the next few days by official investigators as well as journalists. Others in demand by the newspapers were those whose good fortune it had been to choose to travel to Canberra another way for the meeting on...

    • 27. Aftermath
      (pp. 637-660)

      ‘Both the Prime Minister and Mrs Menzies were deeply shocked by the tragedy,’ theSydney Morning Heraldreported on 14 August 1940. ‘They were friendly with all the passengers in the plane and their families and Mr Menzies could not conceal his grief.’ Haunting as the crash may have proved for Robert Menzies, its impact on him could not compare with the searing sorrow of those who, without warning, lost husbands, fathers, brothers, and children. It was not until October 10 that the newspapers reported Justice Lowe’s findings. The news was no longer on the front pages but the healing...

  8. Sources and acknowledgements
    (pp. 661-670)