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Air Disaster Canberra

Air Disaster Canberra: The plane crash that destroyed a government

Copyright Date: 2013
Published by: UNSW Press
Pages: 304
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  • Book Info
    Air Disaster Canberra
    Book Description:

    1940. Wartime Australia. Key members of Menzies' government die in a fiery plane crash. What went wrong and what happened next? In August 1940 Australia had been at war for almost a year when a Hudson bomber – the A16-97 – carrying ten people, including three cabinet ministers, crashed into a ridge near Canberra. In the ghastly inferno that followed the crash, the nation lost its key war leaders. Over the next twelve months, it became clear that the passing of Geoffrey Street, Sir Henry Gullett and James Fairbairn had destabilised Robert Menzies’ wartime government. As a direct but delayed consequence, John Curtin became prime minister in October 1941. Controversially, this book also tells the story of whether Air Minister Fairbairn, rather than the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) pilot Bob Hitchcock, had been at the controls. Andrew Tink tells an engrossing and dramatic tale of a little-known aspect of Australia’s political history.

    eISBN: 978-1-74224-631-4
    Subjects: Political Science, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-ix)
  4. Acronyms and abbreviations
    (pp. x-x)
  5. Prologue
    (pp. 1-3)

    It was exactly twenty years to the day after Canberra’s worst disaster that Robert Menzies, by then Australia’s longest serving prime minister, rose to speak. This normally unflappable leader was deeply emotional as he recalled the deaths of three of his closest colleagues.

    They had been about to land when their Hudson bomber, the A16-97, crashed into a ridge near Canberra aerodrome – the impact point being 1.5 kilometres northwest of what is now the Pialligo Avenue and Sutton Road intersection. The granite memorial Menzies unveiled in 1960 had fixed to it a metal plaque that revealed the full extent of...

  6. PART I The political rise of the Anzac generation

    • 1 Nose first
      (pp. 6-11)

      As Dudley Lalor drove along the Canberra-Queanbeyan road towards the Molonglo River Bridge, a massive aircraft suddenly loomed in front of his car – just 200 feet above the ground. ‘I had an absolutely clear view of the plane’, Lalor said, ‘which was flying towards me’. It was just before 11.00 a.m. on 13 August 1940 and Lalor was on his way to Canberra aerodrome where he worked as a building contractor. Sensing the danger, Lalor shouted out. Later, he told the local police what happened next:

      [The pilot] banked to his left causing the left side wing to go down....

    • 2 Some had fought
      (pp. 12-19)

      Geoffrey Street, Brudenell White, Henry Gullett and James Fairbairn had all seen active service during World War I.

      The day after Australia declared war on Germany in August 1914, Street, then a twenty-year-old law student from Sydney’s eastern suburbs, had volunteered. A sporting all-rounder at Sydney Grammar, Street had a passion for cricket. ‘A very fine slow bowler’, the school magazine said. ‘As a bat he is a good stone-waller; might be much smarter in the field.’ This, combined with his application to soldiering at school and university, soon saw him become the youngest officer in the Australian Imperial Force...

    • 3 Others hadn’t
      (pp. 20-26)

      Although 416,809 Australians enlisted during World War I, representing almost 40 per cent of the male population between the ages of 18 and 44, Robert Gordon Menzies was not among them. Nor were any of Australia’s other World War II prime ministers – Fadden, Curtin, Forde and Chifley.

      Born in the small Wimmera settlement of Jeparit in 1894, Menzies’ intense energy, high intelligence and tremendous self-assurance soon became apparent. According to his high school contemporary, Percy Joske, Menzies’ tongue ‘was derisive… and his common term of scorn for those with whom he disagreed was “you’re a dag”’. So ‘Dag’ became his...

    • 4 Anzac generation into Parliament
      (pp. 27-32)

      Among the Anzacs who found their way into Federal Parliament after World War I were Pompey Elliott and Henry Gullett. Although Elliott was a Victorian senator from 1919 until he suicided by slitting his arm with a razor in 1931, he never served as a minister, his brash style and obsession with defending his war record being too much for any prime minister to cope with. First elected as member for Henty in 1925, Gullet, by contrast, was focused on the future, having publishedUnguarded Australiain 1919. ‘The world will not tolerate us holding a continent empty and unproductive’,...

    • 5 Menzies backs Lyons
      (pp. 33-39)

      Impressed by Menzies’ determination to restrain irresponsible public spending, Kent Hughes convinced him to stand for the Victorian Legislative Assembly in 1929. During his campaign launch at the Rialto Theatre in Box Hill, Menzies let fly at the Country Party. Describing it as the most rapacious party of all, he called it the country division of the Labor Party, claiming its co-operative marketing schemes were socialist. Although Menzies won his seat, the government lost office.¹

      In the course of the campaign, Menzies and Kent Hughes had called a meeting in Menzies’ chambers where a new movement, the ‘Young Nationalists’ was...

    • 6 Fairbairn, Menzies and Street enter Federal Parliament
      (pp. 40-45)

      One of the newly elected backbenchers in Joe Lyons’ government was the member for Corio, Richard Gardiner Casey. After serving as an aide to Major-General Bridges from day one of the Gallipoli landings, Casey was transferred to France where he distinguished himself in various staff positions. ‘Full of zeal and energy’, one of his citations read, ‘[Casey] visited the front line day and night under the most trying conditions, and often under very heavy fire’. After being awarded the Distinguished Service Order and Military Cross, Casey finished the war as a brigade major. Following a couple of years in business,...

    • 7 Fairbairn, Gullett and Street back Menzies
      (pp. 46-52)

      Given his landslide win in 1931 and the Great Depression’s continuing grip, it was likely that Prime Minister Lyons would lose seats at the 1934 election. So the UAP’s new candidate for Kooyong threw himself into the campaign. Visiting five states in three weeks, Menzies addressed over fifty meetings. The UAP prescribed ‘sound doses of confidence’ for the banking system, he told one gathering, while Labor was ‘not fit to run a banana stall’. As president of the Victorian UAP, Menzies campaigned strongly in his home state, among others for James Fairbairn. When Menzies claimed Lyons had run a solid...

    • 8 Australia’s leadership malaise
      (pp. 53-59)

      No sooner was the deputy leadership of the parliamentary UAP settled than Menzies found himself on a ship heading back to Britain – for another legal case. He had the blessing of the Country Party because a dried fruit merchant, Fred James, was trying to overturn Commonwealth legislation regulating the marketing of primary produce and Earle Page’s supporters feared that farming would be thrown into chaos if James won. Having lost in the High Court, James had appealed to the Privy Council. So the Commonwealth and Victorian governments briefed Menzies to defeat him. James, a self-made man, had practised typing by...

    • 9 Menzies’ resignation
      (pp. 60-66)

      James Fairbairn was not the only member of the government who had been making loud noises about leadership. Increasingly frustrated by the prime minister’s broken promises to stand aside for him, Robert Menzies had also broached the issue. At a meeting of the Sydney Constitutional Club in late October 1938, Menzies launched forth:

      The first lesson for the Governments of Australia is that in these times of emergency we must not hesitate to take the people fully into our confidence and give them leadership along well-defined lines… Democracies could not maintain their place in the world unless they were provided...

    • 10 Menzies trumps Page
      (pp. 67-72)

      For the first time in his federal career, Robert Menzies found himself on the backbench. Among those sitting there with him were Sir Henry Gullett, James Fairbairn and Tommy White. After years of making ministerial compromises, Menzies’ resignation had restored his reputation as a man of principle, at least in the eyes of Gullett and Fairbairn. An embittered White, however, appeared to have burned his bridges with everyone who mattered, Lyons and Menzies included.

      While it is impossible to know what exactly went through Menzies’ mind when he first saw Billy Hughes appear in the chamber as the new attorney-general,...

    • 11 Menzies PM
      (pp. 73-78)

      After winning the leadership ballot, Menzies immediately went to see the prime minister. He told Page that he was prepared to defer the National Insurance Scheme for further investigation. However, he was unenthusiastic about Bruce’s return. But it didn’t much matter what Menzies said. Page was adamant that neither he nor the Country Party would serve under the new UAP leader.¹

      Although Menzies now led the larger of the two government parties, Page and Casey discussed new ways of blocking his becoming prime minister. And on 19 April, Page had a further radio-telephone conference with Bruce. After the prime minister...

    • 12 Menzies’ right-hand men
      (pp. 79-84)

      Even though there were extra cabinet vacancies to fill following the Country Party’s walkout, Prime Minister Menzies expanded his ministry from thirteen to sixteen. Made up solely of UAP members, there were a number of new faces including Percy Spender and Harold Holt. Among the old hands, the wizened gnome-like face of seventy-six-year-old Billy Hughes, as always, stood out. Elected deputy UAP leader, the former prime minister was second only to Menzies in seniority. By contrast, Casey had been transferred from Treasury to Supply and demoted in the ministerial pecking order. But unlike Tommy White, he still sat on the...

    • 13 The war cabinet
      (pp. 85-91)

      Stirred by the prime minister’s declaration of war on Germany, Earle Page swallowed his pride and offered to form part of a national government, as he put it, ‘composed of all parties’. With just twenty-six UAP members in the lower house compared to Page’s seventeen and Curtin’s thirty-one, Menzies momentarily considered the idea. But while Curtin promised not to ‘impede the government’, he was against forming part of it, arguing that his party must continue to be a ‘watchdog’ over the public interest. ‘The country would best be served’, he said, ‘with Labor… maintaining the [nation’s] free institutions… during the...

    • 14 Cincinnatus
      (pp. 92-97)

      As minister for defence, Geoffrey Street was directly responsible for the army, navy and air force. With war now preoccupying the government, Street’s huge portfolio was growing more onerous by the day. Insatiable in its demand for highly skilled personnel to deal with rapidly developing technology, the air force was especially challenging. For a while, Street’s old colleague on the Hampden Shire Council, James Fairbairn, helped him out as minister for civil aviation. When the war council decided to send a mission to Canada to negotiate Australia’s participation in the so-called Empire Air Training Scheme, Fairbairn was deputised to represent...

    • 15 France falls
      (pp. 98-104)

      Concurrently with their push into Denmark, the Germans invaded Norway, whereupon the Allies dispatched an expeditionary force. Initially the campaign went well for the British, with some notable victories at sea. In a statement to Parliament on 19 April 1940, the external affairs minister, ‘Black Jack’ McEwen, claimed that the Germans might have blundered. But this bravado was shattered on 10 May when German tanks smashed through the Ardennes forest and straight into northern France. Unflappable as always, the British now made fun of their prime minister. ‘Hitler has missed the bus’ they said, ‘so he took a taxi’.¹


    • [Illustrations]
      (pp. None)
    • 16 The flying MP
      (pp. 105-111)

      After leaving Geelong Grammar School in 1915, James Fairbairn travelled to England to enlist in the RFC. Established in May 1912, the Corps’ motto was ‘per ardua ad astra’ – through adversity to the stars. The RFC was a magnet for risk-taking young men with a streak of independence and flair for the latest technology. Its pilots relished one on one combat far above the muddy slaughterhouse which was the lot of most infantry men. For Fairbairn, to risk death in a dog fight watched by tens of thousands below was a much better prospect than being anonymously blown to bits...

    • 17 Minister for civil aviation
      (pp. 112-119)

      Despite James Fairbairn’s demonstrable energy, ability and flying experience, his tendency to speak his mind meant that he remained on the backbench for the whole of Joe Lyons’ term as prime minister. If Lyons had considered appointing this young dynamo to cabinet, he thought again after Fairbairn accused him of ‘staggering ineptitude’ over the Ellington report, which criticised the Australian air force. Written by Britain’s most senior air force officer in July 1938, the report was publicly released before Australia’s air chiefs had been given a chance to respond, an underhanded action which offended Fairbairn’s sense of fair play.¹


    • 18 Minister for air
      (pp. 120-127)

      Although the phony war continued in Europe, Britain was acutely aware of the need to build up her air defences. Previous attempts to establish an Empire air force composed of units from Australia, Canada and New Zealand had come to nothing. After war was declared, the chief of the Australian air staff, Stanley Goble, lobbied for the creation of a self-contained Australian expeditionary air force. But at that time, Australia did not have the Hurricanes or Spitfires necessary for training to British standards. So, much to Goble’s annoyance, the war cabinet decided to get behind the latest Empire proposal – an...

    • 19 Flight Lieutenant R.E. (Bob) Hitchcock
      (pp. 128-135)

      If James Fairbairn, who had endorsements to fly twenty-five different types of aircraft, wanted to emulate anyone, it was pilots like Robert ‘Bob’ Hitchcock, who commanded a Lockheed Hudson bomber. As with Fairbairn before him, Hitchcock had been fascinated by flying since he was a boy. And in 1929, thanks to Charles Kingsford Smith, Bob, or ‘Bobbie’ as he was called in those days and then just fifteen, had become a household name.¹

      Confusingly, his father, also called Robert, was nicknamed ‘Bobby’. While serving in the army on the Western Front during World War I, Bobby had tried to transfer...

  7. PART II The air disaster

    • 20 The Lockheed Hudson
      (pp. 138-145)

      On Australia Day, 1940, nine strange and vaguely menacing objects were unloaded from theSS Limerick, ex Los Angeles, at Sydney’s docks. They were then strapped down on large trucks and trundled off in a north-westerly direction towards the Richmond RAAF base. Tightly bound all over in a dark protective wrapping, they looked vaguely like aircraft fuselages, which in fact they were. Devoid of tails, wings and propellers though, they reminded some of giant cigars or even of torpedoes.¹

      These fuselages were eagerly awaited by Richmond ground crews. For those few, chosen from the thousands still queuing to answer Air...

    • 21 Laverton
      (pp. 146-154)

      Located on flat, low-lying land adjacent to Port Phillip Bay approximately 17 kilometres south-west of Melbourne’s central business district, Laverton air base was once so large that today its landing field has been replaced by a whole suburb – Williams Landing – named after the father of the RAAF. Established in 1925, Laverton was the home of the RAAF’s No. 1 Aircraft Depot, made up of a mix of full-time air force personnel and members of the CAF. By the time eighteen-year old Bob Hitchcock arrived there in 1930, a couple of massive aircraft hangars had been constructed. In 1936, further buildings...

    • 22 Laverton to Essendon
      (pp. 155-161)

      From the time Hudson A16-97 had first been received at Laverton on 3 August 1940, it was kept under strict security. Overnight, it was stored in a locked hangar with five other planes. In accordance with successive orders circulated since the outbreak of war, the Laverton guard had been regularly increased. By 13 August, no less than twenty men patrolled the hangars. These were left lit up inside all night as an added precaution.¹

      At daybreak on 13 August, the massive steel doors to the Hudson hangar were rolled back. After the VIP transport had been wheeled out on to...

    • 23 Essendon
      (pp. 162-168)

      Having touched down at Essendon, Bob Hitchcock taxied to a position opposite the control tower and left his plane to meet the flying school’s commanding officer. As he began to apologise for interrupting the student pilots, Squadron Leader King assured him that no apology was necessary and congratulated him on a ‘particularly good’ landing. Hitchcock then walked over to the meteorological office where he gave the names of his crew and intended passengers to the duty pilot, James Wilson. John Palmer and Charlie Crosdale meanwhile, had been spotted unloading a ballast of 22 kg sandbags to make room for the...

    • 24 Essendon to eternity
      (pp. 169-178)

      After the last of the crew had stepped up into the Hudson, the only person who could be spotted on board by anyone on the tarmac was Dick Elford who ‘was sitting towards the rear, near the door’. From the tower, the control officer, Joseph Williams, noticed that it seemed to take the pilot ‘several minutes’ to start the port engine. Having done so, he eased the throttles forward and taxied across to the eastern boundary of the aerodrome. At this low speed, the nose of the plane had remained angled into the air, its slope maintained by the large...

    • 25 A dreadful calamity
      (pp. 179-185)

      As ambulances, fire crews and all manner of RAAF vehicles converged upon the ghastly scene – their wailing sirens alerting those who hadn’t witnessed the A16-97’ s death dive that something terrible had happened – a dense pall of black smoke rose up to mark the spot. AsThe Canberra Timesreported the following day, this was the capital’s first fatal plane crash since the day Federal Parliament had opened in 1927, when a pilot flying in ceremonial formation had crashed his machine.

      Parliament’s 1940–41 budget sittings had commenced on 6 August and on the morning of the crash, Prime Minister...

    • 26 The Canberra inquests
      (pp. 186-193)

      Because the deaths had occurred in the Australian Capital Territory (ACT), local law required that inquests into each of them be conducted by the seventy-four-year-old Canberra coroner, Lieutenant-Colonel John Goodwin. After qualifying as a surveyor, Goodwin had gained a military commission, and although he had volunteered for overseas service during World War I, he had been held back for home duty. Between 1916 and 1925 Goodwin had been officer-in-charge of the Federal Capital Territory, during which time he lived at Yarralumla House, now the official residence of the governor-general. Elected to the ACT Advisory Council in 1931, he remained a...

    • 27 The air force inquiries
      (pp. 194-201)

      Although the coroner exercised his jurisdiction in accordance with local law, the air force controlled the crash site. Within seconds of the Hudson hitting the ground, RAAF personnel who had witnessed the plane’s final moments were racing to the scene. First to arrive was Flying Officer Ronald Wilson, an RAAF station equipment officer at Canberra aerodrome. He was closely followed by an RAAF fire truck and an ambulance, as well as two tenders carrying a ‘crash party’, which had been dispatched from Canberra’s air force station by Pilot Officer Richard Winter. As soon as these men arrived, Wilson detailed four...

    • 28 The judicial inquiry: The players
      (pp. 202-208)

      The failure to effectively use expert witnesses, identified by Arthur Dean, had long been endemic in air force inquiries. By the time Geoffrey Street became defence minister in November 1938, such inquiries were political hot potatoes. Responding to public perceptions that these in-house investigations lacked transparency, Street championed a fresh approach. And on 17 May 1939, he signed off on regulations establishing a new type of air force inquiry, to be presided over by a superior court judge, assisted by two air force assessors.¹

      His immediate motivation had been the deaths of three RAAF personnel, killed when their Anson bomber...

    • 29 The judicial inquiry: The hearing
      (pp. 209-215)

      Before the judicial inquiry got underway in Melbourne’s No. 2 High Court chamber at 2.00 p.m. on 27 August 1940, a small party made its way to the RAAF base at Laverton. Comprising Justice Lowe, Arthur Dean, Wing Commander Carr and the inquiry’s registrar, Mr J.A. Davoren, this group inspected Hudsons similar to the A16-97. Then Justice Lowe took a flight in one out towards the hilly You Yangs near Geelong and back. It was the first flight the judge had ever taken. In Squadron Leader Thomas’ log book the entry read: ‘27/8/40. At 11.20 a.m. in Hudson A16-78. Pilot:...

    • 30 The judicial inquiry: The findings
      (pp. 216-221)

      Arthur Dean began his address to Justice Lowe in Canberra on 29 August 1940. As he summarised the evidence, Dean struggled to reconcile the witnesses’ differing accounts of the Hudson’s final moments. Did it dive? Did it roll on its back? Did it roll completely over? Or did it do a spiral dive? Without really reaching a conclusion, Dean moved rapidly to an issue that obviously bothered him – whether someone other than Flight Lieutenant Hitchcock had been piloting the plane. And he tackled it head on:

      It is contrary to all human probability that a skilled pilot responsible for the...

  8. PART III A wartime government destroyed

    • 31 The political fallout
      (pp. 224-229)

      Even before the crash of the Hudson, there had been widespread talk of a Federal election, which was due by November. Indeed, during question time on 8 August, the prime minister had been asked whether he had decided on a date. If not, the opposition MP said, ‘will he tell me personally when he thinks the election will take place?’ ‘I will be most happy to have a private conversation with the honourable gentleman’, Menzies replied, ‘at about four o’clock this afternoon’. What then transpired at 4.00 p.m. is unknown. However, it was clear to many observers that Parliament needed...

    • 32 A hung Parliament
      (pp. 230-236)

      It was the parliamentary newcomer, forty-six-year-old Doc Evatt, who, even before the 1940 election, had set the scene for what now happened in the days following the poll. Described by one of his biographers as ‘prodigiously energetic’, Evatt had excelled in sport, history and the law. Rejected for military service during World War I because of his astigmatism, Evatt had combined a brilliant career as a barrister with a stint in the New South Wales Parliament. Initially elected as the Labor member for Balmain, Evatt later held it as an independent, following a falling out with Jack Lang. Then, in...

    • 33 Menzies goes to London
      (pp. 237-242)

      The war budget was not the only problem preoccupying the Australian government during the closing weeks of 1940. In October, a conference of senior staff officers from Britain, Australia and New Zealand had taken place in Singapore and it concluded that the island’s military, naval and air forces were woefully under strength. With Winston Churchill focused on winning the battle of Britain, the Australian government was concerned that not enough attention was being paid to the Far East. It therefore offered to send its own troops and equipment there, at the same time pressing for a greater British contribution. But...

    • 34 Menzies digs in overseas
      (pp. 243-249)

      Despite his confrontation with Churchill over Greece, Menzies became a regular attendee at war cabinet meetings. During his stay, much of London was pounded in a blitz. This gave him an appreciation of the war time stoicism of Londoners, at a time when many of his countrymen were still on their summer holidays. Coming across a bomb disposal team hard at work in Hyde Park, Menzies spoke to the grimy but cheerful sergeant in charge:

      MENZIES: How do you like this kind of work?

      SERGEANT: Oh, it’s very interesting, but promotion comes quick. You see, I haven’t been at it...

    • 35 The prime ministerial stand in
      (pp. 250-256)

      Arthur Fadden was appointed acting prime minister to run the country while Robert Menzies was overseas. He had been in cabinet for little more than two years and was different from Menzies in almost every way. As his later colleague, Paul Hasluck, observed:

      Fadden was an affable, astute, story-telling man untroubled by the deeper significance of problems and thus the readier to dispose of them... He was not the cleverest, the most experienced, or the wisest man in the Country Party, but he was the best colleague and probably the staunchest character.¹

      Being much more down to earth than Menzies,...

    • 36 Menzies returns
      (pp. 257-262)

      When Prime Minister Menzies stepped ashore at the Rose Bay flying-boat base on 24 May 1941, he had been away exactly four months. After landing, he was embraced by his wife, Pattie, as dozens of photographers’ flash bulbs illuminated the scene. It had been a rough flight from New Zealand and Menzies looked tired and drawn. Having completed a round the world trip of 67,600 km, much of it through war zones, on an average of five hours’ sleep a night, this was understandable. But something more was bothering him. In New Zealand, he had heard of the latest UAP...

    • 37 A political lynching
      (pp. 263-271)

      By his own admission, Prime Minister Menzies was starting to lose his self-confidence – at least to be Australia’s leader. What particularly bothered him was that while his own party and the press supported his war prospectus, they lacked faith in him. ‘No sooner had I… reconstructed my government, than the wind began to blow’, Menzies recalled. Two of his recalcitrant backbenchers, Bill McCall and Bill Hutchinson, were by now actively white-anting the prime minister in both the party room and the newspapers. ‘To some of myci-devant(erstwhile) friends’, Menzies said, ‘I had become a liability’. He missed the loyalty...

    • 38 Coles brings down the government
      (pp. 272-280)

      After Arthur Coles’ stormy exit from the ministerial party room, the UAP members passed a motion thanking Menzies for his dedication. Then, with many ‘stunned and upset by what was happening’, the Country Party members were called in. At the joint meeting that followed, Bill Hutchinson and Sir Charles Marr nominated Arthur Fadden as the new leader. There being no other nomination, Fadden was declared duly elected, while Menzies remained leader of the UAP. In a press statement issued soon afterwards, Menzies explained what had happened:

      There are divisions… in the government parties which… might not exist under another leader…...

  9. Epilogue
    (pp. 281-286)

    John Curtin remained prime minister until his death in 1945, just before the end of the war. He was replaced briefly by Frank Forde, and then by Ben Chifley who was defeated by Robert Menzies in the landslide election of 1949. From that time until his retirement in 1958, Arthur Fadden served as Menzies’ deputy prime minister and treasurer. On the Labor side, Doc Evatt became opposition leader in 1951, before making way for Arthur Calwell in 1960. At a general election the following year, Calwell pushed Menzies to the brink of defeat. But the government scraped home. After being...

  10. Notes
    (pp. 287-299)
  11. Bibliography
    (pp. 300-304)
  12. Index
    (pp. 305-309)