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Ill-fated flight that led to Menzies’ wartime fall

6 April 2013 3,774 views No Comment

AT 11am on August 13, 1940, with Australia having been at war for almost a year, a dual-controlled Hudson bomber, the A16-97, crashed into a hillside near Canberra airport.

In what is still Canberra’s worst disaster in terms of loss of life, all 10 aboard died, including the chief of the general staff, Cyril Brudenell White, and three of Robert Gordon Menzies’ closest cabinet supporters: minister for the army Geoffrey Street, minister for air James Fairbairn and information minister Henry Gullett.

Perhaps the luckiest federal parliamentarian at the time was the minister for commerce, George McLeay, who had been offered a seat on the Hudson but turned it down. However, unlike the other three politicians, McLeay was neither a member of Menzies’ inner war cabinet nor one of the prime minister’s trusted friends. MNIR Story Ad

Since turning to writing, Andrew Tink, a former NSW Liberal MP, has produced two well-received biographies: ‘William Charles Wentworth: Australia’ s Greatest Native Son’ and ‘Lord Sydney: The Life and Times of Tommy Townshend’.

In this important new book he explains in detail how the loss of Street, Fairbairn and Gullett destabilised the Menzies wartime government and how, as a direct but delayed consequence, Labor leader John Curtin became prime minister in October 1941.

Following Gullett’s death in the crash, Arthur Coles, a former lord mayor of Melbourne and one of the founders of the Coles retail business, won Gullett’s old seat of Henty as an independent. In the hung parliament that followed, Coles supported Menzies, along with fellow independent Alex Wilson, who held the western Victorian seat of Wimmera.

But when Arthur Fadden from the Country Party replaced Menzies as prime minister, the two independents, who held the balance of power, crossed the floor and brought down the Fadden government.

Tink reveals that five weeks after the crash, on October 28, 1940, Menzies appointed his wife Pattie’s father, John Leckie, as minister without portfolio.

As it happens, Menzies’ father-in-law, who had previously served in the Victorian parliament, was a great admirer of the prime minister’s three most loyal political supporters. But without their commanding presence in cabinet, Leckie could do little to shore up Menzies’ position as prime minister.

Menzies later wrote: “Frankly, I don’t believe that my rejection and, as I felt at the time, my humiliation would have happened if Fairbairn, Gullett and Street had lived.” And so it was, Tink explains, “that in this way, the crash of Hudson A16-97 destroyed a wartime government”.

It is useful to be reminded that, although 416,809 Australians enlisted during World War I – almost 40 per cent of the male population aged 18 to 44 – Menzies was notoriously not among them.

But it is less well known that neither were any of our other World War II prime ministers, including Fadden, who as well as being treasurer served as prime minister for 40 days, and Labor’s Curtin, Ben Chifley and, between them, Queenslander Frank Forde, who served in our highest office for eight days from July 6 to 13, 1945, the shortest term so far for any Australian prime minister.

Following his retirement as the nation’s longest serving prime minister in 1966, Menzies looked back on the dark days of his loss of the prime ministership in 1941: “In a very great crisis in my country’s history, I had been weighed in the balance and found wanting. I had yet to acquire the common touch, to learn that human beings are delightfully illogical but mostly honest, and to realise that all-black and all-white are not the only hues in the spectrum.”

‘Air Disaster Canberra’, a fascinating, well written and thoroughly researched book, provides convincing evidence, at least to this reviewer, that at the time of the crash it was Fairbairn – an accomplished pilot but with no direct experience of Hudson bombers – who was flying the plane. It now seems almost certain Fairbairn was at the controls instead of the designated RAAF pilot RE (Bob) Hitchcock, who also died and whose father, Bobby Hitchcock, had died in an air crash in outback Australia searching for Charles Kingsford Smith – who survived an emergency landing to go on to bigger and better things until his death in 1935.

This is an important tale that needed to be told. Tink has done himself and this crucial slice of Australian history proud.

It is disappointing that in our national capital, adorned as it is with well-kept memorials to the fallen, the one for the victims of Canberra’s worst air disaster is, as Tink explains, “cut off from easy public access by a heavy steel gate, while the track leading to this gate is obscured by a dirt speedway and a paintball range”. Moreover, the plaque commemorating the victims is pitted and dented from periodic acts of vandalism.

Let us hope that Tink’s fine narrative of Australia during wartime prompts ACT authorities to remedy this unfortunate situation.

‘Air Disaster Canberra: The Plane Crash that Destroyed a Government’
By Andrew Tink
NewSouth, 309pp, $45 (HB)

Ross Fitzgerald is emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith University.

‘The Weekend Australian’, April 6-7, 2013, REVIEW, Books p 25