The 1940 Canberra air disaster was an aircraft crash that occurred near Canberra, the capital of Australia, on 13 August 1940, during World War II. All ten people on board were killed: six passengers, including three members of the Australian Cabinet and the Chief of the General Staff; and four crew. The aircraft is believed to have stalled on its landing approach, when it was too low to recover.
The deaths of the three cabinet ministers severely weakened the United Australia Party government of Robert Menzies and contributed to its fall in 1941.
The Ministers and General White, with their staff, were being flown from Melbourne to Canberra for a Cabinet meeting. The aircraft, a RAAF Lockheed Hudson II bomber, was flown by an experienced Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) officer, Flight Lieutenant Robert Hitchcock. The aircraft, A16-97, had been in service with the RAAF since 20 June 1940, and was being operated by No.2 Squadron.
The Perth Daily News reported: "The plane was seen by watchers at the Canberra Aerodrome and the Air Force station to circle the drome, and then rise and head south. It disappeared behind a low tree-dotted hill. There was an explosion and a sheet of flame, followed by a dense cloud of smoke... The Canberra Fire Brigade and ambulances from Canberra and Queanbeyan, across the border in New South Wales, as well as several Air Force tenders, arrived soon afterwards and fire extinguishers were played on the blazing wreckage. After about half-an-hour, when the blaze had died down, it was seen that the entire undercarriage, wings and structural supports of the plane had been torn away and were a smouldering mass in which were the charred bodies of those on board."
Two other Cabinet ministers, Arthur Fadden, leader of the Country Party, and Senator George McLeay, had intended to fly to Canberra on the same flight, but for personal reasons decided to travel by train instead.
Brigadier Geoffrey Austin Street, Minister for the Army and Repatriation. A World War I veteran who had been awarded the Military Cross, Street entered Federal Parliament in 1934 and became Minister for Defence in 1938. With the onset of World War II, Street's portfolio was split, and he became Minister for the Army. He gained the Repatriation portfolio in 1940.
James Valentine Fairbairn, Minister for Air and Civil Aviation. A pastoralist and accomplished aviator who served with the Royal Flying Corps during World War I, Fairbairn was elected to Federal Parliament in 1933 and became Minister for Civil Aviation and Vice-President of the Executive Council in 1939. He was appointed Minister for Air at the onset of World War II, and regained the Civil Aviation portfolio in 1940.
Sir Henry Somer Gullett, Vice-President of the Executive Council and Minister in charge of Scientific and Industrial Research. A journalist until his enlistment in 1916, Gullett became Australia's official war correspondent for the AIF in Palestine in 1918. He was elected to Parliament in 1925, becoming Deputy Leader of the Opposition from 1929 to 1930, Minister for Trade and Customs from 1928 to 1929 and 1932 to 1933, Minister without portfolio from 1934 to 1937, Minister for External Affairs and Information from 1939 to 1940, and was appointed Vice-President of the Executive Council in March 1940.
General Sir Cyril Brudenell Bingham White, Chief of the General Staff. With a background of service with Australian forces in South Africa in 1902–03, White served as Chief of Staff to Generals Bridges and Birdwood during World War I. He became Chief of the General Staff in 1920 and, in 1923, was appointed the first chairman of the Public Service Board. White returned to the Army as Chief of the General Staff in 1940.
Lieutenant Colonel Francis Thornthwaite, Staff Officer to General White. An officer in the Australian Army from 1910, Thornthwaite was awarded the Distinguished Service Order and Military Cross for his service during World War I. He was serving as Army Liaison Officer on the General Staff at the time of his death.
Richard Edwin Elford. Elford, who had a good knowledge of aeronautics, was Fairbairn's private secretary.
RAAF crew:Flight Lieutenant Robert Edward Hitchcock
Pilot Officer Richard Frederick Wiesener
Corporal John Frederick Palmer
Aircraftman Charles Joseph Crosdale
The cause of the crash has always been a mystery although there has never been any suggestion of enemy action or sabotage. The crash took place at 10:15 a.m. in fine weather, in what the Melbourne Herald called "ideal flying conditions".
James Fairbairn had served in the Royal Flying Corps during World War I and still enjoyed flying. It has always been suspected that he may have persuaded the RAAF crew to allow him to fly the plane into Canberra. A week before the accident, Fairbairn told an Adelaide headmaster, "Hudson bombers have a rather nasty stalling characteristic.… From what I have been told, a pilot coming in to land can find himself, suddenly and without warning, in a machine that is no longer airborne, heading straight to the ground.… Personally, I think it’s only a matter of handling your throttles wisely".
More recently the RAAF Historian C. D. Coulthard-Clark, in his book The Third Brother, called into question the flying ability of the pilot-in-command, FLTLT Hitchcock. An account of his comments appears in the book Air Crash vol. 2 by noted Australian aviation writer Macarthur Job (Aerospace Publications, Canberra 1992).
The Court of Inquiry into the accident found that it was most likely from the aircraft stalling on its landing approach, resulting in loss of control at a height too low to recover. The aircraft crashed into a hill with great force, killing all occupants instantly, then burning fiercely.
Menzies was deeply affected by the crash, both personally and politically. "This was a dreadful calamity," he told the House of Representatives the next day. "For my three colleagues were my close and loyal friends. Each of them had a place not only in the Cabinet but in my heart". Although Menzies was not in fact close to Fairbairn personally or politically, Street and Gullett were among his closest supporters, and Gullett was a trusted senior adviser. When Menzies attended a memorial gathering at the site on 12 August 1960, 20 years after the crash, he was seen to be still very emotional in recalling the day.
In the wake of the loss of three senior Cabinet ministers, Menzies was forced to reshuffle his ministry. The Cabinet was permanently weakened by their loss, and that was a factor undermining Menzies's position in the following months. One of those promoted in the reshuffle was Harold Holt, recalled from Army service and thus gaining a promotion that eventually led to the Prime Ministership.
As a general election was already due by the end of the year, it was felt prudent to call it for September, to avoid the necessity of also holding three by-elections for such a short term. At the election, Fairbairn's seat of Flinders and Street's seat of Corangamite were retained by the UAP, but Gullett's seat of Henty was lost to an independent, Arthur Coles, who was one of the two independents who voted to bring down the government in 1941 (then headed by the Country Party leader Arthur Fadden), allowing John Curtin of the Australian Labor Party to become Prime Minister.
In 1953, the RAAF base at Canberra was renamed Fairbairn Airbase in Fairbairn's honour. Two of the ministers were later followed into federal politics by their sons, Jo Gullett and Tony Street. After the war, a memorial cairn was erected at the site.