Canberra air disaster, 1940

The Canberra air disaster of 1940 was a plane crash that took place near Canberra, the capital of Australia, on 13 August 1940, during World War II. The six passengers, which included three members of the Australian Cabinet and the Chief of the General Staff, and the four crew were all killed. 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 crash

The Ministers, General White and their staff were being flown from Melbourne to Canberra for a Cabinet meeting on an RAAF Lockheed Hudson bomber flown by an experienced RAAF officer, Flight Lieutenant Robert Hitchcock.

The Melbourne "Herald" 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 Queanbeyan and Canberra, 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, Senator George McLeay and Arthur Fadden, leader of the Country Party, 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 WW 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 WW 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, Henry 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 WW 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 WW 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 Private Secretary to Mr Fairbairn.

RAAF crew:

:Flight Lieutenant Robert Edward Hitchcock :Pilot Officer Richard Frederick Wiesener :Corporal John Frederick Palmer:Aircraftman Charles Joseph Crosdale


The causes of the crash have always been a mystery, although there has never been any suggestion of enemy action or sabotage. The crash took place at 10:15 in the morning 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.Views needing attribution|date=August 2007

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).

Inquiry findings

The Court of Inquiry into the accident found that it was most likely due to the aircraft stalling on its landing approach, resulting in loss of control at a height too low to recover. [Modification to the wings of the Lockheed Hudson were later made utilising piercings of the leading edge to act as turbulators to reduce the severity of the aircraft's stall characteristics] Views needing attribution|date=August 2007. The aircraft crashed into a hill with great force, killing all occupants instantly, then burning fiercely. Since the crash was near the RAAF base, emergency crews were at the scene promptly, but nothing could be done to save the occupants.


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.

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 in 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 this was a factor which undermined Menzies's position in the following months. One of those promoted in the reshuffle was Harold Holt, who was recalled from Army service and thus gained a promotion that eventually led to the prime ministership.

Because the crash took place only a month before the September 1940 federal election, no by-elections were held. 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 in 1941 was one of the two independents who crossed the floor to bring the government down, allowing John Curtin of the Australian Labor Party to become Prime Minister.

External links

* [ National Archives of Australia Fact Sheet 142]
* [ Canberra memorial website]
* [ National Archive of Australia search for Fairbairn Memorial]

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