On 13 August 1940, three members of the Australian Cabinet were killed, along with the Chief of the General Staff of the Australian Army, in the Canberra air disaster. The 10 people killed included distinguished World War I veterans.
There were also four Royal Australian Air Force crew on board the Hudson Bomber.
The three ministers killed were the Minister for the Army and Minister for Repatriation, Brigadier Geoffrey Austin Street; the Minister for Air and Civil Aviation, James Valentine Fairbairn; and the Vice-President of the Executive Council and Minister in charge of Scientific and Industrial Research, Sir Henry Somer Gullett.
Among the victims was the Chief of the General Staff, General Sir Cyril Brudenell Bingham White, who in World War I was the first Australian to achieve the rank of full general during wartime.
Retired Ainslie doctor David Nott witnessed the crashed aircraft’s molten aluminium running down the side of the Fairbairn ridgeline.
“It burnt itself into my mind, permanently,” said Dr Nott of his experience as a 10-year-old boy.
Dr Nott’s father was the on call RAAF base doctor at the time of the disaster and he followed him to the crash site.
The disaster, a year into World War II and a month before the September 1940 federal election, shocked the nation and contributed to the resignation of Prime Minister Menzies and the downfall of the United Australia Party government in 1941.
More than 80 years later debate continues over who was piloting the aircraft on approach to Canberra Airport, as well as identification of the crash victims and their burial.
In 1960 Sir Robert Menzies unveiled a simple granite memorial cairn and plaque on the exact site of the crash.
The crash occurred on a hill overlooking the Canberra Airport and RAAF Fairbairn, in what was then Duncan Cameron’s paddock.
A second memorial in the shape of a plane’s wing was installed at the site in 2003 and the site has become surrounded by a working pine forest plantation, defence firing range, paintball range and a dirt speedway.
Former NSW Opposition Attorney-General Andrew Tink studied the disaster as part of research towards his book Air Disaster Canberra: the plane crash that destroyed a government, released in April 2013.
“It killed Australia’s war leaders, with the exception of Robert Menzies, and basically decapitated in effect the war effort,” Mr Tink said.
“If the Air Disaster had not happened the Menzies Government would not have been defeated on the floor of the house and John Curtin in my view would never have become Prime Minister.”
“It is probably the single most important historical memorial in Canberra itself.”