BOOK REVIEW News Weekly
How the 1940 Canberra air disaster changed history
, February 1, 2014
AIR DISASTER CANBERRA:
The Plane Crash that Destroyed a Government
by Andrew Tink
(Sydney: NewSouth Books)
Hardcover: 340 pages
Reviewed by Jeffry Babb
Australians are great mythologisers, most especially when it comes Australia’s war record. Before Japan entered the war, most Australians were more interested in the races than Australia’s war effort.
The contemptible Eddie Ward, the Labor member for East Sydney, was more interested in destroying capitalism than fascism and helped put Prime Minister John Curtin in an early grave — or at least many old Labor men say.
However, the Australian Prime Minster who was in power when the whole charade of appeasement came crashing down around Neville Chamberlain’s ears was Robert Gordon Menzies. Much ink was expended as to whether Menzies was a coward for not volunteering for service in the Great War. His mother appears to have thought that having two out of three eligible sons “in harm’s way” was enough for one family.
The first Menzies-led government failed to generate much enthusiasm for the second war, especially during the Phoney War period. So having colleagues with determination, energy, application and intelligence in the Cabinet was essential for government at this pivotal time. They were not only vital to energising the war effort, they were stalwarts of Menzies’ United Australia Party (UAP) government — they were men Menzies could count on.
So when, on August 13 1940, Hudson bomber A16-97 crashed on approach to Canberra airport, killing all aboard — including three of Menzies’ closest Cabinet colleagues, Sir Henry Gullett, James Fairbairn and Geoffrey Street, and chief of the general staff, General Sir Brudenell White — it was both a political and personal tragedy for Menzies.
These men, with their record of war service, had given Menzies credibility with the returned soldiers that he himself lacked.
The election for Sir Henry Gullett’s former seat of Henty brought Arthur Coles into the Parliament, who, along with fellow Victorian independent Alex Wilson, held the balance of power in the House of Representatives.
For some reason, historians seem to belittle both these men. Coles had a distinguished war record and served as Lord Mayor of Melbourne from 1938 to 1940. He founded the Coles retail chain, which is still going strong today.
Wilson represented the Wimmera, a wheat-growing district in western Victoria dominated by small farmers, whose difficulties found little resonance with the UAP’s squatter aristocracy.
Moreover, Coles felt a debt of gratitude to Menzies rather than to the UAP. He had very little time for Arthur “Artie” Fadden, the Country Party leader who succeeded Menzies as Prime Minister for a few weeks.
As for Sir Earle Page, the Country Party’s eternal “once and future king”, he displayed his hatred for Menzies in more than one personal attack which harped on Menzies’ lack of war experience while relying on his audience to overlook the fact that he (Page) saw no combat and served briefly as a medical officer in World War I in Egypt, before returning home. No doubt relief was widespread when Page was kicked upstairs as Australia’s envoy to the British war cabinet from 1941 to 1942.
It should have come as little surprise that in 1941, after Artie Fadden had been Prime Minister for little more than a month, Coles and Wilson crossed the floor to bring Labor to power.
Labor leader John Curtin was almost pathetically ill-equipped to lead the nation. He had received virtually no formal education and was what we would today call a “recovering alcoholic”.
Many in Australia’s labour movement, such as the wharfies and the coal-miners and including some of his own Cabinet, were more interested in fighting the class war than the Axis powers. In addition, for reasons about which we can only speculate, Curtin’s wife would not accompany him from Perth to Canberra, and he suffered terribly from loneliness.
Award-winning author and a former NSW shadow attorney-general parliament Andrew Tink has done a thorough job of exposition of this little understood period in Australia’s political history. The role of Coles and Wilson, who were clearly both men of substance, has been downplayed. Menzies was, after all, deposed by his supposed allies. Coles’ reaction was entirely predictable, as his contempt for Fadden was well known, as was the knowledge that Wilson was likely to follow his lead in crossing the floor, given sufficient inducements.
As for Menzies, much has been said about his personal courage, or lack thereof. Clearly his four-month visit to Britain in early 1941 was politically ill-advised, as his wife Pattie warned him. He was, however, exposed to danger during the Blitz and, rather than try to avoid it, wanted to stay on in Britain to aid the war effort. He did in his long political career receive many imperial honours. The British, for all their faults, remember their friends.
Menzies was an intelligent man and learned his lessons well. His second career as Prime Minister, from 1949 to 1966, was aided by the 1955 Labor Split. He did not show the same propensity to overvalue his own abilities as had in the 1940s.
As for the 1940 Canberra air disaster, Australian history would have followed a different course without it. Was Air Minister James Fairbairn at the controls when the Hudson bomber crashed? It seems likely, but, like most inconvenient truths about Australia’s political elite, it was covered up at the time and now we will never know.