The Air Disaster Memorial is a large granite monolith with a commemorative plaque that marks the location of a plane crash in 1940 that killed ten people, including four senior Government figures.
Why is this place important?
The Air Disaster Memorial is important for commemorating the location of the 1940 plane crash that killed ten people, including three Commonwealth Ministers and the Chief of the General staff. Most of these senior Commonwealth figures held posts related to Australia's defence. This loss early in World War II had a significant impact on the Government.
The memorial is also significant for its association with three Commonwealth Ministers and a Chief of the General Staff who are individually, and as a group, were important figures in Australia's history. Brigadier the Honourable G Street MP had been the Minister of Defence and was at the time of his death, Minister for the Army and Repatriation. He was a key member of the Menzies ministry. The Honourable Sir Henry Gullett MP had been a Minister for periods since 1928, and in early 1940 he was Minister for External Affairs and Information. At his death, Gullet was Vice President of the Executive Council and Minister for Scientific and Industrial Research. The Honourable J Fairbairn MP was Minister for Air in 1940, which included responsibility for the RAAF.
Lieutenant General Sir Brudenell White had a distinguished military career, especially related to World War 1. He is credited with being one of the founders of the Australian Imperial Force. White was Chief of the General Staff at the time of the plane crash.
The memorial has a special association with these men because it commemorates their untimely deaths in a single accident while traveling back to Canberra in an RAAF plane as part of official duties, and that most of these men were important figures in the defence of Australia at a time of war.
Looking at the Memorial
The memorial is located in the Fairbairn Pine Plantation north of Pialligo Avenue in Majura. It is located on a small hill, on the north side of a forestry track. The surrounding area is a plantation of semi-mature trees.
The memorial is located on the north-eastern side of a small open gravel area. The memorial is a large granite monolith, two metres wide, supported by smaller stones on the back. The memorial is embedded in concrete, and surrounded by a circular concrete kerb wall with a diameter of five metres. The space between is filled with granite chips. To the north and south of kerb are low wing walls of random stonework set in concrete.
A bronze plaque is centrally placed on the monolith bearing an inscription to:
Brigadier the Honourable G Street MP, the Minister of State for Army and Repatriation; the Honourable Sir Henry Gullet MP, Vice President of the Executive Council; the Honourable J Fairbairn MP, Minister for Air and Civil Aviation; Lieutenant General Sir Brudenell White, Chief of General Staff; Mr R E Elford, Private Secretary to the Minister for Air; Lieutenant R H Hitchcock, pilot; Pilot Officer Weisener, assistant pilot; Corporal J F Palmer, wireless operator; and Aircraftsman C J Crosdale, fitter, all of whom were killed at this location.
Five eucalypt trees form a loose semi-circular shape around the east of the memorial, and there is a planting of Callistemons on each side and behind the monolith. It has been suggested the trees may be vestiges of the original heavily wooded hilltop, however they appear relatively young, and their putative survival through the plane crash seems unlikely.
Ten people, including three Commonwealth Ministers and the Chief of the General Staff, were killed on 13 August 1940, when their RAAF Lockheed Hudson crashed while preparing to land at Canberra Airport. The plane was bringing the Ministers and high officials from Melbourne for an important cabinet meeting when it nose-dived into the hill and subsequently burst into flames.
The tragedy assumed the proportions of a national disaster in view of the loss of these leading government figures in Australia's effort in World War 2.
A memorial was suggested in Parliament by Dr Maloney on 14 August 1940. However, it was not until Dame Annabelle Rankin wrote to the then Minister for Air, William McMahon, that the suggestion was given serious consideration. Sir Brudenell White's relatives had approached Dame Annabelle requesting that a small cairn be erected at the location of the crash in memory of those who lost their lives. The request, in January 1952, was referred to Prime Minister Menzies, who was Chair of the National Memorials Committee, and also very supportive of the project.
A suggestion that the cairn and an associated plaque be placed at Canberra Airport was not supported by the National Capital Planning and Development Committee. The Committee felt that a plaque marking an air disaster was psychologically inappropriate at the airport.
Instead, a cairn and memorial plaque on the site of the crash was approved by the Minister for the Interior, W S Kent Hughes, on 9 February 1952. He also approved a memorial plaque on one of the buildings at the civilian airport. The plaque at the airport never eventuated.
The site of the crash was marked with a cement peg by surveyor L C A Hope at the time of the coroner's inquiry in 1940. It was on a portion of the Royal Military College (RMC) firing field and manoeuvre area. The permission of the next of kin of all victims was obtained and a design for the proposed memorial forwarded to them all. The concept was priced at £250 in April 1958.
Between April 1958 and August 1958, however, the proposed memorial changed. On 7 August 1958, a granite monolith was removed from the site of the Ainslie Rex Hotel to the site of the disaster, and this became what is now known as the Air Disaster Memorial. The erection of the monument was supervised by the Department of Works.
Wreaths were laid at the cairn on 13 August 1960, the twentieth anniversary of the disaster, in a small and simple ceremony attended by Prime Minister Menzies. A National Memorial Service for the victims of the disaster was held on 16 August 1960 at St Paul's in Melbourne, at St John's in Canberra, and at Westminster Abbey in London.
The original plaque has been replaced on several occasions because of theft or vandalism.
An interpretive plaque and concrete traffic island were unveiled in the presence of the Honourable Wilson Tuckey MP, Minister for Regional Services, Territories and Local Government, on 13 August 2003, the anniversary of the crash. The traffic island footprint was intended to be evocative of an aircraft wing. It replaced an earlier traffic island. The concrete kerb around the monolith appears to have been replaced before this time.
The Air Disaster Memorial is located in the Fairbairn Pine Plantation, Pialligo Avenue, Majura.
Commonwealth Heritage Assessment for the Air Disaster Memorial (2011) (Prepared by Duncan Marshall for the National Capital Authority).