ACT News

Disaster memorial now more accessible

The vivid memory of a stream of molten metal running through the grass has stayed with David Nott for 73 years.

It was the morning of August 13, 1940. He was 10 years old and Canberra had just experienced its most fatal disaster - a Hudson bomber carrying 10 men, including three cabinet ministers, had crashed on its approach to landing.

He is believed to be the only witness to its aftermath still living.

The disaster is a largely forgotten piece of Canberra and Australia's political history, overshadowed at the time by the greater war effort. And for years the memorial at the disaster site has been neglected.

But Dr Nott still clearly remembers a disturbing scene, having got close enough to hear the commotion and see the billowing smoke.

He was there with his father, Dr Lewis Nott, the superintendent of the hospital, who had been hurriedly collected from home by police to attend the crash.

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''When we got [there], he said 'Now the inspector and I are going to walk up the hill, you sit in the car - you mustn't come','' Dr Nott recalled. ''I sat in the car until they got out of sight and as a 10-year-old, you say 'let's go', so I started off after them … after five or six minutes walking I saw something flashing in the grass. It was a little river of molten aluminium. I looked at that and thought 'Oh my god, I can't stand it' and I went back and sat in the car.

''It was so foreign - I was frightened. I didn't know what had happened, but I soon found out.''

Within the wreckage of the military aeroplane were the incinerated bodies of the minister for air, James Fairbairn, the minister for the army, Geoffrey Street, and the minister for information, Sir Henry Gullett, three of then prime minster Robert Menzies' closest allies.

General Sir Brudenell White, the chief of the general staff, was also killed, meaning that four men instrumental to Australia's war effort were among the dead.

Andrew Tink, a former barrister and NSW shadow attorney-general who has written a book on the air disaster, argues with compelling evidence that Fairbairn was piloting the aircraft.

The disaster had far-reaching consequences for Australia, arguably being a contributing factor to John Curtin becoming prime minister the following year.

But for all its significance, and the interest the book has generated, access to the memorial is heavily impeded. It is blocked off to cars and virtually impossible for walkers to find among the tall pines.

''You drive around Canberra and you see all these extraordinary memorials to the fallen,'' Mr Tink said. ''But for Canberra's own worst disaster, the memorial is inaccessible.''

Dr Nott, a long-term volunteer at the Australian War Memorial, was disappointed to find the memorial vandalised on his only visit, when it was still accessible by car.

''You think how important it was - I mean, early part of the war, things were pretty black and suddenly the prime minister loses half his war cabinet.''

It seems their calls have been heard, with Territory and Municipal Services telling Fairfax Media there are plans to grade the tracks leading to the memorial and improve the directional signage by the end of June.

While Mr Tink believes it's ''a step in the right direction'', he'd like to see regular vehicular access available for older people, like Dr Nott, to pay their respects. ''Maybe it's not feasible to have it open every day … but certainly at times the public are aware of, it ought to be open, it ought to be easily accessible by car.''

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