Speech: ANZAC Day 2021

Today is ANZAC Day. The day we set aside to look sacrifice right in the eyes.

And today, the one we see staring right back at us is a brave, sacrificial Australian. Wing Commander Charles Learmonth, DFC & Bar.

Just 26 years old, Charles knew sacrifice. He put himself in harm’s way to push the enemy back from our shores. But his greatest sacrifice, which saved hundreds of lives, didn’t involve a bomb or a bullet.

We see him on that sparkling afternoon. Handsome. Talented. Brave. A Victorian who’d married a lovely West Australian. He has already flown 159 missions against the enemy. A deeply impressive man, his DFC citation read that he had “displayed tactical ability amounting to genius.”

We see him that day, at the controls of his Bristol Beaufort — an Australian made torpedo bomber which, frankly, had a lot of problems. A mysterious shake had destroyed 90 other Beauforts and many of its crews.

We see the two other Beauforts Charles is leading on a training run, cruising low above the Indian Ocean on that warm afternoon in January, flying not far from here, near Rottnest Island.

And then we see it happen. The rattle becomes a shudder. The shudder becomes a violent shake, from the tail, all the way to the cockpit.

And here’s what we don’t see. We don’t see him screaming. We don’t see him yelling at how unfair it all is — though it absolutely was.

Charles didn’t yell. We know this because we have the notes from his radio transmissions. He radioed Flight Lieutenant Ken Hewitt, who was a pilot of one of the other Beauforts.

Charles asked Ken to fly in close and observe his shuddering tail, which he knew would soon be the death of him.  Charles wanted Ken to see what the problem really was.

Charles also carefully described what he could see, hear and feel what the problem was — knowing that there was no way he could fix it. But if he described it well enough, he knew that someone, someday could fix it.

In those moments, when Charles Learmonth had every right to think about his life, what he deserved, he thought of others, the dozens of air crews who would be able to fly safely, if they could solve the problem in the plane.

These transmissions didn’t last long. A few minutes of shuddering and the trim tab on his tail flipped upright, forcing the plane to sharp descent. Charles Learmonth's Beaufort crashed into the sea.

There were no survivors.

But good things come with sacrifice.

With the information from Charles’ radio transmission, the problem in Beauforts was found. It was a small component in the elevator trim tab. All the RAAF Beauforts were grounded while they were modified. And the problem didn’t return.

We will never know how many more crews would have perished with that problem. But we do know why it was stopped. It was because of the sacrifice of Charles Learmonth.

The sacrifices you make today may not be spectacular. But you can be sure that the good things that will come to your family, your community, your nation, when you make sacrifices. Even small things like seeing a problem that no one else has solved, and doing something about it.

This year we mark the centenary of the RAAF in which Charles Learmonth served. And it is a story of sacrifice.

350,000 women and men have given up civilian life to serve, and 11,100 airmen and women have given their lives defending our homeland.

Why do they do it? The answer is in their motto: per ardua ad astra. Through adversity, we reach the stars. Through hardship, setback, giving up our own interests — through sacrifice comes the good. That’s how we reach the stars.

11,100 Charles Learmonths have gone before you and me, sacrificing themselves with the RAAF, so that we would be safe today. 350,000 have worn our flag, our southern cross — a universal symbol of sacrifice — they’ve given up some of their freedom, so you would have your freedom today.

So I hope you join me in saying a prayer of thanks for the life of Charles Learmonth, and the armies of brave Australians who have walked in his path.

We say a prayer of thanks for the ANZACs, and indeed all the men and women who have served, and those who continue to serve our country every day. 

We pause to reflect on the contributions made by the members of our ADF who have displayed great courage, discipline, and self-sacrifice in choosing a life of service to their country.

I believe we need to continue holding this same sacrifice as a cornerstone of our Australian culture.

Just as it is important to reflect on our national identity, even more so is the need to continue to preserve our values, as we honour the ANZACs whose sacrifice built it. 

Because it’s by that sacrifice, through that adversity, that we have our peace.

Lest we forget.