The monument positioned to overlook Cheviot Beach reads:
The 17th Prime Minister of Australia disappeared at this location on the 17th December 1967 – holding office for just short of 2 years from the 26th January 1966 until his disappearance . . .
Incidentally, it was on this same beach in the year of 1887 that 35 lives were lost due to the tragic wreck of the SS ‘Cheviot’ – the largest ever loss of life in a single shipwreck in and around Port Phillip Bay and this region of Bass Strait – hence the name assigned to this this stretch of beach.
As Harold Holt’s body was never recovered, much controversy, mystery and many theories ensued: murder, suicide, abduction, misadventure . . .
The largest search and rescue operation ever undertaken up until this fateful day, began. Helicopters arrived close to an hour of receiving the alert. They scoured and hovered along the coastline:
” . . . 45. In all there were 8 helicopters used in the search and from Saturday, 23 December 1967, were reduced to 2 which are still patrolling and an approximate of 200-250 flying hours were logged over all . . . “
Source: Excerpt – Canberra Times (ACT) – Article ‘Police say death was an accident’ – published 22nd January 1968
Divers anchored with safety ropes entered the turbulent seas. Australia’s Army, Navy, Coast Guard swung into action, however, not a trace was to be found. Interestingly, though the massive search proved fruitless, it was deemed that a formal enquiry would not be undertaken. So many questions remained unanswered → 38 years later, in 2005, the State Coroner if Victoria did conduct an inquiry into Harold Holt’s disappearance – to find that he had drowned whilst at Cheviot Beach on the Mornington Peninsula, and that his body had been either swept out to sea or taken by sharks.
He was 59 years old when he disappeared.
The four people who had accompanied Harold Holt on that fateful day were: Mrs Gillespie, her daughter Vyner Gillespie, Martin Simpson, and Mr Alan Stewart. In 1967, today’s Point Nepean National Park was not open to the public as it was a Military Installation. The Prime Minister enjoyed exclusive privileges to gain access to this area. The following article refers to the time of 11:30 am when the party of four departed Mrs Gillespe’s home in Portsea and headed off to Cheviot Beach. The next reference to a time is “the arrival of the advance party of police skin divers at 2:45 pm” and that some local divers had been diving to search for Mr Holt within 40 minutes of the alarm being raised – however, no mention of the time that the alert had been received. Some note-worthy extracts of the 83 Points of the Police Report quoted in the article published in the ‘Canberra times’ include:
” . . . Mrs Gillespie says of conditions, “The surf was higher than I had ever seen it, and it was a full tide, but not unduly rough at this stage. The sea beyond where it was breaking appeared to be calm”.
Mr Stewart says, “I noticed that the tide was very high and the surf was very turbulent, in fact the biggest I have seen on that beach”.
Martin Simpson said, “I went into the water almost knee deep and there was a fairly strong undercurrent, so I just splashed around without going in too far” . . . “
” . . . 21. Mr Holt at this stage did mention in conversation “I know this beach like the back of my hand” and he then went on to say how the tide was unusually high . . . “
” . . . 22. The group then commenced to break off with Mrs Gillespie strolling along the beach towards the end in the direction of Portsea. Alan Stewart went to the water’s edge to test the temperature of the water and returned to the remaining group quite quickly.
Mr Holt, Martin Simpson and Vyner Gillespie then walked away from Stewart and parted company as they did, Simpson and Miss Gillespie going to the left towards the direction taken by Mrs Gillespie, and Mr Holt to the right towards the water. He went diagonally towards the water and entered without any apparent hesitation and commenced to swim in the area away from the beach . . . “
” . . . 27. Mrs Gillespie state that shortly before Alan Stewart left the water to join here when she was looking out to see whether she could see Mr Holt, sh had noticed Mr Holt was still swimming well out and seemed to be getting further away all the time. She had watched Mr Holt continuously from the time he had entered the surf, and she saw the water become very turbulent around him very suddenly and appeared to boil and these conditions seemed to “swamp” on him. He was not seen again . . . “
” . . . 38. Search and rescue operations were directed and co-ordinated by Superintendent Hill and Inspector Newell from a mobile police communications van located strategically in the area and it is estimated that underwater divers namely Corporal Woods, John Haywood and Neville Lynch were at the beach and conducting an underwater search as far as weather and surf conditions would allow within 40 minutes from the time the alarm was raised . . . “
” . . . 39. Prior to the arrival of the advance party of police skin divers at 2:45 pm a life-saving party from the Portsea Life-Saving Club and local area personnel mustered for the purpose by Captain Schuman were in attendance at Cheviot Beach and were actively engaged in a search in whatever manner possible at that stage. Helicopters were then also active in an air search over the immediate area . . . “
” . . . 40. With the arrival of the police skin-diving party, rescue operations were rapidly built up to the stage where by night fall it is estimated that some 190 personnel were actively engaged in the search drawn from the following authorities:
Department of Air, Department of the Army, Ansett-ANA, Department of Civil Aviation; Commonwealth Police Force, Coast Guard, Commonwealth Lighthouse Service, Civil Ambulance, Flinders Shire Council, Marine Board of Victoria, Department of the Navy, Postmaster-General’s Department, Portsea Surf Lifesaving Club, Prime Minister’s Department, Press, Radio and Television, Queenscliffe Life Boat Quarantine Service Personnel, J. Rose Motors Pty Ltd, State Police, Department of Supply, St John’s Ambulance Brigade (Search and Rescue Units), Sorrento Volunteer Fire Brigade, Trans Australia Airline, Department of Works Sydney . . . “
” . . . 44. As will be seen the pattern of tides together with continued high winds over the ensuing days immediately following Sunday, 17 December hampered underwater search operations. In this regard it was not possible until 23 December when conditions in Bass Strait were extremely calm and also as was the case on the following day for the police diving team to completely eliminate as far as possible the possibility of the body being lodged in an underwater crevice or cave at Cheviot Beach . . . “
” . . . 49. In this direction it was ascertained that the nearby Portsea Ocean Beach was declared unsafe on the particular day on Sunday, 17 December, by the lifesaving patrol due to the prevalence of high easterly winds and the resulting rough waters. The westerlies were prevailing on the day over the peninsula area of the disappearance at Cheviot Bay Beach . . . “
” . . . 74. In seeking reasons to the failure to locate Mr Holt’s body, enquiries were made from local professional fishermen in the Portsea and Queenscliff area and they consider the two possibilities present themselves.
(a) The possibility of the body being carried out to sea or away from Cheviot Beach by the tides or lodged in rock crevices or other situations, or
(b) The possibility of attack on the body by marine life in the form of sea lice, crafish, etc. . . . “
” . . . 75. In relation to (a) the local fishermen, who are expert on tides in the area, consider that the body in any case would have been washed away from Cheviot Beach either in a easterly or westerly direction depending on the tide from Cheviot Beach at the time (ebb tide or flood tide). If the body was suspended or on the sea bed or under a crevice the possibility exists that it would eventually work free, rise to the surface and then be carried out by the tide . . . “
” . . . 81. During the course of this enquiry there has been no indication that the disappearance of the late Mr Holt was anything other than accidental . . . “
Source: Excerpts – Canberra Times (ACT) – Article ‘Police say death was an accident‘ – published 22nd January 1968
– Facilities available at Portsea include:
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- Gravel Track
- Sealed Road