17 December, 1967: Australian Prime Minister Harold Holt disappears

How the disappearance of Holt was reported in The Canberra Times.

How the disappearance of Holt was reported in The Canberra Times.

Harold Holt had succeeded the long-serving Liberal Party Prime Minister Sir Robert Menzies in 1966 and won an election in November of the same year. Holt continued the commitment of Australian troops to Vietnam, introduced by Menzies in 1965, and this issue dominated Australian politics over the next decade. At the same time, the Holt government introduced several reforms that led to the eventual dismantlement of the ‘White Australia Policy’ over the next decade (eventually abolished by the incoming Whitlam government in 1973).

However Holt is probably most famous in Australia for his extraordinary disappearance on 17 December, 1967. On this day, he went swimming at Cheviot Beach on Mornington Peninsula, a beach he claimed he knew ‘like the back of his hand’. The tide was unusually high and conditions were, according to witnesses, not good for swimming. Despite this, Holt swam quite far out and eventually disappeared out of sight. Presumed drowned, his body has never been discovered.

Here is a digitised version of the official investigation and report into his death, courtesy of the National Archives of Australia. And here is the obituary given in Parliament on its first day in session since his disappearance (March 1968).

There have been several conspiracy theories developed around Holt’s disappearance, with the most prominent one being that he was taken by a Chinese submarine. This theory was expounded by Anthony Grey in his book The Prime Minister Was A Spy.

In a moment of irony, the Harold Holt Memorial Swimming Centre was built in Melbourne after his death.

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