Remembering 1942: The Bombing of Darwin Dr Peter Stanley


February 1942. Australian troops inspect bomb damage caused by Japanese air raids. Darwin, NT.

Originally presented by Dr Peter Stanley, on Tuesday 19 February 2002 beside the Roll of Honour at the Memorial, as part of the Roll of Honour Talks Series.

Download the talk - 8:59 min (2.1 Mb Mp3)

A few minutes before ten o'clock on 19 February 1942 a force of Japanese aircraft swept over Darwin to begin the first of two raids on that day.

How did this happen?

The attacks on Darwin occurred as part of the Japanese conquest of south-east Asia. Japan had been fighting a brutal war of conquest in China since the early 1930s. It had occupied Indo-China and Thailand in 1941. In the two months since the outbreak of war against the European powers in Asia in December 1941 its forces had taken Hong Kong, Malaya, and the Australian territory of New Britain. Its forces were already advancing into the Netherlands East Indies. Four days before the attacks Japanese forces had captured Singapore.

While Australians looked apprehensively at maps in their daily newspapers which showed arrows moving toward northern Australia, Japan had no intention of actually landing in Australia. Rather, Japan's aim was to seize the raw materials and economic resources of south-east Asia, and to secure a defensible perimeter around the region to defend its gains from the counter-attacks which would follow.

Darwin was a major Allied base. Ships and planes based there were supporting the defenders of Timor, which was to fall within a week, and Java, which would be overwhelmed by the month's end. Darwin was attacked therefore not as the prelude to an invasion of Australia, but to support Japan's seizure of the Netherlands East Indies.

Japanese reconnaissance flights had flown over Darwin in the days before the attack. Their reports were passed to a naval task force based around four aircraft carriers (the same force under Vice-Admiral Nagumo Chuichi which had launched the attack on Pearl Harbour in December). The defenders rightly believed that attack was imminent, though when it came they were unready.

Early on the morning of 19 February 188 aircraft were sighted by observers on Bathurst and Melville islands to Darwin's north. Reports were radioed to Darwin but were not acted upon with urgency. The first signs of the attack came when Zero fighters began strafing an auxiliary minesweeper, HMAS Gunbar, as it passed through the boom protecting the entrance to Darwin harbour. Soon, ships in the harbour and buildings and installations ashore came under attack.

Bombs killed at least 21 wharf labourers, some trapped on the open wharf when a section was destroyed. A bomb which hit the main Darwin post office killed the post-master and his family and six young women telegraphists sheltering in a slit-trench outside. The Residence of the Administrator of the Northern Territory was hit, killing a young Aboriginal woman who worked for the Administrator's family.

For forty minutes the aircraft bombed and machine-gunned. They sank eight of the 47 ships in the harbour, including the motor vessel Neptuna. Its cargo included 200 depth charges which exploded as the ship lay beside the Darwin wharf. Darwin's defence was inadequate. The few anti-aircraft guns, though in constant action, were overwhelmed. Ten United States Kittyhawk fighters were all destroyed in the air or while taking off.

Eighty minutes later a second wave, this time of land-based bombers from Kendari in the Celebes, arrived to continue the attack, this time concentrating on the RAAF station inland. The raids cost the attackers no more than ten aircraft.

The two raids killed about 250 people in and around Darwin. The official historians, writing in the 1950s, went to some trouble to determine a firm figure. They concluded that 'about 243' had died. Later research has revised this figure upwards. No one can know the actual number because the crews of some of the merchant ships were not fully known. It was certainly not the 1,024 claimed recently in unsubstantiated reports.

Darwin is arguably Australia's most inclusive battle. Those who died that day included members of all three services, in rank ranging from a Wing Commander down to two cooks. They also included merchant seamen, postal workers and civilians who were just doing their jobs. They included men and women, black and white Australians, a teenage girl and a grandfather. It is important to recognise that the very first attack on Australia as a nation cost the lives of representatives of that nation.

Most of the names of those killed in Darwin on that day are in fact not recorded here on this Roll of Honour. The largest single group, were members of the United States Navy or Air Force, most members of the complement of the destroyer USS Peary which was sunk during the first raid. The sixteen Australian servicemen and one servicewoman killed in Darwin on 19 February 1942 appear on eight panels.

The four members of the army, one ordnance corps corporal and three members of the hospital ship Manunda (including a sister of the Australian Army Nursing Service) appear on panels 86 and 91. The six sailors, three from HMAS Swan and three from the shore establishment HMAS Melville, appear on panels 3, 4 and 7. The seven airmen were mostly members of the RAAF station headquarters. They are commemorated on panel 97.

Many of the dead were Australian civilians who through the operation of the Memorial's Act are regarded as ineligible for inclusion on the Roll of Honour. They are commemorated by name in Darwin, where most of them are buried.

The attacks on Darwin prompted understandable fears that the air attacks would soon be followed by an invasion force. Here begins the sorry story of the so-called 'Darwin panic' and the disorder which accompanied it. While men did abscond and loot in the chaotic days following the attacks, the stories have become folkloric. They need to be considered carefully. The historian of the Northern Territory's war, Prof. Alan Powell, has established that the reports of mass panic, of men riding bicycles to Alice Springs and hitching rides on night-soil carts to escape from the town have been greatly exaggerated. Prof. Powell's book The Shadow's Edge gives us a more accurate understanding of the attack and its aftermath.

It is also often forgotten that the 19 February attacks were only the first of 64 raids made on Darwin between February 1942 and November 1943. Here it is important to focus on what is significant. None of these raids was as heavy as the first, and most caused no damage or casualties at all. Their significance, however, is often missed. They were part of an air campaign fought across northern Australia during those years. This story of this campaign has been told by a former curator at the Memorial, Mark Clayton in the Journal of the Australian War Memorial, 1 and by my colleague Chris Coulthard-Clark in the January 2002 issue of the Memorial's magazine, Wartime. 2 They describe how Australian and American aircrew battled with their Japanese counterparts to establish dominance over the skies of tropical Australia. In these combats many more men would die, shot down over the Arafura Sea or the Gulf or over the bush of the Territory and Cape York. The names of the Australians killed in that neglected war are here too.

Darwin has attracted many myths, not the least being that news of it was suppressed. It was certainly diminished. The following day news reports put the death toll at 17, but word of the raids on Darwin was never suppressed, not least because it supported the Curtin government's desire to mobilize Australians into working, fighting or saving by frightening them about what could happen.

The Lowe Royal Commission investigated the raids in 1942, with some hearings held in the ruins of the town. Its report was released in 1945. Douglas Lockwood's book Australia's Pearl Harbour first told the story vividly in 1956, and they have been retailed, sometimes with more colour than clarity, by other journalists ever since. Australians will always remember the events of 19 February 1942 and those who died in them. Here, at the Roll of Honour of the nation's memorial, we remember them.


[1] Mark Clayton, "The north Australian air war 1942-44" Journal of the Australian War Memorial, 8 (1986)
[2] Chris Coulthard-Clark, "Air war over Australia", Wartime, 17, 2002