19 February 1942 – War in Australia

17 02 2013

The Bombing of Darwin, 1942.

As a new resident in Darwin, I’m learning about this important day in Australia’s history and I’m disappointed to realised that is was not part of my school curriculum.  I grew up with a basic and brief understanding of World War II in the context of Europe and the Pacific war, but didn’t know that Australia had been bombed over and over and over again.  Here’s what I’ve found so far.  I must say, it makes really fascinating reading and coupled with visiting the remaining sites around town, is quite humbling.

Commemorating the Bombing of Darwin.  Cenotaph on the Esplanade.

Commemorating the Bombing of Darwin. Cenotaph on the Esplanade.

Under the command of Captain Misuo Fuchida, Japan launched a surprise attack on Pearl Harbour USA on 7 December 1942.  The task force was led by Vice-Admiral Nagumo Chuichi.  Once the damage had been done, he ordered Captain Fuchida to turn his aircraft carriers towards Australia. A week later, there was an order to evacuate Darwin as the Japanese campaign advanced through South East Asia and cut off the sea lanes to Australia. Over the next month, Japan advanced on Malaya and the Dutch East Indies.The British stronghold at Singapore fell to the Japanese on 15th of February. With all eligible Australian men deployed to Europe to fight the World War, Australia was under grave threat and only military personnel and civilians who provided essential services (Police, Post Office, Telegraphy, Communications, Nurses) stayed to man their Darwin posts. An invasion was anticipated at any moment which would mean a bloody struggle fought on Australian soil, city by city, village by village.  It must have been horrendous.


Four days after Singapore fell,  on the morning of 19th of February 1942, Misuo Fuchida stationed his four air-craft carriers in the Arafura Sea, fresh from the devasation at Pearl Harbour.  They each carried 27 fighter planes and 54 bombers and launched, one by one. A radio report came through from Bathurst Island, just north of Darwin. Father John McGrath, a missionary on Bathurst Island 70km north of Darwin, reported “An unusually large air formation bearing down on us from the NorthWest.Identity suspect, visibility not clear”.  Ten US KittyHawk aircraft had left Darwin to fly over Timor and were due to return that morning, so the warning was ignored.  Everyone assumed it was the US pilots in formation. It was just before 10am.  There was hardly any time to sound a warning. People in Darwin initially thought the Americans had sent help – more planes ready to defend Darwin!!  188 planes were in the sky and the bombs began to drop.

Japanese "Zero" fragment.  Australian Aviation Heritage Museum: Darwin. NT.

Japanese “Zero” fragment. Australian Aviation Heritage Museum: Darwin. NT.

The Darwin Port was crammed with 45 naval vessels, merchant navy ships, American destroyers and Australian vessels.The port was destroyed, 20 military planes were destroyed, 14 ships damaged, 8 ships sunk, hundreds killed and injured. Oil spilled into the harbour and set the water on fire.  There was no escape.  Gwenda Hansen worked as a secretary at the Qantas Airways Office when the first bomb fell.  “We dashed out of our glass fronted office to go to ground”, she said. Ground was the nearest gutter.“We saw a bomb hit the lovely old sandstone post office.  During a lull we set out to run there to see if we could help anyone, but the planes came over again and we dived flat in the nearest paddock”.

Kitty-Hawk - strafed.  Australian Aviation Heritage Museum. Darwin NT.

Kitty-Hawk – strafed. Australian Aviation Heritage Museum. Darwin NT.

Darwin’s Parliament House now stands on the site of the old Post Office where nine civilians lost their lives as their slit trench took a direct hit.Over the course of half an hour, 71 medium bombers, 81 dive bombers and 36 fighters decimated Darwin – the harbour, airfield, communications centre and major facilities.All but one of the returning KittyHawks was shot down.

The raid lasted just over half an hour.

An hour later, the Japanese returned again, another raid of destruction.

There was another 63 bombing raids on Australia over the next two years.

Unknown civilian loss - 19 Feb 1942 - Adelaide River War Cemetery. NT.

Unknown civilian loss – 19 Feb 1942 – Adelaide River War Cemetery. NT.

Lest we Forget.

References for this blog post:
Japan on the Doorstep
Federation Frontline: A secondary school resource
The National Archives of Australia – the Bombing of Darwin
The Battle for Australia
The Bombing of Darwin




2 responses

22 02 2013

louise, i am slow to respond to this as it touches a nerve with me … why were we never taught about the bombing of darwin???? i guess the loss of face was not worth it … my father was involved in the war in new guinea and the coral sea … all around there, he landed in darwin several times … so with my mother and her second husb we saw it all in darwin in 2002 … unbelievable!!! thanks so much for your full story here, and beautiful images 🙂

22 02 2013

I don’t understand it either. I grew up knowing more about Pearl Harbour than Australia! It was great to be at the Service though, there is an immense sense of pride and strength amongst Darwin-ites. It was fantastic.

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