Darwin, 19 February 1942

During January and February 1942, Australia's northern port of Darwin was becoming increasingly important to the Allied war effort in the South-West Pacific region. Troops and war materials moved through Darwin to Allied forces struggling to stem the rapid advance of Japanese military forces across South-East Asia, and Darwin was becoming an important base for air and naval operations against the approaching Japanese. The Japanese were well aware that the port of Darwin was a threat to their military aggression, and they resolved to neutralise it by aerial bombardment.

Despite the fall of Britain's so-called "impregnable" fortress of Singapore to the Japanese on 15 February 1942, and the increasing strategic importance of Darwin as Japanese troops deployed across the Dutch East Indies, Australia's military leaders appear to have felt no sense of urgency about the defence of Darwin against Japanese attack. This inexcusable failure of judgment becomes even more difficult to understand in a context where Rabaul in Australian New Guinea had already fallen to the Japanese on 23 January 1942, Port Moresby in Australian Papua had been enduring Japanese bombing since 3 February 1942, and Darwin was within reach of Japanese high-altitude bombers based in the former Dutch island of Celebes. Australia would pay a high price throughout 1942 for the poor judgment of its military leaders.

Japan brings war to the Australian mainland. The merchant vessel Neptuna has been hit by a
Japanese bomb in Darwin harbour during the first air raid on 19 February 1942.
AWM 134955

The first Air Raid on Darwin

On 16 February 1942, an Allied convoy en route from Darwin to Timor was attacked by Japanese bombers and forced to return to Darwin. At that stage, Timor had not yet been captured by the Japanese. The convoy returned to Darwin on 18 February. On the following day, Thursday 19 February 1942, Japan brought its war of aggression to Australia's mainland. At 9.58 am on this day, Darwin was bombed by 188 Japanese aircraft operating from the 21st Air Flotilla base at Kendari in the Celebes and from four of Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo’s fleet aircraft carriers in the Timor Sea. The Japanese carriers struck at Darwin while on the way from Palau to attack the British naval base at Colombo in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). Although Father John McGrath at the Bathurst Island mission north of Darwin observed the Japanese aircraft passing overhead and radioed a warning to RAAF Operations at Darwin at 9.37 am, his warning was not passed on by the RAAF to the 2,000 inhabitants of Darwin or the numerous naval and merchant ships in the harbour.

The first notice of the Japanese attack received by the hapless citizens of Darwin was the terrifying sound of falling bombs. Within two hours of the first attack, Japanese aircraft struck Darwin again. Owing to the lack of response to Father McGrath's warning, heavy damage was inflicted on the town, shipping in the harbour, and the RAAF airfield in the two initial air raids on 19 February. Eight ships were sunk in the harbour and many were damaged. A Japanese dive bomber attacked and severely damaged the clearly marked hospital ship Manunda. Stoker 2nd Class Charlie Unmack was aboard the minesweeper HMAS Gunbar in Darwin harbour and provides an eyewitness account of the first air raid.

Nineteen Allied warplanes were destroyed on the ground at the RAAF base and civilian airstrip, including six front-line American P40 fighters. Four American P40s had been on patrol over Darwin. They were taken by surprise by Japanese Zero fighters and shot down. LAC Stan Hawker provides an eyewitness account of the bombing of the RAAF base. The Darwin post office took a direct hit from a bomb which killed 10 civilian employees. Two hundred and forty-three people were killed at Darwin on 19 February, and 300 were wounded.

The township was shattered by the bombing. It was the heaviest loss of life on Australian soil since European settlement in 1788, and the first time that an enemy nation had attacked our mainland. Although the bombing of Darwin was front page news in Australia next day, the full extent of the damage and loss of life was not revealed by the Curtin government.

The clearly marked Australian hospital ship Manunda received a direct bomb hit during the
first Japanese air raid on Darwin. Survivors of the raid are manning the lifeboat. AWM134960

A Japanese Perspective on the first Darwin Raid

The attack group from Admiral Nagumo's aircraft carriers was led by Commander Mitsuo Fuchida, the same officer who led the infamous surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941. Commander Fuchida has given the following account of the first air raid on Darwin:

"…the job to be done seemed hardly worthy of the Nagumo Force. The harbour, it is true, was crowded with all kinds of ships, but a single pier and a few waterfront buildings appeared to be the only port installations. The airfield on the outskirts of the town, though fairly large, had no more than two or three small hangars, and in all there were only twenty-odd planes of various types scattered about the field. No planes were in the air. A few attempted to take off as we came over but were quickly shot down, and the rest were destroyed where they stood. Anti-aircraft fire was intense but largely ineffectual, and we quickly accomplished our objectives."

M. Fuchida, & M. Okumiya, Midway: the Battle that doomed Japan, Hutchinson (1957) pp.58-59.

The distinguished Australian historian Dr David Horner has noted that the success of the Darwin air raid increased pressure from the Japanese Naval General Staff for an early invasion of the Australian mainland:

"The Japanese Navy General Staff were keen to mount an invasion of Australia, and in December 1941 they had calculated that they would need three divisions to secure footholds on the northeast and northwest coastlines... on 27 February, after the successful strike against Darwin, and the landings in the East Indies, the Navy General Staff insisted on an invasion of the northeast coast of Australia."

Dr. D. Horner, Defending Australia in 1942 , published in The Pacific War 1942 (at page 4).

Fortunately for Australia, Japan's Navy General Staff and Combined Fleet had conflicting strategic priorities in the Pacific region at this time. This conflict between senior admirals in the Japanese Navy is acknowledged by the American military historian Dr. George Watson who has written:

"Whereas some Japanese opposed a Midway campaign - including Admiral Osami Nagamo, the Chief of Navy General Staff, who preferred an invasion of Australia - Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, the Commander-in-Chief, Combined Fleet, supported (the Midway) operation, reasoning that it would enable him to draw out and destroy Hornet, Enterprise, and the other American carriers" - (the emphasis is mine!).

Dr. George Watson, Jnr: War in the Pacific: Pearl Harbor to Tokyo Bay (1991), at page 81.

Heroism under Fire at Darwin

References to the first Japanese air raids on Darwin often include criticism of some military personnel who joined civilians in heading south to escape the Japanese bombs. While the devastation and confusion produced by the surprise attack did cause some military personnel to leave the town, it needs to be acknowledged that many military personnel, on shore and on ships, stuck to their guns in the face of an awesome Japanese aerial bombardment of a largely defenceless town.

On land, two young Australian soldiers were awarded Military Medals for their courage under fire. Lance Bombardier Frederick Wombey, aged eighteen, was in charge of an Anti-Aircraft Light Machine Gun position guarding vital naval oil tanks beside Darwin harbour. Lance Bombardier Wombey manned his gun in the face of strafing by Japanese Zero fighters and dive bomber attacks on the oil tanks, and his courage under fire helped to save them.

Gunner Wilbert Hudson, aged twenty-one, was manning a Lewis machine gun at the Berrima Anti-Aircraft station. Under fire from Japanese aircraft, and without protection from that fire, Hudson rested his weapon on an empty 44 gallon drum, and maintained fire at the Japanese aircraft until his ammunition was exhausted.

In the harbour, despite lack of warning, the crews of navy ships manned their guns with remarkable courage as Japanese bombs rained down on their ships. On Darwin harbour, the American destroyer USS Peary took a direct hit from a Japanese bomb. The stricken vessel's forward gun was observed still firing at Japanese aircraft as the Peary slid stern-first beneath the water.

Disturbing similarities between the Japanese attacks on Darwin and Pearl Harbor

Setting aside the difference in size of targets, there are disturbing similarities between the first Japanese air raid on Darwin and the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941. In both instances, there is compelling evidence of a failure of command to bring defences to a state of readiness in the face of a clear and growing threat of Japanese attack. The forced return of the Timor convoy on 18 February 1942, following an attack at sea by Japanese bombers, should have caused Darwin's military comanders to place the town's very limited defences on full war alert. At Darwin, as at Pearl Harbor, a timely warning of the approach of a large formation of unidentified aircraft was ignored by air force officers. Australia's military leadership in February 1942 appeared to have learnt nothing from the example of Pearl Harbor.

Japanese bombing of northern Australia continued until November 1943

Darwin was bombed by the Japanese sixty times between 19 February 1942 and 12 November 1943. The Japanese lost only seven aircraft to anti-aircraft fire in the first two raids. However, by April 1942, Darwin's air defences had been greatly improved and Japanese aircraft losses began to mount steadily. Darwin was not the only Australian town to suffer Japanese bombing. The towns of Broome, Wyndham and Derby in Western Australia were also bombed.