The Bombing of Darwin: Australia’s Pearl Harbor

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The Bombing of Darwin was the largest attack against Australia by a foreign power, and the worst wartime disaster. It became known as Australia’s Pearl Harbor.

The Japanese bombed Darwin on 19 February 1942 with 188 fighter planes. It was the largest attack since Pearl Harbor (7 December 1941). Chaos ensured as at least 240 people were killed, including fifteen civilians. Most essential services including water and electricity were badly damaged or destroyed in the blasts. Many servicemen deserted their posts, as approximately 278 were still reported missing three days later.

Nighttime: Blazing buildings after the bombing. Source: Australian War Memorial

Nighttime: Blazing buildings after the bombing. Source: Australian War Memorial

Darwin—an important Allied base—was not prepared for the inevitable attack by the Japanese. It was a key defensive position in Australia’s north against the ever-growing Japanese threat. The Pacific War was only ten weeks old.

A Catholic priest, Father John McGrath, based on Bathurst Island, alerted the authorities by radio at 9.35 am. The AWA Coastal Radio Station’s officer-in-charge, Lou Curnock, received the message and immediately relayed it to RAAF Operations. They failed to act as they did not take McGrath’s warnings seriously.

Civilians Targeted

The Postmaster General’s Department (including the Post Office, Telegraph Office, Cable and the Postmaster’s Residence) were also bombed killing ten people. Telephone lines were cut whilst mail and telegrams were scattered. Four of the five postal vehicles were badly damaged but still usable.

Ruins of the Post Office after the first Japanese. Source: Australian War Memorial

Ruins of the Post Office after the first Japanese. Source: Australian War Memorial

Only eight ships were sunk whilst most were damaged by bombs or machine gun fire. The hospital ship Manunda was severely damaged.

Bombs destroyed both the military and civilian aerodromes.

Government House was also targeted as Japanese fighter pilots continually shot its flag until it was riddled with holes. The road to Government House was blocked with debris scattered by bombs.

Damage aboard the Hospital ship Manunda. Source: Australian War Memorial

Damage aboard the Hospital ship Manunda. Source: Australian War Memorial

Patients in Darwin’s only public hospital were ordered to lie under their beds after a nurse raised the alarm. (Bedridden patients had some assistance.) Four wards were machine-gunned whilst six heavy bombs caused extensive damage.

The Larrakeyah Army Barracks, a mere one hundred metres from the hospital, remained unscathed.

The Administrator Charles Abbott evacuated the remaining civilians who stubbornly remained behind, especially women, the wounded and old men. They were in shock and badly frightened, so they were prepared to leave immediately. Some feared a Japanese invasion.

The Neptunia blowing up during attack by Japanese. Source: Australian War Memorial

The Neptunia blowing up during attack by Japanese. Source: Australian War Memorial

Most women and children had already evacuated after Abbott gave an official order on 16 December 1941. The first group were board the Koolinda whilst troop carriers Zealandia, USS President Grant, Montoro and Koolama carried the rest. Others left by plane, road and train.

The first attack lasted roughly forty minutes.

RAAF Base Attacked

The second began an hour later and lasted only 25 minutes. Heavy bombers attacked the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) Base at Parap.

RAAF installations were seriously damaged. Source: Australian War Memorial

RAAF installations were seriously damaged. Source: Australian War Memorial

Order was restored within a few days and the military defences were eventually rebuilt and strengthened.

Rumours alleged the Australian Government suppressed information about the bombings to maintain national morale during the war. The actual number of casualties was reduced in reports to the southern states.

The Japanese also launched 33 raids on other northern Australian towns, including Broome, Katherine, Wyndam, Derby and Port Hedland, where military and civilian lives were lost. Darwin was raided a further 63 times. The last occurred on 12 November 1943.

Sources

Hall, Timothy, Darwin 1942: Australia’s Darkest Hour, Taylor-Type Publications (Australia) Pty Ltd, Sydney, 1980

Lockwood, Douglas, Australia Under Attack: The Bombing of Darwin-1942, New Holland Publishers (Australia) Pty Ltd, Sydney, 2005

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© 2009 Carolyn Cash

This article was originally published by Suite 101 on 5 March 2009.