75 years on, Darwin bombing remembered

Australia marks the 75th anniversary of the bombing of Darwin on Sunday but for generations the country was kept in the dark about the true dimensions of the Japanese attack.

At 9.58am on February 19, 1942, just four days after the supposedly impregnable British garrison in Singapore collapsed, Japanese bombers escorted by Zero fighters appeared in the skies above Darwin.

The first wave attacked the CBD and harbour infrastructure, and sank 11 ships either at anchor or berthed. A second wave came for the RAAF base.

By noon, 243 people – including 53 civilians – were dead, 400 wounded. The wharf was cut in two, 30 aircraft were destroyed and the post office levelled; postmaster Hurtle Bald, his wife Alice, daughter Iris and six post office workers died when a bomb hit their slit trench.

The dead were buried in temporary graves at Vestys Beach near the meatworks. Later, their bodies were transferred to the Adelaide River Cemetery where they lie today.

Tokyo had no intention of invading – Japanese army leaders knew they lacked the capacity – but nobody fully informed the Australian people.

There was a brief report in The Age on February 20, but Prime Minister John Curtin subsequently banned media reports on the Darwin bombing.

"Unauthorised reports of this nature cause needless anxiety, especially to wives and children who have been evacuated," Mr Curtin said in a memo to the Advisory War Council.

Despite political attempts to dampen the bombings' true dimensions, news and gossip that northern towns were under fire drove fears even deeper into battered hearts.

Military historian Tom Lewis' new book, The Empire Strikes South – Japan's Air War Against Northern Australia 1942-45,  reveals new information about the war.

He told Fairfax Media that contrary to enduring claims there had been 64 raids in the Northern Territory, his research of Japanese war records found 77, while 208 enemy combat flights were carried out in northern Australia.

"In wartime, some truths get lost, viewed through different prisms, changed or forgotten," he said.

Darwin, 19 February 1942. This bedroom suffered severely when hit by a bomb during the attack on Darwin Photo: Australian War Memorial

Darwin, 19 February 1942. This bedroom suffered severely when hit by a bomb during the attack on Darwin Photo: Australian War Memorial

"At least 186 Japanese airmen died when their aircraft were brought down. In many cases their bodies lie in remote sites across the vast bush and coastal waters of the north. Many of the wrecks have never been found.

"I was identifying a portion of a Dutch bomber just this week  – it was an enormous war and it's scattered all over."

The Darwin area took the brunt of the attacks, with the first in February and the last on November 12, 1943.

In between, there were scores of strikes on airstrips strung along the Stuart Highway, Batchelor, Adelaide River, Katherine and on Milingimbi in Arnhem Land.

Small  towns and missions along the West Australian coast – Broome (where many died when flying boats with women and children evacuated from Java were sitting ducks as the Zeroes arrived), Derby, Port Hedland, Onslow and Wyndham, sustained a handful of raids.

In the east, Townsville – a key Australian and US army staging base – was hit four times, and the airstrip on Horn Island in the Torres Strait was bombed once. Inexplicably, so, too, was a sugar farm near Mossman in far north Queensland.

Dr Lewis said that for years Australians hardly knew a thing about the Japanese attacks.

"If the government wanted to keep quiet about the bombings to avoid citizen panic, after the war people just wanted to forget and get on with their lives," he said.

"The first hint that something bigger had happened in Darwin was Douglas Lockwood's book Australia's Pearl Harbour: Darwin 1942 in 1965. We've been filling in the gaps since."

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Governor-General Sir Peter Cosgrove will attend a national commemoration service at the cenotaph on the Darwin Esplanade on Sunday. An air-raid siren will be sounded at 9.58am. 

As it happened: Japanese bombers attack Darwin

First published in The Age on February 20, 1942

TWO AIR RAIDS ON DARWIN

The first air raids to be launched on Australia since the war began were made on Darwin yesterday by Japanese planes. Some damage was done to service installations, and shipping in the harbor also suffered. Some casualties are reported, but no details are yet available.

In the first raid, which lasted an hour, 72 enemy bombers accompanied by fighters participated, and in the afternoon raid, 21 bombers took part. Four enemy aircraft were brought down.

This news was contained in a statement issued by the Prime Minister (Mr. Curtin) in Sydney last night. He said it would be a source of pride to the public to know that the armed forces and the civilians had, during the raids, comported themselves with the gallantry traditional of our stock.

Mr. Curtin added: "The Government regards the attacks as most grave and makes it clear that a severe blow has been struck on Australian soil. Information does not disclose details of casualties, but it must be obvious that we have suffered. We must face with fortitude the first onset and remember that whatever the future holds in store for us we are Australians and will fight grimly and victoriously."

The first announcement of the Japanese raid on Darwin came in a statement made by the Prime Minister, Mr. Curtin, from his bed in St. Vincent's Hospital.

Survivors from the RHS Manunda arrive at Sydney's Central Station on March 30, 1942. The previous month the hospital ship was damaged during the Japanese air raid on Darwin. Photo: Staff Photographer

Survivors from the RHS Manunda arrive at Sydney's Central Station on March 30, 1942. The previous month the hospital ship was damaged during the Japanese air raid on Darwin. Photo: Staff Photographer

Australia, he said, had now experienced the physical contact of war within Australia. "As head of the Australian Government," he proceeded, "I know there is no seed to say anything other than in these words, 'Total mobilisation is the Government's policy for Australia.' Until the time elapses when all the necessary machinery can be put into effect all Australians must voluntarily answer the Government's call for a complete giving of everything to the nation."

The Prime Minister added: "If rumors circulate take no notice of them, and deal sharply with any person who circulates them."

While the Advisory War Council was in session In Sydney the Minister of Information, Senator Ashley, apprised the Deputy Prime Minister, Mr. Forde, who was presiding, of the attack, and also that, the Postal department's radio station was closing down.

The SS Barossa burns after being bombed by the Japanese.  Photo: Fairfax Archives

The SS Barossa burns after being bombed by the Japanese. Photo: Fairfax Archives

At the conclusion of the War Council meeting Mr. Forde said he had conferred with the Chief of the General Staff, Lieut.-General Sturdee, on the steps required to be taken. The raid was further evidence of the gravity of the war position, and the urgent necessity to do everything possible to speed up the defence of Australia.

"Grimly and victoriously," he added, "Let us each vow that this blow at Darwin and the loss that it has involved and the suffering it has occasioned, shall gird our loins and nerve our steel. We, too, in every other city can face these assaults. Let it be remembered, that Darwin has been bombed, but it has not been conquered."