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The bombing of Darwin

New Year of 1942 was full of menace for Australians. For the first and indeed the only time in our history, we faced an external threat to our very existence as a nation. When the threat became a reality on 19 February in the form of two savage attacks by Japanese bombers on Darwin, our defences were caught offguard and ill-prepared.
BY WARREN MANN

HEN JAPAN entered the Second World War, its war machine was substantial, having been built up over many years of mutual tension with the United States and honed by several years of undeclared war with China. On the morning of Sunday 7 December 1941 (Monday 8 December our time), without any declaration of war or other warning, Japan launched a devastating naval air attack on the principal base of the US Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor.

ABOVE: First air-raid on Australia, 19 February 1942, drawing by Roy Hodgkinson, 1942. Australian War Memorial, ID No ART22831. This work was drawn from a small set of photographs taken by an able seaman on a corvette on the day that the Japanese first bombed Darwin; the SS Neptuna was bombed whilst berthed at the Darwin Jetty. Loaded with mixed cargo and depth charges, it caught alight and eventually blew up. Directly in front of the explosion, the tiny Vigilant can be seen doing rescue work. To the right in the background is the floating dock holding the SS Katoomba which escaped the bombing. In the foreground is the SS Zealandia which was dive-bombed and eventually foundered.

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Australian 2/21st Battalion (Gull Force); Java and then Bali were invaded. Finally, on 15 February, the impregnable fortress of Singapore succumbed to the overwhelming force of a Japanese land, air and sea attack, with the loss of most of the Australian 8th Division, almost a quarter of the countrys front-line army, killed or taken prisoner. The longheld faith of Australians in the support of Britain and the invincibility of the Royal Navy had been crushed and we were suddenly left dependant on the Americans and on our own efforts. Australians everywhere were deeply worried, but none more so than the citizens of Darwin, from which most of the women and children had left by 15 February. The remaining population of about 2000 men and 67 Notes on aerial warfare over Port Darwin, 4th April 1942, painting by Roy Hodgkinson, 1942, women was little more than Australian War Memorial, ID No ART29708. US Air Corps, No. 5 Fighter Command of 49 Group, 9 a military encampment. Squadron, went up to meet a force of Japanese bombers and Zero fighters. The 14th Australian AntiMeanwhile, with pitifully Aircraft Battery fired its 3.7 inch guns on a formation of seven Mitsubishi Betty bombers, hitting the inadequate resources, the extreme left aircraft, destroying it completely. A flight of Curtiss P-40E Kittyhawks, led by Captain Andrew Reynolds of the US Air Corps, destroyed four bombers, at the same time fighting off a Zero RAAF was striking back. In December, Lockheed fighter, which was hit by Reynolds. Hudson bombers had been deployed to forward Kong and Wake Island were taken Almost simultaneously, Japanese positions on Timor, and Manila was besieged. Strategic forces also challenged the British Ambon and Namlea, from which locations on all fronts were falling. Empire. Moving incredibly quickly, they conducted harassing raids on At home, orders were issued a week they overwhelmed territories and Japanese positions and shipping before Christmas for the immediate nations throughout south-east Asia with some success, although evacuation of most of the 2000 or and in the Pacific Ocean in what suffering severe losses in the so women and children in what was most Australians could only see process. Damaged aircraft had to quickly seen as Australias frontier as a pincer movement directed be returned to Darwin for service. town, Darwin. at this country. Less than a week In ten weeks, 17 Hudsons were after Pearl Harbor, the Royal Navy lost with most of their crews, The new year brought nothing was rendered largely ineffective and a number of personnel were to lighten the gloom. January was in the Pacific when the only two killed on the ground. Most of the studded with catastrophes. Manila ground staff were withdrawn, but capital ships in the Far East Fleet, surrendered. Oilfields in the Dutch the advancing Japanese took some the battleship Prince of Wales and colonies of Borneo and the Celebes prisoners and destroyed aircraft on the battle cruiser Repulse, were were captured. Kuala Lumpur fell, the ground. Shortly after, 300 or so sunk in aircraft attacks off the coast bringing the Malaya campaign Australian POWs were massacred of Malaya. In the three weeks or to a close. British North Borneo in a two-week period. Very little so before the end of 1941, Japan was over-run. Rabaul surrendered. of this action was reported in the had occupied Siam (Thailand) Bougainville and Ambon were press, though rumour-mongers were and invaded Burma, Malaya, the invaded. Early in February, Ambon effective in creating disquiet. Philippines and Borneo. Hong surrendered with the loss of the
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than took part in the first assault on Pearl Harbor and was led by the same officer, Mitzuo Fuchida, who had commanded the Pearl Harbor attack force. A US Catalina flying boat on anti-submarine patrol was attacked near Bathurst Island by a detachment of nine highflying Zeros from the very much larger Japanese flight and, damaged, was forced to crash-land in the sea without being able to warn Darwin of the approaching force. Coastwatcher posts on the northern tip of Melville Island and on the south-east corner of Bathurst Island had both observed the Japanese Members of an RAAF Spitfire squadron, alerted by a radar warning, race to their planes to take aircraft approaching Darwin. off on an interception flight against Japanese raiders, Darwin, 24 March 1943. Australian War The former, manned by an Memorial, ID No 014491 Australian naval officer, made the first sighting but did not carriers, launched a total of 188 It was in this context that on report it, apparently because he did Thursday 19 February Australians in aircraft of three different types. The not have the appropriate encryption their own land came under attack force, comprising Kate horizontal code. The other, a Catholic priest, for the first time. On that fateful bombers, Val dive-bombers and Fr John McGrath, had no such day, the Japanese naval force which Zero fighters, totalled five more had struck at the Americans in Pearl Harbor some ten weeks earlier mounted, without warning, the first of two massive air raids on Darwin which together inflicted what is still the worst disaster ever on Australian soil. Though only the first of a total of 64 raids on the town and its surrounds between then and November 1943, they were much the most intensive and destructive, wrecking many of the principal facilities of the town. The wet season was at its height, but the morning had dawned clear and fine. Around dawn, at a prearranged point among the islands to the east of Timor, about 350 km north-west of Darwin, the First Zero Japanese fighter brought down on Australian mainland, drawing by Roy Hodgkinson, Japanese First Air Fleet led 1942. Australian War Memorial, ID No ART21687. This aircraft was not actually a Zero as it is referred to by Vice-Admiral Nagumo, by the artist but instead a Val carrier-based dive bomber. Two of these aircraft were shot down essentially the same force on February 19, one on the mainland and one in Darwin Harbour. The pilot of this aircraft was that had attacked Pearl buried in two humble graves, as his remains were found on two consecutive days. Roughly chopped saplings were placed around the graves and the epitaph which reads Unknown Japanese Airman Harbor but without two Died 19.2.42. was punched on an old jam tin. of the original six aircraft Australian Heritage 51

scruples he promptly and tersely radioed the civilian aeradio station in Darwin reporting: Big flight of planes passed over going south. Very high. The station immediately (at 9.37 am) telephoned the message to RAAF Operations. There the responsible officers decided that the message related to a flight of ten US P40 Kittyhawk fighters which had been en route for West Timor until recalled to Darwin because of an adverse weather report. However, a simple calculation would have shown them that this small flight must have passed well south of Bathurst Island headed in an easterly direction and out of sight for Fr McGrath. Nevertheless, the RAAF, which was responsible for initiating an air-raid alert, decided not to do so and Darwin remained blissfully unaware of the impending tragedy that was to hit it 20 minutes or so later at 9.58 am. As the US Kittyhawks approached Darwin from the west, five of them were instructed to land while the others, led by an experienced pilot,

Lt. Robert Oestreicher, maintained a protective patrol overhead. Meanwhile, Fuchida led his formation in a wide circuit around to the east of Darwin and mounted his attack from that unexpected quarter. The nine Zeros that had attacked the Catalina, however, having become detached from the main formation, proceeded separately directly to Darwin and actually arrived there first. As they approached from the north, flying very high, they saw Oestreichers flight and immediately dived to attack. Oestreicher saw them coming, radioed a shouted warning and advised retreating to clouds nearby. However, in a short sharp engagement, two of the US pilots were shot down and killed, one was wounded but managed to land at the RAAF base and escape from the aircraft before it was strafed and burned. The fourth plane was also shot down, with the pilot parachuting into the harbour and reaching land some hours later. Oestreicher was left alone to face

the whole might of the Japanese attack force, for the moment concealed in clouds south of Darwin. The five Kittyhawks on the ground all took off again but were quickly dispatched by circling Zeros though three of the pilots managed to survive. Oestreicher meanwhile stayed among the clouds for about half an hour until he saw two Val dive-bombers about to attack an airfield; intercepting them, he succeeded in shooting both down, the first confirmed aerial victories over Australia. He managed to land safely and survived, though his aircraft was destroyed on the ground. That small success was a rarity on the day. Another was the indefatigable work of the Australian Army anti-aircraft gunners. At the time of the raid, there were four heavy 3.7-inch guns set up at strategic locations in and around Darwin and two lighter 3-inch guns several kilometres south-east of the town, all inadequately defended against dive-bombing and strafing

A few men standing outside what is left of the post office, 19 February 1942. Marylyn Nichols Collection, Northern Territory Library, Photo No
PH0384/0055.

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Darwin Harbour, SS Barossa and MV Neptuna burning with RAN oil lighter on right, in the area of Stokes Hill Wharf after bombing, 19 February 1942. Ron Carter Collection, Northern Territory Library, Photo No PH0469/0005.

attacks by a few Lewis guns WWI light machine guns jury-rigged for use against aircraft. Working furiously during the two raids, the Army gunners accounted for three and perhaps four, all from the first raid, even though the heavy guns had no success as they had not been properly calibrated. US and Australian warships under attack in the harbour offered the only other effective resistance and probably dispatched one or two more of the attackers, though at great cost to themselves. The first raid was 40 minutes or so of concentrated destruction of public buildings in the town and shipping in the harbour, then the aircraft returned to their carriers. However, there was little let-up. At midday, two flights of heavy bombers from recently captured bases in Ambon and the Celebes, each of 27 aircraft armed with more bombs and heavier machine guns and cannons than the carrier-based bombers used in the first strike, made the second attack for the

day. Approaching from opposite directions, they confined their 20 minutes of patterned bombing to the RAAF airfield, wrecking buildings, parked aircraft, workshops and devastating runways and parking areas. Though the warning system had worked a little better, there was no effective defensive action. The official count of Australian and US dead on that terrible day was 243, with between 300 and 400 injured. In reality there is reason to believe that the actual number killed was more than 300, though the official figure for those injured was probably more accurate. A total of 26 Allied aircraft were destroyed, including all ten serviceable US P40 Kittyhawks, and a number of others were damaged. Eight ships of the 47 in Darwin Harbour that morning were sunk, including a destroyer, USS Peary, two transports, also US, two small RAN vessels and three cargo vessels, among them a British tanker. The worst casualties were suffered in the sinking of the Peary (91 killed) and the motor vessel

Neptunia, at the time unloading a cargo of depth charges and TNT, which was bombed and subsequently exploded, killing at least 45 and wrecking the main jetty. A number of other vessels were damaged, some severely, among them the hospital ship AHS Manunda and a US seaplane tender. Two more cargo vessels were destroyed between Darwin and Melville Island. At the time of those early raids, the RAAF had one flight of fighter aircraft in the Darwin area, equipped with 12 Wirraways, of which five, unserviceable, were held at Darwin for repairs while the others had been dispersed two days earlier to Batchelor, 100 or so kilometres south-west of Darwin. These aircraft, Australian-made as trainer aircraft, were no match for the Japanese Zeros in air combat and would undoubtedly all have been lost had they been in Darwin. The raids on Darwin were another severe blow to confidence, even though the government worked hard to keep the full extent of the Australian Heritage 53

Darwin waterfront aflame after Japanese bombing, 19 February 1942, taken from the hill overlooking the wharf. Marylyn Nichols Collection,
Northern Territory Library, Photo No PH0384/0042.

destruction and death a tightly guarded secret. It is, of course, only with hindsight that we know that the attacks on Darwin were not mounted as a prelude to an invasion of Australia but rather in support of Japans seizure of the Netherlands East Indies (Indonesia). Australian self-confidence took another blow as it became obvious that individual members of the public service, the defence services and the general public, some of them in quite senior and responsible positions, behaved less than admirably under the stress of the day. Paul Hasluck, later to be Governor-General, commented in 1955 when he was Minister for Territories, that 19 February was not an anniversary of national glory but one of national shame; Australians ran away because they did not know what else to do. The panic-stricken procession down the Stuart Highway was referred to wryly by those who stayed on to do their jobs as the Adelaide River Stakes. Looting was rife, only a very small proportion of which was with the
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justifiable objective of securing the means by which the war might be prosecuted more effectively. A Royal Commission was set up on 3 March 1942, chaired by Victorian judge, Mr Justice Lowe (later Sir Charles Lowe), to enquire into the circumstances of the debacle of 19 February. All evidence was taken in camera and the Commissioners Report, delivered in two parts on 27 March and 9 April, was classified as secret until October 1945. Nevertheless, it has been suggested that the inquiry was stage-managed to avoid embarrassing answers to the questions that such an enquiry could be expected to ask. Certainly, no knowledgeable witness was called who might have been able to explain why radar air-warning was not available on that day, nor why no structure for operational fighter control was in place. In particular, W/Cdr A George Pither, the RAAF Director of Radar, who had visited Darwin two or three weeks before the raids to arrange for the siting there of the first early-warning

radar unit to be deployed to an operational area, was not called to explain the lack of protection from radar warning. At that time, the use of radar to provide early warning of air attack was in its infancy. On 7 November 1941, the Australian War Cabinet had given the RAAF responsibility for operations concerning the use of radar to support Britain in its struggle with Germany and Italy and in the defence of Australia, and directed the CSIR to a program of research and development on equipment to that end. W/Cdr Pither, an experienced signals officer who had had some radar training in Britain, had been appointed to take charge of radar operations. Among his urgent problems was the need for technical personnel to operate and maintain the equipment. He set up a radio school at Richmond, NSW, and induced the RAF to send an officer and four NCOs as instructors and some basic equipment. Arrangements for the basic training of officers and mechanics were

made with Sydney University and Melbourne Technical College (now RMIT University). A CSIR project to modify Army Shore Defence radar equipment to give early warning of air attack had not actually begun when the war with Japan broke out. Dr J H Piddington, the scientist in charge of it, and his team began a frenzied development effort that, in less than six days, produced an experimental unit that was tested successfully at Dover Heights in Sydney. Pither, impressed, placed an order for three pilot units for delivery to the RAAF by the end of January 1942. One unit was to be for experimentation, with the others to be installed at Darwin and Rabaul (in fact, Rabaul fell before that was possible and the set was installed at Port Moresby). The equipment for Darwin was delivered to the RAAF on 4 February. Some historians have blamed the RAAF technical officers for not

having the unit operating before the first bombing. In fact, the last consignment of necessary equipment did not arrive in Darwin until two days after the bombing and there were still considerable difficulties to be overcome before the first of these newly developed units could become fully operational. Two officers who were still on course at Richmond were selected to take charge of its installation, supported by four mechanics and eight operators who were also still finishing their courses. The radar set was air-freighted, with the aerial having to be cut into pieces that would fit through the door of the DC2 aircraft. The first load arrived at the chosen site, Dripstone Caves, just north of Darwin, on 9 February, with the third and final load, including critical aerial elements and another technical officer, getting there on 21 February. None of the officers or mechanics had even seen equipment of that type before, they were not provided with a manual from which

to work, nor, until the installation was substantially complete, were any CSIR specialists brought to Darwin to advise. Delays arose from problems with assembly, erection, tuning and calibration, compounded, it must be said, by a lack of understanding and support from the RAAF hierarchy in Darwin. These problems were resolved, largely by persistence and resourcefulness and some by a visit by Dr Piddington and a colleague, and the equipment was successfully in operation on 22 March. The Air Force bureaucratic doubters and sceptics of radar were forced to acknowledge its effectiveness when a flight of raiders was picked up 135 km away, fighters were scrambled and one enemy aircraft was shot down. From this point, the Japanese dominance of the skies over the north of Australia wound back. More radar units were installed

Destroyed and damaged buildings in the business centre of Darwin after the first Japanese air raid on 19 February 1942. The remains of Jollys Store, which was completely destroyed, can be seen in the foreground. The Bank of NSW is in the background and the Commonwealth Bank is the white building to the right. AWM Collection Record: P02759.009.

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31 Radar Station at Dripstone Caves, Darwin. This air-warning radar station, only the second in Australia to become operational, was on 22 March 1942 the first in Australia to provide early warning of Japanese air activity.

as they became available and by the end of 1942 there were five air-warning stations and a groundcontrolled interception unit protecting the Top End. A Fighter Sector was formed in Darwin on 24 February 1942 to process the information coming from these and coordinate the operational response to air raids. During those months, the USAF and RAAF fighter forces became stronger and more experienced and the Army anti-aircraft units overcame their problems. The effect on Japanese raiders was increasingly deadly. The last of 64 air raids took place on 11 November 1943. Various books have been written about the bombing of Darwin, especially about the raids on 19 February 1942; most have given inaccurate and misleading information on the lack of radar warning. Two new publications last year do little to set the record straight. The first, by Peter Grose, a compellingly readable and accurate reconstruction of the events and their consequences, makes very little mention of radar. Peter Ewers book is a carefully annotated review
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of the early wartime political and bureaucratic developments that led to Darwin being so vulnerable when Japan launched the attack. It gives more space to the early warnings, but perpetuates an error made more than 50 years ago in a publication commissioned by the government that the RAAF had radar equipment installed in Darwin but could not get it operating. The Royal Australian Air Force, with the support of the USAF, played a vital part in the successful defence of Australia against the Japanese in WWII. For various reasons, however, the role played by a major segment of the RAAF, ground radar, is largely unrecognised and little understood even within the service itself. One reason for this is that throughout the war and for some time afterwards the very existence of the radar unit was veiled in secrecy. Another factor was that radar had none of the glamour of the man in the cockpit. It was not a strike force, just young people, technically trained, doing shift work on small units, often in remote, uncomfortable and dangerous circumstances. Many within the wartime bureaucracy of

the RAAF, most of whom trained as pilots, either did not know about ground radar or did not believe it could work. However, radar has come to be recognised as the invention that won the war and changed the world. Better understood and supported at the time, it might have helped prevent or minimise the disaster that was the bombing of Darwin.

The Author Warren Mann was a radar technical officer in the RAAF during World War II. Further Reading
Bob Alford, Darwins Air War: 1942 1945. An Illustrated History, 1991; The Aviation Historical Society of the Northern Territory. Peter Ewer, Wounded Eagle: The bombing of Darwin and Australias air defence scandal, 2009; New Holland Publishers, Sydney. Peter Grose, An Awkward Truth: The Bombing of Darwin, February 1942, 2009; Allen & Unwin, Sydney. Colin MacKinnon, The Installation of 31 Radar Station, Darwin, 1942, 1993; privately circulated; edited and archived on www.radarreturns.net.au in May 2009.