"We had a couple of false alarms of air raids during January, particularly in the middle of the night. I remember being in the office working, and one of the other persons there said to me, “God, can you hear those aircraft?” and I said, “Yeah," and he said, “It sounds like a heck of a lot of them," and I said “Oh, you beauty.” You know, “Perhaps the Americans are reinforcing us up here.” So, we went out on to the front of the office, and stood looking up into the sky, and we saw this formation of aircraft coming over. I counted nine formations of five, before I started to see what appeared to be the sun glinting on little silver darts, dropping out of the bottom of the aircraft. And it was at that stage I realised, “My God, they're not ours!” Within seconds, all hell broke loose."

- Les Penhall, Telegraph Messenger

At about 10am, 19th of February 1942, mainland Australia came under attack for the first time since colonisation when the Japanese forces led by Captain Mitsuo Fuchida bombed Darwin. Cleverly, Fuchida led his forces inland, about 40 kilometres from the Northern Territory capital before turning west on the approach to Darwin waterfront. From the waterfront, most observers assumed that as the planes were approaching from inland, they had to be friendly.

The Warning

Of course, Darwin had been warned of the incoming armada. John McGrath, a missionary based offshore on Bathurst Island radioed earlier in the day, stating "huge flight of planes passed overhead bound Darwin", but was ignored as the message couldn't be confirmed. The confirmation was never transmitted as McGrath was hiding in a trench while Bathurst Island was attacked.

The First Wave

The target of the first raid was not Darwin itself, but the harbour, packed with 47 ships defending the waterway between Timor and the Australian mainland. The first bombs dropped hit the wharf, killing 21 wharfingers and rupturing the oil supply pipelines that ran along the dock. The oil was already on fire when the air raid sirens began to drone.

The first two ships hit were Australian merchant ships, Neptuna and Barossa, moored at the wharf, followed by the tanker British Motorist, its cargo blazing across the harbour. Another cargo ship, Zealandia was hit. The hospital ship Manunda suffered a near miss which punctured the hull, followed by a direct hit that dropped through several decks before exploding. The hospital ship was repeatedly strafed. Twelve aboard were killed.

The American destroyer USS Peary was incredibly unlucky. The Peary was part of an aborted convoy to Timor, and had returned to Darwin earlier that morning to refuel after briefly hunting for Japanese submarines. In the meantime, the rest of the convoy had departed. It was the most visible war ship in the harbour, at anchor for only an hour before the air raid began. Aboard the Peary, the order was given to raise the anchor and to get under way to head for open sea, so that at very least the ship would have room to manoeuvre, and thus be a slightly more difficult target. The Peary was barely moving when the first of five bombs hit her. The first hit near the stern disabling the ship. The fourth bomb caused an explosion in the ammunition magazines and she began to sink, bow first. Les Penhall wrote,

"I could see that the USS Peary had been hit and she was sinking on the far side of the harbour. And I do have, like, a vivid recollection of her sinking and the anti-aircraft gun that was on the stern was still firing when it went under the water. The whole harbour was aflame, so the people that were being picked up were severely burnt, er, and covered in oil, of course. And it was difficult, at times, for people to try and identify them."
91 of the Peary's men were killed. There were only 52 survivors. It was the event which caused the biggest single loss of life on that day.

The Second Wave

Within 40 minutes the first wave was over. During the subsequent hour, the Royal Australian Air Force base at Parap was bombed from high altitude.

Two Australian bombers bound for Java had left the base earlier in the day, escorted by ten Kittyhawk from the US Army Airforce 33 Squadron. Although 24 Hudson bombers remained, they were unsuitable for aerial combat. 19 Wirraway fighters had recently returned from combat near Rabaul and had been so badly beaten, they were grounded. The base was virtually undefended.

A short time after take off, the airborne Kittyhawks were ordered to return because of appalling weather over Timor. Five planes were ordered to stay aloft to provide cover whilst the other five landed. The first five Kittyhawks were landing as the Japanese attacked. Only one of the ten Kittyhawks and their pilots survived the attack.

The Result

In the hours following the raids, Darwin's population fled towards Adelaide River and the train south with a strong conviction that a widespread invasion was imminent. The panic spread to the RAAF bases where 278 servicemen deserted. Organised looting and general disorder followed. Rather than being remembered for the heroism of those defending Darwin or rescuing survivors from the burning harbour, it is this cowardly flight south that is etched in Australian popular memory.

Contrary to popular sentiment, the Japanese had no plans of taking the Australian mainland, but had hit Darwin to render it useless as an Allied base to defend against the Japanese invasion of Timor. 8 days after the raid, Australian Prime Minister John Curtin announced that "the results of the raid were not such as to give any satisfaction to the enemy" and that between 17 and 35 had been killed.

In total, the two raids killed at least 243 people and between 300 and 400 were wounded. At least twenty aircraft were destroyed, 8 ships in the harbour were sunk, and almost all of the civilian and military facilities in Darwin were destroyed. Air attacks on Darwin continued until November 1943. Darwin was bombed 64 times. During the war other towns in northern Australia were also the target of Japanese air attack, with bombs being dropped on Townsville, Katherine, Wyndham, Derby, Broome and Port Hedland.


Bibliography

  • Les Penhall quote from http://www.abc.net.au/dimensions/dimensions_in_time/Transcripts/s485130.htm
  • http://www.naa.gov.au/fsheets/fs195.html
  • http://www.nt.gov.au/frontline/html/textonly/bombing.htm
  • Alcorta, F.X. Australia's Frontline: The Northern Territory's War. Allen and Unwin, North Sydney, 1991
  • Powell, A. The Shadow's Edge. Melbourne University Press. Carlton, 1988.
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