On this day: Darwin under attack

By Aaron Smith 8 November 2013
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The largest raid ever mounted on the nation, on 19 February 1942, forced Australia to reconsider its place in the world.

ON 19 FEBRUARY 1942, shortly before 10am, Australia faced the first World War II attack on home soil. It shook the nation, changing the perception of a war, which was until then happening in distant lands. The attack would also force Australians to challenge their view of the inchoate nation and its place in the wider world.

To this day, the bombing of Darwin remains the largest foreign attack mounted on Australia – and though there were fewer casualties, more bombs were dropped than in the similar surprise attack on Pearl Harbour 10 weeks earlier on 7 December 1941.

The Japanese mounted two waves of attack on Darwin, using 188 aircraft. The attacks were expertly planned and executed by Commander Mitsuo Fuchida, who also led the attack on the US bases at Pearl Harbour.

The first air raid lasted 40 minutes, and was followed by a second, higher-altitude attack, in which some 600 bombs were dropped on the Royal Australian Air Force base, lasting 25 minutes.

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Darwin bombing sends national morale plummeting

According to official reports, the attacks left 243 people dead and 300-400 wounded; they destroyed 20 military aircraft as well as much of Darwin’s civil and military facilities; and they sunk eight ships at anchor in the harbour. Unofficial reports argue the true number killed may have been more than 1000.

Immediately after the attack the Australian Government announced that only 17 people had been killed in an attempt to maintain national morale.

The Melbourne Argus reported parts of a speech made that evening by the then Prime Minister John Curtin, who said:

“A severe blow has been struck in this first battle on Australian soil. It will be a source of pride to the public to know that the armed forces and civilians conducted themselves with the gallantry that was traditional in people of British stock.

“We must face with fortitude the first onslaught and remember that whatever the future holds in store for us we are Australians and will fight grimly and victoriously… Darwin has been bombed, but it has not been conquered.”

Dawning horror of the Darwin bombing

Shortly before the attack, when the droning of aircraft was first heard, some people thought the planes were American – and even when the first Japanese aircraft arrived, most people assumed it was some sort of RAAF training exercise. It wasn’t until the bombs started to drop that people started to realise the full horror of what was happening.

In the aftermath, fear and uncertainty reigned and many Australians thought it was a precursor to an invasion. Prime Minister Curtin said gravely, “Let us each vow that this blow at Darwin and the loss it has involved and the suffering it has occasioned will have the effect of making us gird up our loins and nerve our steel. We, too, in every other city can face these assaults.”

Victoria’s then Premier Don Dunstan said, “The enemy had crossed the threshold of our native land. Our testing time is at hand, and people must face things in the light of reality. There is no room for conjecture or complacency.”

In reality though, the Japanese were, at that time, preparing to invade Timor and hoped the air raid on Darwin would hinder an Allied counter-offensive, while also damaging Australian morale.

Darwin was bombed by the Japanese another 63 times in the period up until November 1943. Other towns in northern Australia were also the targeted, including Townsville, Katherine, Wyndham, Derby, Broome and Port Hedland.