Operation Bombing of Darwin

The 'Bombing of Darwin' in a Japanese air raid was the largest single attack ever mounted by a foreign power on Australia (19 February 1942).

On that day, 242 Japanese aircraft, in two separate raids, attacked the town, ships in Darwin’s harbour and the town’s two airfields in an attempt to prevent the Allies from using them as bases to contest the invasion of Timor and Java, in the Netherlands East Indies. Darwin was only lightly defended and the Japanese inflicted heavy losses on the local Allied forces at little cost to themselves. The urban areas of Darwin also suffered some damage from the raids and there were a number of civilian casualties. More than half of Darwin’s civilian population left the area permanently, before or immediately after the attack.

The two Japanese air raids were the first, and largest, of more than 100 air raids against Australia in 1942/43. The event happened just four days after the fall of Singapore, when a combined commonwealth force capitulated to the Japanese in the largest single surrender in British history.

In 1942, Darwin was the capital of the Northern Territory but nonetheless only a small town with a pre-war population of 5,800 persons and only a limited civil and military infrastructure. As a result of the town’s strategically significant location in northern Australia, the Royal Australian Navy and Royal Australian Air Force had constructed bases near the town in the 1930s and the early years of World War II.

As early as August 1941, Darwin had become a key element in the South Pacific air ferry route designed to avoid routes through the Japanese mandate in the central Pacific for US bomber reinforcement of the Philippine islands group. The first flight to use the route involved nine Boeing B-17D four-engined heavy bombers of the 14th Bombardment Squadron (Heavy), which departed the Hawaiian islands group on 5 September and passed through Darwin 10/12 September. By October 1941 plans were under way to position fuel and supplies, and two ships, including the US Army’s transport vessel Don Esteban, had been chartered and were actively engaged in that purpose when war came with the Japanese 'Air' attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941. By November 1941 Australia had agreed to allow the establishment of training bases, maintenance facilities, munitions storage and communications facilities, and also the improvement of airfields including those at Darwin, to meet the needs of the B-17 bombers in Australia.

After the outbreak of the Pacific War in December 1941, Darwin’s defences were strengthened. In line with plans developed before the war, several Australian army and RAAF units stationed in the town were sent to the Netherlands East Indies to strengthen the defences of the islands of Ambon and Timor. An improvised plan for support of the Philippines and the Dutch East Indies was completed in Washington on 20 December 1941 by the general staff of the US Army, and envisaged Darwin as the hub of trans-shipment efforts to supply those forces by landing supplies at Brisbane on the eastern coast of Queensland, moving them overland to Darwin, and finally delivering them air and blockade-running ships. In reality, transport to Darwin by sea was necessary as there was no practical overland route between Brisbane and Darwin for the delivery of large quantities of freight. Supplies and shipping intended both to build the Darwin base and to support the Allied force in Java and Philippine islands group were gathered in Darwin and the area round it, and during the two months before the air raids, all but 2,000 civilians were evacuated from the town. The Japanese submarines I-121 and I-123 laid mines off Darwin in January 1942.

By the middle of February 1942, Darwin had become an important Allied base for the defence of the Netherlands East Indies. The Japanese had captured Ambon, Borneo and Celebes islands between December 1941 and a time early in February 1942. Landings on Timor were scheduled for 20 February, and an invasion of Java was planned to take place shortly after this. In order to protect these landings from Allied interference, the Japanese military command decided to conduct a major air raid on Darwin. On 10 February a Japanese reconnaissance aeroplane overflew the town, and identified an aircraft carrier (actually the US seaplane tender Langley), five destroyers and 21 merchant vessels in Darwin’s harbour, as well as 30 aircraft on the town’s two airfields.

Among the ships in harbour were those which returned during the morning before the attack from the convoy, escorted by the US heavy cruiser Houston, involved in the failed effort to reinforce Timor. Houston had departed for Java but left Mauna Loa and Meigs, which had attempted to transport Australian troops to Timor, and the US Army transports Portmar and Tulagi, which had embarked a US infantry regiment at Darwin.

As noted above, despite the town’s strategic importance to the defence of Australia, Darwin was poorly defended. The Australian army’s anti-aircraft defences comprised 16 3.7-in (94-mm) and two 3-in (76.2-mm) anti-aircraft gins with which to counter aircraft flying at high altitude, and a small number of 0.303-in (7.7-mm) Lewis light machine guns for use against low-flying raiders. The crews of these guns had conducted little recent training as a result of ammunition shortages. The air forces stationed in and near the town comprised No. 12 Squadron, which was equipped with CAC Wirraway single-engined advanced trainers that had been pressed into service as fighters, and No. 13 Squadron which operated Lockheed Hudson twin-engined light bombers. Six Hudson aircraft (three from No. 2 Squadron and three from No. 13 Squadron, also arrived at Darwin on 19 February after having been evacuated from Timor. None of the six Wirraway aircraft at Darwin on the day of the raid was serviceable. There was no functional radar to provide early warning of air raids, and the town’s civil defences were dysfunctional. The Lowe Commission, which was appointed to investigate the raids shortly after they had taken place, was informed that the Australian military estimated that Darwin would have needed 36 heavy anti-aircraft guns and 250 fighters to defend it against a raid of the scale which occurred on 19 February. In addition to the Australian forces, 10 US Army Air Forces' Curtiss P-40 Warhawk single-engined fighters were passing through Darwin on their way to Java on the day of the attack. The P-40s' pilots were largely inexperienced in combat.

There was a total of 65 Allied warships and merchant vessels in Darwin harbour at the time of the raids. The warships included the US Navy destroyer Peary and seaplane tender William B. Preston, the Royal Australian Navy’s sloops Swan and Warrego, the corvettes Deloraine and Katoomba, the auxiliary minesweepers Gunbar and Tolga, the patrol boat Coongoola, the depot ship Platypus, the examination vessel Southern Cross, the lugger Mavie, and four boom-net ships. Several US and Australian troopships were in the harbour, together with a number of merchant vessels of varying sizes. Most of the ships were anchored near each other, making them an easy target for air attack. Moreover, no plans had been prepared for how the ships should respond to an air raid.[32]

In addition to the vessels in port, the US Army supply ships Don Isidro and Florence D, former Filipino vessels acquired as part of the South-West Pacific Area command’s permanent army fleet earlier in February, were near Bathurst island bound for the Philippine islands group with arms and supplies on the morning of the raid.

Darwin was attacked by aircraft flying from aircraft carriers and from captured land bases in the Netherlands East Indies. The main force involved in the raid was the 1st Carrier Air Fleet under the command of Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo. This force comprised the fleet carriers Akagi, Kaga, Hiryu and Soryu, and a powerful force of escorting surface warships. All four carriers had participated in the 'Ai' attack on Pearl Harbor at the start of the Pacific War. In addition to the carrierborne aircraft, 54 land-based bombers also struck Darwin in a high-level bombing raid nearly two hours after the first attack at 09.56. These land-based aircraft comprised 27 Mitsubishi G3M Nell twin-engined medium bombers flying from Ambon and 27 Mitsubishi G4M 'Betty' twin-engined medium bombers operating from Kendari on the island of Celebes.

The four Japanese aircraft carriers launched 188 aircraft on the morning of 19 February to attack ships and port facilities at Darwin. The aircraft comprised 81 Nakajima B5N 'Kate' single-engined light bombers, 71 Aichi D3A 'Val' single-engined dive-bombers, and 36 Mitsubishi A6M Reisen 'Zero' single-engined escorting fighters. While the B5N was a purpose-built torpedo bomber, it could carry up to 1,764 lb (800 kg) of bombs and there is no evidence of torpedoes being used on this occasion; the D3A could carry up to 1,133 lb (514 kg) of bombs. All of the aircraft had been launched by 08.45 under the command of Commander Mitsuo Fuchida, who had also commanded the first wave of attackers during the raid on Pearl Harbor.

On their way to Darwin, Zero fighters shot down a US Navy Consolidated PBY Catalina twin-engined flying boat and strafed a USAAF Douglas C-47 Skytrain twin-engined transport aeroplane on the ground near Melville island. At 09.35 Father McGrath of the Sacred Heart mission on neighbouring Bathurst island, who was also an Australian coastwatcher, sent a message using a pedal[powered radio to the Amalgamated Wireless Postal Radio Station at Darwin that a large number of aircraft were flying overhead on a southerly course. The message was then relayed to the Royal Australian Air Force operations room at 09.37, but no general alarm was given until about 10.00 as the RAAF officers there wrongly judged that the aircraft which had been sighted were the 10 USAAF P-40 fighters returning to Darwin after reports of bad weather forced them to abort a flight to Java via Kupang on West Timor. As a result, the air raid sirens at Darwin were not sounded before the raid.

Flying escort in an A6M fighter, Petty Officer Yoshikazu Nagahama was separated from his squadron while he was attacking the PBY flying boat and arrived over the city alone ahead of the attack force, which was making a turn to attack from the south. He engaged five USAAF P-40 Warhawk fighters and shot down four of them.

The Japanese raid began to arrive over Darwin at 09.58. Gunbar became the first ship to be attacked when she was strafed by several A6M fighters, and it was at at about this time that the town’s air raid sirens were belatedly sounded. The Japanese bombers then conducted dive-bombing and level bombing attacks on the ships in Darwin harbour. These attacks lasted for 30 minutes, and resulted in the sinking of three warships and six merchant vessels, and damage to another 10 ships. The ships sunk were the Peary, Mavie, Meigs, Neptuna that exploded while docked at Darwin’s main wharf, [er]Zealandia, Mauna Loa and British Motorist. Both badly damaged, the oil tanker Karalee and the coal storage hulk Kelat sank later. At least 21 labourers working on the wharf were killed when it was bombed.

All but one of the Warhawk fighters of Major Floyd Pell’s 33rd Pursuit Squadron were shot down or destroyed on the ground at RAAF Darwin. The Japanese aircraft bombed and strafed the base and civil airfield, as well as the town’s army barracks and oil store, all of which were seriously damaged.

The bombers began to leave the Darwin area at about 10.10, and on their way back to the carriers, their crews noted two Philippine-registered freighters lying just outside the port. These were Florence D and Don Isidro, and this information contributed to planning for the second raid, which that afternoon sank both vessels.

The Japanese losses may have been as few as five aircraft and three crew members, and another 34 Japanese aircraft landed safely with battle damage.[49] Warrant Officer Katsuyoshi Tsuru and First Petty Officer (1st class) Takezo Uchikado were killed when their D3A dive-bomber crashed near RAAF Darwin, and Petty Officer Hajime Toyoshima was taken prisoner by men of the Snake Bay Patrol after crashlanding his damaged A6M on Melville island. Those who ditched near the Japanese fleet and were rescued included Flyer 1st Class Yoshio Egawa and the D3A crew of Flyer 1st Class Takeshi Yamada and Flyer 1st Class Kinji Funazaki. Only in 2013 was there found a reference B5N torpedo bomber suffering wheel damage and both members of its crew being rescued after ditching by the destroyer Tanikaze.

Allied ground fire was relatively intense and may have claimed all but two of the Japanese aircraft lost. Only one of the P-40 pilots remained airborne throughout the first attack. This was 1st Lieutenant Robert Oestreicher, who has also been credited by US and Japanese sources with one D3A shot down and one damaged. Toyoshima’s A6M is considered to have been brought down by small arms fire from Sappers Tom Lamb and Len O’Shea of the 19th Battalion. Most believe that Tsuru and Uchikado’s D3A was brought down by ground fire, possibly from the major Australian army camp at Winnellie. Egawa reported that the damage to his A6M resulted from hitting a tree at Darwin.

The second Japanese wave, comprising 54 land-based medium bombers (27 G3M and 27 G4M aircraft) arrived over Darwin just before 12.00. The town’s air raid sirens had been sounded at 11.58 when the bombers were first sighted. The Japanese force separated into two groups flying at 18,045 ft (5500 m), and while one of these formations attacked RAAF Darwin from the south-west the other approached from the north-east. The two formations arrived over the base at the same time, and dropped their bombs simultaneously. The Japanese bombers then turned, and made a second attack on the base. As a result of defective fuses, the Australian heavy anti-aircraft gunners were unable to shoot down or damage any of the high-flying Japanese aircraft, which departed the Darwin area at about 12.20.

This raid inflicted extensive damage on the RAAF base, though casualties were light. Of the RAAF aircraft at the base, six Hudson light bombers were destroyed and another Hudson and a Wirraway were badly damaged. Two American P-40 fighters and one Consolidated B-24 Liberator four-engined heavy bomber were also destroyed. Six RAAF personnel were killed.

The Japanese carrier force launched a small number of D3A dive-bombers during the afternoon of 19 February to attack the Florence D and Don Isidro. It was the latter that was the first of the two to be attacked, and was rapidly sunk 25 miles (40 km) to the north of Melville island. Eleven of her 84-strong crew were killed. The dive-bombers also attacked Florence D and sank her off Bathurst island with the loss of four crewmen. All the survivors from Don Isidro were rescued by the corvette Warrnambool on 20 February. Some of Florence D's survivors landed on Bathurst and Melville islands while the remainder were rescued by Warrnambool on 23 February.[55] Among Florence D's survivors were the rescued crew of a US Navy PBY flying boat.

Admiral Halstead, strafed and with her plates damaged by near misses, was brought to the pier, where US Army volunteers along with survivors of the US and Filipino vessels helped unload her 14,000 drums of aviation fuel.

Of major military consequence was the loss of most of the cargo shipping available to support efforts in Java and the Philippine islands group, with Java being effectively sealed off from further surface shipments from Australia.

The air raids caused chaos in Darwin, where most essential services, including water and electricity, had been badly damaged or destroyed. Fears of an imminent invasion spread and there was a wave of refugees, as some of the town’s civilian population fled inland. There were reports of looting, with provost marshals being among the accused. According to official figures, 278 personnel of the RAAF’s North-Western Area Command were considered to have deserted as a result of the raids, although it has been argued that the 'desertions' were mostly the result of ambiguous orders given to RAAF ground staff after the attacks.

The Australian army also faced difficulty controlling some of its own troops from looting private property, including 'furniture, refrigerators, stoves, pianos, clothes [and] even children’s toys' in the general collapse of law and order in the chaos that followed the bombing. Many civilian refugees never returned, or did not return for many years, and in the post-war years some land they owned in Darwin had been expropriated by government bodies in their absence, made legal by the Darwin Lands Acquisition Act 1945.

The bombing of Darwin resulted in the destruction of seven of the 11 above-ground storage tanks, located on Stokes Hill, in raids on 19 February, 16 March and 16 June 1942. This led to the construction of underground oil storage tunnels in Darwin during 1943.

The number of people killed during 19 February raids is disputed. The Lowe Commission, which investigated them in March 1942, estimated 243 victims but, assuming a few were unidentified, concluded that it was 'satisfied that the number is approximately 250 and [doubted] whether any further investigation will result in ascertaining a more precise figure.'

Some researchers and government officials have averred that there were between 250 and 262 fatalities. However, a plaque unveiled in Darwin in 2001 gave the total as 292. By contrast, there is less dispute over the number of injured during the attacks. The Lowe Commission estimated 'between 300 and 400' persons were wounded, though other estimates put the total at more than 400, or 311, or between 250 and 320.

The Japanese raid was unlike the 'Ai' attack on Pearl Harbor inasmuch as it was launched against a nation that had already declared war on Japan (on 8 December 1941). It was similar in that it was a successful surprise air attack on a naval target that came as a great shock to the attacked nation. While the number of bombs dropped on Darwin (681 bombs weighing 251,545 lb ]114100 kg] by 205 bombers) exceeded that of the bombs dropped on Pearl Harbor (457 bombs [including 40 torpedoes] weighing 294,450 lb [133560 kg) by 273, the loss of life was much greater at Pearl Harbor (more than 2,400 people) than at Darwin (236 people) as a result of the presence of capital ships and the catastrophic loss of a single battleship, Arizona, and her 1,177 men.

A frequently repeated myth is that the Australian government downplayed the damage inflicted by the bombing raids on Darwin. However, the newspapers of the day disprove this claim. On the day of the attack the prime minister is quoted on the front pages of most newspapers as saying that 'Damage to property was considerable…but reports so far to hand do not give precise particulars about the loss of life…The Government regards the attacks as most grave, and makes it quite clear that a severe blow has been struck on Australian soil.'

After the 19 February 1942 Japanese raid, the Northern Territory and parts of Western Australia’s northern region were bombed about 100 times between 4 March 1942 and 12 November 1943. One of the heaviest such attacks took place on 16 June 1942, when a Japanese force set fire to the oil fuel tanks around the harbour and inflicted severe damage to the vacant banks, stores and railway yards. The Allied navies largely abandoned the naval base at Darwin after the initial 19 February attack, dispersing most of their forces to Brisbane, Fremantle and a number of smaller ports. Conversely, Allied air commanders launched a build-up in the Darwin area, building more airfields and deploying many squadrons.

The aircraft carriers Akagi, Kaga, Hiryu and Soryu involved in the 'Bombing of Darwin' were later sunk during the 'Battle of Midway' in June 1942.