Japanese raids on Darwin – understanding our history from 1942

I was amazed to hear our Governor General say in her speech at the 70th anniversary of the 19 Feb 1942 Japanese air raid on Darwin; that “Seventy years ago the tranquillity of Darwin was rocked. The unthinkable was happening: our nation was under enemy attack.
Unthinkable ? – what rot.
Japan had been invading China here and there under various pretexts since 1931 – Australia had been at war in Europe for over two years – the Japanese raid on Pearl Harbour had happened nearly two and a half months previous starting the Pacific phase of WWII seriously – since then the Japanese had been rampaging through SE Asia sweeping all before them – the Australian base at Rabaul was occupied by Japanese forces on 23 January 1942 – how could an attack on one of our Northern outposts be “unthinkable”.
What was “unthinkable” was the state of our defenses.

14 thoughts on “Japanese raids on Darwin – understanding our history from 1942”

  1. The best comment on the “defences” was made when the troops were told to “take to the bush” ( for a last ditch guerilla type stand ).

    Never mind those who made it to Alice Springs, or even Adelaide… one infantryman made it to Melbourne. Presumably he felt Darwin was getting too hot.

  2. My grandfather was riding an RAAF motorcycle—either an Indian or Harley-Davidson, my aunt isn’t sure—with his rolled-up cape behind him; the cape saved his life after a bomb exploded behind him by taking shrapnel which would otherwise have pieced his back. According to my grandfather (according to my aunt, whom he told seventy years ago) the ill-prepared ground-defences lacked ammunition for the anti-aircraft guns, such was the foolish assumption that there’d be no attack.

  3. One of my aged uncles told me that the reason there were so many ships in Darwin at that time was that they had been a cyclone alert a week or two earlier – and that they had trouble getting unloaded/loaded – he said the local Waterside Union was controlled by communists. Anybody have references to this ? I read where over 20 waterside workers were killed in the raid which must have been a terrible blow, such a small port.

  4. Not all the events of that day deserve celebration according to this quote from the National Archives of Australia Fact Sheet No 195

    In the hours following the air raids on 19 February, believing that an invasion was imminent, Darwin’s population began to stream southwards, heading for Adelaide River and the train south. Approximately half Darwin’s civilian population ultimately fled. The panic in the town was repeated at the RAAF base, where servicemen deserted their stations in great numbers. Three days after the attack 278 servicemen were still missing. The exodus south (which later became known as ‘The Adelaide River stakes’), and the looting and disorder which subsequently occurred, led the government to hurriedly appoint a Commission of Inquiry led by Mr Justice Lowe which issued two reports, one on 27 March and the other on 9 April 1942.

  5. Can anyone confirm the claim I heard about the air defence, after spitfires were deployed to Darwin?

    This claim was that while the ground crews struggled with a lack of spares, trying to keep the dwindling number of planes flying, there was a full squadron of spitfires stationed at Point Cook, so senior officers could maintain their flying qualifications (and salaries).
    Note by Editor: I thought the only modern fighters in or near Darwin on the 19 Feb 1942 were a handful of US Army Air Force P40’s – which that morning were escorting a US bombing raid out to the north. Some of the P40’s accidentally got tangled with the incoming Zero’s after they had to turn back to Darwin due some local bad weather. I hope somebody can cast light on the Spitfire story – I doubt they would have been easy to maintain in such a remote location.

  6. Probably no Spitfires in Australia in 1941. Wikipedia indicates they weren’t sent there until after the Darwin raid. Other sources indicate that the RAAF which was in combat was using other aircraft — if Spitfires were available, they should have been in combat units. There was no need for Point Cook officers to be Spitfire qualified, as they can maintain flying status in any craft.


  7. I have also heard that there was a full squadron of Spitfires stationed at Point Cook, so that the senior officers there could maintain their flying qualifications (and salaries). In the view of the chaotic Australian Military planning at the time, I think that this story sounds not impossible if not realiatic. For long, Australia had resisted any form of strategic thinking-for-itself and had relied on England to do all its thinking for it. The collapse of Singapore ended all this.
    There were certainly some US Army Air Force P40′s at Darwin in 1942, and they did engage the incoming Zero’s. The story of Spitfires Point Cook is so outrageous as to be likely to be true but I would love to see documentation.

  8. The rumour about the Spitfires based at Point Cook during the Initial Darwin raids is a furphy that was beaten up.

    While four Australian squadrons were in fact flying Spitfires at the time, all of them were based in and around the European campaign.

    Following the initial raids on Darwin, there was an urgent call to relocate 2 of these Australian Squadrons back in Australia, and joined by an RAF Squadron, all three flying Spitfires.

    452 Squadron was withdrawn from operations in Europe for relocation to Australia, and reformed in January 43 based at Batchelor near Darwin, as part of 1 Wing.

    Also part of 1 Wing was 54 Squadron and 457 Squadron.

    1 Wing flew its first operational sorties in March of 1942 against one of the raids on Darwin.

    The first Squadron deployed to Darwin was 77 Squadron, flying the U.S. derived Curtiss P40 Kittyhawks, and they arrived late in 1942, along with 76 Squadron, also flying P40’s. These provided interim operational capability prior to the arrival of 1 Wing with the Spitfires, the tropicalised Spitfire Vc version.

    At no stage prior to the first raid on Darwin were there any operational Squadrons of Spitfires anywhere in Australia.

    (From early 1972 until late 1980, I served with both 76 and 77 Squadron, (flying Mirage III0’s) two Squadrons with a very proud history.


  9. With regard to what Tony from Oz says I’ve done an online search and can’t find any reportage of Spitfires before 1943
    That being said I don’t know what Tony’s evidence is for his statement ‘At no stage prior to the first raid on Darwin were there any operational Squadrons of Spitfires anywhere in Australia’
    There are so many stories about the Darwin attack, my great grandfather (A Torres Strait Pilot Captain) was rumoured to be there; years after I met a commander who said he was there and told me how my GG could swear
    But the family since says he was not there

    So there are so many different stories and that is what makes history – getting the documentated as opposed to the rumoured

  10. Please NOTE:
    I said “Can anyone confirm the claim I heard about the …AFTER spitfires were deployed to Darwin?”

    I knew that spitfires were not in Darwin for the first raids. Obviously, the only time this claim (or furphy) could be fact would be in 1943, when the raids were still going on.

    It seems from the response that it may well be untrue, but given the sorry level of preparation for war in the Pacific, it was worth asking.

    My father pointed out that the general public believed in the late thirties that it was only a matter of time before Japan launched an attack. However they expected it to be stopped by Fortress Singapore, hence the shock when it fell.

    It was noticeable that the experts were well aware that it could fall. Refer to The Colditz Story where the prisoners (to the amazement of the Germans) cheered the news of the fall, but they were only confirming the prediction of one prisoner who had worked on the defence plans pre-war.
    It was a black mark in British preparations. The RAF first campaigned against putting in naval guns as a defence, delaying those works, then sent out obsolete planes as adequate against the japanese threat. (The Buffalo worked well for the Finns, but they didn’t load it up with 28% extra weight like the RAF). If you ever want an example of courage, think of the RAF pilots who flew Vickers Vildebeestes (think; a lumbering Swordfish) against Zeros. 90%+ casualties.

    The RAN weren’t on speaking terms with the RAF, hence Admiral Phillips stupid decision to operate without air cover.
    One furphy that is untrue is that “the guns pointed the wrong way”. In fact they commanded the land approaches quite well. The problem was the British Treasury believed the RAF (who had well over twice the planes they said would be necessary) and drastically cut the allocation of high explosive shells, and armour piecing shells aren’t much use fired into the jungle.

  11. Excellent reference Book on this topic is “Australia’s Pearl Harbour : Darwin 1942” by Douglas Lockwood.

  12. My grandfather was in Darwin a little while after the first attacks and I remember him saying it took considerable time to get man power from the south to Darwin as well. The state of the Stuart Highway in those days was pretty ordinary – he was a mechanic.

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