Bombing of Darwin (February 1942)

Bombing of Darwin (February 1942)

Infobox Military Conflict
conflict=Air raids on Darwin, February 1942

caption= The explosion of the "Neptuna", carrying depth charges, and hit during the first Japanese air raid on Darwin, 19 February 1942. In the foreground is HMAS "Deloraine", which escaped damage.
partof=World War II, Pacific War
date=19 February 1942
place=Darwin, Australia
result=Decisive Japanese victory
flag|United States|1912
combatant2=flagicon|Japan Empire of Japan
commander1=nowrap|flagicon|Australia David V. J. Blake
commander2=flagicon|Japan|naval Chuichi Nagumo
strength1=30 planes
strength2=242 planes
casualties1=251 killed
23 planes destroyed
10 ships sunk
casualties2=one aircrew confirmed killed, several missing in action,
six airmen taken prisoner;
six Japanese aircraft confirmed destroyed,
four probably destroyed. [] |

The Japanese air raids on Darwin, Australia, on 19 February 1942 were the largest attacks ever mounted by a foreign power against Australia. They were also a significant action in the Pacific campaign of World War II and represented a major psychological blow to the Australian population, several weeks after hostilities with Japan had begun. The raids were the first of about 100 air raids against Australia during 1942–43.

This event is often called the "Pearl Harbor of Australia". Although it was a less significant target, [cite book
last =Lockwood
first =Douglas
authorlink =
coauthors =
title =Australia's Pearl Harbour. Darwin 1942.
publisher = Penguin Books
date = 1992 (reprint)
location = Melbourne
pages = Pages xiii and 5
url =
doi =
id = ISBN 10987654321
] a greater number of bombs were dropped on Darwin than were used in the attack on Pearl Harbor. As was the case at Pearl Harbor, the Australian town was unprepared, and although it came under attack from the air another 58 times in 1942 and 1943, the raids on 19 February were massive and devastating by comparison.

At the time, Darwin had a population of about 2,000 — the normal civilian population of about 5,000 had been reduced by evacuation. It was a strategically-placed naval port and airbase, and there were about 15,000 Allied soldiers in the area.

The forces

Most of the attacking planes came from the four aircraft carriers of the Imperial Japanese Navy's Carrier Division 1 ("Akagi" and "Kaga") and Carrier Division 2 ("Hiryū" and "Sōryū"). Land-based heavy bombers were also involved. The Japanese launched two waves of planes, comprising 242 bombers and fighters.Fact|date=February 2008

Darwin was poorly covered by anti-aircraft guns, there being only light automatic weapons and none of 20 mm or greater calibre [Tom Hall Darwin 1942 Australia's Darkest Hour, pages 104–105, Methuen 1980.] . The only operational Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) fighter squadrons were in Europe, North Africa or the Middle East. The only modern fighters based in Darwin were 11 P-40s from the US Army Air Force's 33rd Pursuit Squadron. There were a few lightly armed or obsolete training (five unserviceable Wirraways) and patrol (six Hudson) aircraft belonging to the RAAF. An experimental radar station was not yet operational.

The attacks

The first wave of 188 Japanese planes, led by naval Commander Mitsuo Fuchida took off at 8:45 a.m. At about 9:15 a.m., it was - although this is disputed by Robert Rayner in the book "Darwin Fortress" - spotted by an Australian Coastwatcher on Melville Island (Northern Territory), then by Father John McGrath, a Catholic priest conducting missionary work on Bathurst Island (Northern Territory). [Lockwood, op. cit., p. 23.] The latter would send the message, "An unusually large air formation bearing down on us from the northwest." Darwin received both warnings at least twice by radio, no later than 9:37 a.m. However 11 US P-40E Kittyhawk fighters and an LB-30 Liberator had just departed Darwin and the Australian duty officer assumed this was the same formation. The warnings were not acted upon, so as at Pearl Harbor just months earlier on December 7, Darwin's final chance to make last-minute preparations for the impending raid slipped away.

A USN Catalina aircraft near Bathurst Island was pounced upon by nine of the Zero fighters, and the plane was set on fire although it defended itself. Its pilot Lieutenant Tom Moorer managed to crash land upon the sea and the crew were picked up by a passing freighter, the "Florence D". However, it was later attacked and sunk, although Moorer and most of his crew survived to be later picked up on land. Another nearby ship, the "Don Isidro", was also sunk.

Fuchida later wrote of the raid: [cite web |url= |title=Japanese Air Raids on Darwin cites this to the book "Midway: The Battle that Doomed Japan", referenced below.]

In fact, the Japanese encountered five of the USAAF P-40s, which had recently returned from an aborted mission over Timor and were still carrying drop tanks — with both numbers and surprise on their side, Japanese fighters shot down all of the US planes, except one piloted by Lt Robert Ostreicher.

A total of 81 Nakajima B5N "Kate" torpedo bombers then attacked shipping — at least 45 vessels — in the harbour, while 71 Aichi D3A "Val" dive-bombers, escorted by 36 Mitsubishi A6M Zero fighter planes attacked Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) bases, civil airfields, and a hospital. Ostreicher shot down two Vals, and managed to survive the attack, but no Allied planes successfully took off, and all were destroyed or rendered unable to fly after the first attack. By about 10:40 a.m. the first wave of Japanese planes had left the area.

Just before midday, there was a high altitude attack by land-based bombers, concentrated on the Darwin RAAF Airfield: 27 Mitsubishi G3M "Nell" bombers flew from Ambon and 27 Mitsubishi G4M "Betty" from Kendari, Sulawesi. This second raid lasted for 20–25 minutes.

In spite of Fuchida's assessment of the anti-aircraft fire as "largely ineffectual" [Lockwood, op. cit., p. 84.] , the lack of armour and self-sealing fuel tanks in many Japanese planes, as well as the prolonged low-level strafing runs carried out, made pilots and planes exceptionally vulnerable to ground fire. Most Australian sources say that four Japanese planes were destroyed in Australian airspace.

Casualties, damage and consequences

According to official figures, 243 civilians and military personnel were killed on 19 February, most of them on the ships which were sunk. [Tom Lewis (2003). "A War at Home: A comprehensive guide to the first Japanese attacks on Darwin". Tall Stories, Darwin. pp. 63–71.] Over 400 people were wounded and 200 of these were seriously injured.

Eight ships were sunk in Darwin Harbour:
*, a United States Navy destroyer
*, a large US Army troop transport ship
*Two Australian passenger ships, being used as merchant troop transports:
*, a Royal Australian Navy patrol boat
*, a 5,436-ton US merchant freighter ["Mauna Loa" was formerly known as the "West Conob", a steel hulled, single propellor ship, built in 1919 at San Pedro, California and owned by the Matson Navigation Line. ( [ Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships, "West Conob"] Access date: September 14, 2007.)]
*"British Motorist", a UK-registered merchant refuelling oiler ["British Motorist" was 145 m (440 ft) in length. It was refuelling the "Peary" at the time of the attack. ( [ Darwin Dive Centre, 2007, "WWII Wrecks"] Access date: September 14, 2007.) ]
*"Kelat", a 1,849-ton coal storage hulk ["Kelat" was built in Stockton, England in 1881, as an iron-hulled sailing ship. Formerly the Norwegian merchant ship SV "Hovding". ( [ NT Department of Natural Resources, Environment and the Arts, 2007, "Wreck of the Kelat"] . Access date: September 14, 2007. ] Among the ships damaged but not destroyed was a hospital ship, AHS "Manunda". [cite book | last = Smith | first = A.E. | title = Three Minutes of Time — the torpedoing of the Australian Hospital Ship Centaur | origyear = 1991 | edition = Second Printing | year = 1992 | month = May | publisher = Tasman Press | location = Miami | isbn = 0-646-07631-0 | pages = p.19 ]

The USAAF lost ten P-40s, one B-24 bomber, and three C-45 transport planes. The US Navy lost three PBY Catalina flying boats, and Moorer's outside the harbour. The RAAF lost six Lockheed Hudsons.

The air raids caused chaos in Darwin, with most essential services including water and electricity being badly damaged or destroyed. [Lockwood, op. cit., p. 143.] Fears of an imminent invasion spread and there was a wave of refugees, as half of the town's civilian population fled. There were reports of looting and in some cases — it was alleged — the culprits were even Provost Marshals themselves. [Lockwood, op. cit, p. 159.] According to official figures, 278 RAAF servicemen 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. [Lockwood, op. cit., pp. 143–146.] Following the second Japanese air raid, the local RAAF wing commander Sturt Griffith:

While the Northwest area staff could see what was happening and issued countermanding orders, "the damage was done and hundreds of men were already beyond recall." [Lockwood, op. cit., p. 144.]

The Australian army faced difficulty controlling its own troops from looting private property including "furniture, refrigerators, stoves, pianos, clothes [and] even children's toys" due to the breakdown of law and order after the bombing and the ensuing chaos. [Lockwood, op. cit., p. 169.] Many civilian refugees never returned, or did not return for many years, and in the post-war years some claimed that land they owned in Darwin had been expropriated by government bodies in their absence.Fact|date=February 2007

The success of the Darwin raid led to calls within the Japanese Navy for an invasion of Australia. Admiral Osami Nagano, the Chief of the Navy General Staff, was in favour. But the Imperial Japanese Army lacked the troops for such an undertaking and Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto's plan for an attack on Midway Island was adopted instead.

Further Japanese raids

After the massive 19 February 1942 Japanese raid, the Northern Territory and parts of Western Australia's north were bombed on 62 further separate occasions between 4 March 1942 and 12 November 1943. [Lewis, op. cit..] One of the heaviest attacks took place on 16 June1942 when a large 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 other smaller ports. Conversely, Allied air commanders launched a major build-up in the Darwin area, building more airfields and deploying many squadrons.

The four IJN aircraft carriers (Akagi, Kaga, Hiryū and Sōryū) that participated in the Bombing of Darwin were sunk during the Battle of Midway in June 1942.

A memorial ceremony is held every year on 19 February at the Cenotaph in Darwin. It starts at 9:58am, the precise time of the first attack.Fact|date=February 2008



* Mitsuo Fuchida and M. Okumiya, "Midway: the Battle that doomed Japan", Hutchinson, 1957.
* Timothy Hall, "Darwin 1942, Australia Darkest Hour", Methuen Australia, 1980.
* Tom Lewis (2003) "A War at Home: A comprehensive guide to the first Japanese attacks on Darwin". Tall Stories, Darwin. ISBN 0-9577351-0-3
*cite book
last =Lockwood
first =Douglas
authorlink =
coauthors =
title =Australia's Pearl Harbour. Darwin 1942.
publisher = Penguin Books
date = 1992 (reprint)
location = Melbourne
pages =
url =
doi =
id = ISBN 10987654321

*cite journal
last = Powell
first = Allen
authorlink =
coauthors =
title = The Darwin 'panic', 1942
journal = Journal of the Australian War Memorial
volume =
issue = 3, October 1983
pages = Pages 3–9
publisher =
date = 1983
url =
doi =
id = ISBN 07296274
accessdate =

ee also

* Japanese air attacks on Australia, 1942-43
* Christmas Island Invasion
* Planned invasion of Australia during World War II
* Axis naval activity in Australian waters
* Military history of Australia during World War II
* Military history of Japan during World War II
* East Point Military museum, Darwin

External links

* [ Northern Territory Library "Online exhibition of The bombing of Darwin"]
* [ Peter Dunn's AUSTRALIA @ WAR, 2004, "Two Japanese Air Raids at Darwin, NT on 19 February 1942"]
* [ Tom Womack, 2005, "Australia's Pearl Harbor: the Japanese air raid on Darwin"]
* [ National Archives of Australia, 2000, "Fact Sheet 195 The bombing of Darwin"]
* [ "A Darwin Eyewitness Account – Stoker 2nd Class Charlie Unmack"]
* [ "A Darwin Eyewitness Account – Leading Aircraftman Stanley Hawker, No 2 RAAF Squadron"]
* [ Taminmin High School, "Defending the Darwin Fortress"]
* [ Darwin Defenders 1942-45 Inc, an association for veterans, their families and friends]
* []

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