Today, 78 years ago, Darwin, a defence location for Australia against the Japanese Empire was first bombed. Fighters and bombers attacked the port and shipping in the harbour twice during the day, killing Allied service personnel and civilians as well as destroying shops, buildings and infrastructure.

Darwin had been a strategic port on Australia’s northern coastline for many years. During 1927 Australia began a military build-up when they moved some buildings from Thursday Island to Darwin. The government started building the oil storage tanks at Stokes Hill, then in 1930 started construction on the Darwin airport and Manton Dam. The port facilities were developed and the coastal defence batteries were constructed providing for an enlarged garrison to be stationed at Darwin.

After Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbour on 7 December 1941, there was a growing realization that an attack on Darwin was imminent. Prime Minister Robert Menzies’ War Cabinet evacuated women and children from the region. The last person left the day before the first Japanese air raid.

On the morning of 19 February 1942, 188 Japanese aircraft appeared over Darwin. The aircraft had taken off from four aircraft carriers in the Timor Sea. A Catholic priest over at Bathurst Island, father McGrath, radioed into the Darwin RAF base saying that there was a large flotilla of what he thought to be enemy aircraft approaching, however the warning was partially ignored, consequently the air raid sirens were sounded too late to give much warning. In the first two flotillas there were 188 Japanese aircraft, led by Commander Mitsuo Fuchida, who had also led the Japanese raid on Pearl Harbour.

The Japanese bombed the wharf and ships moored in the harbor. Six large vessels were sunk, and another 14 ships were damaged. It was the first time that Australian soil had been attacked by a foreign power and it was a big attack just like a Pearl Harbour. The town was pretty well destroyed, with 90% of the building stock totally destroyed, essential services suffered extensive damage and around 237 military personnel and civilians lost their lives.

There was military disarray and secrecy surrounding the bombing because the government was fearful of low morale and panic of an invasion coming. The public were told about the raid but not the seriousness of it. Broom was attacked shortly after Darwin, as was Wyndham, Port Hedland and Derby in Western Australia, Darwin and Katherine in the Northern Territory, Townsville, Mossman and Cairns in Queensland and Horn Island in the Torres Strait.

The Japanese air raids on Darwin involved, collectively, over 260 enemy aircraft. Subsequent raids in April, June, July and November 1942, and March 1943 where carried out with forces of 30 to 40 fighters and bombers. Between the large raids there were smaller operations by groups of under a dozen Japanese aircraft. Most of the raids occurred in daylight but there were some small-scale night attacks.

The 64th, and last, air raid on Darwin occurred on 12 November 1943. In total there were 97 air attacks on northern Australia and enemy air reconnaissance over the region continued through much of 1944.

Men and women from the Torquay district who served in World War 2

Source: Northern Territory Library

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