The 70th anniversary of the Second World War events of 1942— ‘Australia’s perilous year’: February and March

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The 70th anniversary of the Second World War events of 1942— ‘Australia’s perilous year’: February and March

Posted 10/02/2012 by Marty Harris

'For there can be no doubt that 1942 was for Australia—as a nation and as a people—the most important single year of all those two hundred [since White settlement].

It was the turning point in the making of modern Australia. In the fire of that tremendous crisis were forged all the elements which have shaped our national life and destiny, to this day.


Above all, 1942 was the year in which Australians first achieved a genuine sense of national identity and national unity.'
This is how Prime Minister Bob Hawke described the historical significance of 1942 for Australia in the Forward to a special 1988 edition of the Defence Force Journal entitled ‘Australia’s perilous year’.

Throughout 2012, there will be 70th anniversaries and commemorations for some of the most important events in Australian military history. This post highlights some of the major events of 1942 which will be commemorated in February and March 2012. Details of special ceremonies or commemorative events have been cited where available.

The fall of Singapore (15 February 1942)

Following their rapid advance down the Malay Peninsula in December 1941 and January 1942, Japanese forces crossed the Jahore Strait separating the peninsula and Singapore Island on 8 February 1942. At 8.30 pm on 15 February 1942, Commonwealth forces surrendered, with 130 000 personnel taken prisoner. Of the 15 000 Australians captured at Singapore, 7000 would die before the end of the war. This is regarded as one of the great Allied defeats of the Second World War, and one of the greatest defeats in British military history.

The Australian Department of Veterans’ Affairs will conduct a special commemorative service at Kranji War Memorial Cemetery in Singapore at 7am on 15 February 2012. The Singaporean National Heritage Trust is also organising events throughout February 2012.

Bangka Island massacre (16 February 1942)

On 12 February 1942, three days before the surrender of Singapore, the SS Vyner Brooke left Singapore carrying wounded personnel and about 65 nurses from the 2/13th Australian General Hospital. The vessel was subsequently sunk by Japanese aircraft, and 22 nurses and other survivors came ashore on Bangka Island.

The nurses were killed on 16 February 1942 by the Japanese troops occupying the island. The only survivor was Vivien Bullwinkel, who after three and a half years as a prisoner of war returned to Australia and would go on to become president of the Australian College of Nursing and serve as a member of the Council of the Australian War Memorial.

There are currently no known 70th anniversary commemorative events scheduled.

The bombing of Darwin (19 February 1942)

On 19 February 1942 more than 240 Japanese aircraft attacked Darwin in two separate raids, representing the first ever enemy attack on Australian soil (excluding Australian dependencies). On that day more than 240 civilians and Australian and US service personnel were killed, and eight ships were sunk in Darwin Harbour. This was the first of 64 bombing raids by Japanese aircraft on Darwin between February 1942 and late 1943. The 19 February bombing would remain the most significant attack of the Second World War on Australian soil.

On 18 November 2011 Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced that 19 February would be proclaimed as ‘Bombing of Darwin Day’ to ‘ensure the attacks across Australia’s north are appropriately remembered and commemorated every year’. The Prime Minister also announced Federal funding of $330 000 in support of the 70th anniversary of the bombing of Darwin.

The Frontline Australia website, established by Darwin City Council, includes information about the two weeks of commemorative events to be held in Darwin during 11–20 February 2012, culminating in a formal ceremony at 9.30am on 19 February. The program of events is available online.

The sinking of HMAS Perth (1 March 1942)

Having survived the Battle of the Java Sea only days before (in which five Allied ships were sunk with the loss of 2500 lives), the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) light cruiser HMAS Perth (I), along with American cruiser USS Houston were sunk in the early hours of 1 March in the strait separating the Dutch East Indies islands of Java and Sumatra. In what became known as the Battle of Sunda Strait these two vessels had fought a Japanese covering force which included an aircraft carrier, five cruisers and 12 destroyers.

Of the 680 men aboard the Perth, 357 were lost when it sank. Of the approximately 320 who were captured by the Japanese, 105 died in captivity, mostly on the Thai-Burma Railway. Among those lost in the battle was the captain of the Perth, Hec Waller, DSO and Bar. One of Australia’s Collins class submarines was named after Captain Waller and further awards are under consideration in the current Defence Honours and Awards Appeals Tribunal (DHAAT) Inquiry into unresolved recognition for past acts of naval and military gallantry and valour (the Victoria Cross inquiry).

According to the RAN’s website, there are a variety of activities planned to commemorate the 70th anniversary of this historical event, including an annual church service and regatta, a memorial service in Canberra, and the visit to Fremantle of HMAS Perth (III) for an official reception on 16 February 2012.

According to the HMAS Perth Society, a memorial service will also be held at the Australian War Memorial on 28 February 2012, to be attended by a number of Perth survivors.

The bombing of Broome (3 March 1942)

On 3 March 1942 a largely undefended Broome was strafed by nine Japanese ‘Zero’ aircraft. The attack resulted in the death of 88 civilians, including some Dutch refugees from the East Indies. At least 22 Allied aircraft were destroyed.

On 2 March 2012 the Dutch Ambassador to Australia will host a Dutch commemorative gathering at a hotel in Broome. On 3 March at Roebuck Bay in Broome there will be a public ceremony jointly organised by the Shire of Broome, the Broome RSL and the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands in Canberra to mark the 70th anniversary of the bombing.

Sinking of the HMAS Yarra (4 March 1942)

On 4 March 1942 the RAN sloop HMAS Yarra (II) was escorting a convoy of three vessels from the Dutch East Indies, with the goal of reaching Fremantle. Early that morning the convoy encountered three Japanese cruisers, and within two hours of the first Japanese vessel being spotted, the Yarra, along with the three vessels it was escorting, had all been sunk.

Of the 151 on board, only 13 were rescued from lifeboats by passing vessels. Lieutenant Commander Francis Edward Smith, Leading Seaman Ron Taylor, and the vessel’s Captain, Robert Rankin, are all being considered for gallantry awards in the current DHAAT Inquiry into unresolved recognition for past acts of naval and military gallantry and valour (the Victoria Cross inquiry).

There are currently no known 70th anniversary commemorative events scheduled.

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