The 75th anniversary of the bombing of Darwin

On 19 February 1942 approximately 240 Japanese aircraft attacked Darwin in two separate raids, representing the first ever enemy attack on Australian soil. 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, although a new book suggests there may have been as many as 77 raids on the Northern Territory alone. A number of other coastal towns in Australia’s north were also attacked during 1942 and 1943.

During January 1941 Japan had occupied Manila, resulting in the retreat of American and Philippine forces to the Bataan Peninsula in the Philippines, and extended its campaign through the Dutch East Indies. Gull Force, the Australian battalion defending Ambon, surrendered four days later. The Japanese continued their momentum attacking Menado in Sulawesi and Tarakan in Borneo. By the end of January, Japanese forces had captured Kuala Lumpur and occupied Rabaul, New Britain (this was the first occupation of Australian administered territory by Japan).

Allied military forces in Singapore surrendered to the Japanese on 15 February 1942 with 130,000 Allied personnel taken prisoner, including 15,000 Australians. By December 1941, the garrison forces in Darwin had been strengthened and on 16 December 1941 an official order was issued by the Administrator to evacuate women and children from Darwin.

At 9.37 am on 19 February 1942, a missionary on Bathurst Island attempted to report a large number of aircraft heading towards Darwin but his warning was discounted in the mistaken belief that they were returning Allied aircraft.

The first wave consisted of some 188 Japanese aircraft launched from four aircraft-carriers in the Timor Sea. The bombing commenced just before 10.00 am and lasted approximately half an hour. The second wave consisted of 54 land-based bombers, which attacked the RAAF base just before noon. This raid lasted approximately 20 minutes, and the Japanese lost between five and eight aircraft.

Of the 55 ships in Darwin Harbour on the day of the attack, eight ships were sunk and 15 were damaged. A further two merchant ships were sunk near Bathurst Island. Casualties on these ships, the Isidro and the Florence D, included 14 men from the Philippines.

In Darwin itself, the wharf was badly damaged and the police station, police barracks, post office (killing nine employees) and Administrator’s office were all destroyed. The hospital ship Manunda was also bombed, resulting in the loss of 12 people. Forty-five people were killed when the SS Neptuna (which was carrying munitions) exploded, but the largest loss of life occurred aboard the USS Peary, with 88 of her 144 crew killed in the bombing. The Peary still lies at the bottom of Darwin Harbour.

A total of 320 people received ‘hospital treatment for wounds’.

By mid-afternoon on 19 February 1942 large numbers of residents, fearing a Japanese invasion, were fleeing Darwin. The Oxford Companion to Australian Military History records:

…allegations of mass panic were exaggerated, but probably at least half of the civilians living in Darwin at the time of the bombing fled (the town’s population had already been halved by the evacuation of most of its women and children in the months since Japan entered the war). Breakdowns in discipline resulted in many air force men joining the exodus and in soldiers, including military police, looting the town.

News of the raid on Darwin was announced to the public by Prime Minister John Curtin in a brief statement which contained no details of the strength of the attack or the casualties. On 20 February, Arthur Drakeford, the Minister for Air, issued a further statement which noted that 15 people had been killed and 24 hurt, and that while ‘several’ ships had been hit, no vital installations had been destroyed. The next day the casualty figures were revised upwards to 19 killed. Historian Peter Stanley has pointed out that this was not a deliberate deceit because the Advisory War Council knew of only 33 deaths four days after the bombing (P Stanley, Invading Australia: Japan and the battle for Australia, 1942, Viking, 2008, p. 107).

Given that communications from Darwin had been totally cut for some hours after the raids, it is probable that the statements were made without access to the facts. Peter Grose states that during the research for his book An Awkward Truth: the Bombing of Darwin February 1942, he found no evidence of specific censorship of the Darwin raids.

Although the attacks on Darwin were reported in the media at the time, there was not the level of detail expected by the public today. Much of this under-reporting was deliberate, for national security reasons, with the Minister for the Army telling Parliament on 25 February 1942:

President Roosevelt, in his recent broadcast speech, said that he had reason to believe that the Japanese were most anxious to know details of the damage done at Pearl Harbour, but that, for reasons of national security, he did not propose to release those details. For the same reason it would not be wise to give details of the damage done at Darwin. The report will be considered, and any lessons that may be learned from the experiences of Darwin will be assimilated.

On 3 March 1942 the Government appointed Charles Lowe, a judge of the Supreme Court in Victoria to head a Royal Commission into the bombing. Justice Lowe completed his work promptly, issuing a report on 27 March and a second report on 9 April. Many commentators have considered Justice Lowe’s official figure of 243 dead to be too low.  

The 75th anniversary of the bombing will be commemorated with three public memorial services in Darwin on 19–20 February 2017—a USS Peary Memorial Service on Darwin Esplanade hosted by the Australian American Association NT; a Bombing of Darwin Day Commemorative Service at the Cenotaph; and an Ecumenical Service at Adelaide River War Cemetery (the latter two being hosted by the City of Darwin).


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