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Attack on Darwin file photo [6387]

Attack on Darwin

19 Feb 1942


ww2dbaseIn the 1930s the tropical, northern Australian port city of Darwin was considered by government ministers in Canberra as a vital asset in Australia's defence against an expanding, militant imperial Japan, so in the years leading up to the Second World War, the harbour underwent improvements to coastal defences and port facilities, while local airfield facilities were also upgraded, and the garrison was steadily increased. Despite this increased security, after the fall of Singapore, Australian wartime governments feared Japanese air raids on Darwin, or even full scale invasion. Evacuations of women, children, the infirm and the aged were conducted in Darwin shortly after the outbreak of war in the Pacific on 7 December 1941, the expectation of Japanese attack assisting officials in this difficult task, with two thousand civilians not in necessary occupations in the city being transported to southern states, such a successful evacuation that means of transport were difficult for authorities to find. The 12,000 ton American liner, the President Grant, recently arrived in Port Darwin after its mooring in Manila Bay was threatened when the Japanese invasion of the Philippines seemed imminent, and the captain, after being told to proceed to the nearest friendly port, chose Darwin, navigating with a map taken from a National Geographic magazine. The owners negotiated a settlement with the Australian government, in the midst of the scramble for transport, for 100 pounds per evacuee, the ship already bound for Australia's eastern coast, at a time when the standard fee on Australian ships between Darwin and Sydney was 25 pounds. The ship later struck a reef in the Solomon Islands as it was transporting troops to the Battle of Guadalcanal.

ww2dbaseAustralia lay directly south of the newly consolidated Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, where Japanese military leaders feared that it would be used as a base by the Allies to strike at Japan's newly won empire. Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto of the Combined Fleet staff feared Darwin was a possible hinderance to Japanese operations in Java, as they completed the seizing of the Netherlands East Indies. He submitted proposals for an amphibious invasion of the Darwin area, but the Navy and Army General Staff rejected that option, favouring an air raid, the first of 64, between 19 February 1942 and 12 December 1943, to destroy the installation. So a Japanese task force of carriers set out from the Celebes, and passed into the Timor Sea, turning into the wind to launch 81 level bombers, 71 dive bombers, and 36 fighters, more aerial machines of destruction than within the force that attacked Pearl Harbour, destined for Darwin. This force, led by Commander Mitsuo Fuchida, was ordered to destroy the port facilities, sink as many ships in the harbour as possible, and destroy infrastructure. Years later, Fuchida would say of using such an overwhelming force against such a soft target "It was hardly worthy of us. If ever a sledgehammer was used to crack an egg, it was then". At 9.58am on 19 February 1942, after the war in the Pacific had been raging for ten weeks, the 188 planes descended upon their target, performing their task with precision. Eight ships were sunk in the harbour, including an American destroyer, the USS Peary; and damaging a further thirty-five ships seeking refuge in the harbour. Of the citizens remaining in the city, including those dockside workers undertaking their tasks in the port facilities and on ships, approximately two hundred and fifty died, and a further three or four hundred were wounded. The government in Canberra suppressed these casualty figures out of fear for a panic among the Australian population. Most of the remainder fled, even some under a military discipline that was in tatters. An extra half an hour warning could have allowed those remaining time to flee if warnings from Melville and Bathurst Islands, north-west of Darwin and directly below the aerial force's flight path, had been heeded. Earlier false alarms causing panic and confusion made authorities wary of hitting the alarm unless an air raid was definitely taking place. At 10.40am, the all-clear was given, but at 11.58am lookouts aboard the HMAS Platypus observed more planes flying towards Darwin. These were 54 land based bombers that had flown from Kendari, in the Celebes, the alarms were sounded just as people were emerging from trenches and shelters. Expecting further bombing of the harbour, people, civilian and military, once again took cover, but these Japanese planes passed over the harbour and city, continuing in the direction of the RAAF base, which was subjected to intense pattern bombing, as described by Lieutenant Owen Griffiths on the bridge of the HMAS Platypus

With one big crash they dropped their entire loads on the aerodrome and buildings. This was the first time I had seen a large number of bombs fall together on a target. It was a fearful sight. With a noise like the roll of heavy thunder, a thick cloud of smoke, dust and red and yellow flame shot into the air and left a long line of smoke to join with the flame already hanging over Darwin. Surely nothing could be alive in that area!

ww2dbaseBut RAAF staff had either been mostly safe in shelters or deserted their posts, only six men died in this second raid on this first day of Japanese air raids on Darwin. Darwin was to continue suffering Japanese air raids throughout the remainder of 1942 and 1943, the last Japanese raid on Darwin during the war occurred on 12 December 1943. Australian resistance, under-resourced from the RAAF operating in the war against Germany, with air forces occurred in January 1943, when No. 1 Fighter Wing, RAF was moved to the area. Three Spitfire squadrons, 54 RAF based at Darwin, 452 RAAF operating from Strauss, and 457 RAAF based in Livingstone, were involved in major skirmishes with the Japanese on 2 and 15 March 1943. In the most successful raid by the RAAF over Darwin, the Spitfires intercepted a formation of fighters and bombers, shooting down fourteen Japanese aircraft. In this sortie, Group Leader Caldwell shot down his fifth Japanese aircraft.

ww2dbaseSources: D. Lockwood, Australia’s Pearl Harbor: Darwin 1942, The Australian War Memorial, J. Beaumont, Australia’s War: 1939 – 1945.

Last Major Update: Aug 2008


Map noting the operations of the Japanese Navy First Air Fleet/Carrier Striking Force, 7 Dec 1941-12 Mar 1942

Attack on Darwin Timeline

19 Feb 1942 Japanese carriers launched 152 bombers and 36 fighters at 0845 hours. The attack force reached Darwin, Australia at 0958 hours and attacked the port city for the subsequent 42 minutes, sinking US destroyer USS Peary (93 killed, 49 survived), US transport USAT Meigs, merchant ship Zealandia, US merchant ship Mauna Loa, British freighter Neptuna, British tanker British Motorist, and coal storage hulk Kelat. 7 Japanese aircraft were lost in this first raid, while 7 American P-40 fighters were destroyed (4 in combat, 3 on the ground). Later in the day, 54 land-based bombers based in Kendari, Celebes, Dutch East Indies arrived for a second raid, destroying 6 Australian Hudson light bombers, 1 US B-24 Liberator bomber, and 2 US P-40 fighters.
19 Feb 1942 Ariake and Yugure joined the carrier force sailing toward Darwin, Australia.

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Visitor Submitted Comments

1. Anonymous says:
23 Dec 2005 01:37:00 AM

alot of panic and pain
2. joel says:
24 Jun 2006 12:53:46 AM

can any one PLEASE help me find out what and when the last plane was shot down in darwin on land?? thank you would be much appreiciated
3. Anonymous says:
18 Apr 2007 09:16:01 PM

Wow, I knew Australia was a big part of the war, but I never knew they were attacked on their on soil.
4. Rivadavia says:
9 Sep 2008 01:33:34 AM

Bravo! This is history as it was meant to be written, in a succinct prose that is long on fact and short on flourish. The exposition is as tight and brisk as the action it describes. No story ever tells itself, but the true historian knows which facts flow together. It is a measure of Morgan's historical gift that we hardly see the effort of research & thought behind this article. The story seems to tell itself.

It has become fashionable lately to derogate impartiality as a virtue of historical judgment. But if we can't transcend our perspective, we can certainly transcend our prejudices. No one who knows Morgan will be surprised at the fairness of his treatment of an event that must strike fierce sparks in the Australian national memory. There are no villains in this piece only historical actors who must be understood on their own terms. Fashions come and go but Morgan can only be an honest judge.

A good history buzz always leaves us wanting more (and this article could have used a few more lines, just by way of summation). Morgan's last paragraph prompts one of those troubling questions that tend to get lost in the Manichean glare of the war against evil. How much was Australia asked to sacrifice its own defensive priorities, as the only Allied nation on Japan's warpath, to the emphasis of the other Allies on the war in Europe? The evidence in this article ("Australian resistance, under-resourced from the RAAF operating in the war against Germany") is that the sacrifice was not small.

Perhaps that is another point that strikes sparks among Australians. But thanks to Morgan, the rest of us know more about their sacrifice.
5. Stephen David Edwards says:
20 Nov 2008 02:06:02 AM

You seem to have neglected to mention the involvement of the Americans in saving our bacon. If I'm not mistaken, we would all be speaking Japanese today if it were not for them!
6. peter lee says:
29 Dec 2008 04:34:43 PM

message for david edwards

the americans have a lot to answer for have nt they,where would we be to day with out them!
7. William McCollum says:
8 May 2009 10:23:03 PM

Just saw the film Australia and had to check out the attack on Darwin for historical accuracy. My uncle was a B-25 gunnner who arrived in Queensland (Charters Towers) to fly with the 90th Bombardment Squadron, 3rd Bombardment Group from April until July 1942. His plane was shot down by Saburo Sakai on July 26, 1942 over Papua New Guinea while trying to slow the Japanese advance on the Kokoda trail. His crew had flown 3 missions from Port Moresby in 24 hours and their number finally came up. He remains MIA, presumed dead.
31 Jul 2009 09:16:47 PM

To William McCollum: I sincerely hope that your uncle was not a gunner on the "Virginian"? I suspect that aircraft may well be the plane in which Sakai claimed several survivors in the water were attacked and eaten by sharks...
9. dylan says:
11 Aug 2009 04:27:11 PM

could any one please help me ?
i need to find out the name of the commander incharge of the darwin fleet at the time of the bombing.would be much appreiciated.
10. Anonymous says:
13 Oct 2009 06:22:37 PM

I need some help...What circumstances led to the attack?
11. dave kelly says:
30 Oct 2009 06:04:29 PM

As above I am at moment looking at Australia, always knew there was threat from Japanese to Darwin but never realised there was an actual attack, I knew of Gallipoli and Vietnam but Aussies as Irish are denied their position in in what they have given in wars, as remembrance day is on horizon i say thank you to all nations who gave something to my freedom
12. james troy says:
20 Jul 2010 09:34:36 PM

hey guys, im doing a school assignment on the bombing of darwin and i need more info on how the attack happened and would like any pictures for the slide show im doing with it.
13. Kay says:
3 Mar 2011 02:27:16 AM

My father is a WWII Veteran he doesnt talk very about the war at all even after all these years, He did talk about running out of bullets and having to use whatever they could find eg nails screws, I also have an ashtray the base is the shape of Australia and there is a plane hovering over it I was wondering if anyone could tell me about who made it? as there were quite a few made at that time and dad cant remember anymore.
14. Anonymous says:
23 Aug 2011 05:52:54 PM

why did they attack?
15. Michael Leach says:
19 Feb 2012 03:04:32 PM

Whilst the raid on Port Darwin was a disaster from an Australian point of view, in terms of a use of a precious resource [the Japanese 6 carriers carrier fleet], the Port Darwin raid was very much an overkill, and did little or nothing to further the Japanese strategic aims. A much better use would have been to seek out the three active American carriers over which Japan had a 2:1 superiority
16. jane says:
10 Nov 2012 08:02:41 PM

does anyone know where I can find a timeline of the events that day?

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» Fuchida, Mitsuo
» Harada, Kaname
» Tokuno, Hiroshi
» Yanagimoto, Ryusaku

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