Attack on Darwin
Contributor: Morgan Bell
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
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, Australiaâ€™s Pearl Harbor: Darwin 1942, The Australian War Memorial, J. Beaumont, Australiaâ€™s War: 1939 â€“ 1945.
Last Major Update: Aug 2008
Attack on Darwin Timeline
|19 Feb 1942Â||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 1942Â||Ariake and Yugure joined the carrier force sailing toward Darwin, Australia.|
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