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May 01st 2009 print

Tom Frame

The Bombing of Darwin


The darkest year in Australian history was 1942.


For the only time since Federation, the sovereignty of the Commonwealth government was threatened by a foreign power seeking control of Australian waters and trade routes. Although Imperial Japanese forces were not planning to invade or occupy the continent, they were determined to close Torres Strait, divert or attack seaborne cargoes, destroy Australian military facilities and disrupt life around the Top End. There was enormous symbol and substance associated with the bombing of Darwin in February 1942. Not only would the town and the port be debilitated, the attack would also demonstrate the potency of Japan’s forces and the vulnerability of Australia’s defences.

The attack was, then, a turning point in the Australian war effort and the cause of deep reflection on the cost of nationhood. While Australia had previously looked to strategic alliances to provide the ships, aircraft and personnel needed to undergird its security, it was now clear that responsibility for the people and property of this country ultimately rested with the Common-wealth. In the final analysis, only Canberra could be relied upon to protect Australian assets and to promote the national interest. The date of the attack—February 19—would thereafter be cited as evidence of the need to take seriously the safety of every citizen and each element of infrastructure.

In terms of national spirit, the attack on Darwin made an infinitely greater contribution than the landings at Gallipoli in 1915. While the Anzacs provided the foundations for a military tradition upon which later generations have built, the devastation of Darwin created a new awareness of the nation’s defence and security requirements. The seas were simultaneously a bulwark against would-be aggressors and an entrée for potential enemies.

Australians started to worry about Japan’s imperial aspirations after its naval victory over the Russians at Tsushima Strait in 1905. These mild concerns had escalated into deep fears by the 1930s when Japan invaded and then occupied Manchuria before conquering most of central China. Australians were, however, shocked by the surprise attack on the American Pacific Fleet based at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. It was an unprovoked act of aggression that few believed the Japanese were capable of committing let alone daring enough to contemplate. Although the Japanese failed to destroy all of the US Navy’s battleships and aircraft carriers in the early morning raid on Hawaii, within three weeks the Pacific war front was less than 1600 kilometres from Darwin.

The speed of the Japanese push southward through South-East Asia and the Pacific was unparalleled in modern history. Hong Kong had fallen, the battleship HMS Prince of Wales and the battlecruiser HMS Repulse were both sunk, Thailand, Malaya and the Philippines had been invaded. Singapore was captured on February 15, 1942, with most of the 8th Division of the Second Australian Imperial Force taken prisoner. The British battle fleet, integral to the success of the pre-war “Singapore strategy”, never arrived. The Dutch East Indies was next to fall. The Japanese then landed on New Guinea and New Britain.

After examining the British appreciation of the Far East situation in the period to February 1942, the Australian Chiefs of Staff stated that the prevailing strategic outlook “was most unsatisfactory … the US Pacific Fleet, on which we had based great hopes, is unable and unwilling to assist”. While the Allies were seeking to restrict their losses, the Japanese were planning their next success. Japan now held vast areas of land but, more importantly, had begun to exert control over the Pacific and Indian Ocean basins from the archipelagic straits between them. It seemed that nothing would stand in the way of further victory.

Australia was prepared to do all it could. Australian troops were recalled from Europe. New aircraft would be built, with Australian pilots remaining at home to fly them for the RAAF. Although a massive shipbuilding program was under way, the RAN had already suffered serious losses in the Mediterranean. The combined Allied naval effort in the Pacific was the victim of insufficient co-operation in peacetime and was even now poorly organised. There was a sense of despondency among the Allies, as Japan had achieved its objectives with devastating efficiency.

Recognising that the Japanese Navy had to bring the US Navy to a decisive fleet engagement, the Commander-in-Chief of the Japanese Combined Fleet, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, planned an attack on the American naval base at Midway Island, employing the greatest naval force Japan could commit. He believed that this would draw the Americans into a fight from which the US Navy would not recover. The victory Yamamoto envisaged at Midway would secure command of the seas for Japan and allow it to consolidate the perimeter of its new empire. Before the Midway plan, code-named “MI”, was executed, New Guinea needed to be completely cleared of Allied forces with the capture of Port Moresby. This latter plan, code-named “MO”, would be executed simultaneously with an attack on the Solomon Islands.

Although the Japanese carrier strength available for Plan MO was limited to Shokaku and Zuikaku, and the light carrier Shoho, Yamamoto was confident that the element of surprise he had enjoyed at Pearl Harbor would be sufficient to ensure that Plan MO would be likewise successful. This was also preferred over a cross-country march from the northern coast of New Guinea, which the Japanese already held.

Two important points need to be made about Plan MO. The first is that the Japanese expected to succeed. Second, Japan did not intend to invade or occupy Australia. An assessment prepared by the Japanese Imperial General Staff in 1942 explained the reasons:

If the invasion is attempted, the Australians, in view of their national character, would resist to the end. Also because the geographic conditions of Australia present numerous difficulties in a military sense, it is apparent that a military venture in that country would be a difficult one. To alter the plan already in force, and to employ a force larger than the one employed in the southern area since the outbreak of the war, to suddenly invade Australia which lies 4000 nautical miles away would be a reckless adventure, and is beyond Japan’s ability.

For these reasons Japan sought to capture New Caledonia, Fiji and Samoa, and establish a seaplane base in the Louisiade Archipelago—240 kilometres south-east of the “tail” of New Guinea.

The fact that the Japanese did not intend to invade Australia is immaterial to any overall assessment of the strategic significance of the plan. Australia was a focus for shipping across the two ocean basins, the Indian and Pacific, either side of the continent. Japan could achieve its ends, severing sea communications to the north of Australia, without conquering continental territory. Without unfettered access to the Coral Sea, coastal shipping bound from Townsville to the Top End would be forced to sail clockwise around the continent and take more than a month to reach its destination instead of the usual week-long passage through Torres Strait. But the Japanese decision not to invade Australia did not mean the continent would be spared.

War came to the Australian mainland when Darwin was attacked by a large detachment of Japanese carrier-borne aircraft on the morning of February 19, 1942. It was a day marked by death and destruction. It was tinged with humiliation and embarrassment as well. Unveiling a commemorative plaque in 1955, the Territories Minister, Paul Hasluck, described the bombing of Darwin “not as an anniversary of national glory but one of shame. Australians ran away because they did not know what else to do.”

Peter Grose, a former publishing executive and author of A Very Rude Awakening: The Night Japanese Midget Subs Came to Sydney Harbour (2007), believes there is another Darwin story, which he has told in An Awkward Truth. Although his preferred title was “Bloody Darwin”, the publisher’s alternative conveys something of the book’s main message. The behaviour of some Australians that day makes any local account of the bombing rather awkward: there were heroes but there were villains as well. Grose says, “there was undoubtedly panic, incompetence, looting and desertion”, but the day also featured spirited defence and personal heroism.

Although Grose points out that “more aircraft attacked Darwin in the first wave than attacked Pearl Harbor … more bombs fell on Darwin [and] … more ships were sunk” and that it was “the deadliest single event ever to take place on Australian soil”, he claims the bombing of Darwin has been “airbrushed … from the history books”. This is an exaggeration. No one denies the fact of the bombing or diminishes its importance. It appears in all general histories of Australia in the twentieth century and features in every account of the Second World War. His complaint that only two pages of the seven-volume history of the Australian Army during the Second World War mentions the bombing neglects the fact that it is covered in great detail in the RAN and RAAF volumes of the same series.

Equally disappointing is his description of:

a noisy orthodoxy that says the Japanese never had any intention of invading Australia in 1941, 1942 or any other time. Whoever proclaims this usually follows up with a paragraph or two mocking the large number of Australians, mostly of older generations, who are convinced a Japanese invasion was imminent.

This is an unfair depiction of the conflict between professional historians and amateur writers, with the former only raising their voices in response to the publicity generated by mistaken claims that Australia was “saved” from invasion. Accusing historians of engaging in mockery is a serious charge because such conduct is unprofessional and antithetical to open debate. Grose should have named those who are the subject of his disparaging words. Surprisingly, he concedes that “these historians are, of course, right”, although he persists with the claim that invasion was a near-run thing. Dr Peter Stanley, formerly the Principal Historian at the Australian War Memorial and now a senior officer at the National Museum of Australia, has shown that invasion was never a serious prospect and that is the end of the matter, irrespective of wartime fears which I accept were heartfelt.

Grose does his best work in describing the situation in Darwin at the time of the bombing. He carefully outlines the rumours and popular misconceptions, competing accounts and disputed interpretations that surround and obscure the true story. The first of two attacks on Darwin that day left the town “a smoking shambles”:

Some 15 heavy bombs had destroyed civilian targets in the town’s administration area, smashing buildings and killing and maiming people. The remaining bombs found targets in a huge killing zone extending over 40 square kilometres. The path of destruction began at the port, steamrolled over the town as far as the civil hospital, swung north-east to the two airfields, and then spread its remaining fury over the 45 ships [in the harbour]. Black smoke billowed from burning ships, buildings, oil stores, wrecked aircraft and oil floating on the harbour. The air was foul with the smell of oil, smoke, cordite, burned flesh and charred wooden wreckage. Darwin’s dazed citizens, grateful and mildly surprised to find themselves still alive, crawled from their shelters and basements and hiding places and surveyed the ruins of their homes, shops and workplaces.

Nothing could have prepared the 6000 residents of Darwin for what enveloped them that day. The Japanese attack was brutal and merciless. There was no discrimination between targets and no thought as to whether they were legitimate. Darwin’s main medical facility and MV Manunda, a hospital ship moored in Darwin Harbour, were attacked without remorse.

In the aftermath, chaos, panic and looting broke out. The local civil administration was lamentable. Military preparations were inadequate. The political response was cautious: the Australian people could not be told either about the extent of the destruction or the conduct of their fellow citizens. In addition to the damage done to infrastructure and the nation’s war-fighting capacity, Grose thinks that the most likely death toll was between 300 and 320 people, although estimates have varied from little more than 200 to upwards of 1000. He commends the Royal Commission conducted into the attack by Charles Lowe, a judge of the Victorian Supreme Court, and believes that Lowe was fair in his findings and right in his principal recommendations.

Grose concludes that Darwin was not expecting an attack despite its strategically significant location; that preparations for a massive air raid had been neglected; and that the failure of local civil and military leadership had deadly consequences. He singles out the Admin-istrator of the Northern Territory, Aubrey Abbott, and Wing Commander Sturt Griffith, the Commanding Officer at the RAAF base, for special criticism. Although dealing with dazed and frightened people presented them with an incredible challenge, neither man performed well that day. Their judgment was suspect and their decision-making was poor.

While the Japanese never staged a repeat of the February 19 bombing, Grose points out that “over the next 21 months, the town faced no fewer than 64 attacks by Japanese bombers. The onslaught ended with a final raid on 12 November 1943.” In all, the northern towns of “Broome, Wyndham, Derby, Katherine, Horn Island, Townsville, Mossman, Port Hedland, Noonamah, Exmouth Gulf, Onslow, Drysdale River Mission, Coomalie Creek” and Darwin were subjected to ninety-seven attacks.

In researching his book, Grose said he was “astonished by how little Australians know of the succession of bloody battles fought under their skies”. In a review in the Sydney Morning Herald, Ross Fitzgerald wonders why Grose did not connect the bombing of Darwin with the continuing war around Australia’s northern coastline. This is a view I share. A little more contextual material relating to happenings before and after the attack on February 19 would have assisted readers in coming to their own conclusions about the significance of this event on the progress of the Pacific war.

Grose is not the first to write about the bombing of Darwin. The distinguished journalist Douglas Lockwood published Australia’s Pearl Harbor in 1966. It was a compelling account with many personal insights (Lockwood was a reporter in Darwin at the time of the bombing) and deserved its status as the “definitive” account although, Grose explains, Lockwood was denied access to official documents long after the imperatives of wartime security had passed. Lockwood’s book was republished in 2005 as Australia Under Attack: The Bombing of Darwin 1942. Timothy Hall produced a “quickie” called Darwin 1942: Australia’s Darkest Hour in 1980. It was simply a re-telling of the attack from secondary sources and added nothing to what was then known. The attack also features in most general histories of Australia during the war, with Professor Alan Powell’s The Shadow’s Edge: Australia’s Northern War the most comprehensive account of armed conflict in our north.

Given some of the controversies that he addresses and the existence of competing accounts, Grose should have used endnote references and identified his sources. This would have helped researchers to verify his claims while aiding further enquiries. As it is not a long book and is intended for more than just a general audience, I am surprised that Allen & Unwin did not insist on series, file and folio numbers for the official documents mentioned in the text, especially in relation to quoted material. The narrative “notes” at the end of the book are not very specific and do not make direct reference to the papers Grose consulted in the preparation of his manuscript.

There are also a few minor errors that might be addressed in a second printing: Charles Darwin (after whom Darwin was named by his former shipmates in HMS Beagle) did not publish The Descent of Man until 1871, two years after the settlers arrived and, Grose claims, decided they didn’t want “to live in a town named after the man who said they were descended from monkeys”; the Administrator of the Northern Territory, Aubrey Abbott, was not appointed by the “conservative Menzies Government” in March 1937 because Robert Menzies did not become Prime Minister until April 1939, nor was he then a “long-serving” prime minister (he was the nation’s leader for only sixteen months until he regained the prime ministership in 1949); HMAS Katoomba was a corvette-minesweeper, not a sloop; Repulse was a battlecruiser rather than a battleship; the corvette-minesweeper HMAS Warrnambool was in Darwin Harbour and participated in the battle and yet no mention is made of the ship’s activities or even its presence; the reader is led to believe the attack on Pearl Harbor occurred on December 8, although it took place on December 7, local Hawaiian time; it is usual to speak of the Japanese “Home Islands” rather than the Japanese “mainland”; General George C. Marshall’s official title was “Chief of Staff of the US Army”, not the “the Chief of Staff of the US Army Air Corps”; and, the great national institution in Canberra is called the Australian War Memorial, not “Museum”.

The bombing of Darwin remains the largest attack on the Australian continent by a foreign power in the nation’s history. The loss of the light cruiser HMAS Sydney off Western Australia three months earlier had led to greater loss of life (645 men perished) but it occurred over the horizon and well out to sea. The war was now on Australian territory. People and property were vulnerable.

The period of Japan’s ascendancy was mercifully brief. The tide began to turn in early May 1942 when the Allies were victorious over the Japanese in the Battle of the Coral Sea. This naval engagement had three important consequences. First, although US materiel losses were greater than those of the Japanese, it was an Allied tactical success as naval air power and carrier warfare emerged as the key to future strategic planning. The virtual loss of two big fleet carriers in the Coral Sea fatally weakened the Japanese Navy, which suffered a decisive blow at Midway the following month. Second, it was a strategic victory in that Japan was forced to fight a land campaign in New Guinea—an advance that highlighted the paucity of the support they were able to provide for their troops so far from home. Plans for invading Fiji, Samoa and New Caledonia were shelved and the sea route to the north of Australia through Torres Strait remained open. Third, naval success in the Coral Sea was also an overwhelming psychological victory. For the first time in six months, the Japanese had been stopped where they least expected—at sea. But there was little jubilation in Australia. The strategic value of these successful battles was not yet fully known, while the extent of Japanese resistance was unknown. The struggle to defeat Japan would take another three years, with the Emperor’s once all-conquering forces resisting every effort to force them back to the Home Islands.

How should the bombing of Darwin be remembered? Indeed, given the perennial debate about the date of Australia’s national day, could it be a possible replacement? The celebration of “Australia Day” has not always attracted the attention it now receives, let alone prompted discussion of the most suitable date. It was variously known in the colonial period as Foundation Day, Anniversary Day, Proclamation Day and Commemoration Day, with the first recorded “official” celebrations occurring in 1818, the thirtieth anniversary of white settlement.

It is only since 1946 that January 26 has been listed for official celebration in every state and territory, although the nomination of January 26 as the date marking the commencement of European settlement has been the subject of controversy. The First Fleet actually arrived in Botany Bay—its intended destination—one week earlier. In 1957 the President of the Royal Australian Historical Society, Dr C.H. Currey, argued for the date to be changed to February 7, claiming that the events associated with the relocation from Botany Bay to what became known as Sydney Cove on January 26, 1788, were informal and impromptu. It was not until February 7 that Captain Arthur Phillip “formally inaugurated the colony” with a prepared speech, an organised ceremony and a dedicated parade.

I don’t expect that Australia Day will be relocated in the calendar during my lifetime. It is too firmly entrenched on January 26. But if the dates on which nations usually celebrate national days are meant to relate specifically to nationhood and the importance attached to independence and self-determination, there would seem to be a strong case for establishing February 19—the bombing of Darwin—as Australia’s national day. Thereafter, Australians recognised that nationhood is a two-edged sword. It involved privileges and possibilities but obligations and responsibilities as well. Independence can also mean, at times, isolation. These are awkward truths that no one should be allowed to forget.

Tom Frame is a former naval officer and the author of many books including Pacific Partners: A History of Australian-American Naval Relations and No Pleasure Cruise: The Story of the Royal Australian Navy.