Approximately 80 years ago, mainland Australia experienced the largest and most destructive external attack from a foreign power using modern warfare. The date was February 19, 1942, when Japanese warplanes bombed the port town of Darwin in the Northern Territory.
Darwin has been a bustling trading port since the 1930s and has become a strategic key link to countries like Java and East Timor at the time because of its proximity to Southeast Asia. At the onset of World War 2, 10,000 Allied and Australian troops arrived at Darwin to defend the North Australian coastline.
Just two or three minutes before 10:00 am, Japanese forces commenced the first air raid on Darwin, which hit the town proper, vital infrastructure in the area, and numerous ships docked in the harbor. Out of the 47 ships docked on the harbor, 8 ships sunk from the aerial attacks that day, and 11 were damaged. Buildings like the police barracks, the Darwin Post Office, and the Office of the Administrator of the Northern Territory were destroyed.
The second air raid was mounted more than an hour after at 11:45 am, which concentrated on the Royal Australian Air Force base in Parap. In just 25 minutes of continuous aerial bombings, the Japanese forces destroyed two hangars, 20 military aircraft, the central store and severely damaged the hospital and sections of the airmen’s quarters.
188 Japanese warplanes launched an attack against Darwin from four air carriers stationed in the Timor Sea. The one leading the bombings was the same Japanese commander who mounted the attack on Pearl Harbor 10 weeks before the Bombing of Darwin.
Both raids on Darwin resulted in the death of at least 252 people, including service members and civilians.
While many believed that the Japanese’ actions meant the start of their invasion of Australia, it was simply not true at that time. The Japanese forces mounted air attacks on Darwin to disrupt any chance of the Allies using Darwin as a base for their counter-offensive attacks and crush the morale of the Allied troops and the natives.
Rather than invade Australia, the Japanese denied the Allies of Darwin as a strategic base near East Timor, Indonesia, and New Guinea. And even after the initial bombing of Darwin, the attacks continued. 97 air raids bombed Darwin around 64 times between February 19, 1942, and November 12, 1943.
Commemorating the Bombing of Darwin
The names of those who perished — both servicemen and women, and civilians are commemorated by name in the city of Darwin and will be honored for the decades to come. Veterans that suffered that have been discharged in service, due to illness or injury can lodge a Department of Veterans Affairs (DVA) claim for intial liability.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison commemorates this day and all those who had experienced it — whether having lived through it or having lost loved ones along the way. Here is what he had to say to commemorate the 80th anniversary of such a devastating attack:
“The Bombing of Darwin began a testing chapter in the history of our nation – a series of air raids across north-western Australia which continued for 21 long months until November 1943.
It was the greatest threat our people ever faced. But in our darkest hour, we rose to the challenge. Australia’s response to the Second World War was the greatest national effort in our history, and like Gallipoli almost 30 years before, the Bombing of Darwin proved to be an early tragedy, followed by ultimate triumph…”
He continues to say, “Today, it is more timely and necessary than ever to acknowledge what they went through and to assure their place in the story of our nation.
“We also acknowledge the deep and lasting friendship between the people of Australia and Japan – out of the suffering of war we have turned to each other in a spirit of reconciliation and respect. Our nations’ commitment to freedom, security, and democracy now provides a solid foundation for the future peace and stability of the region.
“On this day in the city of Darwin – and in every part of Australia – we will remember. Lest we forget.”
Minister for Veterans’ Affairs and Defence Personnel Andrew Gee also reflects on that dark day with a statement:
“Few survivors of the terrible surprise attack on Darwin are still with us today to share their experiences, so the duty now rests with us to ensure their stories are told, and their courage and sacrifice is remembered.
It is hard to imagine the fear and confusion that must have been felt by the people of Darwin and Australia that day when hundreds of enemy aircraft filled the skies above the city.
The danger of invasion was real, yet the determination to defend was resolute and there were great acts of bravery from both the military and civilians…
Australia may have escaped invasion, but it did not escape a further attack, with a total of 97 Japanese air raids inflicted on northern Australia over the next two years.”
Minister Gee continues, “As the living memory of that day and the terrifying period that followed fades away, it is all the more important that we pause and reflect on a dark chapter forever etched in our nation’s history.
On 19 February, I encourage all Australians to take time out to remember and honor all those who died in these attacks and in the defense of Australia during the Second World War.”