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The Japanese bombing of Darwin, Broome and northern Australia

Merchant vessels Barossa and Neptuna burning in Darwin Harbour near the jetty after receiving direct hits during the first Japanese air raid on 19 February 1942.

Merchant vessels Barossa and Neptuna burning in Darwin Harbour near the jetty after receiving direct hits during the first Japanese air raid on 19 February 1942. SS Neptuna later exploded and sank while the Barossa was towed clear of the explosion and was later salvaged. Photograph courtesy of A Oliver and the Australian War Memorial: P02759.011.

During the Second World War, the Japanese flew 64 raids on Darwin and 33 raids on other targets in Northern Australia.

On 19 February 1942, 188 Japanese planes were launched against Darwin, whose harbour was full of Allied ships. It was the largest Japanese attack since Pearl Harbour, 7 December 1941, and followed a reconnaissance flight on 10 February 1942. On that day there were 27 Allied ships in the harbour and approximately 30 aircraft at the Darwin Civil and RAAF airfields.

The USS Houston convoy departed Darwin on 15 February 1942, followed by a Japanese flying boat which later engaged in an air strike. The USS Peary returned to Darwin on 19 February after an encounter with a possible Japanese submarine. On 19 February 1942 there were 46 ships packed into Darwin Harbour.

From the first raid on 19 February 1942 until the last on 12 November 1943, Australia and its allies lost about 900 people, 77 aircraft and several ships. Many military and civilian facilities were destroyed. The Japanese lost about 131 aircraft in total during the attacks.

At the time, there were many rumours alluding to the Australian Government's suppression of information about the bombings - it was thought that reports of casualties were intentionally diminished to maintain national morale.

Local sources estimated that between 900 and 1100 people were killed. For many years, government censorship limited coverage of the event to protect public morale in the southern states of Australia.

What led to the attacks?

During the 1930s, Japan invaded and occupied large parts of China. By 1941 Japan also controlled Indochina (a federation of French colonies and protectorates in South East Asia). In December 1941, Japan bombed the Americans at Pearl Harbour and entered the Second World War. Within ten weeks, Japan controlled Hong Kong, Malaya, Singapore and the Australian territory of New Britain (Rabaul).

Photograph of members of an RAAF Spitfire squadron race to their planes for an interception flight against Japanese raiders, Darwin 1943.

Darwin 1943, members of an RAAF Spitfire squadron race to their planes for an interception flight against Japanese raiders. Photograph courtesy of the Australian War Memorial: 014491.

Darwin, the largest town in the north of Australia, was a key defensive position against an aggressive Japan. Australia developed Darwin's military ports and airfields, built coastal batteries and anti-aircraft guns and steadily enlarged its garrison of troops. Darwin was seen as a key port for the Allied ships, planes and forces defending the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia and East Timor).

Defences were planned, and an anti-submarine boom net was constructed across Darwin Harbour. The net, supported by floatation buoys, was six kilometres long – the longest floating net in the world. Warning of approaching ships or submarines was given by submarine indicator loops that lay on the seabed and ASDIC (sonar) devices fitted to ships.

At the time many Australians believed that the Japanese planned to invade Australia. Many experts today, however, believe that the Japanese plan was to wipe out as much of Australia's and the Allied Forces air and sea defence in order to gain control of the resource rich countries of South East Asia and establish strong defences against any counter-attacks from the USA, Australia and any European powers in the region.

Official evacuation, 16 December 1941–15 February 1942

On 16 December 1941 an official order was issued by the Administrator to evacuate women and children from Darwin. The evacuation was primarily organised by the A.R.P. (Air Raid Precautions) with assistance from Police and Military personnel. Most of the 1066 women and 900 children went by sea, with the first group leaving Darwin on December 19 aboard the Koolinda. The troop carrier Zealandia, USS President Grant, Montoro, and Koolama also evacuated civilians with the last ship sailing on February 15, just before the bombing of Darwin. Others left by plane, road and train.

Civilians were evacuated on short notice, often less than 24 hours notice, and were allowed little luggage. Ships were hot, overcrowded, and short on food and water supplies. They were continually on the watch for enemy mines and, at night, blacked out to avoid detection.

The first attacks, 19 February 1942

Wrecked Lockheed Hudson, February 1942.

Wrecked Lockheed Hudson, February 1942. Photograph courtesy of the Charles Eaton Photographic Collection and Peter Dunn's Australia @ War.

The Japanese first attacked Darwin on the morning of 19 February 1942. This was the first time since European settlement that mainland Australia had been attacked by a foreign enemy.

This first attack (and the one that was to follow later that day) was planned and led by Mitsuo Fuchida, the Japanese commander responsible for the attack on Pearl Harbour. It was the largest Japanese attack since Pearl Harbour.

The Japanese attacked with around 188 planes that had been launched from Japanese land bases and aircraft carriers in the Timor Sea. The Japanese fighters strafed land targets and shipping. Dive bombers attacked the ships in the harbour, the military and civilian aerodromes and the hospital. The dive bombers were escorted by fighter planes to protect them from Australian and allied planes. Eight ships were sunk and most of the others were damaged by bombs or machine gunfire.

The only air defences the allies had were ten fighter planes that engaged the Japanese planes. Only one allied fighter survived the first attack, with the Japanese suffering only one or two losses.

War correspondent Robert Sherrod, of Time Magazine, in front of the remains of the Darwin Post Office, June 1942.

War correspondent Robert Sherrod, of Time Magazine, in front of the remains of the Darwin Post Office, June 1942. Photograph courtesy of Peter Dunn's Australia @ War.

The first attack lasted approximately forty minutes. The land targets included the Post Office, Telegraph Office, Cable Office and the Postmaster's Residence, where postal workers were killed.

The second attack began an hour after the first ended. Heavy bombers attacked the Royal Australian Air Force Base at Parap and lasted about 25 minutes.

The two raids killed at least 243 Australians and allies. Almost 400 were wounded. Twenty military aircraft were destroyed, eight ships at anchor in the harbour were sunk and most civil and military facilities in Darwin were destroyed.

There is debate over the number of Japanese aircraft shot down during the air raid on 19 February 1942 – some sources report that two aircraft were shot down, while others state four aircraft were destroyed.

Darwin after the first attack

With much of the town destroyed and hundreds of people killed and wounded, Darwin's remaining population feared that the Japanese were about to invade.

There was widespread panic and about half of Darwin's remaining civilian population fled. Many servicemen also left their posts and fled in the confusion and panic. Three days after the attack, 278 servicemen were still missing. The majority of women and children had been evacuated previously under government orders during December 1941 and January 1942.

Order was restored to the town within a few days. The military defences were eventually rebuilt and strengthened.

Although these first two raids were the largest, the Japanese were to undertake many more raids on Darwin and other northern Australian towns over the next 20 months.

The bombing of Broome, 3 March 1942

A Dutch crew from a visiting Dornier Do 24 flying boat in Roebuck Bay being taken into Broome by launch in 1941. AWM 044613

Two weeks after the Darwin bombing, on 3 March 1942, the Western Australian town of Broome suffered Australia's second-worst air raid. The attack killed an estimated seventy people, perhaps as many as one hundred, and injured another forty, as well as eight large aircraft and 16 flying boats, 24 aircraft in total. Another aircraft, a DC3 type, carrying refugees and a parcel of diamonds towards Broome met the departing Japanese flight, and after being extensively damaged, was forced to crash-land in the shallows north of the town.

At that time, Broome was a significant military and civilian staging post for air evacuees from Java, then part of the Dutch East Indies (part of latter day Indonesia), both military and civilian.  Evacuees were ferried in Dutch, American and Australian military and civil aircraft, including flying boats of Qantas Empire Airways. In the last two weeks of February, 8,000 mostly Dutch refugees, including many women and children, passed through Broome on their way south.

the town was overflowing with military personnel and refugees. People slept wherever they could while waiting for a flight to continue their journey south.… On one single day, 57 aircraft landed there.
Australia’s War 1939-1945, Air raids, Broome

On the day of the attack, Japanese fighter planes attacked without warning. Nine Mitsubishi Zero fighters arrived over Roebuck Bay at 9.30 am, and promptly destroyed the targets they found. As there were no Allied fighters in the area, the Japanese faced minimal opposition.

Fifteen marine aircraft, mostly Dutch Dorniers and Catalinas, but also some British and US Catalinas, as well as a pair of Australian ‘Empire’ Class flying boats, were burned or sunk at their moorings. At the nearby airstrip, several US B-17 Flying Fortress and B-24 Liberator heavy bombers were destroyed, as well as a number of twin-engined Douglas DC-3 transports of the Netherlands East Indies Airline (KNILM). Not a single operational aircraft was left in Broome when the Japanese departed at 10.30 am.
The Japanese raid on Broome, Australian War Memorial

Many victims were Dutch women and children packed into flying boats on the harbour either waiting to be unloaded and ferried ashore or waiting to depart for the southern states. Another 30 crew and passengers, mostly military personnel, were lost when an American Liberator bomber was shot down shortly after taking off. The bodies of the Dutch victims, initially buried at Broome, were moved in 1950 to the Perth War Cemetery at Karrakatta

The ‘Flying Boat wreckage Site’ was listed by the Heritage Council of Western Australia and a Conservation Order was published in 2002 as it was not covered by shipwreck legislation.  Much of what remains below the seabed is well preserved which is invaluable – as plans and descriptions of the entire Short Empire class Flying Boat were destroyed. The site was managed for many years by the Broome Historical Society and later with the WA Maritime Museum. This has resulted in a detailed archaeological survey, conservation of artefacts, oral history program and a documentary film.

Today, six of the fifteen bombed flying boats are exposed on the mud-flats of Roebuck Bay at low water spring tides opposite the town site of Broome – serving as a reminder of the trauma of war as well as the actions of townspeople and military personnel who engaged in valiant rescue attempts. (WA Museum, The Broome Flying Boats)

Other raids – Northern Territory, Western Australia and Queensland, 1942–43

Photograph of a Japanese plane during the 58th Japanese air raid on Darwin, 1943.

Darwin, 1943. Japanese Mitsubishi plane photographed from an RAAF Spitfire during the 58th Japanese air raid on Darwin. Photograph courtesy of the Australian War Memorial: P02822.001.

Japanese planes also flew several reconnaissance missions over Australia until 1944.

The other airport base areas in Townsville, Katherine, Wyndham, Derby and Port Hedland were targeted, with loss of military and civilian lives. In late 1942, three raids were made against Townsville, Queensland, as well as Millingimbi, Northern Territory and four raids on the Exmouth Gulf.

There were three Japanese raids on Townsville between 25 and 29 July 1942.  The raids were undertaken with two Emily flying boats (W45 and W46) captained by Asai and Mizukura who dropped 15 bombs of 250 kg near the Townsville wharves where three vessels were berthed, believed to be: the SS Bantam, SS Burwah and the HMAS Swan. The second raid dropped eight bombs near the Garbutt airfield.  With warning of the raid, three American anti-aircraft batteries fired 72 rounds.

Given a 30 minute early radar warning prior to the third raid, four American Airacobras from the 8th Fighter Group were able to engage in air combat with the Japanese. A translated Japanese log report (held at the Townsville Aviation Museum) records what happened with the Japanese Emily flying boat

Hit more than 10 times by two Hurricanes. Dropped three bombs near the aerodrome causing three fires, and five more on the city, igniting two more.
Kingo Shoji, pilot log, 29 July 1942)

The Emily dumped seven bombs in Cleveland Bay, between the shore and Magnetic Island.

Nine raids were made on Horn Island. After the bombing of Darwin until 1944 the airstrip at Horn Island was the nearest operational airbase to the Japanese forces in New Guinea. It was used by Allied heavy bombers as the take-off point for attacks and to refuel on their return.  In the bombing raid on Horn Island on 14 March 1942 there were eight Mitsubishi G4M1 heavy bombers escorted by twelve A6M2 Zeros of the 4th Kokutai.  9 US Kittyhawks were scrambled at 1145 hours under order of Captain Bob Morrissey, Commanding Officer.

A dog fight persisted for 10 minutes above the Torres Straits. Morrissey shot down a Zero in flames when he fired on it from 200 yards. The Kittyhawks of 2nd Lts. Burtnette and Andrews were both riddled by machine gun fire. They both returned to Horn Island.
Japanese Bombing Raid On Horn Island 14 March 1942

By the end of 1942, there were 5000 troops stationed on Horn Island and a further 2000 on nearby Thursday Island. 190 Australian and Allied personnel were killed in Torres Strait and 124 wounded. (Former gunner Gordon Cameron, President of the 34th Heavy Anti-Aircraft Battery Association in The Australian,  18 February, 2012 )

In 1997, a Japanese fighter plane, a Mitsubishi Zero shot down in World War II in Torres Strait was found relatively intact near Thursday Island. (Courier Mail, 28 January 1997)

In the final Japanese attack, a raid on Darwin on 12 November 1943, there were no casualties and only minor damage was caused around the town. In all, there were 64 air raids on Darwin.

Useful links

Listen, look and play

Darwin bombing

Stories from the bombing of Darwin

Exhibitions and images

Broome bombing

Other areas of northern Australia

References

  • Jack Mulholland, Darwin Bombed - An A/A Gunners experience, autobiography
  • Robert Piper, The Hidden Chapters, Untold stories of Australians at war in the Pacific
  • H.J. Taylor, The History of Townsville Harbour 1864–1979

Last updated: 30 June 2012
Creators: Kathryn Wells, Jack Mulholland

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