Bombing of Darwin

Monday 19 February marks the 76th anniversary of the bombing of Darwin – a battle that still stands today as the first and largest single attack ever mounted on Australian soil by a foreign power.

The city of Darwin, having the largest population in northern Australia, was considered a strategic target by the Japanese. It was thought that the city could be used as a base for a counter offensive against the Japanese operating to the north.

The first attack began at 10am and lasted just 40 minutes.  54 land-based bombers and approximately 188 attack aircraft descended on Darwin from four Japanese aircraft carriers based in the Timor Sea. 20 military aircraft were destroyed, eight ships at anchor were sunk, and many facilities, both military and civilian, were destroyed. Heavy bombers targeted the harbour and the town and a hospital in Berrimah was also attacked.

One hour later the second attack, made by high altitude bombers, targeted the Royal Australian Air Force base at Parap. This assault lasted just 25 minutes. The two bombing raids killed approximately 243 people, including civilians; a further 400 were wounded.

In the hours that followed the second attack it was estimated that half of the population of Darwin made the decision to flee south towards Adelaide River in what became known as ‘the Adelaide River Stakes’.

The attacks were not, as Darwin residents had feared, a precursor to a Japanese invasion. Japan’s intent was to invade Timor. The Japanese command considered Darwin a base from which the Allies could easily launch a counter–offensive. By bombing Darwin, it was thought that the Japanese could disrupt a potential response from the Allies to their planned Timor invasion.  This attack also served to put a dent in the Australian resolve.

By mid-February 1942 Darwin had become an essential base for the Allies fighting in the Pacific. As the Japanese captured Ambon, Borneo and Celebes between December 1941 and February 1942, landings on Timor had been scheduled for 20 February, with the invasion of Java to take place shortly thereafter. Bombing Darwin with a major air raid was designed to distract the allies and protect Japan’s invasion of Timor.

With Singapore having fallen to the Japanese only days earlier, the Australian Government took the unorthodox decision to announce that only 17 people had been killed in the Darwin raids to preserve national morale. Rumours began to circulate that the details of reports about casualties suffered had been significantly reduced, with local sources suggesting the figures were more likely to be between 900-1100 than the 300-400 quoted.

The bombing attacks on Darwin continued until November 1943, by which time the Japanese had bombed the City 64 times. Darwin however was not the only northern Australian town to be targeted. Bombing raids were also conducted on Townsville, Katherine, Broome, Derby, Wyndham and Port Headland.

For those who lived through this period, life proceeded with anxious anticipation of the possibility of a full-blown Japanese invasion at any time.  Northern Australia was under Japanese attack for over 21 months, a defining period in Australia’s history.