In 1942, Darwin was a small town with limited civil and military infrastructure. Due to its strategic position in northern Australia, the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) and Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) had constructed bases near the town in the 1930s and the early years of World War II. Darwin's pre-war population was 5,800.
As early as August 1941 Darwin had been a key in the South Pacific air ferry route designed to avoid routes through the Japanese mandate in the central Pacific for bomber reinforcement of the Philippines. The first flight to use the route occurred when nine B-17D bombers of the 14th Bombardment Squadron (H) left Hawaii on 5 September and passed through Darwin 10–12 September. By October 1941 plans were underway to position fuel and supplies with two ships, including USAT Don Esteban, being chartered and actively engaged in that purpose when war came. By November 1941 Australia had agreed to allow the establishment of training bases, maintenance facilities, munitions storage, communications, and improvement of airfields, including at Darwin, to meet the needs of the B-17 bombers in Australia.
Following the outbreak of the Pacific War in early December 1941, Darwin's defences were strengthened. In line with plans developed before the war, several Australian Army and RAAF units stationed in the town were sent to the Dutch East Indies (DEI) to strengthen the defences of the islands of Ambon and Timor. The improvised plan for support of the Philippines and the Dutch East Indies that was completed in Washington on 20 December 1941 by the U.S. Army General Staff envisioned Darwin as the hub of transshipment efforts to supply those forces by landing supplies at Brisbane, overland shipment to Darwin, and then onward by air and blockade-running ships. The reality was transport to Darwin by sea was necessary and thus supplies and shipping intended both to build the Darwin base and to support both the Java and Philippine forces were gathered in Darwin and the vicinity. In the two months before the air raids, all but 2,000 civilians were evacuated from the town. Japanese submarines I-121 and I-123 laid mines off Darwin in January 1942.
By mid-February 1942 Darwin had become an important Allied base for the defence of the DEI. The Japanese had captured Ambon, Borneo, and Celebes between December 1941 and early-February 1942. Landings on Timor were scheduled for 20 February, and an invasion of Java was planned to take place shortly afterwards. In order to protect these landings from Allied interference, the Japanese military command decided to conduct a major air raid on Darwin. On 10 February a Japanese reconnaissance aircraft overflew the town, and identified an aircraft carrier (actually the seaplane tender USS Langley), five destroyers, and 21 merchant ships in Darwin Harbour, as well as 30 aircraft at the town's two airfields.
Among the ships in harbour were those returned the morning before the attack from the convoy escorted by USS Houston involved in the failed effort to reinforce Timor. Houston had departed for Java but left Mauna Loa and the Meigs which had attempted to transport Australian troops to Timor and the U.S. Army transports Portmar and Tulagi which had embarked a U.S. infantry regiment at Darwin.
Despite Darwin's strategic importance to the defence of Australia, the city was poorly defended. The Australian Army's anti-aircraft defences comprised sixteen QF 3.7 inch AA guns and two 3-inch AA guns to counter aircraft flying at high altitude and a small number of Lewis Guns for use against low-flying raiders. The crews of these guns had conducted little recent training due to ammunition shortages. The air forces stationed in and near the town comprised No. 12 Squadron, which was equipped with CAC Wirraway advanced trainers (which had been pressed into service as fighters), and No. 13 Squadron which operated Lockheed Hudson light bombers. Six Hudsons, 3 from No. 2 Squadron and 3 from No. 13 Squadron also arrived at Darwin on 19 February after having been evacuated from Timor. None of the six Wirraways at Darwin on the day of the raid were serviceable. At the time of the event, there were no radars functioning to provide early warning of air raids, and the town's civil defences were dysfunctional. The Lowe Commission, which was appointed to investigate the raids shortly after they occurred, was informed that the Australian military estimated that Darwin would have needed 36 heavy anti-aircraft guns and 250 fighter aircraft to defend it against a raid of the scale which occurred on 19 February. In addition to the Australian forces, ten United States Army Air Forces (USAAF) Curtiss P-40 Warhawks were passing through Darwin en route to Java on the day of the attack. The P-40 pilots were in the main little experienced in combat.
A total of 65 Allied warships and merchant vessels were in Darwin harbour at the time of the raids. The warships included the United States Navy (USN) destroyer Peary and seaplane tender William B. Preston. The RAN ships in port were the sloops Swan and Warrego, corvettes Deloraine and Katoomba, auxiliary minesweepers Gunbar and Tolga, patrol boat Coongoola, depot ship Platypus, examination vessel Southern Cross, lugger Mavie, and four boom-net ships. Several USN and Australian troop ships were in the harbour along with a number of merchant vessels of varying sizes. Most of the ships in the harbour were anchored near each other, making them an easy target for air attack. Moreover, no plans had been prepared for how the ships should respond to an air raid. In addition to the vessels in port, the American Army supply ships Don Isidro and Florence D., Philippine vessels acquired as part of the South West Pacific Area command's permanent Army fleet earlier in February, were near Bathurst Island bound for the Philippines on the morning of the raid.
Darwin was attacked by aircraft flying from aircraft carriers and land bases in the DEI. The main force involved in the raid was the 1st Carrier Air Fleet which was commanded by Vice-Admiral Chūichi Nagumo. This force comprised the aircraft carriers Akagi, Kaga, Hiryū, and Sōryū and a powerful force of escorting surface ships. All four carriers had participated in the attack on Pearl Harbor at the start of the Pacific War. In addition to the carrier-based aircraft, 54 land-based bombers also struck Darwin in a high-level bombing raid nearly two hours after the first one struck at 0956. These comprised 27 G3M "Nell" bombers flying from Ambon and another 27 G4M "Betty" bombers operating from Kendari in Celebes.
Allied warships and merchant vessels in Darwin harbour at time of raid
Table based on AWM78: 400/2 Darwin Naval Base (HMAS MELVILLE): Reports of Proceedings [war diary] Lewis and Ingman cite several other vessels, including the Karalee, a naval tanker.
The four Japanese aircraft carriers launched 188 aircraft during the morning of 19 February. These comprised 36 A6M Zero fighters, 71 D3A "Val" dive bombers, and 81 B5N "Kate" torpedo bombers. All the aircraft were launched by 8.45 am. This raiding force was led by Commander Mitsuo Fuchida, who had also commanded the first wave of attackers during the raid on Pearl Harbor. The carrier aircraft had the objective of attacking the ships in Darwin Harbour as well as the town's port facilities.
On their way to Darwin, Zeros shot down a US Navy PBY Catalina and strafed a USAAC C-47 Skytrain on the ground, near Melville Island.
At 9.35 am Father McGrath of the Sacred Heart mission on Bathurst Island, who was also an Australian coastwatcher, sent a message using a pedal radio to the Amalgamated Wireless Postal Radio Station at Darwin that a large number of aircraft were flying overhead and proceeding southward. The message was then relayed to the Royal Australian Air Force Operations at 9.37 am. No general alarm was given until about 10 am as the RAAF officers there wrongly judged that the aircraft which had been sighted were the ten USAAF P-40s, which were returning to Darwin at the time after reports of bad weather forced them to abort a flight to Java via Kupang, West Timor. As a result, the air raid sirens at Darwin were not sounded before the raid.
The Japanese raiders began to arrive over Darwin at 9:58 am. HMAS Gunbar was the first ship to be attacked, being strafed by several Zero fighters. At about this time, the town's air raid sirens were belatedly sounded. The Japanese bombers then conducted dive bombing and level bombing attacks on the ships in Darwin Harbour. These attacks lasted for 30 minutes, and resulted in the sinking of three warships and six merchant vessels, and damage to another ten ships. The ships sunk were the USS Peary, HMAS Mavie, USAT Meigs, MV Neptuna (which exploded while docked at Darwin's main wharf), Zealandia, SS Mauna Loa, MV British Motorist. The oil tanker Karalee and the coal storage hulk Kelat sank later. At least 21 labourers working on the wharf were killed when it was bombed.
In addition to the raid on the harbour, other Japanese naval aircraft bombed the RAAF base and civil airfield in Darwin as well as the town's army barracks and oil store. All of these facilities were seriously damaged.
Japanese losses totaled only four aircraft out of the 188 that attacked. The Allied air defences at Darwin shot down one Japanese dive bomber. Another Japanese fighter plane was damaged and crashed at Melville island and the pilot was captured, and two other Japanese planes, a fighter and dive bomber, both damaged by anti-aircraft fire, ditched on the return to the carriers, resulting in the rescue of the aircrews.
The first wave of Japanese planes left the Darwin area at about 10:10, according to Lewis and Ingman, who point out that these were Kate bombers which had no reason to delay and every reason to leave once they had unloaded their ordnance. On their way back to the carriers, some Japanese aircraft passed over the Florence D. and Don Isidro, which enabled planning for an afternoon strike which sank both freighters.
The second wave, making up of 54 land-based aircraft (27 Mitsubishi G3M medium bombers and 27 Mitsubishi G4M medium bombers) arrived over Darwin just before midday. The town's air raid sirens were sounded at 11:58 am when the bombers were sighted. The Japanese force separated into two groups flying at 18,000 feet (5,500 m). One of these formations attacked RAAF Base Darwin from the south-west while the other approached from the north-east. The two formations arrived over the base at the same time, and dropped their bombs simultaneously. The Japanese bombers then turned, and made a second attack on the base. Due to defective fuses, the Australian heavy anti-aircraft flak gunners were unable to damage any of the high-flying Japanese aircraft. The bombers left the Darwin area at about 12:20 pm.
This raid inflicted extensive damage on the RAAF base, though casualties were light. Of the RAAF aircraft at the base, six Hudson light bombers were destroyed and another Hudson and a Wirraway were badly damaged. Two American P-40s and a B-24 Liberator bomber were also destroyed. Six RAAF personnel were killed. Lewis and Ingman list 30 aircraft destroyed.
The Japanese carrier force launched a small number of D3A dive bombers during the afternoon of 19 February to attack the Florence D. and Don Isidro. Don Isidro was the first of these two ships to be attacked, and was rapidly sunk 40 kilometres (25 mi) north of Melville Island. Eleven of her 84-strong crew were killed. The dive bombers also attacked Florence D. and sank her off Bathurst Island with the loss of four crewmen. All of the survivors from Don Isidro were rescued by the corvette HMAS Warrnambool on 20 February. Some of Florence D.'s survivors landed on Bathurst and Melville Islands while the remainder were rescued by Warrnambool on 23 February. Among the survivors of Florence D. were the rescued crew of a U.S. Navy PBY piloted by then Lt. Thomas H. Moorer who was later to become Chairman of the United States Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Admiral Halstead, strafed and with plates damaged by near misses, was brought to the pier where U.S. Army volunteers along with survivors of the U.S. and Philippine vessels helped unload her 14,000 drums of aviation gasoline.
Of major military consequence was the loss of most of the cargo shipping available to support efforts in Java and the Philippines with Java being effectively sealed off from further surface shipments from Australia.
The air raids caused chaos in Darwin, with most essential services including water and electricity being badly damaged or destroyed. Fears of an imminent invasion spread and there was a wave of refugees, as some of the town's civilian population fled inland. There were reports of looting, with Provost Marshals being among the accused. According to official figures, 278 RAAF servicemen were considered to have deserted as a result of the raids, although it has been argued that the "desertions" were mostly the result of ambiguous orders given to RAAF ground staff after the attacks. Following the second Japanese air raid, the local RAAF wing commander Stuart Griffith:
"... summoned his senior administrative officer, Squadron Leader Swan, and gave a verbal order that all airmen were to move half a mile down the main road and then half a mile inland. At this vague rendezvous point ... arrangements would be made to feed them. The order led to utter chaos. In being passed by word of mouth from one section to another, sometimes with officers present and sometimes not, it became garbled to the extent it was unrecognisable against the original. In its ultimate form it was interpreted, especially by those desiring such an interpretation, of an impending order for immediate and general evacuation of the area. Highly exaggerated rumours of an impending Japanese invasion had already reached the base from the town and spread quickly among those wanting to believe them. In the absence of restraint, men gathered their belongings and abandoned their stations."
While the Northwest area staff could see what was happening and issued countermanding orders,
"... the damage was done and hundreds of men were already beyond recall".
The Australian Army also faced difficulty controlling some of its own troops from looting private property, including "furniture, refrigerators, stoves, pianos, clothes[,] [and] even children's toys" due to the breakdown of law and order after the bombing and the ensuing chaos. Many civilian refugees never returned, or did not return for many years, and in the post-war years some claimed that land they owned in Darwin had been expropriated by government bodies in their absence.
The bombing of Darwin resulted in the destruction of 7 of the 11 above ground storage tanks, located on Stokes Hill, in raids on the 19 February, 16 March and 16 June 1942 lead to the construction of underground oil storage tunnels in Darwin in 1943.
The number of people killed during the 19 February raids is disputed. The Lowe Commission, which investigated them in March 1942, estimated 243 victims but, assuming a few were unidentified, concluded "I am satisfied that the number is approximately 250 and I doubt whether any further investigation will result in ascertaining a more precise figure." "Mr. Alderman concluded that the following were, as nearly as he could ascertain the correct particulars of the deaths:" .
Most of the authors quoted below do not cite the primary source documents used to annotate the above table.
Some researchers and government officials, including John Bradford (author of In the Highest Traditions – RAN Heroism Darwin 19 February 1942), Dr. Peter Stanley (the Australian War Memorial's Principal Historian and author of several books about Australian military history), Tom Womack (author of The Dutch Naval Air Force against Japan), Paul Rosenzweig (author of Darwin 1942: a reassessment of the first raid casualties), and Rear Admiral Kevin Scarce (governor of South Australia) have said there were 250–262 fatalities.
However, a plaque unveiled in Darwin in 2001 gave the total as 292. The plaque indicated 10 sailors had been killed aboard the USS William B. Preston but the US Navy said there were 13 fatalities and Peter Grose, author of An Awkward Truth, said fifteen – he wrote:
"With the William B. Preston total corrected to 15, a figure of 297 known dead is the best count anyone is likely to achieve...the full death toll is likely to be a little over 300, perhaps as many as 310 or 320."
Lewis and Ingman have revised that to 14 in their 2013 book Carrier Attack.
In 2000, Darwin historian Peter Forrest, who spoke to survivors and researched the attacks for an unpublished book, said (as paraphrased by a journalist), "the first Japanese air raids on Darwin probably killed more than double the official figure of 243", but by 2002 had lowered his estimate to "anything up to double that 243".
Other estimates put the toll far higher: one soldier who was there claimed to have seen barges filled with bodies towed out to sea, a member of one of the burial teams recounted seeing uncounted bodies "shoved in a large hole dug by a bulldozer" (paraphrased), according to some sources, former Darwin Mayor (1921–1922) Jack Burton estimated 900 people were killed; Harry Macredie, who helped rescue survivors and recover bodies in the harbour said, "we definitely estimate over 1,000", Rex Ruwoldt, one of the soldiers attacked that day, says that a few days after the raid he was told over the field telephone that Army Intelligence estimated 1,100 were killed. According to an AP article about the 50th anniversary of the attacks "some estimates say as many as 1,000 died". Bradford and Forrest said they spoke to survivors who estimated as many as 1,500 people died.
Stanley, Grose, Rosenzweig, and Tom Lewis rejected such numbers. The former said "it was certainly not the 1,024 claimed recently in unsubstantiated reports" and Grose wrote "numbers such as 1,100 are fancifully high".
By contrast, there is less dispute over the number of injured during the attacks. The Lowe Commission estimated "between 300 and 400" people were wounded. Lewis said the number was over 400, about 200 of which were seriously injured. Womack wrote that 311 were wounded. Australian military historian Chris Coulthard-Clark put the total between 250 and 320. Grose wrote:
"...if 900 or 1100 died, why were the numbers of injured so low? The count of the injured is more accurate, because they were treated in hospital or shipped out aboard the Manunda [a hospital ship]. The hospitals and Manunda noted names and numbers of those they treated."
The Japanese raid was unlike the attack on Pearl Harbor in that it was launched against a nation that had already declared war on Japan (on 8 December 1941). It was similar in that it was a successful aerial surprise attack on a naval target that came as a great shock to the attacked nation. While the number of bombs dropped on Darwin (681 bombs weighing 114,100 kilograms (251,500 lb) by 205 bombers) exceeded those dropped on Pearl Harbor (457 bombs [including 40 torpedoes]) weighing 133,560 kilograms (294,450 lb) by 273), loss of life was much greater at Pearl Harbor (more than 2,400 people) than Darwin (236 people) due to the presence of capital ships and the catastrophic loss of a single battleship, the USS Arizona, and its 1,177 men.
A frequently repeated myth is that the Australian government downplayed the damage from the bombing raids on Darwin, in a "cover up". The newspapers of the day disprove this claim. On the day of the attack the Prime Minister is quoted on the front pages of most newspapers: "Damage to property was considerable", he said, "but reports so far to hand do not give precise particulars about the loss of life." "The Government regards the attacks as most grave, and makes it quite clear that a severe blow has been struck on Australian soil."
After the massive 19 February 1942 Japanese raid, the Northern Territory and parts of Western Australia's north were bombed probably around 100 more times – research is ongoing by Lewis – between 4 March 1942 and 12 November 1943. One of the heaviest attacks took place on 16 June 1942 when a large Japanese force set fire to the oil fuel tanks around the harbour and inflicted severe damage to the vacant banks, stores and railway yards. The Allied navies largely abandoned the naval base at Darwin after the initial 19 February attack, dispersing most of their forces to Brisbane, Fremantle, and other smaller seaports. Conversely, Allied air commanders launched a major build-up in the Darwin area, building more airfields and deploying many squadrons.
The four IJN aircraft carriers (Akagi, Kaga, Hiryū, and Sōryū) that participated in the Bombing of Darwin were later sunk during the Battle of Midway in June 1942.
A memorial ceremony is held every year on 19 February at the Cenotaph in Darwin. At 9:58 am, a World War II Air Raid Siren sounds to mark the precise time of the first attack. The raid is also portrayed in the 2008 film Australia as a major plot event, although it inaccurately shows Japanese troops on the ground around Darwin.