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March 1, 2012
Bombing of Darwin
LCDR Tom Lewis
IT was because their first attack on
Australia had failed that the Japanese
struck against Darwin in 1942.
It was also because of their grand
strategy that they kept coming back
across the north of Australia, raiding
Queensland, the Northern Territory,
and Western Australia over 1942-43.
The idea was simple: secure the
southern borders of the new-found
Japanese empire in what is now
The presence of an Allied large
deep-water port a short sea voyage,
or mere hours in aircraft away, was a
nagging thorn in the Japanese security
Their strikes both there and
throughout South-East Asia were
nearly successful -- 1942 was the year
Australia nearly went out.
First, four 80-man I-class subma-
rines were sent south where they laid
mines and lurked submerged, waiting
for targets outside Darwin harbour.
On January 20, 1942, they attacked
an American convoy with torpedoes
Local warships surged out to
destroy the threat and the corvette
HMAS Deloraine evaded a torpedo
by three metres due to teamwork and
PEARL Harbor is often com-
pared to the Darwin attack but
the similarities are very few.
Although both were sur-
prise initial raids on an enemy of
the Japanese Empire, the destruction
caused in each raid was decidedly dif-
ferent. Here are a few comparisons:
Some say that more civilians were
killed in the Australian raids. Untrue.
Two thousand three hundred and
eighty-eight lives were lost in the
Pearl Harbor raids compared to about
251 killed in Darwin. It's generally
held 68 civilians were killed at Pearl
Harbor and 25 were killed in Darwin.
Many say "More bombs fell on
Darwin". True enough but it is just
used to be sensationalist. The ton-
nage of bombs which fell on Pearl
Harbor was greater: the Japanese were
using smaller bombs in the Darwin
raid. It is a bit like saying the Darwin
assaults were more significant than
the Nagasaki raid because the attack
on Japan only used one bomb.
What about the ships sunk? Ten ships
were sunk in and around Darwin,
including eight inside the harbour.
The largest warship was a destroyer,
the USS Peary, with 89 of her crew
killed. At Pearl Harbor all eight bat-
tleships of the US Pacific Fleet -- the
most important capital ship at the time
-- were sunk or badly damaged. The
size difference between a destroyer
and a battleship is immense. The
comparison is similar to that of a car
set beside a three-trailer truck. The
firepower is commensurately similar.
Three cruisers, five destroyers, and
seven other ships were also sunk or
grounded. Most ships were raised and
repaired, although for many this took
The strike at Pearl Harbor was a mas-
sive loss for American aircraft, too,
and that raid was far more destruc-
tive than Darwin's. For example, 350
aircraft were destroyed or damaged
whereas in the Australian town about
30 were lost. Some people say that the
Darwin raid led to the worst death toll
from any event in Australia. Untrue.
In the loss of HMAS Sydney 645
men were killed. In the sinking of the
Montevideo Maru -- a ship carrying
POWs off Rabaul in July 1942 -- 1050
Australian lives were lost. In terms
of natural disasters, Cyclone Mahina
in 1899 struck Cape York and caused
the death of more than 400 people.
In August 1845 the barque Cataraqui
was wrecked on the west coast of
King Island, in Bass Strait, with the
loss of 400 lives.
Some commentators suggest that
Darwin was poorly defended. In fact,
there were 18 anti-aircraft guns based
around the town. One group of heavy
weapons alone, those based on the
Darwin Oval, fired 1050 rounds in the
two raids of February 19 and the gun
barrels were red-hot at the cease-fire.
Rather than just a few defenders there
were 10,500 troops in Darwin at the
beginning of December 1941. It was
home to many warships, serviced
by hundreds of people ashore. Jack
Mullholland, who was an AA gun-
ner on February 19, 1942, says there
were about 7000 troops in Darwin
on the day of the first raid, as well as
2000 civilians. Added to the dedicated
AA weapons there were scores of
machine-guns in use around the town.
At least three Japanese aircraft were
shot down on February 19.
None of this is to say that the Darwin
strikes (there was a second raid on
the first day) were insignificant. They
LCDR Tom Lewis, director of the Darwin Military Museum, debunks
some common myths.
were significant. The
attacks were the first on
the Australian landmass,
and signalled a new
stage of the war, which if
Australians had not stood
alongside the Americans
and prevailed in New
Guinea, may well have
led to invasion. The writ-
er Douglas Lockwood
called his 1960s book,
the first published about
the raids, Australia's
Pearl Harbour. It's a
good and deserved title.
But the important differ-
ences should be empha-
sised, not minimised, to
do historical justice to
Dr Tom Lewis is the author
of 10 history books, and
has served as an officer
in the Navy for 19 years,
seeing service in Baghdad,
Iraq and East Timor. He
works out of Larrakeyah
Barracks in Darwin.
Differences with the attack on Pearl Harbor
split-second skill. The corvette charged
down the track of the underwater
weapon and depth-charged the I-124 to
The other three submarines later
A month later, on February 19,
Japan attacked again, this time with
four aircraft carriers and 188 aircraft.
The high-level bombers hit the town,
dive bombers struck at the shipping
in the crowded harbour, and the Zero
fighters escorted them all successfully
-- only three Japanese machines fell to
the anti-aircraft guns and defending
US Kittyhawk fighters.
In the attacks, 246 people were
killed, every capable aircraft was
destroyed, 10 ships were sunk and the
High Command had avenged their
submarine and achieved the first part
of its aim.
Tor the next two years more raids
Northern Australia could not be a
base for harassing the next Japanese
aim: the invasion of New Guinea.
If successful, this would allow the
Empire to control, through warship and
aircraft deployment, the eastern coast
of the Australian seaboard.
The US would be stymied, stuck in
San Diego, and unable to prosecute the
war as its naval ships and military air-
craft did not have the range to travel to
the Japanese possessions and attack.
So Japanese air forces attacked all
across northern Australia.
In Broome, nine single-seat fighters
killed around 86 people ready to depart
the harbour in flying boats.
Marauding aircraft raided as far
south as Katherine in the Northern
Territory, and to coastal settlements
such as Milingimbi, which was
attacked three times in 1943.
Townsville in Queensland was
bombed four times.
However, the spoiling strategy was
The Allies were strengthening their
defence with radar and fighter aircraft,
and then the bomber fleets began gath-
ering and venturing north.
Soon they were raiding slowly but
successfully around the Pacific, and
the Imperial Empire was pushed back
to eventual defeat in 1945.
in Darwin and,
above, some of
the wounded in
Japanese had a plan
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