The Japanese bombing of Darwin 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. 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.
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).
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
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. 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.
Other raids on Darwin and northern Australia
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.
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. 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 seventy people and injured another forty, as well as eight large aircraft and 16 flying boats, 24 aircraft in total.
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. Nine raids were made on Horn Island.
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.
- Australia under attack
- Bombing of Darwin - Australian War Memorial
- Air raids on Australian mainland - Australian War Memorial
- Darwin air raids - Australian War Memorial
- Fixed naval defences in Darwin harbour 1939 -1945 - Royal Australian Navy
- The bombing of Darwin - National Archives of Australia - Fact sheet 195
- The bombing of Darwin - TasEd
- Battle for Australia - The bombing of Darwin
- Territory Stories - Second World War, 1939-1945
Stories from the Bombing of Darwin
Exhibitions and images
Listen, look and play
- Remembering 1942 - Australian War Memorial
- The bombing of Darwin - interactive, National Museum of Australia
Last updated: 17th April 2009
Creators: Kathryn Wells, Jack Mulholland