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World War II: The Bombing of Darwin

World War II: The Bombing of Darwin

On 19 February 1942, just 10 weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the city of Darwin came under attack by Japanese forces in what was to become a defining moment in Australian history.

Heavy cruisers, submarines, warplanes launched from ships, land-based bombers and more than 180 aircraft were levelled against Darwin Harbour. By the battle’s end, nine ships had been destroyed, 15 others had been damaged, around 400 people were injured, and more than 240 people had been killed, including civilians. The attack spurred widespread panic and evacuation, but also a coordinated effort to fight back.

Japanese Objective

Contrary to popular belief at the time, the Bombing of Darwin was not carried out in order for the Japanese to invade Australia. This misconception was partly due to Prime Minister John Curtin’s announcement, made just one hour after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, that ‘from one hour ago, Australia has been at war with the Japanese Empire’. Rather, the Japanese armed forces, wanting to secure Timor as a base, chose Darwin as a target because of its proximity to Timor and New Guinea (which they hoped to invade after Timor), thereby cutting Australia off from American aid.

Defence of the city

Despite the fear and chaos caused by the first two raids, Darwin mounted a resolute defence over the following weeks and months. A coordinated response, including searchlights, radar and military personnel, was launched, and counterstrikes were made against the Japanese military. American bombers, Australian navy vessels, and Dutch and British aircraft came to the city’s defence, while Indigenous, Asian and European volunteers all worked alongside military personnel to safeguard the harbour and the city.

Legacy of war

Overall, perhaps in a frightening glimpse of how much the Japanese military was preparing to increase its war efforts, more bombs were dropped over Darwin than what had been used on Pearl Harbor, where more than 2000 people were killed. Today, many veterans report that the government’s estimate of the death toll of just over 240 killed in Darwin is nowhere near the actual number. Monuments to the fallen and other evidence of the war remains visible throughout Darwin, Katherine and the Adelaide River. One thing that remains certain for those who experienced the raids is that, despite not signalling imminent invasion, the Japanese attack brought a war that had formerly seemed distant right to the doorsteps of Australians that fateful morning in 1942.

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