76th anniversary of the Bombing of Darwin

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The Bombing of Darwin, on 19th February 1942, was a critical moment in the war against Japan. For the first time Japanese forces, who for two months had been advancing southwards, attacked the Australian mainland.   

For the people of Darwin, the two Japanese raids on the 19th of February 1942, were the first of 64 attacks on the town. None could have known then that they would also be the deadliest. The 19th of February 1942 was a day of chaos and tragedy, but it was also a day when courageous men and women risked their lives to fight back and to help others.       

At 9.58 a.m., on the 19th of February 1942, Darwin’s residents were going about their morning business when more than 130 Japanese aircraft – bombers, dive-bombers and fighters – flew across the harbour and began their attack.   

After the first bombs fell, Wilbert Hudson, a 22-year-old anti-aircraft gunner from Merrylands in New South Wales, rushed to his post and brought his Lewis gun into action.

As Japanese aircraft bombed and machine-gunned the harbour area, Hudson couldn’t find a target, so he moved his gun into the open at enormous risk and brought down an enemy plane. He was awarded one of the first military medals for an action on Australian soil. Later he wrote to his sister, ‘You don’t know what a raid is…and the less you do know the better.’

Despite the courageous efforts of many like Gunner Hudson, Darwin was devastated that morning. The Japanese mounted two raids. The first concentrated on the harbour and town, where bombs hit the local post office and hospital. At the Post Office a bomb landed in the trench where nine civilians, including the postmaster, First World War veteran Hurtle Bald, and his family were sheltering, killing them all. In the harbour, where 47 ships were anchored or docked, eight were sunk in the harbour along with another two outside Darwin. Ten others were damaged.

Smoke billowing from the side of a ship with its lifeboats lowered and smoke streaming from another ship in the backgroundPhoto taken from the bow of the Bathurst Class Corvette, HMAS Warrnambool (J202),looking at His Majesty's Australian Transport, Zealandia as it burns near Neptuna Dock after the first Japanese air raid on Darwin. Life boats on the Zealandia have been lowered and the ship is being evacuated (AWM P05303.004).

One of the ships to be struck was the hospital ship HMAHS Manunda. Twelve people were killed when a bomb penetrated below decks.

One of the dead was Sister Margaret De Mestre.   

Margaret De Mestre was born near Bellingen in New South Wales. She began nursing training in 1935 at the age of 19 and in 1940 enlisted in the Australian Army Nursing Corps, twice sailing on Manunda to the Middle East.

She died from shrapnel wounds, the first Australian Imperial Force nurse killed in action on Australian soil and the first to lose her life in the Second World War.     

Sister De Mestre is honoured with a commemorative chair located at Darwin’s Christ Church Cathedral.

The second attack came less than two hours after the first and was directed against the RAAF base at Parap. By early afternoon Darwin was in ruins.

Some local buildings in Darwin still bear the scars of those attacks today.

The raids killed more than 250 people in Darwin and displaced many more. Between 19 February 1942 and 12 November 1943 the Japanese undertook more than 80 raids against northern Australia. Other towns and locales – including Broome, Katherine, Wyndham, the Exmouth Gulf, Townsville and Horn Island – suffered enemy attacks but none experienced the repeated air raids that Darwin endured.

For all Australians, the bombings seemed to expose the country’s vulnerability. Australia had been at war since 1939, and after Darwin the war effort intensified dramatically. Almost every Australian devoted at least some of their time to war related causes, and much of the country’s industry was directed to meeting military needs.

Most Darwin residents, and most Australians, thought the attacks were a prelude to a Japanese invasion, prompting many to flee south. Just a few days earlier, after the fall of Singapore, the Prime Minister had declared the beginning of the Battle for Australia. With the bombing of Darwin, the battle became a threatening reality.  

The Battle for Australia was fought in the skies over northern Australia and over the seas and islands to our north, from the Coral Sea off Queensland to Kokoda, Milne Bay, Buna, Gona and Sanananda in Papua. But as the threat from Japan receded, the Northern Territory’s strategic significance declined.

Northern Australia remained a base from which air and sea operations were launched against the Japanese in the Netherlands East Indies, New Guinea, the Solomons and farther afield while Allied forces in the Pacific drew ever closer to Japan. 

The war and the threat of invasion had a profound influence on Australian thinking about the Asian countries to our north. From the highest levels of government to our service personnel and the men and women who toiled on farms and in factories, came the realisation that Australia’s security lay here and could no longer be guaranteed by Britain. 

Most Australians who were posted in Darwin and across northern Australia, during the war, came from south of the Tropic of Capricorn. To them, the north seemed as foreign as another country. In August 1942 a soldier from New South Wales described Darwin and the Far North as a “strange sunbitten land of matted, stunted, green, ant-riddled trees; of billabongs and sweeping plains, mangroves and dustbowls…far from our homes”.

For this man and thousands of others, war service in the Northern Territory tied Darwin closer to the rest of the country. There was much pride too in having served on a part of the Australian mainland that had come under enemy attack.  

We remember the Bombing of Darwin because it cost the lives of hundreds of Australians and because it came at a perilous moment in Australia’s history. Along with the fall of Singapore, the air raids of 19 February have come to stand for a time when the ties of empire began to give way to broader alliances, a time when Australians truly were fighting for our country’s survival.

Australians remain proud of the men and women who have served and continue to serve in defence of our nation and its freedoms.

The Northern Territory Government recognises the anniversary by conducting a National Day of Observance Commemorative Service in Darwin on 19 February to remember the more than 250 people – military and civilian – who perished and the many more who were wounded on 19 February 1942. Special tribute is also paid to those who survived to see Darwin rebuilt and to see the Northern Territory become an important base for Allied operations to Australia’s north.