On February 19, 1942, the war-crowded northern Australian harbor of Port Darwin was struck by 198 Japanese bombers. This coordinated land and naval-based air strike surprised the ill-prepared defenders and devastated the port and the shipping concentrated within its harbor. Arriving in two waves, the forty-five minute attack sank eight ships, ran four aground, and severely damaged another eleven. More than 240 people were killed, mostly aboard the ships. Two more ships were destroyed as the planes transited home. They also struck the nearby Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) base, destroying all the aircraft on the ground and downing all but one of the Australian fighters in the air. A follow-up raid finished off the base and inflicted so much wanton destruction that its military personnel fled to the south in panic. Total Japanese losses were only two aircraft. Darwin and its surrounding area endured more than a dozen air raids over the next fifteen months, but none would be as devastating as this first raid nor even approach its psychological impact.
Darwin’s defenses had been neglected during the prewar period, but the most glaring deficiency in the port s defenses was the almost total lack of cooperation among the agencies involved. The resident administrator, Charles Abbott, aloof and ineffectual, had antagonized the local population, including the civil defense and military leaders. Lacking the cooperation of the local population, he had failed to evacuate nonessential personnel, organize the civil defense organization, or establish communications with local military leaders. For their part, the local unions openly thwarted Abbott’s authority, and the civil defense officials blatantly ignored him when he did attempt to organize matters. The local military leaders also made their preparations separately. The Royal Australian Navy (RAN) had established a potentially effective system for protecting shipping offshore and in the port but had not established communications with the RAAF’s warning network. Thus, RAN forces could neither receive early warning of attack nor coordinate their activities with the air force. The RAAF’s only radar set in the area was inoperable on February 19. Moreover, the air force had a policy of withholding air warning until incoming aircraft were indisputably identified as Japanese, which meant that the bombs were practically falling before air-raid alarms could be issued. None of the defense agencies had practiced together or conducted an air-raid drill since the early weeks of December. That left them ill-prepared and confused as the attack developed. Finally, a series of false alarms had worn down local morale, undermined alertness, and led to the RAAF’s tightening its already stringent identification procedures.
Darwin had become a target because of its importance as an Allied forward base and logistics center. It was the only significant port in northern Australia and the only one from which the Allies could support their forces in Java and the southwest Pacific. The Imperial Japanese Navy staff had argued that Australia had to be seized, but the army had resisted, indicating that the continent required more troops to subdue and garrison than Japan had to expend. So Australia’s northern ports had to be neutralized instead, and the islands above it had to be seized as a buffer to prevent Allied counterstrokes against Japan’s intended “inner perimeter” of vital islands and resource centers. Destroying Darwin was the first step in that process and offered the additional advantage of diverting Allied resources to Australia’s defense and away from the fighting in Southeast Asia.
The air strike was planned and led by the same team, Commanders Genda and Fuchida, that had struck Pearl Harbor in Hawaii some two months earlier, using roughly the same methods and enjoying roughly the same results for roughly the same reasons (but the garrison at Darwin did not have the excuse that defenders had no idea they were at war). As far as the Japanese were concerned, the Allies were slow learners, particularly in light of the quite similar near-obliteration of U.S. air power in the Philippines by the Japanese raid on Clark Air Field. But in the Darwin strike the sea-based air wing was supported by a land-based element operating out of the recently captured airfields in the Dutch East Indies. The carrier-based aircraft would strike first, taking out the port, its shipping, and its defenses. They were escorted by thirty-six Zeros— arguably the best fighter aircraft in the Pacific at that time. The land-based horizontal bombers would then launch the second-phase attack, taking out the airfields and supporting facilities. The Japanese hoped to catch the Allied fighters on the ground, being serviced after the first raid. The plan succeeded beyond their fondest hopes.
The carrier aircraft took off at 8:45 A.M. and formed up for their one-hour flight to Darwin. Interestingly, both the carrier- and land-based aircraft were detected and reported by Australian coastwatchers some thirty minutes before they arrived over Darwin (again like the Pearl Harbor raid). Also, the carrier aircraft had struck an Allied convoy north of Darwin the previous day, and its surviving elements had sought refuge in the port. Although the convoy commander expected the Japanese to finish them off in Darwin, he never passed this assessment on to local officials. Instead, he despatched two destroyers and an oiler to refuel east of Darwin, and he placed his crews on alert. Coastwatchers’ reports were ignored pending further verification, and authorities ashore remained unaware of the convoy commander’s assessment. As a result, the raiders arrived unexpectedly and uncontested.
The ferocity and effectiveness of the Japanese attack stunned Australian authorities, but in the long run the surprise may have served them better than it did the Japanese (again as at Pearl Harbor), for it energized the Australians into action. No longer were civil defense officials ignored, Air-raid drills began in earnest throughout the country. Nonessential personnel departed Darwin willingly—indeed, enthusiastically (the exodus was sometimes termed “the Darwin Races”)—and a new, more effective administrator was appointed. A royal commission was formed to study what went wrong, and despite the obstruction and outright falsification of records by local authorities, the commission discovered the problems and made some specific recommendations to prevent similar disasters in the future. The local RAAF commander was replaced, the services were forced to establish a common air-defense reporting network, and warning procedures were liberalized to ensure earlier response. Now false alarms were preferable to further surprises. Although the Japanese continued their sporadic attacks against Port Darwin over the next fifteen months, as time went by the raids inflicted significantly less damage and led to higher losses for the Japanese.
Connaughton, Richard. Shrouded Secrets (1994).
Hall, Timothy. Darwin: Australia’s Darkest Hour (1980).
Piekalkiewicz, Janusz. The Air War 1939–1945 (1985).