Skip to main content

Fortress Darwin

The defence build up in Darwin had begun in earnest in the 1920s and gathered momentum when Japan became increasing aggressive. By the late 1930s Darwin was one of Australia's fast-growing regional towns; workers arrived in the hundreds to construct new defence facilities.

With a worsening international situation, the small peninsula that made up the town of Darwin bristled with anti-aircraft guns; at East Point 6-inch gun batteries pointed north across the Arafura Sea, the Anti-Aircraft Battery stood in Fannie Bay, and the Quarantine Anti-Aircraft Battery stood at East Arm. Two aerodromes, including RAAF Station Darwin, were established as bases for RAAF and US fighter aircraft; and a steel boom net stretched 6 km across Darwin Harbour to deter hostile ships and submarines.

By January 1942 over 13,000 service personnel were located at camps along the northern section of the Stuart Highway. Camps were established beside the road with an influx of units mostly Army in April and May 1942. By the end of the year 26 units were camped along the Highway mainly on the eastern side between the 39-mile and 55-mile pegs. Jim Gaten was a leading hand carpenter with the Allied Works Council, responsible for constructing many of the camps along the highway and at airstrips in the Top End. Jim gives an insight into the kind of structures built to accommodate the thousands of service personnel.

By February 1942 there were around 13,000 military personnel in Darwin. Nearly half the civilian population of around 5,000 had been evacuated.

The first raids on Darwin prompted a dramatic expansion of the military presence in the Territory. The No.5 Fighter Sector Operations Room was formed on 25 February 1942 to coordinate aerial defences across Northern Australia, and the RAAF Explosive Storage Area and The Frances Bay Naval Ordance Depot were built to store explosives. By 1944 twenty structures had been build including above-ground and underground magazines and huts. The surviving stores are entered in the Northern Territory Heritage Register.

Jim Gaten, leading hand carpenter
View transcriptHide transcript

Most of our camps were just bush poles in the ground. Bush collar tie, bush rafter, and bush perlons, all tied together with wire. Because nails were not much use in bush poles.

The kitchens we generally finished up fly-wiring the actual kitchens, but not the messes. Later on those things came about, they came about later on on camps like Gorrie.

A lot of our material that we used was rescued from Darwin, we would send one or two trucks a week up to Darwin to bring back scraps. Corrugated iron, that’d be sorted out and the best of it would go up around the roofs, the not so good around the walls and the actual rubbish would go on the revetment bay - the blast walls around the revetment bays.

The civilian personnel side has never been truly presented, I feel. You know, whilst there were not a lot of us here, there were people here who were really dedicated to their country, just as much as the service personnel were.

Britain’s Singapore Strategy saw Darwin developed as a strategic fuel supply base. The Esplanade and Doctors Gully Oil Tanks and a pump-house were constructed along Darwin’s foreshore, along with oil tanks at Stokes Hill and a series of Oil Storage Tunnels under Darwin.

The Territory’s tropical capital still holds the indelible marks of its courageous wartime history. The relics and sites remain, a silent testament to the courage of those who defended Australia all those years ago.

Share this


Sign up to receive the latest news, deals and travel information about the Northern Territory. Data privacy