A Top End military road trip
Road-tripping in the Top End is an experience like no other, and for those with an interest in military history, there’s plenty to see that evokes the Northern Territory’s important role in World War II.
After exploring Darwin’s many attractions, including the Bombing of Darwin Harbour at Stokes Hill Wharf and the Defence of Darwin Experience at the Darwin Military Museum precinct, hit the road south to get an idea of how far-ranging the impact of the war was felt, and how smaller communities played their part in the defence of northern Australia.
You don’t have to go far before your first stop. Take a small detour off the Stuart Highway at East Arm, and about 36km from Darwin City, you’ll find the Quarantine Battery, the most complete anti-aircraft gun-site in the Darwin area. During World War II, this was a command post with four gun emplacements, charged with protecting the southern section of Darwin Harbour. The substantial remains of the battery are on the corner of Berrimah Road and Casey Street, and are well worth investigating.
Back on the Stuart Highway, which until 1943 was known as the North-South Road, it’s then only about an hour’s drive (87km) to the town of Batchelor. The Batchelor aerodrome became an important RAAF base in 1941 and you can find out more about its significant role in the war at the Batchelor Museum, including as the departure point for the first bombing missions against the Japanese from Australian soil.
Book ahead to take a three-hour tour of the former World War II Repair and Service Unit 4RSU Camp at Pell Mell, 100km south of Darwin. The WWII4RSU Tour starts where the taxiway from Pell Airstrip was used to bring aircraft in and the tour includes the chance to see many artefacts and hear the stories of rescue and repair.
From Pell Mell, it’s only another 10km to the town of Adelaide River. The peaceful gardens that surround the Top End’s only war cemetery provide a place to contemplate the loss of life during the bombing of Darwin. Adelaide River was a major operations and medical centre for Australian and American defence forces and is the resting place of 434 Allied Service men and women killed in action and 63 civilians who died in the bombings.
Another two hours’ drive south will bring you to the town of Katherine, another significant strategic place in the defence of Australia during World War II and the location of two Australian Army hospitals during the war. Katherine, now a town of around 10,000 people, was the southern-most point of Japanese bombing raids on the Northern Territory; it was bombed once, on 22 March 1942. There’s still a Royal Australian Air Force base just outside the township, so don’t be surprised if you see (and hear) military aircraft overhead.
The Katherine Museum is a good starting place to learn more. Housed in the former air terminal, built in 1945, the museum has wartime displays as well as a large collection of Aboriginal artefacts, photographs, furniture, maps, tools and pioneer memorabilia. Among the highlights are Overland Telegraph objects dating back to 1872 and the De Havilland Gypsy Moth plane used by the first flying doctor, Dr Clyde Fenton, in the 1930s.
Just 3km down the road from the museum, take Knotts Crossing Rd, for a look at the shrapnel scars and bomb crater at the historic Old Gallon Licence Store. It’s a gorgeous setting, near the banks of the Katherine River, surrounded by large Boab and Bauhinia trees.
To the south of Katherine, Mataranka is best known for its hot springs, but during the war it was the base for more than 100 military units. The Mataranka Aboriginal Army Camp was established in late 1943 for 350 indigenous workers who were supporting the war effort by working for the army. The army also set up Aboriginal camps at Adelaide River, Manbulloo and Larrimah and as far south as Alice Springs.
On the return trip to Darwin, about 45km south of the city, take time to stop on the Stuart Highway when you see the life-size shapes of aircraft looming along the north-bound side of the road. These fantastic cut-outs tell the story of the highway’s former role as the Strauss Airfield, used by Australian, British and American aircraft during the war. Built in 1942, the airfield had a 1.5 km long, 30m wide runway, as well as huts, tents, and parking bays for the aircraft, and interpretive panels tell their stories.