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On parade vesteys 1939

The Northern Territory at war


In December 1941 the long expected war in the Pacific began with Japanese landings on the Malayan Peninsular and the surprise attack on the United States naval base at Pearl Harbor.

The sudden fall of Singapore and the rapid, unchecked Japanese advance through the Netherlands East Indies (now the Indonesian archipelago) raised fears of the invasion of Australia; there were calls in the US to recognise Australia as the logical base for a counter-offensive and Darwin as a vital strategic position that must be held at all costs as the only suitable striking base in the north-west of Australia. By early 1942 the Territory was a jump-off point for Allied forces deployed in the Netherlands East Indies.

The strategic threat posed by Darwin was not lost on the Japanese. Japanese aircraft from the carrier strike force that had attacked Pearl Harbor, struck the town at 9.58 a.m. 19 February 1942. The raids led to a repositioning of armed forces in the Darwin region.


Adelaide River was developed to become a huge base for Australian and US headquarters, hospitals and logistic support including army farms. Darwin itself became a fortress area, with the navy assuming defensive responsibility for Darwin and the army assuming responsibility for the coastal defences.

Military camps were rapidly established adjacent to the North-South Road and roadside airstrips were hurriedly constructed for the aircraft of the RAAF and USAAF. Alice Springs became the railhead and supply base for the north, with Larrimah, Mataranka and Katherine providing extensive storage and engineering facilities.

Civil administration of the Northern Territory was relocated to Alice Springs early in March 1942. The Northern Australia Observer Unit – known as ‘Curtin’s Cowboys’ and assisted by Aboriginal people – was formed and carried out surveillance of the isolated north-west coastline from remote bush camps. Anthropologist, Donald Thomson was responsible for an Aboriginal Special Reconnaissance Unit that patrolled the East Arnhem Land coast. The Tiwi Islanders formed a patrol under John Gribble, and the Aborigines on Cox Peninsula formed a ‘Black Watch’ under superintendent Jack Murray.


March and April 1942 saw the arrival in the Darwin area of the USAAF and RAAF Squadrons to carry out offensive missions over the Japanese-held Netherlands East Indies. Newly developed Radio Direction Finding (RDF, later Radar) facilities were established in the Darwin area providing valuable early warning for the defences.

By late 1942 Australian forces had consolidated and were able to take over a number of roles previously fulfilled by the US forces. US heavy bomber groups continued their long-range raids on Japanese-held positions in the islands, operating from Batchelor, Fenton and Manbulloo airfields.

The Australian and US navies set up operational facilities in Darwin, using civic buildings as headquarters, workshops and administrative centres, while an explosives storage facility was constructed at Frances Bay. At Snake Creek near Adelaide River the development of a huge naval armament storage depot was commenced.

Audio:Prime Minister Curtin


Allied successes during 1943-44 saw the desperate pace of activities slow as the tide of war moved northward. The war ended abruptly with the dropping of atomic bombs on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and Japan surrendered unconditionally on 14 August 1945. Almost immediately a dramatic withdrawal of military forces began and the civilian population of Darwin and the Top End gradually drifted back to shattered homes and businesses.

Throughout the Territory the abandoned military buildings, stores and vehicles at camps, airfields and depots were disposed of in post-war auction sales and the materials and equipment were removed. Literally thousands of military sites were stripped of useable materials leaving the concrete slabs and foundations, access roads and taxi-ways, grease traps and drains, gun positions and magazines, and the many other reminders of World War II that contribute to the rich tapestry of the Territory’s heritage.

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