Katherine in WWII
The town of Katherine marks the southern most point of Japanese bombing raids on the Northern Territory in World War II. It was bombed once in the early afternoon of 22 March, 1942. Dorothy Hall was preparing lunch for her family that day. Ann Cox also witnessed the attack, and later wrote of her experience.
Several sites reflecting Katherine’s wartime role are well worth a visit, including the former meat works, home to Australian General Hospital units; the gallon store at Knotts Crossing which still bears shrapnel scars and a bomb crater from the raid that late wet season Sunday in 1942.
Now the Katherine Museum, the former Old Katherine Aerodrome terminal building was completed in 1945 by the Allied Works Council. The strategic importance of Katherine after the outbreak of the war in the Pacific promoted immediate improvements to the airfield. However, due to continuing inadequacies of the airfield, two new bomber bases were constructed – Manbulloo Airfield (completed in 1943) and Tindal (completed in December 1944).
After the first Japanese raids on the Top End in 1942 the Army was made responsible for supplying meat for all three services across the Territory. The Army placed contracts with suppliers at Pine Creek, Mataranka and the North Australian Meat Company at Manbulloo Station, part of the giant British Vesteys Company. Construction of the abattoir and freezing chambers began in March 1942. By 1944 about 700 head of cattle a week were being processed and dispatched to units up and down the track.
The strategic value of the Katherine River Low Level Crossing was recognised early in the war by the military and the approaches were upgraded and sealed by the New South Wales Department of Main Roads. A single-lane concrete bridge was built in 1942, and a small weir constructed several metres downstream to provide water to Katherine military camps. In 1943 the North-South Road was renamed the Stuart Highway and for many years the Low Level remained the main highway crossing over the river, with the railway bridge used during the Wet season floods.
There were men working out the front of the store. They suddenly raced down our driveway and over the fence into the bush. We knew something was wrong and came outside.
The planes were easily spotted in the Eastern sky. They circled the town three times before they dropped their bombs. They were very high, and looked like round soccer balls. There were eight planes. Then they went west, towards the meat works.
I didn’t see the bombs fall, but the sergeant of police would fire three shots in the air, as an air raid warning, and then three shots as the all-clear. Sometimes in the night, we wouldn’t know whether we had to go bush or not.
To the south of Katherine, Mataranka a prewar rail and pastoral centre hosted over 100 military units. The Mataranka Aboriginal Army Camp was established by late 1943 comprised of 350 Aboriginal workers who were supporting the war effort by working for the Army. Army Aboriginal camps were also set up at Adelaide River, Manbulloo and Larrimah and as far south as Alice Springs.