In a speech given on 17 February 1942 Prime Minister Curtin called the fall of Singapore “Australia's Dunkirk”; two days later mainland Australia was attacked for the first time.
The attacks which were led by Naval Commander Mitsuo Fuchida, who also led the raid on Pearl Harbour ten weeks earlier, involved aircraft from ten aircraft carriers in the Timor Sea and 54 land based bombers. Forty-seven vessels were at anchor in the harbour, or along side Darwin’s Stokes Hill Wharf.
In the first attack, which began just before 10 o’clock in the morning, 188 planes attacked shipping in the harbour before bombing and strafing the town, the RAAF Station Darwin, the civil aerodrome and the hospital at Berrimah. Civilian contractor Stan Kennan was in his Smith Street workshop as the first raid began.
Only two things now stand between us and the overthrow of everything that we have, and of everything that we ever might hope to have. Those two things are: the heroism and fighting prowess of the men who go forward to battle, and the industry, zeal and devotion of the men and women who remain behind.
As the bombs rained down on the harbour, Postmaster Hurtle Bald, his wife Alice, 16 year old daughter Iris and six staff hurried to the slip trench in the back yard of the Old Darwin Post Office. In the first minutes of the raid the trench received a direct hit, killing them instantly. The Westpac Bank suffered considerable bomb damage, the Victoria Hotel had a bomb explode in the backyard during the first air raid, while the nearby Commonwealth Bank escaped any damage.
Wilbert ‘Darkie’ Hudson was an Anti-Aircraft Gunner, caught taking a shower when the first bombs fell. He went to his post wearing nothing but a towel. Wilbert ‘Darkie’ Hudson later became the first Australian solider to be decorated for bravery in action on Australian soil. He received the Military Medal.
The second attack on Darwin that day took place just before midday. The RAAF Station Darwin aerodrome was the main target, when 54 bombers completed the devastation begun in the first attack. This second attack lasted for about 25 minutes.
The two raids killed at least 252 people, and between 300 and 400 were wounded. No one will ever know the real figure. In the harbour over 20 ships were sunk or badly damaged, 23 Allied aircraft were destroyed. Japanese losses were calculated at three bombers and two Zero fighters. In the hours following the raid, believing that an invasion was imminent, Darwin’s remaining population began to stream southwards heading for Adelaide River and the train south.
Around half the population fled. The so-called panic was repeated at the RAAF base where some servicemen deserted their stations, largely as a result of a confused order for military personnel to regroup beyond the town’s boundaries. On 12 March, Prime Minister of Japan, General Hideki Tojo declared that resistance to Japanese forces was futile and threatened that if the Australian Government did not modify its attitude that Australia would suffer the same fate as the Netherlands East Indies.
During March and April 1942 attacks on Darwin continued remorselessly with at least a dozen raids. Writer and journalist David McNickel was serving with the Australian forces in Darwin and wrote a poem called ‘Morning for a Raid’.
It was a beautiful morning, and we were just having smoko. We heard this flight of aircraft approaching, and we walked outside and watched these aircraft coming in from the West. They were coming in such perfect formation, it was a matter of moments to count the eight groups of nine, so 72 aircraft. You just had to admire their perfect formation. And a moment later, bombs were actually landing around the post office, around the walls.
A letter home recalls life for a solider, posted to Darwin in 1942.
Few still realise the true scale of the attacks on the Darwin region during World War II. Servicemen and women, as well as civilians in the Top End, experienced the pain, anguish and fear of war first hand over a long period of time. Air attacks on Darwin, and bases throughout the Top End continued from February 1942 until November 1943 by which time the Japanese had bombed Darwin and the Top End 64 times. The last attack took place on 12 November, 1943, 21 months after the first raid.
The Territory’s tropical capital still holds the indelible marks of its courageous wartime history, and the lives of those who gave their lives to defending Australia are commemorated at the Darwin Cenotaph.