Australia’s Pearl Harbor: Darwin

Ten weeks after its sneak attack on Oahu the same Japanese carrier group hit the port city of Darwin—and caught the Aussies napping.

The morning of Feb. 19, 1942, dawned hot and humid in Australia’s Northern Territory. Some 50 miles north across Beagle Gulf from Darwin—the region’s sparsely populated seaside capital—Roman Catholic Father John McGrath was working in a field near his mission station at Nguiu on Bathurst Island. Shortly after 9:15 the growing rumble of multiple engines drew the priest’s gaze skyward, where, through breaks in the clouds, he saw a large formation of aircraft flying toward the mainland.

When not performing his ecclesiastical duties, McGrath served as a volunteer coast-watcher—one of several hundred military and civilian observers scattered throughout northern Australia and the South Pacific whose job it was to report sightings of potentially hostile ships or aircraft. Though the Pacific War was scarcely two months old, the Japanese had already landed in the Philippines, the Dutch East Indies and New Guinea, moved into Thailand and Malaya, and taken Hong Kong. Singapore had fallen on February 15, and most Australians believed their island nation was next on Tokyo’s list.

Unable to positively identify the high-flying aircraft, McGrath ran to a small hut built in the middle of a citrus orchard and turned on his pedal-powered radio transmitter. After anxious minutes spent waiting for the set to warm up, he sent an urgent message to Darwin warning of the incoming formation. Told to stand by, the priest wondered if war had finally come to Australia. He didn’t have to wait long for his answer, as minutes later six Mitsubishi A6M2 “Zero” fighters of the Imperial Japanese Navy swooped down from the clouds and methodically machine-gunned a civilian transport plane parked on the mission’s short airstrip.

But the damage done on Bathurst was nothing compared to what was about to befall Darwin.

Though he did not know it, the planes Father McGrath saw had lifted off earlier that morning from four of the six aircraft carriers that just 10 weeks earlier had launched the devastating attack against the U.S. Pacific Fleet and military installations on Oahu, Hawaii. The 188 planes that passed over Bathurst—a mix of Zeros, Aichi D3A1 “Val” (a later Allied reporting name) dive-bombers and Nakajima B5N2 “Kate” torpedo bombers, carrying conventional bombs—were on their way to Darwin. Less than two hours behind them was a second attack wave, 54 land-based Mitsubishi G3M2 “Nell” and G4M1 “Betty” medium bombers that had taken off from island airstrips in the Dutch East Indies.

While the primary reason for the Pearl Harbor attack had been to cripple American naval power in the Pacific, the Japanese targeted Darwin because of its location. Since the 1939 outbreak of World War II in Europe, the Australian government had developed the port city—home to the northernmost harbor in Australia—and its environs into something of a logistical hub. The outbreak of war in the Pacific had only increased Darwin’s importance, and it quickly became a major supply base for the Allied defense of the Dutch East Indies and, to a lesser extent, for the resupply of the threatened Philippines. The Japanese believed they had to neutralize Darwin if they were to continue their advance through the Pacific. Initially, there was talk in Japanese naval circles of actually invading Australia, not with intent to overrun the continent, but simply to carve off the Darwin area and turn it into a huge bomber and fighter base. Cooler heads prevailed, and the plan evolved into a massive air strike. The Japanese military command assigned the mission to Vice Admiral Chu¯ ichi Nagumo’s Kido¯ Butai, the strike force then centered on the aircraft carriers Akagi, Kaga, Hiryu¯ and So¯ryu¯ , and the man tapped to lead the carrier-borne aircraft was Commander Mitsuo Fuchida, who had led the first wave over Oahu and was determined to turn the attack on Darwin into Australia’s Pearl Harbor.

Darwin, however, was no Pearl Harbor—at least not in terms of its military importance. For starters, the harbor was not home to a powerful armada of warships. It was rather cramped, had a bottle-necked entrance with a single L-shaped pier and lacked the floating dry docks and other repair facilities that made America’s Hawaiian bastion so valuable a target. Nor were there numerous airfields nearby, packed with squadrons of fighters, bombers and transport aircraft. Indeed, the single small Royal Australian Air Force field at Parap, just north of Darwin proper, was little more than a refueling depot and maintenance facility. On the day of the raid it was home to just five CAC Wirraway armed trainers, none of which was serviceable, and a handful of twin-engine Lockheed Hudson light bombers. Ten U.S. Army Air Corps Curtiss P-40E Warhawk fighters had taken off from the field early that morning en route to Java via Timor but had run into foul weather and were on their way back.

Nor was Darwin bristling with the sort of anti-aircraft defenses that had protected Pearl Harbor. Indeed, there were only 18 guns in and around the Australian town that could reach airplanes flying at 20,000 feet, most of them 3.7-inch quick-firing weapons, plus a scattering of World War I Lewis machine guns for use against strafers. Most of the Lewis guns were mounted on improvised wooden stakes hammered into the ground.

And Darwin was no Honolulu. Town itself was tiny; a saloon-dotted frontier outpost literally on the fringe of civilization, cut off from the rest of Australia but for a single dirt track to Alice Springs, the lonely town amid the vast area Australians refer to as the back of beyond. Darwin, according to one Australian journalist, was being used as a “military Siberia.” Soldiers and sailors assigned to the city soon “went troppo,” symptoms of which might include throwing sticks to an imaginary dog or screaming at one’s laundry to dry.

So, again, why did the Japanese attack Darwin?

Since the outbreak of the Pacific War the city’s less-than-ideal harbor had been a staging area for convoys bearing troops and equipment to the battle zones north of Australia. And following the early defeats suffered by the Allies in those battle zones, units seeking to escape capture or destruction by the seemingly invincible Japanese came flowing back into Australia through the city’s port, civilian airfield and RAAF base. Darwin might not have been the mighty bastion Pearl Harbor was, but by attacking the city and its infrastructure, the Japanese hoped to interrupt the Allied flow of men and materiel toward the Philippines, New Guinea and the islands of the South and Central Pacific, while at the same time inflicting a similar blow to Australian morale as Pearl Harbor had to American morale.

Japan’s ultimate success in achieving those goals owed much to several unfortunate similarities between the first two great carrier-borne raids launched by the IJN in the Pacific War.

American losses at Pearl Harbor might have been mitigated had a duty officer not disregarded the radar detection of incoming Japanese aircraft, assuming instead the radar had painted a group of B-17s arriving from California. Ironically, Australia’s first operational radar unit had been set up a few miles north of Darwin and was said to be capable of picking up aircraft as far as 100 miles away. Unfortunately, just one element of the station was missing: the antenna. Yet even if the radar had been functional, operators might only have confirmed the RAAF’s belief that the aircraft spotted by Father McGrath were the returning USAAC Warhawks. Finally, just as casualties in Hawaii might have been reduced had authorities triggered air raid sirens following that initial, disregarded warning, the Darwin raid would have resulted in far fewer deaths and injuries had authorities blown the sirens after receiving McGrath’s warning.

When Fuchida and his strike force arrived over Darwin, there were 45 ships in port, moored and anchored in a manner that largely prevented defensive maneuvering or escape. “Sitting ducks generally display more common sense and more instinct for self-preservation,” journalist Peter Grose wrote in An Awkward Truth, his history of the attack.

The largest warship present was the destroyer USS Peary, an aging four-stacker that had evaded destruction by the Japanese in Manila Bay, arrived in Darwin on January 3 and been engaged in a series of uneventful antisubmarine patrols. While the ship had more sea room than most of the other vessels in port, by the time its crew realized they were under attack it was already too late—five bombs rained down on the destroyer. “Peary was now like a dying animal, dragging painfully along, with her stern gradually sinking,” Grose wrote. “More than one eyewitness wrote that the forward guns were still firing as she slid under the burning waters.” Eighty-eight crewmen were killed, 13 wounded.

Japanese dive-bombers also hit the Australian hospital ship Manunda, killing 12 and injuring seven. Fuchida later said he’d seen the prominent red crosses on the ship’s hull and funnel, but he would have been flying above the melee in a command-and-coordinate position. Unfortunately, several dive-bomber pilots didn’t have as good a view and released their bombs on Manunda. To this day many Australians believe the Japanese purposely attacked the plainly marked hospital ship.

The attackers ultimately sank eight ships in port, while 25 others were bombed, thoroughly strafed or beached by their crews. Darwin’s equivalent of Pearl Harbor’s USS Arizona disaster was the explosion of the docked cargo vessel Neptuna, which was loaded with ammunition and depth charges. The blast killed 45 seamen and stevedores and, combined with the detonation of several large oil-storage tanks, largely obliterated the port itself.

The ships and port facilities were not the only targets. One bomb struck the post office, killing nine civilian staffers, while other bombs largely destroyed a public hospital. Distress calls were impossible, as the attack had also disabled the telephone, telegraph and cable infrastructure, while the RAAF’s jury-rigged communication system— radios salvaged from a crashed B-17 and powered by car batteries—wasn’t operational by the time the Japanese arrived. This despite the fact Australia had been at war with Germany for nearly two and a half years and had watched the Japanese inexorably advance for 10 weeks.

The attackers, for their part, escaped relatively unscathed. The 10 returning USAAC Warhawks had arrived over Darwin just before the Japanese appeared, and five of the American fighters had already landed while the other five provided top cover. Attacking Zeros quickly downed four of the airborne Warhawks and destroyed all of those on the ground; the pilot of the surviving U.S. fighter—Lieutenant Robert Oestreicher of the 3rd Pursuit Squadron—managed to down two Vals and survive the experience. His were the first confirmed aerial victories over Australia. Ground fire claimed one other Val and a Zero.

While the departure of the last Japanese aircraft from Darwin’s skies marked the end of the attack, it was only the beginning of what became the bitter legacy of Australia’s Pearl Harbor—a legacy of panic, cowardice, incompetence, desertion, looting and near anarchy.

The first order of business was a measured evacuation. Panicky civilians were impeding recovery efforts, yet no one had the say-so to remove them in an orderly fashion. The local government refused to declare martial law, fearing further panic, and since nobody else was willing to step up, many workers simply dropped their tools, and civilian air-raid wardens, firefighters and other first responders walked off the job.

The American steamship President Grant fortuitously arrived from Manila soon after the raid, the captain having navigated the thicket of Dutch East Indian and Javan islands with nothing more than a National Geographic map. The ship was able to evacuate some 250 women and children (owner American President Lines later billed the Australian government £100 per passenger, though the standard Darwin-to-Sydney fare was only £25).

Others, both military and civilian, fled southward by foot and aboard every available vehicle, including a road grader, an ice-cream vendor’s bicycle and, notoriously, a fully loaded sewage “honey wagon.” Many feared the air raid was the prelude to an invasion. With their destinations in mind, horse racing fans dubbed the bugout the “Adelaide River Stakes” or “Alice Springs Derby.” One confused sailor asked for directions to the city of Adelaide and was told, “Straight down that road—2,000 miles straight down it.”

Some of the worst confusion involved the men at the heavily hit Darwin airbase, virtually all of whom stampeded after the second attack. “There was an awful panic, and a lot of men simply went bush,” said RAAF Group Capt. Frederick Scherger. “I thought at one stage they had disappeared to a man. We were in a horrible mess.” Evacuation instructions had been given in Chinese-telegraph fashion, one person passing them to the next, inevitably garbling the original orders. Some troops were told to trudge a half-mile down the road and camp in the brush, others were told to make for Adelaide as fast as possible. One man even made it to Melbourne, 2,300 miles away, in a 13-day trek. Two hundred seventy-eight airmen never looked back, having gone AWOL or worse.

Meanwhile, in Darwin looting and hoarding became endemic as residents abandoned their homes and shops. Hardly a window along the main street remained intact, and roving gangs, often comprising servicemen, stripped vacant houses bare. Officers, unable to control their troops, either participated in the looting or excused the robberies, claiming their men were running out of food and supplies —and, apparently, cigarettes, liquor and beer.

Authorities called on merchant seamen who had survived the sinking or beaching of their own ships to help crew the remaining navigable ships and help unload desperately needed stores. Nothing doing: Union rules insisted they were to be paid and returned to their home ports and could not accept other work in the meantime.

Darwin resident Aubrey Abbott, administrator of the Northern Territory, was the one man who might have steered the town away from anarchy. Instead, he seems to have been preoccupied with the rescue of valuable dishes and other crockery, as well as the substantial contents of his liquor larder, from the damaged Government House, even commandeering policemen to help load the housewares and booze into his car.

The Australian government clamped down on news of the raid, downplaying any information on casualties or damage and decreeing that the media were not to report on it. At the time of the raid Darwin was more remote from Sydney than Easter Island is from New York today, and the media blackout only served to spawn wild rumors—Darwin was in flames; thousands had died; soldiers were shooting looters and deserters; the Japanese were on their way to Sydney. Australian officials should have taken a lesson from President Franklin Roosevelt, whose brutal honesty about the drubbing the Japanese had given the United States at Pearl Harbor helped swing a largely isolationist nation toward a pro-war footing almost overnight.

The death toll for the February 1942 attack— known in Australia as the Great Darwin Raid— was initially placed at 243 civilians, seamen and military personnel. Postwar estimates boosted that number, and 310 killed and 400 wounded is the generally accepted toll. It may seem a modest loss compared to the 3,600 killed and wounded in Hawaii on December 7, but it ranks among the deadliest events in Australian history. Perhaps more important, the aftermath of the attack was deeply humiliating for many Australians, a people proud of their self-sufficiency and frontier spirit who were shocked they had proven less able to handle adversity than the “Pommies” back in England—after all, neither Londoners nor Coventrians had fled en masse from far worse air raids.

The Great Darwin Raid was the first—and worst—of many such attacks. The town and its harbor were bombed 63 more times, the last attack coming in mid-November 1943. But Australia never again faced attack from aircraft carriers. The Battle of the Coral Sea—at worst a standoff, at best an Allied strategic victory—came less than three months after the Darwin raid, and the Battle of Midway followed just a month after that. It would be scant consolation to the people of Darwin, but Japan would advance no farther.

Stephan Wilkinson is a frequent contributor to Military History and Aviation History. For further reading he recommends An Awkward Truth: The Bombing of Darwin, February 1942, by Peter Grose, and Carrier Attack: Darwin 1942, by Tom Lewis and Peter Ingman.

Originally published in the March 2015 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.

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