Anniversary of the Bombing of Darwin

Hodgkinson, Roy (1942). " First air-raid on Australia, 19 February 1942", charcoal, watercolour, goauche on paper, Australian War Memorial Art Collection.

On the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the bombing of Darwin, Dr Peter Stanley of the Australian War Memorial stated that "Darwin is arguably Australia's most inclusive battle", which resulted in deaths across all three services, merchant navy and civilians, as well US Navy and Aircrew aboard the USS Peary.[1] It is worth noting, as Peter Stanley did, that the majority of those who died do not feature on the Australian War Memorial's roll of honor. The exact number of Australians who died that day remains a subject of debate, but the Australian War Memorial puts that number at around 250, far greater than the 17 that censored newspapers reported at the time.

Australia’s Day of Infamy – 19th February 1942

Courtesy of Norm Cramp   The Darwin Military Museum

In the early hours of Thursday 19th February 1942 a lone Japanese long-rang ‘Jake’ reconnaissance float plane flew its mission over Darwin and found the harbour full of ships and the weather “good”. The fly-over was the prelude to the first, and largest, attack by a foreign nation on Australian soil and, like the attack on the US Fleet at Pearl Harbor on 7th December 1941 – it came as a complete surprise!    

MAP OF NORTH-WESTERN AREA OF OPERATIONS (Source: Tom Lewis, The Empire Strikes South, p. 6)

The attack on the 19th was the first of 64 that took place between February 1942 and November 1943. The first two raids claimed 235 Allied lives and, over the duration of the campaign, some 200 Japanese aviators.[2] Until recently, the air raids on Darwin and across the top end of Australia, the ‘Battle for Australia’, had received little attention. The following points are a precis of some of the unknown facts in the battle.

1.      In reality the battle commenced almost a month before the bombing of Darwin when the Royal Australian Navy Corvette HMAS Deloraine sunk the Imperial Japanese Navy’s submarine I-124 outside of Darwin Harbour.[3]

2.      The first contact with the Japanese attack group took place on 15th February when USAAF pilot Lt. Robert Buel attacked a Japanese ‘Mavis’ bomber over the Timor Sea. Buel was killed when his ‘Kittyhawk’ P-40E fighter was shot down. One of the ‘Mavis’ crew was killed when it crashed into the sea.[4]


Bob Alford Collection

3.      The first raid on Darwin was the first and only raid launched from Japanese aircraft carriers.

4.      The Japanese attack group was the same battle group that had attacked Pearl Harbor seventy-four days earlier.

5.      188 Japanese aircraft took part in the raids being launched from the four ‘Pearl Harbor’ aircraft carriers.

6.      10 USAAF ‘Kittyhawks’ were in the air but were ordered to land leaving 5 to patrol the skies over Darwin. 3 of these are shot down, one lands and is destroyed by enemy action along with the others on the ground. One P-40 remained in the air but took no part in the ‘battle’.

7.      The Japanese dropped more bombs on Darwin than Pearl Harbor.

8.      9 ships were sunk in the harbour and 2 outside the (main) harbour.

9.      Of the 235 Allied personnel killed over 100 were American.[5]

10.  The Japanese had no plan to invade Australia.[6]

11.  The Japanese raid leader, Fuchido Mitsuo, who also led the Pearl Harbor raid, survived the war, turned Christian and preached the gospel of love and forgiveness for the rest of his life.

Unexploded Japanese Bomb, 1942 (Source: Tom Lewis, The Empire Strikes South, p. 94)


JAPANESE BOMB (Source: Darwin Military Museum collection).
 FUCHIDO MITSUO’S BIBLE (Source: Darwin Military Museum collection)

[1] Peter Stanley (2002). "Remembering 1942: The Bombing of Darwin,"  Australian War Memorial,
[2] Tom Lewis, The Empire Strikes South, p. 7.
[3] Tom Lewis, Darwin’s Submarine I-124, PP. 47-64. The I-124 was sunk during action on 20th January 1942.
[4] Lewis, The Empire Strikes South, p. 11.
[5] 90 of these were crew of the USS Peary, a ‘four stack’ destroyer that remains on the bottom of Darwin Harbour today
[6] Steven Bullard, ‘A Japanese Invasion?’, Wartime, Issue 77, Summer 2017, pp.44-49.