Australia's Front Line
WW2 came to Australia right around its coastline, even prior to the commencement of the Pacific War. German minelayers and raiders made their presence felt and one even launched its floatplane over Adelaide to ensure there were no ships in port capable of catching the parent ship ('Pinguin') as it went about its deadly work laying mines. Late in the war a German U-Boat' patrolled Australia's southern coast and, it even circumnavigated New Zealand.
However, with the entry of Japan into the war on 7 December 1941, Darwin's strategic significance meant that the immediate area around Darwin, south as far as Katherine, suffered the most intense and sustained enemy action in WW2, and thus forms the focus of this campaign.
Japanese maritime activity off Australia tended to focus on the east coast with the midget submarine raid on Sydney Harbour in May 1942 and the sinking of the AHS Centaur in 14 May 1943 being the most well known.
The northern Australian 'Operational Area' is officially defined as that part of Australia north of the line 14 degrees 30 minutes south of the Equator. The line passes through Katherine and also cuts through the Cape York Peninsula. Personnel serving in this area in the prescribed time frame, were awarded the British Defence Medal, which distinguishes the personnel described as 'Darwin Defenders'. Areas outside this zone were attacked including Townsville in far north Queensalnd, but on a much reduced scale.
Darwin was sustained via resupply by road and to a lesser extent sea, air and a somewhat disjointed rail 'system'. The rail line wan't connected to anything further south than Adelaide River. The southern rail head (from Adelaide) was Alice Springs, but even its connection to Adelaide was more than tenuous and torturously slow, being particularly vulnerable to flooding after heavy rain. Thus road became the principal means of communication with the northern port.
The first and most deadly attack on Darwin took place on 19 February 1942, when Japanese naval aircraft launched from the same carrier group (Kaga, Soryu, Hiryu and Akagi) that had attacked Pearl Harbour on 6 December 1941, and two of which (Kaga and Akagi) later headed the task force that captured Rabaul, hit Darwin in successive waves inflicting heavy personnel and materiel casualties. Another wave of land-based bombers also raided that day.
Fig 1. A photograph taken during the first and largest Japanese air raid of the war on Darwin. The ammunition ship MV Neptuna explodes in the background after a direct hit. The corvette HMAS Deloraine rides at anchor in the foreground and remained unharmed. AWM ID 128108
A total of 10 ships were sunk in the intial attack with several more later that day of a total of over 60 ships in Darwin harbour that day. Dozens of Allied Aircraft were destroyed or damaged on the ground. Of five USAAF P40 fighters to get airborne, four were shot down by one Japanese pilot. Most of Darwin's oil storage tanks were destroyed and some public infrastructure, notably the Post Office, was destroyed or heavily damaged. Official estimates calculated somewhere between 243 and 295 people killed with about 300 wounded. Unoffical tallies claim as many as 1,000 fatalities but that is not consistent with the number of wounded, with about 300 documented instances. Many were foreign sailors on ships in the harbor.
Disorganisation and ill-discipline on the ground after the raid did not bring great credit on some of the defenders. Rumours abounded about imminent invasion. While there was inuendo of a cover up, the evidence does not bear this out beyond normal wartime censorship and control of reporting.
As a footnote, all four Japanese carriers were lost in July 1942 at the Battle of Midway meaning the Japanese lost the capacity to mount a repeat of its earlier massed attacks and restricting options to land based bombers from Timor.
After the 19 February 1942 Japanese raid, the Northern Territory and parts of Western Australia's north were bombed approximately 100 times between 4 March 1942 and 12 November 1943. Of those raids, 64 took place against Darwin. One of the heaviest attacks took place on 16 June 1942 when a Japanese raid set fire to the oil fuel tanks around the harbour and inflicted severe damage to the vacant banks, stores and railway yards.
Japanese raids were intended to deny the target areas as bases for attack on its occupied territory, rather than as a precursor to invasion as was widely believed at the time. The 19th February raid certainly achieved that aim, denying any further maritime support to the Netherlands East Indies.
The Allied navies (RAN USN and RN) largely abandoned the naval base at Darwin after the initial 19 February attack, dispersing most of their fleet assets to Brisbane, Fremantle, and other, smaller, seaports.
On the other hand, Allied air strength was increased substantially and bases further south off the Sturt Highway became launching points for raids into Japanese occupied areas for the rest of the war with some units re-locating late in the war to the islands to the north; particularly Morotai and later Borneo.
In addition to the air raids, a total of six German surface raiders (1939-41), four Japanese aircraft carriers, seven Japanese cruisers, nine Japanese destroyers and twenty eight Japanese and German submarines operated in Australian waters between 1940 and 1945. These 54 warships sank 53 merchant ships and three warships within the Australia Station, resulting in the deaths of over 1,751 Allied military personnel, sailors and civilians.
As a footnote in history, it is recorded that in Janary 1944, a Japanese reconnaissance party landed on the Kimberley Coast. A joint army-navy intelligence unit, of ten men in a commandeered Timorese fishing vessel , landed to assess reports that the Allies had begun to build major new bases on the northernmost coast of the Kimberley region of Western Australia, facing the Timor Sea. They made brief visits to the uninhabited Ashmore Reef and Browse Island. On 19 January, Matsu Kikan entered York Sound on the mainland. No recent activity was detected and they gained very little from the expedition, apart from a powerful impression of just how hostile the terrain in that regions was.
(c) Steve Larkins March 2020
1. Grose, Peter (2009). An awkward truth: the bombing of Darwin, February 1942. Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin. p. 192. ISBN 978-1-74176-473-4.
3. Rosenzweig, Paul. Darwin 1942: A reassessment of the first raid casualties - occasional paper listed on the AWM Shelf List 2012
4. Gill (1957). Australia in the War of 1939–1945. Series 2 – Navy. Volume I – Royal Australian Navy, 1939–1942. Australian War Memorial, Canberra.