The Japanese air raids on Darwin, Australia, on 19 February 1942 were the largest attacks mounted by a foreign power against Australia. They were also a significant action in the Pacific campaign of World War II and represented a major psychological blow to the Australian population, several weeks after hostilities with Japan had begun. The raids were the first of about 100 air raids against Australia during 1942-43.
This event is often called the "Pearl Harbor of Australia". Although it was a less significant target, a greater number of bombs were dropped on Darwin than were used in the attack on Pearl Harbor. As was the case at Pearl Harbor, the Australian town was unprepared and although it came under attack from the air another 63 times in 1942 and 1943, the raids on 19 February were massive and devastating by comparison.
At the time, Darwin had a population of about 2,000 - the normal civilian population of about 5,000 had been reduced by evacuation. It was a strategically-placed naval port and airbase, and there were about 15,000 Allied soldiers in the area.
Most of the attacking planes came from the four aircraft carriers of the Imperial Japanese Navy 's Carrier Division 1 ( Akagi and Kaga ) and Carrier Division 2 ( Hiryu and Soryu ), commanded by Admiral Chuichi Nagumo . Land-based heavy bombers were also involved. The Japanese launched two waves of planes, comprising 242 bombers and fighters .
Darwin was relatively well covered by anti-aircraft guns. However, the only operational Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) fighter squadrons were in Europe , North Africa or the Middle East ; the only modern fighters based in Darwin were 11 P-40s from the US Army Air Force 's 33rd Pursuit Squadron, in addition to lightly armed and/or obsolete training and patrol aircraft belonging to the RAAF. An experimental radar station was not yet operational
The first wave of 188 Japanese planes, led by naval Commander Mitsuo Fuchida took off at 8:45 a.m. At about 9:15 a.m., it was spotted by an Australian Coastwatcher on Melville Island (Northern Territory), then by Father John McGrath, a Catholic Priest conducting missionary work on Bathurst Island (Northern Territory). The latter would send the message, "An unusually large air formation bearing down on us from the northwest". Darwin received both warnings at least twice by radio, no later than 9:37 a.m. However 10 US P-40E Kittyhawk fighters and a LB-30 Liberator had just departed Darwin and the Australian duty officer assumed this was the same formation.
The warnings were not acted upon, so as at Pearl Harbor just months earlier on December 7, Darwin's final chance to make last-minute preparations for the impending raid slipped away. The attackers arrived at their target just before 10:00 a.m..
Commander Mitsuo Fuchida
Fuchida later wrote of the raid:
"The job to be done seemed hardly worthy of the Nagumo Force. The harbour, it is true, was crowded with all kinds of ships, but a single pier and a few waterfront buildings appeared to be the only port installations. The airfield on the outskirts of the town, though fairly large, had no more than two or three small hangars, and in all there were only twenty-odd planes of various types scattered about the field. No planes were in the air. A few attempted to take off as we came over but were quickly shot down, and the rest were destroyed where they stood. Anti-aircraft fire was intense but largely ineffectual, and we quickly accomplished our objectives".
In fact, the Japanese encountered five of the USAAF P-40s, which had recently returned from an aborted mission over Timor and were still carrying drop tanks - with both numbers and surprise on their side, Japanese fighters shot down all of the US planes, except one piloted by Lt Robert Ostreicher.
A total of 81 Nakajima B5N "Kate" torpedo bombers then attacked shipping - at least 45 vessels - in the harbour, while 71 Aichi D3A "Val" dive-bombers, escorted by 36 Mitsubishi A6M Zero fighter planes attacked Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) bases, civil airfields, and a hospital. Ostreicher shot down two Vals, and managed to survive the attack, but no Allied planes successfully took off, and all were destroyed or rendered unable to fly after the first attack. By about 10:40 a.m. the first wave of Japanese planes had left the area.
Nakajima B5N "Kate"
Just before midday, there was a high altitude attack by land-based bombers, concentrated on the Darwin RAAF Airfield : 27 Mitsubishi G3M "Nell" bombers flew from Ambon and 27 Mitsubishi G4M "Betty" from Kendari , Sulawesi . This second raid lasted for 20-25 minutes.
In spite of Fuchida's assessment of the anti-aircraft fire as "largely ineffectual", the lack of armour and self-sealing fuel tanks in many Japanese planes, as well as the prolonged low-level strafing runs carried out, made pilots and planes exceptionally vulnerable to ground fire. Most Australian sources say that four Japanese planes were destroyed in Australian airspace; it has been suggested that several more failed to return to their carriers or bases.
243 civilians and military personnel were killed on 19 February , most of them on the sunken ships. Over 400 people were wounded and 200 of these were seriously injured. The total number of these people who died from their wounds was not recorded.
The air raids caused chaos in Darwin. Most of the essential services were destroyed. Fear of an imminent invasion spread and there was a wave of refugees, as half of the town's civilian population fled. There were reports of looting and in some cases - it was alleged - the culprits were Provost Marshals . Many civilian refugees never returned, or did not return for many years and in the post-war years some claimed that land they owned in Darwin had been usurped by government bodies in their absence.
According to official figures, 278 servicemen were considered to have deserted as a result of the raids, although it has been argued that the "desertions" mostly resulted from ambiguous orders given to RAAF ground staff during the attack.
Eight ships were sunk in Darwin Harbour: the United States Navy destroyer USS Peary , the large US Army transport ship USAT Meigs , the Australian patrol boat HMAS Mavie and the merchant ships British Motorist, Kelat, Mauna Loa, Neptuna , and Zealandia. Among the ships damaged but not destroyed was a hospital ship, AHS Manunda .
AHS Manunda .
The USAAF lost 10 P-40s, one B-24 bomber, and three C-45 transport planes. The US Navy lost three PBY Catalina flying boats. The RAAF lost six Lockheed Hudsons .
The Allied navies largely abandoned the naval base at Darwin after the attack, dispersing most of their forces to Brisbane , Fremantle and smaller ports. Conversely, Allied air commanders launched a major build-up in the Darwin area, building more airfields and deploying many squadrons.
A memorial ceremony is held annually on 19 February at the Cenotaph in Darwin. It starts at 9:58am, the precise time of the first attack.