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The Japanese bombing of Darwin and northern Australia

During World War II, the Japanese flew sixty-four raids on Darwin and thirty-three raids on other targets in Northern Australia.

From the first raid on 19 February 1942 until the last on 12 November 1943, Australia and its allies lost about 900 people, 77 aircraft and several ships. Many military and civilian facilities were destroyed. The Japanese lost about 131 aircraft in total during the attacks.

Oil tanks burning during the first Japanese air raid
Darwin, 19th February 1942, oil tanks burning during the first Japanese air raid.
Image courtesy of the Australian War Memorial: 132532.

While, at the time, there were many rumours alluding to the Australian government's suppression of information about the bombings, the Australian War Memorial's Principal Historian, Dr Peter Stanley, explains that while reports of casualties were intentionally diminished to maintain national morale, at no time was information actually suppressed. Read the transcript of Dr Peter Stanley's Remembering 1942 talk about the bombing of Darwin on the Australian War Memorial website.

What lead to the attacks?

During the 1930s, the Japanese Empire became increasingly hostile. Initially, Japan invaded and occupied large parts of China .

Darwin, being the largest town in the north of Australia, was as a key defensive position against an aggressive Japan. Australia developed Darwin's military ports and airfields, built coastal batteries and anti-aircraft guns and steadily enlarged its garrison of troops.

By 1941 Japan also controlled Indochina (a federation of French colonies and protectorates in Southeast Asia). In December 1941, Japan bombed the Americans at Pearl Harbour and entered World War II. Within ten weeks, Japan controlled Hong Kong, Malaya, Singapore and the Australian territory of New Britain (Rabaul).

Australia strengthened the defences of Darwin as the Japanese forces moved closer.

The next step for the Japanese was to control the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia and East Timor). Darwin was a key port for the ships, planes and forces defending the Dutch East Indies, so the Japanese decided to attack Darwin to overcome these defences.

At the time many Australians believed that the Japanese planned to invade Australia. Many experts today, however, believe that the Japanese plan was to control the resource rich countries of South East Asia and establish strong defences against any counter-attacks from Australia and any European powers in the region.

The first attacks - 19 February 1942

The Japanese first attacked Darwin on the morning of 19 February 1942. This was the first time since European settlement that mainland Australia had been attacked by a foreign enemy.

This first attack (and the one that was to follow later that day) was planned and led by Mitsuo Fuchida, the Japanese commander responsible for the attack on Pearl Harbour. It was the largest Japanese attack since Pearl Harbour.

The Japanese attacked with around 188 planes that had been launched from Japanese land bases and aircraft carriers in the Timor Sea. Large bombers bombed the town and the harbour. Dive bombers attacked the ships in the harbour, the military and civilian aerodromes and the hospital. The dive bombers were escorted by fighter planes to protect them from Australian and allied planes.

The only air defences the allies had were ten fighter planes that engaged the Japanese planes. Only one allied fighter survived the first attack, with the Japanese suffering only one or two losses.

The first attack lasted approximately forty minutes.

The second attack began an hour after the first ended. Heavy bombers attacked the Royal Australian Air Force Base at Parap and lasted about twenty-five minutes.

The two raids killed at least 243 Australians and allies. Almost 400 were wounded. Twenty military aircraft were destroyed, eight ships at anchor in the harbour were sunk and most civil and military facilities in Darwin were destroyed.

The Australian anti-aircraft guns destroyed four aircraft and reported four other probable kills.

Japanese Mitsubishi plane
Darwin, 1943. Japanese Mitsubishi plane photographed from an RAAF Spitfire during the 58th Japanese air raid on Darwin.
Image courtesy of the Australian War Memorial: P02822.001.

Darwin after the first attack

With much of the town destroyed and hundreds of people killed and wounded, Darwin's remaining population feared that the Japanese were about to invade.

There was widespread panic and about half of Darwin's civilian population fled. Many servicemen also deserted their posts and fled in the confusion and panic.

Order was restored to the town within a few days. The military defences were eventually rebuilt and strengthened.

Other raids on Darwin and northern Australia

RAAF spitfire squadron
Darwin 1943, members of an RAAF Spitfire squadron race to their planes for an interception flight against Japanese raiders.
Image courtesy of the Australian War Memorial: 014491.

Although these first two raids were the largest, the Japanese were to undertake many more raids on Darwin and other northern Australian towns over the next twenty months.

Japanese planes also flew several reconnaissance missions over Australia until 1944.

Townsville, Katherine, Wyndham, Derby and Port Hedland were targeted, with loss of military and civilian lives.

The Western Australian town of Broome was undefended when attacked on 3 March 1942. The attack killed seventy people and injured another forty.

In the final Japanese attack, a raid on Darwin on 12 November 1943, there were no casualties and only minor damage was caused around the town.

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