On 19 February 1942, the first wartime assault on Australian soil struck the city of Darwin when Japanese carrier-borne bomber planes attacked without warning. The wave of attacks devastated Darwin, shocked Australia, and exposed a lack of preparedness that is only fully understood today, 70 years after those brutal acts of war …
Lieutenant Commander James McManus was senior intelligence officer at Navy Headquarters on The Esplanade, overlooking Port Darwin. He was chatting to the Naval Officer in Charge, Darwin, Captain Penry Thomas, when the direct-line phone rang. The signalman from RAAF Operations had a simple message: a large number of aircraft had been sighted over Bathurst Island. McManus and Thomas looked at their watches. It was 9.46.
It was the job of the RAAF to order the air-raid sirens to sound. At this point the RAAF was by no means certain that the arriving aircraft were hostile, so no sirens sounded. However, the Navy had a separate warning system, an old foghorn on the roof of Navy Headquarters. This appears to have sounded some time between 9.46 and 9.58 a.m., but it had limited range and in any case was not associated in the minds of the townspeople with an air raid. They had been told to listen for a series of siren blasts—four blasts of 30 seconds each, five seconds in between. Nobody was going to leave their shop or desk and dive into a trench on the say-so of an old foghorn bleating in the distance.
Although the Pacific war was only ten weeks old, Captain Mitsuo Fuchida had already earned a formidable reputation. He had triggered that war by leading the Japanese aerial assault on Pearl Harbor in a Type 97 ‘Kate’ bomber. Again flying a Kate, he now commanded a slightly larger force of 188 aircraft for the raid on Darwin. Fuchida led his planes on a track that would take them to the north and east of the town, making them hard to see against the morning sun. The huge formation tracked south-east, following the coast of Melville Island as far as Cape Gambier before crossing the narrow Clarence Strait. They arrived over the Australian coast about 40 kilometres north-east of Darwin, somewhere around Adam Bay. They then followed a clockwise arc over Koolpinyah, to the east of Darwin, before swinging around over Noonamah, then turning back onto their final north-west heading, with the harbour and Larrakeyah military barracks directly ahead. Fuchida had judged correctly that nobody would be expecting an attack from that direction.
In 1942 the telephone system in Darwin involved a kind of ‘open line’. Anyone picking up a receiver would very likely overhear other conversations passing through the switchboard. The telephonist at the 14th Anti-Aircraft section based on Darwin Oval had been casually eavesdropping on town chatter when he overheard an urgent voice say something about a ‘dogfight’ over the sea. This was a reference to an encounter between the returning Kittyhawks and the Japanese fighters. The telephonist sounded the alarm for his gunners, and the Oval’s AA crews manned their guns.
By now the gunners could hear the roar of approaching aircraft. The volume of noise was way beyond anything that could be generated by ten Kittyhawks. The Gun Position Officer swung his Toc I (telescope identification) in the direction of the approaching planes, still half expecting to find Allied aircraft in his sights. The red spots on the wings told another story. He called a bearing, then yelled: ‘This is not a false alarm. This is for real! This is for real!’
Out on Darwin wharf, No. 3 gang of dock labourers had opened a hatch of the Neptuna, ready to unload the ship’s cargo. Before unloading began, they trooped off to a shed on the wharf for ten o’clock ‘smoko’. As they did, they saw a huge wave of planes bearing down from the south-east. ‘Yankee reinforcements at last,’ one of the wharfies mocked.
The first bombs detonated in the harbour, near the wharf, some time around 9.58 a.m. The same pattern of bombs swept on and caught the wharf itself. The last bomb of the stick detonated on the Oval and showered the gunners with flying rocks, gravel and dirt. The roar of the bombs merged with the opening wail of the air-raid sirens.
I have relatives living in Darwin, it was so shocking to learn how unprepared that the Australian were, at this time. This story is well written , I would be happy to read more of this book, Peter Grose, kept me interested the whole time, wanting to read more.
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