Senate debates

Monday, 13 February 2017


Bombing of Darwin

9:50 pm

Photo of Malarndirri McCarthyMalarndirri McCarthy (NT, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Tonight, I would like to speak on a significant event in the Northern Territory's history, or indeed in Australia's history: the bombing of Darwin in 1942. This weekend on 19 February, we will be commemorating the 75th anniversary of the bombing of Darwin. What I would like to do this evening is to just remind the Senate, if ever we needed to be reminded, of the importance of our strategic position in this country in terms of the North, but in particular to reflect on the many lives that were lost in a battle that the rest of this country is completely unaware of and never fully realised the significance of in terms of the number of casualties until well after the fact. I would like to go through a time line and take the Senate back through the history of 1941 through to 1942 and also to have a look at a royal commission that took place less than a month after the attacks occurred on Darwin.

If we look at our time line for the bombing of Darwin, in December 1941 Japan formally enters the Second World War, declares war on Britain and the US, launches aerial attacks on Pearl Harbour, Guam and Hong Kong, and invades Malaya, the Philippines and Thailand. On 10-11 January, Japan begins its campaign in the Dutch East Indies, attacking Manado in Sulawesi, and also Borneo. By 30 January, the invasion of Ambon begins in the Dutch East Indies. Gull Force, the Australian battalion defending Ambon, surrendered four days later. On 8 February, Japan begins its invasion of Singapore. On 10, 16 and 18 February 1942, Japanese reconnaissance aircraft are seen over Darwin. On 15 February 1942, Allied military forces in Singapore surrender to the Japanese. 130,000 Allied personnel are taken prisoner, including 15,000 Australians.

On 19 February 1942 at 9:37 am, a missionary on Bathurst Island, just north of Darwin, attempted to report a large number of aircraft heading towards Darwin, that his warning was discounted as a result of a mistaken belief that the aircraft were returning Allied aircraft. The bombing commenced at approximately 10 am on 19 February 1942, with the first wave of raiders gone by approximately 10:30 am. A second wave composed of land-based bombers arrived just before 12 pm and bombed the RAAF base for 20 minutes. Evacuation of the remaining women, children and older men took place later in the afternoon of 19 February. On 23 February, the government uses the national security regulations to put the military and control of all the Northern Territory north of Birdum.

When the first wave hit Darwin, it consisted of some 188 Japanese aircraft launched from four aircraft carriers in the Timor Sea. This was the same carrier force which had been responsible for the attack on Pearl Harbor. The bombing commenced just before 10 am. There were 10 US Kittyhawks who attempted to intercept the Japanese bombers. All but one were shot down before they were able to engage the Japanese bombers. The second wave consisted of 54 bombers, which bombed the RAAF base just before noon. This raid lasted for approximately 20 minutes. The Japanese lost between five to eight aircraft in this raid. It is estimated that the Japanese lost between five to 10 aircraft in all the raids, but Australian losses were much higher. There were some 97 air attacks on Northern Australia during World War II. The first prisoner of war to be captured on Australian soil occurred when a Japanese Zero pilot was detained by Tiwi person on the Tiwi Islands—a First Nations person.

Of all the losses, eight ships were sunk in Darwin Harbour and 15 were damaged. Two merchant ships were sunk near Bathurst Island, just north of Darwin. At least 243 people were killed. The Northern Territory News records one of the first bomb severed the wharf from the shore and killed 22 waterside workers. Nine post office workers were killed after a direct hit on the trench they were sheltering in and approximately 17 were killed on the merchant ships at Bathurst Island.

Our country did not know the extent to which Northern Australia—in particular Darwin itself, but also the Darwin through the Adelaide River region—was being bombed by the Japanese. A commission of inquiry was held in the month following the attack. This was by Mr Justice Lowe. I had a chance to have a look through our archives here in the parliament to actually have a look at what this royal commission had to say. I must say, it is certainly not like royal commissions are today. In the few minutes I have left, I will read about some of the things that Mr Justice Lowe, the commissioner of this royal commission in March 1942, had to say about the injured, the accuracy of the bombing and the warning for the raid:

There was a general consensus of opinion that the general alarm sounded proceeded the falling of the first bomb by a very short space of time, probably seconds. A warning that a large number of aircraft had been observed passing overhead at a great height over Bathurst Island and were proceeding southward, was received by the officer-in-charge of the Amalgamated Wireless Postal Radio Station at Darwin at 9.35 a.m. on the morning of the 19th February. That officer repeated the message to Royal Australian Air Force Operations at 9.37 a.m. No general alarm was given in the town until just before 10 o'clock.

Evidence was given before me that according to the routine usually observed, Royal Australian Air Force Operations would communicate a message to A.C.H. (Area Command Head-quarters) and that A.C.H. would communicate to Navy and Army are to Head-quarters. Royal Australian Air Force Operations would also, in the normal routine, communicate a message to A.R.P. Head-quarters.

On full consideration of the evidence, I find that the failure by Royal Australian Air Force Operations to communicate with A.R.P. Head-quarters is inexplicable. The excuse given in evidence for the delay was based upon the fact that earlier that morning a number of United States planes—P.4O's had set out, for Koepang and, meeting with adverse weather, ha d returned. Some discussion , it is said, ensued as to whether the planes referred to in the above message were the American planes returning or enemy planes, and that this discussion accounted for the greater part of the delay which ensued.

It is quite powerful to be reading through this royal commission report from 1942.

I must just say in closing that the commissioner did point out some very positive observations about the characters of people involved. I will give you an example here:

There are some observations in conclusion, which I wish to make. A prisoner in the Fanny Bay Gaol, Sinclair by name, was released with others during the raid. He had had experience of first-aid work, and according to all witnesses, performed magnificent service in the town in the treatment of the wounded. On the conclusion of this work, he reported back to the gaol, and was told that he had been released. Since the day of the raid he has performed further excellent service in Darwin, helping the police and the A.R.P. organization. His sentence still had some months to run when he was released. In view of his conduct, I recommend him for a pardon.

Many acts of heroism were performed by individuals on the ships in the harbour, and on the land, particularly by the nurses in the hospital. To discriminate would be invidious, but I wish to record the fact that evidence of their conduct was brought before me.

I would just like to say that our thoughts are with all of the families of those descendants as we reflect this Sunday on the 75th anniversary of the bombing of Darwin.