Darwin Defenders Commemorative Service
Monday 19th February 2024 – 9:30am
Memorial Garden- Bendigo District RSL Sub-Branch
73-75 Havilah Road, Bendigo
Origins of Darwin Defenders- Australian War Memorial
On 19 February 1942 a force of Japanese aircraft swept over Darwin to begin the first of two raids on that day.
The attacks on Darwin occurred as part of the Japanese conquest of south-east Asia. Japan had been fighting a brutal war of conquest in China since the early 1930s. It had occupied Indo-China and Thailand in 1941. In the two months since the outbreak of war against the European powers in Asia in December 1941 its forces had taken Hong Kong, Malaya, and the Australian territory of New Britain. Its forces were already advancing into the Netherlands East Indies. Four days before the attacks Japanese forces had captured Singapore.
Darwin was a major Allied base. Ships and planes based there were supporting the defenders of Timor, which was to fall within a week, and Java, which would be overwhelmed by the month’s end. Darwin was attacked therefore not as the prelude to an invasion of Australia, but to support Japan’s seizure of the Netherlands East Indies.
Early on the morning of 19 February 188 aircraft were sighted by observers on Bathurst and Melville islands to Darwin’s north. Reports were radioed to Darwin but were not acted upon with urgency. The first signs of the attack came when Zero fighters began strafing an auxiliary minesweeper, HMAS Gunbar, as it passed through the boom protecting the entrance to Darwin harbour. Soon, ships in the harbour and buildings and installations ashore came under attack. Bombs killed at least 21 wharf labourers, some trapped on the open wharf when a section was destroyed.
For forty minutes the aircraft bombed and machine-gunned. They sank eight of the 47 ships in the harbour, including the motor vessel Neptuna. Its cargo included 200 depth charges which exploded as the ship lay beside the Darwin wharf. Darwin’s defence was inadequate. The few anti-aircraft guns, though in constant action, were overwhelmed. Ten United States Kittyhawk fighters were all destroyed in the air or while taking off.
Eighty minutes later a second wave, this time of land-based bombers from Kendari in the Celebes, arrived to continue the attack, this time concentrating on the RAAF station inland. The raids cost the attackers no more than ten aircraft.
The two raids killed about 250 people in and around Darwin. The official historians, writing in the 1950s, went to some trouble to determine a firm figure. They concluded that ‘about 243’ had died. Later research has revised this figure upwards. No one can know the actual number because the crews of some of the merchant ships were not fully known.