Bomb­ing of Dar­win taught us to fear

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Ross Fitzger­ald

Car­rier At­tack: Dar­win 1942 By Tom Lewis and Peter Ing­man Avon­more Books, 368pp, $49.99 (HB) THE sur­prise air at­tack by the Ja­panese on Pearl Har­bor on De­cem­ber 7, 1941, was un­for­get­tably de­scribed by then US pres­i­dent Franklin De­lano Roo­sevelt as “a day of in­famy”. A few weeks later we had a sim­i­lar brush with in­famy. On the morn­ing of Fe­bru­ary 19, 1942, four days af­ter the sur­ren­der of Sin­ga­pore, 242 Ja­panese air­craft sav­agely bombed the iso­lated, lightly de­fended port of Dar­win and its two air­fields, es­pe­cially tar­get­ing more than 60 Al­lied ships in the har­bour. This con­certed air at­tack, which in­volved the de­ploy­ment of four Ja­panese air­craft car­ri­ers, was “Aus­tralia’s own Pearl Har­bor”, write Tom Lewis and Peter Ing­man in Car­rier At­tack: Dar­win 1942.

In this su­perbly re­searched book, the au­thors point out that a num­ber of the pi­lots who had bombed Pearl Har­bor were piv­otal in the raid on Dar­win. Chief among them was com­man­der Mit­suo Fuchida, who led the Pearl Har­bor as­sault. In con­trast to the 2335 Amer­i­can and other Al­lied men and women who died at Pearl Har­bor, the Dar­win at­tack re­sulted in the loss of

May 31-June 1, 2014 an es­ti­mated 235 lives, both civil­ian and mil­i­tary and in­clud­ing more than 100 Amer­i­cans.

It is im­por­tant to re­mem­ber that in World War I Ja­pan had been an ally of the coun­tries that fought against Ger­many. In par­tic­u­lar, Ja­pan’s navy — trained and mod­elled on the Royal Navy — had es­corted Al­lied ships to Europe. Yet in a lit­tle more than 20 years, Ja­pan was fight­ing against its for­mer friends.

Lewis and Ing­man have drawn on newly trans­lated Ja­panese documents — in­clud­ing the Ja­panese Of­fi­cial War His­tory — and on al­most 1000 pages of tran­scripts of ev­i­dence to the royal com­mis­sion into the bomb­ing of Dar­win. As a re­sult, the au­thors of this de­tailed book have come as close as is hu­manly pos­si­ble to telling the com­plete story of what hap­pened on that fateful Fe­bru­ary morn­ing in 1942.

Aus­tralian anti-air­craft gun­ner Jack Mul­hol­land, who was with the 3.7 inch guns at Dar­win Oval di­rectly over­look­ing the har­bour, ex­plained that there were so many Ja­panese air­craft “it was sur­pris­ing they were able to avoid mid-air collisions”. Mul­hol­land, who died in 2012, had a per­fect view of the ac­tion: “The sky seemed to be full of white crosses ... the en­emy planes looked like a well-or­dered ceme­tery ad­vanc­ing across a blue field.”

The Ja­panese had ex­cel­lent in­tel­li­gence on Dar­win and knew they would face fee­ble air op- po­si­tion, if any. Al­though the Catholic mis­sion­ary in charge of Bathurst Is­land, John McGrath, had given Dar­win ad­vanced ra­dio warn­ing of an in­com­ing Ja­panese air raid, for what­ever rea­son this was not passed on. At least partly a re­sult of this in­ac­tion, Ja­panese losses were ex­tremely light: four air­craft, two deaths and one pris­oner — who, on Au­gust 5, 1944, was even­tu­ally in­volved in the break­out of Ja­panese pris­on­ers of war from a camp near Cowra, NSW.

Of all the Al­lied planes on the ground at Dar­win’s RAAF base only three Hud­son bombers, dis­persed un­der cam­ou­flage, es­caped un­scathed. How­ever, there can be no doubt the pri­mary tar­get was the port of Dar­win it­self. In­deed the rel­e­vant sec­tion of the Ja­panese Of­fi­cial His­tory is en­ti­tled “De­stroy­ing Port Dar­win”. The land­mark event of the day was a mas­sive ex­plo­sion, re­sult­ing in an enor­mous mush­room cloud, that de­stroyed the Aus­tralian ship Nep­tuna, which held a crit­i­cal cargo of am­mu­ni­tion in­clud­ing anti-air­craft shells.

As Lewis and Ing­man ex­plain, at the time of the first fe­ro­cious at­tack on Dar­win, the ac­tions of the lo­cal RAAF com­mand were a “bloody sham­bles”. For a va­ri­ety of rea­sons, in­clud­ing a num­ber of union strikes by lo­cal wa­ter­side work­ers, rank-and-file morale was low. As a re­sult of the gen­eral con­fu­sion and panic, nu­mer­ous Aus­tralians sta­tioned in and around Dar­win aban­doned their posts and fled. As was the case with Pearl Har­bor, a few hours later the Ja­panese launched a sec­ond air raid. Al­though lit­tle more ac­tual dam­age was done, the ef­fect on morale was sig­nif­i­cant: “This con­trib­uted hugely to the fur­ther ex­o­dus of per­son­nel that af­ter­noon.” Un­til Fe­bru­ary 19, 1942, most Aus­tralians be­lieved war was some­thing that hap­pened far away. As Lewis and Ing­man con­clude: “The at­tack on Dar­win was a sud­den and vi­o­lent af­front to this idea, and came as a great shock to our young na­tion.”

How­ever, al­most ev­ery­one in Aus­tralia mis­read Ja­panese in­ten­tions. Dar­win was not at­tacked as a pre­lude to an in­va­sion of Aus­tralia. In­stead, Dar­win rep­re­sented a pri­mary threat to the Ja­panese in­va­sion of Ti­mor, planned for Fe­bru­ary 20. In this re­spect the air raids were supremely suc­cess­ful.

Al­though the at­tack on Dar­win was cat­a­strophic, its main ef­fect was on our sense of na­tional vul­ner­a­bil­ity. It is hard to dis­agree with Lewis and Ing­man that de­spite our in­volve­ment in ac­tions of greater strate­gic con­se­quence else­where, the raid on Dar­win “had a pe­cu­liar ef­fect on the Aus­tralian psy­che that continues to the present day”.

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