Australia under attack

On 19 February 1942, just four days after the Fall of Singapore, mainland Australia came under attack for the first time, when 242 Japanese fighters, bombers and dive bombers attacked Darwin.

31 January 2020

Bombing of Darwin

Darwin was considered vital to Australia’s defence against the Japanese and was used as a supply base and transit camp for troops, aircraft and ships prior to deployment.

On 19 February 1942, the same battle group that bombed Pearl Harbor attacked the port and shipping in Darwin Harbour twice during the day, killing more than 240 Allied service personnel and civilians. The bombing raids destroyed many sites including the harbour, RAAF base, post office, administration building and the Army hospital.

Eight ships were sunk including the USS Peary, killing at least 80 people. Many other ships were damaged, including the hospital ship HMAS Manunda on which 12 people were killed. A number of military aircraft were also destroyed. Air raids continued across northern Australia in the following months, including Wyndham in Western Australia, Katherine in the Northern Territory, Townsville in Queensland, and Horn Island in the Torres Strait.

Broome 3 March 1942

On 3 March 1942, Japanese aircraft attacked the airfield and nearby Roebuck Bay in Broome. Some 100 people lost their lives however, as many of the victims were refugees from the Netherlands East Indies whose number and identities had yet to be recorded, no one is certain of the true number of casualties.

Sydney

While air raids continued in northern Australia, Japanese submarines attacked merchant vessels off the coast of eastern Australia. On the night of 31 May – 1 June 1942 three Japanese midget submarines attacked Sydney Harbour. Two of them were destroyed but one managed to fire its torpedoes, one of which sunk HMAS Kuttabul and killed 21 sailors. A week later two larger submarines returned to attack Sydney and Newcastle, however little damage was done.

Australia’s response

Throughout the remainder of 1942, thousands of Allied service personnel poured into the Northern Territory to take part in its defence should the Japanese land. The North Australia Observer Unit, better known as the ‘Nackeroos’, and the Special Reconnaissance Unit were raised at this time to patrol the coast for threat of enemy landing.

The last raid on 12 November 1943

While the invasion never came, the Northern Territory remained under repeated attack until the 64th, and last, air raid on Darwin occurred on 12 November 1943. In total there were more than 97 air attacks on northern Australia and enemy air reconnaissance to Australia’s north continued through much of 1944.

Fast facts

Key dates of major attacks

  • Darwin – first attack: 19 February 1942; last attack: 12 November 1943
  • Broome – 3 March 1942
  • Sydney – 31 May – 1 June 1942

Number of air raids

  • Darwin – 64
  • Broome – 4
  • Total in northern Australia – more than 97

Australians who served

  • Australia was defended by more than half a million full time Navy, Army and Air Force personnel and the women’s services during this time
  • About 15,000 service personnel were based in Darwin

Major Units

  • 14th Heavy Anti-Aircraft Battery – one of the few anti-aircraft militia units in Darwin at the time of the first raids
  • North Australia Observer Unit
  • Special Reconnaissance Unit

Casualties

  • Killed in air raids on northernAustralia, more than 260
  • Wounded in air raids on northern Australia, more than 410

*Figures include civilians and service personnel

Specific medals

  • Gunner Wilbert “Darky” Hudson, a member of the 2nd Heavy Anti-Aircraft Battery, and Lance
  • Bombardier Fred Wombey, a member of the 14th Heavy Anti- Aircraft Battery, were the first two
  • Australians decorated with the Military Medal for bravery in battle on Australian soil

Cemeteries

  • Adelaide River War Cemetery

More information