Darwin has a unique and well-preserved military history, unlike any other in Australia. In particular, Darwin was instrumental in the defence of northern Australia during WWII.
The defence build-up in Darwin began slowly in the 1920s. By the late 1930s Darwin had morphed into one of Australia’s fastest-growing regional towns, with workers arriving in large numbers to construct new defence facilities. Darwin and its peninsula were soon scattered with anti-aircraft guns, along with two aerodromes for RAAF and US aircraft, and a steel boom net erected across Darwin Harbour to protect Darwin from enemy ships and submarines.
Darwin was positioned as a strategic fuel supply base, with oil tanks, storage tunnels and a pump-house in the city. Rapid enlargement of Darwin’s military presence followed the outbreak of WWII in the Pacific. By February 1942 there were around 13,000 military personnel stationed in the Top End. The Top End became a vital asset to the Allied war effort, in particular by aiding the defence of the Dutch East Indies (modern day Indonesia) and the supply of US military bases in the Philippines.
War arrived on Australian shores on 19 February 1942, when two Japanese air raids on Darwin killed at least 230 Allied service personnel and civilians, and wounded another 300-400. The attack became known as the Bombing of Darwin and remains the largest ever single attack on Australian soil by a foreign power.
After the bombing of Darwin, air raids continued across Darwin and the Top End. This led to a repositioning of armed forces in Darwin and its surrounds. Adelaide River, 113km south of Darwin, became home to a large contingency of Australian and American military, housing up to 30,000 Military Personnel. Darwin rebuilt after the bombing to mount a more solid defence, anchored by fighters, radar, searchlights and counterstrike bombers.
Most Australians who were posted in Darwin and across northern Australia during the war, came from south of the Tropic of Capricorn. To them, the north seemed as foreign as another country. In August 1942 a soldier from New South Wales described Darwin as a “strange sunbitten land of matted, stunted, green, ant-riddled trees; of billabongs and sweeping plains, mangroves and dustbowls…far from our homes”. For this man and thousands of others, war service in the Territory tied Darwin closer to the rest of the country. There was much pride too in having served on a part of the Australian mainland that had come under enemy attack.
By November 1943, the Japanese had raided northern Australia around 100 times, targeting not only Darwin, but Townsville, Katherine, Wyndham, Derby, Broome and Port Headland. Darwin itself was raided around 70 times over an 18 month period. Northern Australia was a living war zone in 1942 and 1943. Between 900-1100 Australians and allies lost their lives and thousands of families were affected.
East Arm, near Darwin, was also the site of a Z Special Unit Base. Z Special Unit were an elite military commando unit which was kept secret for decades. It was made up of ordinary Australians who ended up being responsible for some of the most heroic acts in WWII, including the use of collapsible kayaks to attach mines to the side of Japanese warships in the dead of night. The Z Special Unit provided a model for the SAS and Commando Units that exist today.
Many reminders of Darwin’s WWII history can still be found scattered across the city, including gun emplacements, oil storage tunnels, bunkers, military airstrips and lookout posts.