The population of Darwin prior to WWII was approximately 5,800, but many civilians were evacuated after Japan entered WWII in December 1941. Approximately 2000 civilians remained in Darwin on 19 February. At 9:58am on 19 February 1942, war came to Darwin. 188 Japanese aircraft (including “Kate” Light Bombers, “Val” Dive Bombers and “Zero” Fighters) began bombing Darwin.
This came as a complete surprise to Darwin residents- no air raid warnings were sounded. Father McGrath of the Sacred Heart mission on Bathurst Island, who was also an Australian Coastwatcher, sent a warning message, but RAAF officers there wrongly judged that the aircraft friendly American aircraft returning to Darwin.
A second raid began at around 11:45am, and included 54 aircraft.
In all, 681 bombs weighing 114,000 kilograms were dropped in one morning. 30 aircraft were destroyed, and 11 ships were sunk. At least 230 people were killed. The equivalent of more than one tenth of Darwin’s remaining civilian population died in the first day of bombing. 300-400 people were injured.
At the Darwin Post Office a bomb landed in the trench where nine civilians, including the postmaster, First World War veteran Hurtle Bald and his family were sheltering. All were killed. According to the Australian War Memorial “Darwin is arguably Australia’s most inclusive battle. Those who died that day included members of all three services, in rank ranging from a Wing Commander down to two cooks. They also included postal workers and civilians who were just doing their jobs. They included men and women, black and white Australians, a teenage girl and a grandfather. It is important to recognise that the very first attack on Australia as a nation cost the lives of representatives of the nation.”
The Japanese commander, Mitsuo Fuchida, who led the attack on Pearl Harbour and Darwin, wrote of the attack on Darwin ”If ever a sledgehammer was used to crack an egg, it was then.”
The first two Military Medals for bravery in battle on Australian soil were awarded to anti-aircraft gunners for their actions in the raids on 19 February.
On the evening of 19 February, Prime Minister John Curtin announced that “A severe blow has been struck in this first battle on Australian soil. It will be a source of pride to the public to know that the armed forces and civilians conducted themselves with gallantry. Darwin has been bombed, but it has not been conquered”.
Australian and American aircrew battled with their Japanese counterparts to establish dominance over the skies of tropical Australia for 18 months. Darwin was bombed in around 70 air raids between February 1942 and November 1943. In 2011 US President Barack Obama visited Darwin and told assembled troops: “It was here, in Darwin, where our alliance was born – during Australia’s Pearl Harbor. Against overwhelming odds, our forces fought back, with honour and with courage. The days after Darwin were tough. Some thought Australia might fall. But we dusted ourselves off. We picked ourselves up. We rebuilt. And thanks to the extraordinary generation of troops, we went on to victory”.
Today, local buildings still house the scars of 19 February 1942. Each year the Bombing is recognised by the people of Darwin, with a National Day of Observance, and a Commemorative Service held in Darwin.