On this day 80 years ago, war came to Australia – and Darwin suffered unprecedented destruction when aircraft of the Imperial Japanese Navy began bombing the city at 10 am on 19 February 1942, killing more than 230 people and destroying ships, buildings and infrastructure. This was the largest single attack ever mounted by a foreign power on Australia.
Japanese fighters and bombers attacked the port and shipping in the harbour twice during the day, killing 252 Allied service personnel and civilians. On 3 March Broome, in Western Australia, was strafed. In succeeding months air attacks were made on many towns in northern Australia including Wyndham, Port Hedland and Derby in Western Australia, Darwin and Katherine in the Northern Territory, Townsville and Mossman in Queensland, and Horn Island in the Torres Strait. Despite popular fears these raids were not the precursor to an invasion but they did serve to interrupt the use of Darwin’s port facilities. The raids also tied up anti-aircraft defences and air force units that would have otherwise been sent to more forward areas.
The Japanese air raids on Darwin on 19 February involved, collectively, over 260 enemy aircraft. Subsequent raids in April, June, July and November 1942, and March 1943, were carried out with forces of 30 to 40 fighters and bombers. Between the large raids there were smaller operations by groups of under a dozen Japanese aircraft. Most of the raids occurred in daylight but there were some small-scale night attacks.
The 64th, and last, air raid on Darwin occurred on 12 November 1943. In total there were 97 air attacks on northern Australia and enemy air reconnaissance over the region continued through much of 1944.