The people of Darwin were taken by surprise when Japan launched its bombing attack on February 19, 1942. Despite a sighting of the first wave of Japanese aircraft flying between Bathurst and Melville islands, to the north of Darwin earlier in the day, the warning was ignored as they were believed to be Allied aircraft returning from Java.
Consequently, Darwin was unprepared when the bombs began to fall. But as surprising as the attack was at the time, it has been argued that an attack on Darwin was expected to happen at some time. With Japan’s preemptive attack on Pearl Harbor just 10 weeks earlier, the Pacific had well and truly entered World War II. And Darwin was perfectly positioned in the north of Australia to act as a supply base for the Pacific, making the harbour town pivotal to the war effort.
A Japanese invasion had long been on the minds of the Australian military, and with the development in 1923 of the ‘Singapore Strategy’ to defend the British Empire’s interests in the Asia-Pacific region, Australia became part of an eastern naval fleet, with its main base located in Singapore. Darwin was an important refuelling port for ships in the south-west Pacific.
In 1924, the construction of 11 above-ground oil storage tanks on Stokes Hill Wharf began, in order to provide fuel reserves if needed. Later, it became necessary to provide protection for the oil storage tanks and in November 1942, a decision was made to construct hidden tunnels to house them. Around 400 Civil Construction Corps labourers dug the 171-metres of tunnels with picks, shovels and hand-held pneumatic tools.
In 1932 men of the Royal Australian Engineers and Royal Australian Artillery arrived in Darwin and began - with help from the Darwin Mobile Force and labourers from Fannie Bay Gaol - to build a series of fortifications and garrison accommodation along East Point. They then moved on to Emery Point and Dudley Point to do the same. As well as all of this, an anti-aircraft battery was constructed in Fannie Bay, while East Arm received a quarantine anti-aircraft battery. Two aerodromes were also constructed as bases for allied aircraft, and a 6km steel boom net – then the longest in the world -- stretching across Darwin Harbour as a means to deter hostile ships and submarines, was also put into place.
But all the fortifications in the world won’t do any good unless there is some serious firepower to back it up. By 1938 two 6-inch guns were installed at East Point. To further emphasize the need for firepower, these 6-inch guns were to be replaced with 9.2-inch guns at the soonest possible time, unfortunately, Darwin was attacked before this was able to occur.
Caption: Two 6-inch Mark-XI guns removed from HMAS Brisbane. On top of turrets at East Point, railway track behind goes to both turrets.
PHOTO CREDIT: CHARLES MICET COLLECTION, NORTHERN TERRITORY LIBRARY
Other reminders of Darwin’s strategic importance to Australia’s defence during World War II are on the Stuart Highway. Before the outbreak of the war, the entrance to Darwin was little more than a dirt road known locally as ‘The Track’. By early 1942 there were hundreds of thousands of service personnel either travelling along or housed in camps along the highway, which was a pivotal transport route for supplies. By mid-1942, the road had begun to deteriorate under the strain of so much traffic, and by August the decision had been made to rebuild and seal it.
Today the remnants of gun emplacements and airfields are among the reminders of the town’s important place in Australia’s war history.
Lead Image: Darwin waterfront aflame after the Japanese bombing in 1942. Taken on a hill overlooking the wharf.
PHOTO CREDIT: MARYLYN NICHOLS COLLECTION, NORTHERN TERRITORY LIBRARY
Explore more about Darwin’s military history here.