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Monday, 31 October 2011
Page: 12120

Mr McCORMACK (Riverina) (20:42): It was the day war came to Australia—frighteningly so—without warning, without mercy. Thursday, 19 February 1942 was a day of infamy, an event which in many ways stripped Australia of its innocence. Previously war had been half a world away, or at least only in our backyard. Now it was at the front door and forcing its way in uninvited. No-one likes unannounced, unwelcome visitors and this was especially horrific for the people of Darwin so soon after the devastation of Japan's bombing of Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941. Indeed, this was Australia's own Pearl Harbor.

Darwin was then, as it is now, a significant port and an integral asset in Australia's defences, especially so prior to and during World War II against an increasingly aggressive Japanese empire. Much attention was paid to ensuring Darwin was battle ready, if the day ever came when it would be tested. Its port and airfield facilities were developed, coastal defence batteries built and garrison steadily enlarged. The outbreak of war in the Pacific resulted in the rapid enlargement of Darwin's military presence and it was used as a base from which to deploy forces for the defence of the Dutch East Indies.

In January and February 1942 these forces were swamped by Japanese landings, usually preceded by heavy air bombardments. On 19 February Darwin itself was the target. At about 9.15 am that day the invading Japanese force was spotted by an Australian coastwatcher on Melville Island and soon after by Catholic priest Father John McGrath, who was conducting missionary work on Bathurst Island. Father McGrath relayed a message:

An unusually large air formation bearing down on us from the northwest.

Both warnings were received at least twice by radio at Darwin, no later than 9.37 am, yet the Australian duty officer unfortunately and wrongly assumed these reports were referring to returning United States fighters and their B17 escort. No action was taken and, as at Pearl Harbor only two months earlier, Darwin's last-minute opportunity to make hasty preparations for the impending raid disappeared. At precisely 9.58 am the first attack took place. Japanese fighters and bombers made two sustained attacks on the port and shipping in the harbour during the day, with the official death toll listed as 252 Allied service personnel and civilians. On 3 March, Broome in Western Australia was strafed. In the months to follow, 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.

There were widespread fears these raids were a precursor to an all-out invasion. Considerable damage was caused and the raids also tied up anti-aircraft defences and Air Force units which would have otherwise been sent to more forward areas.

The Japanese air raids on Darwin on 19 February involved, all up, more than 240 enemy aircraft. It was, therefore, a considerable show of might which had taken careful and deliberate planning by the Japanese. Subsequent raids in April, June, July and November 1942, and March 1943 were undertaken with forces of 30 to 40 fighters and bombers. Smaller operations were also carried out by groups of fewer than a dozen Japanese aircraft. Most raids took place in daylight but there were some 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. The immediate response in the hours following the air raids on 19 February was for Darwin's population to evacuate. Many headed for Adelaide River and the train south. About half Darwin's civilian population ultimately fled.

Today, we can only imagine the fear in the hearts of all those in Darwin and the panic, especially after what had happened just 10 weeks earlier at Pearl Harbor. The two attacks on Darwin were planned and led by the commander responsible for the attack on Pearl Harbor and involved 54 land-based bombers and about 188 attack aircraft launched from four Japanese aircraft carriers in the Timor Sea. In the initial attack, heavy bombers pattern bombed the harbour and town. Dive bombers escorted by Zero fighters then attacked shipping in the harbour, the military and civil aerodromes and the hospital at Berrimah. The attack lasted 40 frightening minutes.

The second burst, an hour later, involved high altitude bombing of the Royal Australian Air Force base at Parap for 20 to 25 minutes. As well as the tragic loss of life, 20 military aircraft were destroyed, eight ships at anchor in the harbour were sunk, and most civil and military facilities in Darwin were destroyed.

The Japanese were preparing to invade Timor and hoped a disruptive air attack would hinder Darwin's potential as a base from which the Allies could launch a counter-offensive while at the same time hurting Australian morale. These were indeed dark days for the Allies. Singapore had fallen just four days before Darwin was bombed.

Australia's government was petrified what the dual effect the fall of Singapore and the attack on Darwin would have on the national psyche and announced that only 17 people had been killed as a result of the Darwin bombing.

The air attacks on Darwin continued until November 1943, by which time the Japanese had peppered Darwin 64 times. The Japanese air raids on Darwin on 19 February were the largest attacks ever mounted by a foreign country against Australia. They were also a significant action in the Pacific campaign of World War II and represented a severe psychological blow to the Australian population, several weeks after hostilities with Japan had begun.

This event is often called the Pearl Harbor of Australia. Although Darwin was a less significant military target, it is said that a greater number of bombs were dropped there than were used in the attack on Pearl Harbor. As was the case at Pearl Harbor, the Australian town was unprepared, and although it came under attack from the air many more times in 1942 and 1943, the raids on 19 February were massive and deadly by comparison. At the time of the attack, Darwin had a population of about 2,000, the normal civilian population of about 5,000 having been reduced by evacuation. There were about 15,000 allied soldiers in the area.

Most of the attacking planes came from the four aircraft carriers of the Imperial Japanese Navy's Carrier Division 1 and Carrier Division 2. Land-based heavy bombers also participated. The Japanese launched two waves of planes, comprising 242 bombers and fighters. The 14th Heavy Anti-Aircraft Battery was stationed in Darwin at the time with its guns positioned at a number of strategic locations, including overlooking the harbour.

The only modern fighters at Darwin were 12 USAAF P-40E Warhawks of the Far East Air Force's 33rd Pursuit Squadron (Provisional), which had arrived four days earlier, having been diverted to cover a convoy which left Darwin before its arrival. There were also a few lightly armed or obsolete training aircraft—five unserviceable Wirraways—and six Hudson patrol aircraft belonging to the RAAF.

The first wave of 188 Japanese planes, led by naval Commander Mitsuo Fuchida, took off at 8.45 am. A USN Catalina aircraft near Bathurst Island was targeted by nine of the Zero fighters, and the plane caught fire although it bravely defended itself. Its pilot, Lieutenant Thomas Moorer, managed to crash land upon the sea and the crew were picked up by a passing freighter, the Florence D. Lieutenant Moorer later became Chief of Naval Operations and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

A total of 81 Nakajima B5N 'Kate' torpedo bombers then went for shipping—at least 45 vessels—in the harbour, while 71 Aichi D3A 'Val' dive-bombers, escorted by 36 Mitsubishi A6M Zero fighter planes attacked RAAF bases, civil airfields and a hospital. Just before midday there was a high altitude attack by land-based bombers concentrated on the Darwin RAAF Airfield: 27 Mitsubishi G3M 'Nell' bombers flew from Ambon and 27 Mitsubishi G4M 'Betty' from Kendari, Sulawesi.

The number of people killed during the 19 February raids has long been a matter of contention. A plaque unveiled in Darwin in 2001 memorialises the total as 292. The plaque indicates that 10 sailors had been killed aboard the USS William B. Preston, whereas another source indicated it could have been as many as 15. Whatever the case, the toll was high—too high. So many brave allied military personnel and civilians were killed on that awful day.

As a member of parliament whose hometown Wagga Wagga is a tri-service city where the Air Force, Army and Navy have a long and strong presence, I commend the member for Solomon for her foresight in calling for national recognition on 19 February each year as Bombing of Darwin Day. She is a passionate advocate for her electorate and I am pleased and proud to sit alongside someone who has stridently pursued a motion which will give national recognition to such an important event.

I note, too, the member for Solomon's advocacy to have the bombing of Darwin included in the proposed national curriculum. Again, I endorse this push. Far better to have Australian schoolchildren learn about how close northern Australia came to being overwhelmed by an aggressive enemy and how desperately we fought to protect ourselves than this claptrap the education minister is ramming down our children's throats to remove 'Before Christ' and 'Anno Domini' from the classroom. Our children do not need Christian cleansing with the removal of BC and AD and nor do they need to be scared by—

The DEPUTY SPEAKER ( Hon. BC Scott ): Member for Riverina, use of that word is offensive. I do not want to repeat it; you know what it was. If you could just remove the word—

Mr McCORMACK: I withdraw. I support any move to properly place Australian history in the classroom and the bombing of Darwin was an event which should be taught and needs to be learned. Darwin is a wonderful place. It has just been named one of the best cities in the world to visit in 2012 by the travel guide Lonely Planet. As a place of national historical importance, Darwin is also significant not least because of the fact it was the point at which the greatest threat to our nation's security— (Time expired)