Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
Stories of the defence of Australia - 1942.

Download PDFDownload PDF


In 1942 the people of Australia were called upon, for the first time, to defend their own shores. Throughout that year, supported by their allies, Australians fought to turn the initial defeats of 1942 into the beginnings of victory in the Pacific. This series marks the 60th anniversary of the Defence of Australia, and highlights some of the key events of those 12 momentous months.


The Fall of Singapore

Few events in World War II shocked Australians more than the Fall of Singapore. For two decades, Australians were told that the island, with its naval base, was an ‘impregnable fortress’ and the key to the defence of Australia. But the ‘fortress’ fell and more than 16,000 Australian servicemen and women were missing in action.

The campaign that led to the Fall of Singapore began on 8 December 1941, when the Japanese invaded north-east Malaya. RAAF Hudson bombers attacked the enemy ships and Australians also served in other Australian and British squadrons. Around Singapore, Royal Australian Navy warships conducted minesweeping and convoy escorts.

By mid-January 1942, the Japanese had pushed Allied ground forces down to the southern part of the Malayan peninsula. This swift advance was temporarily halted by Australian troops at Gemas (14-16 January), Bakri and Parit Sulong (18-22 January) and Jemaluang (27 January) - epics in Australian military history. However, on 31 January-1 February, British Empire forces retreated onto Singapore. During the fighting in Malaya, Indian and British forces had suffered most, but at least 649 Australian soldiers, 26 airmen and one sailor had been killed.

The invasion of Singapore began on 8 February. The Australians bore the brunt of the Japanese attack, being pushed back to the southern side of the island alongside British, Indian, Singaporean and Malay troops. By 15 February, only a small area around the city remained unoccupied and the enemy had captured the island’s water supply. The troops were prepared to keep fighting, but the British commander, Lieutenant General Arthur Percival, ordered a surrender, to stop the slaughter of civilians and troops. At least 1125 Australians died defending Singapore. Some 15,000 became prisoners of war, one-third of whom later died in the appalling conditions of the labour camps. The true story of the their courage in combat and captivity only became known when the survivors returned home at the end of the war.

The Bombing of Darwin

At 9.58 am on 19 February 1942, 27 Japanese bombers with accompanying fighter escorts attacked Darwin, the first enemy air raid on mainland Australia.

For half an hour, the enemy planes made repeated attacks on Allied shipping in Darwin Harbour and on the town itself. The American destroyer USS Peary was hit and sank with guns blazing. Of the 144 crew, only 53 survived. An observer wrote:

The ship disintegrated in a burst of flame which appeared to grow out and reach a height of 100 feet. She finally pointed her nose to the sky and disappeared in a pall of black oily smoke, the gun on her fo’c’s’le firing to the bitter end.



One bomb hit the Australian Hospital Ship Manunda, killing Sister Margaret de Mestre and 11 others. In all, eight ships were sunk and one beached.

Darwin itself suffered severely. Many public buildings were badly damaged - the post office, police barracks and Administrator’s office among them. Postmaster Hurtle Bald had prepared for air raids and built a deep shelter trench behind his residence, supposedly the best in Darwin. A bomb fell directly into the trench, killing Mr Bald, his wife and daughter and six other post office workers. Both the residence and the post office were wrecked. The largest group of civilians to die was 21 waterside workers who had gathered at the shore end of a wharf for a 'smoko’ when a bombed exploded among them.

The Japanese aircraft left at 10.30 am. At 11.58 am, another wave of bombers approached the RAAF station. The base was bombed for about 20 minutes, while staff sought shelter in slit trenches. The combined effects of the two raids left the station’s two hangars and central store destroyed, while four blocks of airmen’s quarters and the hospital were severely damaged. Darwin was to suffer another 63 air raids between February 1942 and November 1943, but the first remains the most devastating enemy attack inflicted on mainland Australia.

8 February 2002