Bombing of Darwin Day 19 February

We observe Bombing of Darwin Day on the anniversary of the day in 1942 when Darwin, in northern Australia, was first bombed by Japanese warplanes. The people of Darwin suffered terribly during this time and many civilians were evacuated. To this day, this action remains the largest and most devastating modern attack by a foreign power on mainland Australia. Bombing of Darwin Day is a time for us to recognise and remember the allied service personnel and civilians who suffered through that experience.

Significance of the date

Since the 1930s, Darwin had been a strategic trading port at the top end of Australia. During World War II, the Allies used Darwin as a military base and transit point for the defence of the Netherlands East Indies. With Australian and allied troops stationed there, Darwin's population had more than doubled by 1942.

At 9:58 am on 19 February 1942, 27 bombers accompanied by fighter escorts began the first Japanese air raid on the Australian mainland. Closely followed by aircraft, their goal was to destroy the Allies' military base in Darwin. From Darwin, the Allies could contest the Japanese invasion of nearby islands, Timor and Java.

The Japanese mounted 2 air attacks that day.

The first attack focused on the town centre and the harbour. Many buildings and ships were destroyed, including public buildings like the Darwin Post Office, the police barracks and the office of the Administrator of the Northern Territory.

People survey the bombed Post Office and postmaster's residence where 9 people died after the first Japanese air raid on Darwin on 19 February 1942. AWM P00480.001

Of the 47 ships in Darwin's harbour that day, 8 were sunk, one was beached and lost, and 11 were damaged. One bomb fell through the several decks of the hospital ship HMAS Manunda before exploding.

The ship disintegrated in a burst of flame which appeared to grow out and reach a height of 100 feet [30 m]. 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.

[Unnamed observer, in Peter and Sheila Forrest, Federation Frontline, Darwin, 2001, p 48]

Crew members of the depot ship HMAS Platypus survey the harbour after the first Japanese air raid on Darwin, 19 February 1942. In the centre, the transport ship HMAT Zealandia is burning, and the hospital ship HMAS Manunda is to its right. AWM 304981

At 11:58 am the same day, the second air attack began.

The Japanese bombed the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) Base Darwin in an attack that lasted 25 minutes. Two hangars and a central store were destroyed, and blocks of the airmen's quarters and a hospital were severely damaged.

Australian servicemen in Darwin repairing a bombed building after the second air raid by Japanese warplanes on 19 February 1942. These were possibly huts at the RAAF base. AWM NWA0447

Continued attacks

Between 19 February 1942 and 12 November 1943, the Japanese mounted 97 air attacks on towns and military bases across northern Australia. Broome was attacked on 3 March. More air raids were made on 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.

On 31 May 1942, the war came to the east coast of Australia, when 3 Japanese midget submarines entered Sydney Harbour. In June 1942, a submarine lightly shelled coastal suburbs of Sydney and Newcastle.

Japanese submarines also attacked coastal ships, causing the loss of around 29,000 tons of shipping.

Commemoration of those who died

Some 250 people, both allied service personnel and civilians, died in Darwin on 19 February 1942.

Members from all 3 Australian armed services were among those who died, ranging from wing commanders right through to cooks. Members of the United States Navy and Air Force were also among the casualties. A large number of lives lost included merchant seamen, postal workers and civilians. These were everyday Australians simply going about their daily lives.

The names of civilians who died are not recorded on the Roll of Honour at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra. Instead, they are commemorated by name in Darwin, where many of them are buried.

The Darwin Cenoptaph and memorial garden in Bicentennial Park overlook the harbour. This is where the first shots were fired in defence of Darwin by the 14th Anti-Aircraft Battery. The monument continues to be a place of commemoration for all those who died and suffered in the Bombing of Darwin.


Last updated: 21 February 2022

Cite this page

DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) (2022), Bombing of Darwin Day 19 February, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 26 May 2022, https://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/commemoration/key-dates-australia/bombing-of-darwin
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