Australia Under Attack: In Their Own Words

Australia during World War II

Japanese forces first attacked the Australian mainland on 19 February 1942 when they launched 2 devastating air raids on Darwin in the Northern Territory. Further air raids took place across northern Australia during World War II. 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 shelled the eastern suburbs of Sydney and then Newcastle. Many Australians living in coastal areas considered the threat of an attack to be very real.

Three men stand in a pile building rubble in front of damaged buildings
Australian troops inspect bomb damage caused by Japanese air raids, Darwin NT. AWM 042870

The bombing of Darwin

On 19 February 1942, Darwin suffered its first attack by the Japanese. In just over 40 minutes, 188 Japanese aircraft struck Darwin harbour and town centre. Three naval ships and 5 merchant ships were sunk, with another 10 ships damaged. Just over an hour later, a second wave of bombers attacked. On that day, more than 250 civilians and service personnel were killed in and around Darwin.

Brian Winspear joined the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) in December 1940. Brian shares his experience of the morning that Japanese bombers attacked Darwin.

Watch the video:

Answer the questions:

  1. Brian mentions several different aspects of this event, including the coast watchers on Bathurst Island, the reaction of Japanese pilots, sheltering in a trench and support from United States planes. What stands out to you and why?
  2. Brian describes the impact of the bombs on buildings and military equipment. Only one working plane limited the RAAF’s immediate response. How would the crew have felt:
    • being sent on the search mission
    • remaining behind, like Brian.
  3. What impact do you think the bombing of Darwin would have had on Australians?

Discover more about the Air raids on Darwin.

Attack on Sydney Harbour

Late in the afternoon on 31 May 1942, 3 Japanese midget submarines were launched from their ‘mother’ submarines off the coast of Sydney. Their destination was Sydney Harbour, and the cruiser USS Chicago anchored there was one of their targets. The first midget submarine became trapped in an anti-submarine boom net. With no means of escape, the 2-man crew detonated charges, which destroyed their vessel and left no survivors. The other 2 midget submarines were spotted making their way into the harbour. They were attacked by vessels from the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) and USS Chicago. One midget submarine fired a torpedo that ultimately sank HMAS Kuttabul, a depot ship moored in the harbour. Two British naval officers and 19 Australian sailors lost their lives.

Two days before the Japanese midget submarines attacked, John Abrahams sailed into Sydney Harbour with the crew of HMAS Manoora. John recalls the attack on Sydney Harbour.

Watch the video:

Answer the questions:

  1. After they realised what had happened, how do you think John and his crew felt knowing that they had possibly sailed close to a Japanese submarine?
  2. John refers to a ‘dirty great depth charge’. What is he referring to, and why would it have been necessary?
  3. Visit the Australian Navy website to read about the midget submarine attack in Sydney. Using dot points summarise this event in your own words.

Discover more about the Sydney Harbour attack.

Submarine attack on Newcastle

The Japanese submarines did not leave Australian waters after the attack on Sydney Harbour. In the early hours of 8 June 1942, Japanese submarine I-24 shelled the eastern suburbs of Sydney. The attack was short, with some damage to buildings and one person injured. Just a couple of hours later, Japanese submarine I-21 attacked Newcastle. It fired 34 shells from approximately 9 km off the shore. Although they did not reach the shipyards — the intended target – some buildings were damaged. The brief attack ended shortly after Australian on-shore gunners began returning fire.

In 1942, Pat Guest (nee Bourke) and her cousin Doris lied about their age to enlist in the Australian Women’s Army Service (AWAS). Soon after enlisting, Pat witnessed the submarine attack on Newcastle.

Watch the video:

Pat Guest (nee Bourke) recalled a night soon after she had enlisted in the Australian Women's Army Service, when a Japanese submarine shelled Newcastle.

Answer the questions:

  1. One of the men with Pat that night yelled, ‘Christ they’re shelling the coast’. Describe in your own words what ‘shelling the coast’ means.
  2. Towards the end of the video, Pat says ‘we weren’t ready’. What do you think she means by this? Research other accounts of the night that Newcastle was shelled to help you with your answer.
  3. What do you think would have been the strategic reason for attacking Newcastle in 1942? Consider the location of Newcastle and its industry at the time.
  4. Do you think the Japanese would have considered the attack on Newcastle a success or failure? Why?

Sinking of AHS Centaur

Japanese submarines did more than target the Australian coast. Ships in Australian waters were also vulnerable to attack. On 12 May 1943, Australian Hospital Ship (AHS) Centaur left Sydney, bound for Port Moresby. In the early hours of 14 May, the Centaur was hit by a Japanese torpedo along the Queensland south coast near Moreton Island. The ship sank quickly, taking 268 lives. The 64 survivors spent nearly 2 days clinging to life rafts, waiting for help.

Ellen Savage was the only nurse to survive the sinking of the Centaur.

Watch the video:

Nurses played a vital role in the Australian Army during the Second World War. Sister Ellen Savage was one of those nurses. She was on board the hospital ship Centaur when it was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine in May 1943. This tells the story of Ellen's experience during and after that tragic event. Her actions upheld the essential tradition of the nursing service. Her devotion to duty and compassion for others are revealed in this remarkable story of service and survival. It also tells of the threat to Australia from Japanese forces on and near the mainland.

Answer the questions:

  1. Before the attack on AHS Centaur, more than 20 other ships had been attacked in Australian waters. Why was the sinking of Centaur so significant?
  2. Sister Ellen Savage was awarded the George Medal for ‘Conspicuous Service and High Courage’. In your own words, explain why Ellen was awarded this medal.
  3. Australians continue to commemorate the sinking of Centaur and the 268 people who lost their lives. Describe how you would commemorate the sinking. What elements and symbols would be important to include?

Discover more about The Sinking of the Centaur.

Threat of Japanese invasion

Two weeks after the air raid on Darwin, Japanese fighters attacked Broome in Western Australia without warning. During the war, the port town was a major stopping and refuelling point for ships and aircraft. As such, there were thousands of military personnel, civilians and refugees in the town at the time of the attack. We may never know precisely how many lives were lost that day. Air raids continued across northern Australia, as far east as Townsville in Queensland. Darwin was targeted 63 more times until the last raid in November 1943.

People living in coastal areas were worried about a Japanese invasion. They dug trenches and implemented blackout precautions. Anti-aircraft guns and searchlights were installed along with coast-watcher stations. Barbed-wire structures were laid across key beaches to help deter the arrival of unwanted boats.

Anne Curtis had been a keen sailor before the war, so her enlistment in the Women’s Royal Australian Naval Service (WRANS) in November 1942 was a natural choice. Anne shares how the threat of Japanese invasion impacted her during the war.

Watch the video:

Answer the questions:

  1. In the video, Anne says that the idea of Japanese troops reaching Townsville was a ‘bit scary and worrying’. Why do you think Anne felt this way?
  2. Read about how Australians prepared for possible attacks in coastal areas. What strategies did they use to reduce the impact of an attack?

Read Chapter 3: Defending Australia in the book Shifting Tides: Australia and the Pacific in the Second World War.

  1. Research further attacks on Australia during World War II. Choose and describe one event in your own words and how it impacted Australia. Try to choose a different event from one you have already looked at in this activity.

Discover more about Australia under attack 1940-1945.

Curriculum notes for teachers

The videos and activities align with Year 10 History, v 9.0 Australian Curriculum.

  • The significant events and turning points of the Second World War, including the Holocaust and the use of the atomic bomb.
  • The effects of the Second World War, with a particular emphasis on the continuities and changes on the Australian home front, such as the changing roles of women and First Nations Australians, and the use of wartime government controls.
Was this page helpful?
We can't respond to comments or queries via this form. Please contact us with your query instead.