A day Harry Dale will never forget

Name: Harry Dale
Date: 1942
Unit: HMAS Karangi
Location: Darwin

The day the Japanese bombed Darwin is one that Harry Dale will never forget. He was on a ship in the harbour when the planes began their raid on Thursday, 19 February 1942, and was lucky to survive.

Harry Dale had joined HMAS Karangi while she was still being fitted out at Cockatoo Dock in Sydney. The ship had two strange looking steel horns protruding from the bow and he learned that she would become a boom defence vessel in Darwin Harbour.

HMAS Karangi left Sydney on 26 December 1941 and headed up the east coast, stopping briefly in Townsville and arriving in Darwin early in January 1942. The next few weeks were spent settling in to the work of working on the 'trotts' of the boom gates [a trott is a panel between each flotation barrel made up of stretcher weights and the mesh] which were only open in daylight hours so Japanese submarines couldn't slip into the harbour undetected.

Word came through that a convoy had been attacked by Japanese planes and on 18 February, between 20 and 30 ships steamed into Darwin Harbour including the battleship, USS Houston and HMAS Swan, HMAS Warrego and USS Peary. As dusk was closing in, USS Houston sailed back out through the boom gates heading west towards Fremantle.

Harry Dale decided he would keep a record of his time in Darwin. Because it was strictly forbidden to keep a diary or to tell anyone in the family anything about the war, Harry hit on the idea of writing letters to his mother - but not posting them. Thus he kept a record of events that included a vivid description of the bombing of Darwin.

Thursday 19 February 1942

The time is near 2400 hours (midnight). What a day; boy, I'll never forget today, a lot has happened in a short time. I'll try and keep this up to date, just in case any thing happens. The ship has now stopped, we are now laying a fair way up the East arm at anchor, I don't know how far we have come, but here we are, I'll try and fill in the details as they happened, here goes.

Cecil Dobell and I were on duty this morning, just before 1000. We were up on the gun deck together, just skulking around, and having a smoke. Cec was oiling the breach of the gun. The Karangi has a 12 pounder Ack Ack gun and two Hispano machine guns. The Hispanos are located on the wings of the bridge. I think they were left over from the last war, still they work ok. Anyway, we heard this low droning sound. It was a plane but sounded pretty high up. Then it came into view, it wasn't one, but many. They all glistened silver in the sun, like they were painted with silver frost. It was the sun shining on them. It looked like nine, then another nine, then another nine. They could have been altogether, they were flying in arrow head formation, with one leader. I said to Cec 'they're not ours'. Cec said 'they're Japs, we don't own that many.

By now they were well into view coming across the harbour in a line, which to me was taking them straight up the town. We reckon they were 30,000 feet high. I raced into the wheel house and pressed the alarm button, then I stood in the doorway. As they got closer I could see their bombs starting to fall. All the planes let them go together. They looked like golf balls.

I watched them right down to the ground. The first bomb to hit looked as if it hit between the signal station and the ships tied up alongside the wharf. I looked at the ship's clock - it was showing 0958 hours (two minutes to 10 am. That's one time I shouldn't forget. About the same time as it hit the wharf, I know there is a ship there unloading depth charges (Neptuna). I'd say it copped a hit. By now our gun crews have closed up and the crew are all at action stations. We were a little lucky - our anchor was not on the anchor cable but on a 'brake slip stopper', which meant we didn't have to use up any steam to raise it. We were able to slip the lot into the harbour. That's where it is now. You can see all the ships belching out smoke as the stokers are really stoking the boilers right up, trying to get up a head of steam quickly so they can get under way. The old HMAS Platypus is at anchor between us and the wharf. I don't think she will be able to get under way - she is used as a supply ship, has never been moved since we have been here. If those depth charges blow the old Platypus will be very lucky to stay afloat. She is not that far away from the wharf.

The dive bombers are now in action. The USS Peary, who is only a few hundred yards away from us on our port quarter, is putting up plenty of flack and machine gun fire. There is a small cloud just above her. There are five dive bombers. They seem to be hidden in the cloud. They are dropping every thing at her. Our little 12 pounder is going great, haven't hit any thing yet. We made the tail of one of the dive bombers wobble, it must be out of bombs and ammo as it has flown right at and over us and kept going.

My job on the gun is to set the fuses and keep the ammo up. The magazine is under the mess deck. Ken Trayhurn is down there loading them into a canvas bag. Spud Murphy hauls them up, then runs along the deck, hands them up to me on the gun deck. The Pearyhas just been hit again. She is on fire. She never managed to get up any speed before she got hit again. The ships along side the wharf have just blown up, can't see the old Platypus. I think she must be gone.

We have all ducked for cover, shrapnel is falling everywhere. The Manunda, the hospital ship, is only a few hundred yards off our port bow. Here comes a Kittyhawk, its belly light is flashing 'dot dash' all the time. There's a bloody Zero after the Kitty. The Nip is firing all guns. They have just hopped over the Manunda (looks like the Manunda was strafed by the Nip as he flew past). The Kitty is headed straight along our port side. I can see the ,I>Hispano on the port side working, bullets are flying every where. The Japs' bullets are raking along the Karangi's side. I'm hiding behind a stanchion. The Jap planes have disappeared. The bridge calls down to see if anyone is injured. All on the gun deck are present, some one yells, 'where's Murphy'. He bobs up out of the winch house. Don't hold out much hope for the Kitty pilot.

We are under way. The Zealander is astern of the Manunda and has been hit. She is ablaze down the stern, big fire. They are taking to the life boat. We are heading toward them. They are rowing toward the Manunda. Looks like a direct hit on the Peary's magazine, OH!! She has blown sky high. What an explosion. We have copped the full force of the blast. I've got bells in my ears. She's sinking stern first. Nearly under now. The forward turret is still firing. We are pumping shells out as fast as we can. I can see the form of a sailor right on top of the blast. The Peary is nearly under. Can see another life boat being rowed away from the wharf. Don't know how they have survived. The old Platypus is still afloat. We are still firing at anything our gun can reach. The boys yell out the setting they want and I set to that. We can't get over 12,000 to 15,000 feet in height. It's useless wasting ammo trying to reach the high level bombers. We are just fending off any low level fighters or dive bombers that are around 1000 feet or less.

The Catalinas went with one run of bombs. They have sunk the lot. There's a torpedo bomber carrying a great big torpedo under its belly. It's keeping out of the way. Reckon they expected to find the USS Houston. Bloody glad she got away yesterday, Where ever you look there are burning or sinking ships, the air is filled with the smell of cordite, gun fire, and exploding bombs. There are still explosions going on. The bombers haven't let up. We are making way towards the boom gate, probably only four or five knots. The town looks to have some big fires. The shore ack ack are still trying to reach the high level planes. Don't reckon they have any hope. The worst seems to have passed. Hope they don't come back. No one on our ship has been hit, we certainly have been lucky, especially when that Zero chased the kitty along our port side. I reckon by the time they had sunk the Peary the dive bombers were out of bombs. Can't imagine why they would have left us without letting at least one or two sticks go, as we were certainly firing at them.

Can't see or hear any more planes. We are heading toward the boom gate, just passed two ships - all that is showing is their super structure above the water. No crew to be seen, plenty of wreckage. We are now out at the boom gate. Seems a fighter was going past the gate ship when it turned about and started strafing it. One seaman badly injured, a chap named Pony Moore. They have managed to get him headed for the Manunda.

The time is 1215 hours. We can hear planes, we are under way again as evidently there is nothing we can do here. The Japs are now bombing what looks like the RAAF base. They are in a wave of 27, flying in arrow head formation. Looks like it's the same pattern as this morning. We have a good view from here, as we watch the bombs explode. Here comes another wave of 27. The first wave has flown out over the harbour, turned before they reached us and are now heading north. Lucky for us there doesn't seem to be any fighters with them. The other wave has just unloaded their bombs, and headed north. Can't see any more, there mustn't be any thing left of the RAAF base.

We are now heading back to where we were this morning. As we get nearer to the boom wharf, it's been about four hours since the Japs made their first raid, we have been going over to each ship that's sunk looking for survivors. They have either got away in the life boats, been trapped in their hulls, or are floating about with the wreckage. The harbour is littered with debris of all sorts. Can see a few ships in the distance. Like us, they are still afloat. All the crew are still closed up at action stations. The magazines are full of shells, so I gather its wait and see what happens. Still a few hours till dusk. Can't come soon enough for me. None of us on the gun deck have any idea where we are headed. Seems we are about to enter the East arm. No idea where that goes. We are now proceeding at a very reduced rate of knots. At the moment I'm not needed on the gun crew. They have plenty of ammo. Roy Stone, he's the Bosun, has got me to heave the lead, that means I heave a line which has a seven pound lead weight on the end. I call out how deep the water is using the different markings on the line - so many fathoms deep, so the skipper knows how much water is under the ship so we don't run aground.

I have been relieved a couple of times, Cecil Dobell is doing it now. I have come down to the mess for a cup of Kai (hot chocolate). The engines seem to have stopped. On deck I see Nobby Clarke. He is a PO/Stoker - seems we are stopping here for the night. Well, that takes care of Thursday 19 February 1942 as it is nearly 2400 hours. I hope I never have to live through another day like today.

The material for this article was supplied by Harry Dale from Victoria
8/01/2002 10:48:18 AM

Last updated:

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DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) ( ), A day Harry Dale will never forget, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 21 June 2024, https://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/stories/australians-wartime/day-harry-dale-will-never-forget
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