Chestnut Lodge Wargames Group

Bombing of Darwin Day (19 February)

Today (19 February) officially commemorates a significant event in Australia’s history – the first time since European settlement that Australia came under attack – the largest ever mounted by a foreign power against Australia.

Many will know of the 7 December 1941 attack by the Japanese on Pearl Harbor during World War II. I suspect many aren’t aware of the bombing of Darwin, Australia, just over two months later, on 19 February 1942.

The Pacific War Begins

Most consider that the Pacific War began with the attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December (8 December Japanese time).

Forty minutes earlier, the Japanese had begun their invasion of Malaya at Kota Bhuru (GMT c17:05 on 7 Dec). These troops then continued down the eastern side of the Malayan peninsula. Troops also landed in south-east Thailand making their way down the western side of the Malayan peninsula.

At the same time as Pearl Harbour was attacked, the Japanese successfully attacked and invaded other US military bases in Wake Island, Guam, and the Philippines.

At about the same time, two Japanese submarines lay mines off Darwin, Australia.

On 8-9 February, three Japanese Divisions landed on Singapore Island where the 90,000-strong British, Australian, and Indian garrison surrendered on 15 February.

The Japanese landed on the island of Sumatra, part of the Dutch East Indies, and three days later, on 16 February the island surrendered.

Another three days later, Darwin was bombed for the first time.

Why Darwin?

Darwin is the capital city and chief port of the Northern Territory, Australia. During the 1930s, the Japanese Empire was becoming increasingly aggressive. As a result, port infrastructure and airfield facilities and fueling services were developed along with the construction of coastal defense facilities and an increase in the garrison in Darwin. When the Pacific War broke out, the military presence in Darwin was rapidly expanded as it became a base for deploying forces to assist in the defense of the Dutch East indies. Most civilians were evacuated from the town, and supplies and shipping to build the Darwin base and to support the Java and Philippine forces were gathering in Darwin.

Having secured Singapore, and Sumatra, the Japanese strategic plan was to land on Timor 20 February and then invade Java shortly after. The Allies could contest these plans from Darwin.

The raids begin

There were two air attacks by the Japanese on 19 February.

The first wave

The town centre and the harbour were the focus of the first attack. Darwin Post Office was the first building to be destroyed. Of the 47 ships in the harbour, 8 were sunk including the hospital ship, one was beached, and 11 were damaged.

The second wave

Two hours later, a second wave of bombers arrived. Two formations, one from the north, the other from the south, inflicted considerable damage on the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) Base Darwin.

In total, 260 Japanese aircraft were involved in the raids that day, killing 252 Allied services personnel, merchant seaman and civilians.

While not without some glaring spelling errors (notably that of ‘Australia’ on the map) and pronunciations (the annoying use of R-A-A-F instead of R-double-A-F), I found the following gave me a good visual demonstration of the Japanese assault and its devastating impact:

The following short snippets give a sense of what it was like on the ground for those attempting to defend Darwin.

Subsequent raids

From April to 12 November 1943, Darwin suffered 64 raids. A further 33 raids across northern Australia as well as Japanese air reconnaissance over the region continued through most of 1944. Areas attacked included Broome, Wyndham, Poert Hedland and Derby (Western Australia), Darwin and Katherine (Northern Territory), Townsville and Mossman (Queensland) and Horn Island (Torres Strait).


The Japanese effectively interrupted the port facilities of Darwin, and tied up anti-aircraft defences and air force units which could have been deployed in more forward areas.

On 25 February 1942, ABDACOM was dissolved. The US-British Combined Chiefs of Staff placed the Pacific under the US Joint Chiefs’ strategic direction.

Two days later, the Allies were defeated by the Japanese in the Battle of the Java Sea.

On 9 March, the 20,000 Allied troops in Java surrendered. The Japanese had realised their initial war plans.

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