The Bombing of Darwin 19 February 1942: the 70th anniversary

Darwin is in a flurry of activity this week as the city commemorates the 70th anniversary of the Bombing of Darwin on 19 February 1942. Although it’s said that the event was little known in Australia’s history perhaps it’s more accurate to say that it was a good example of war-time “spin”…perhaps understandably in the sense of keeping up morale.

In the beginning the numbers of fatalities and injuries quoted were sadly underestimated and to this date, the figures remain contested by some people. The prevailing view is that “more than 243” were killed and between 300 and 400 injured.

Similarly the number of Japanese planes in the assault was also underestimated at the time: 70+ or so compared with an actual 188. Much appears to have been made of the fact that 4 enemy planes had been brought down during the two raids which occurred an hour apart, although one of the planes actually crash-landed on Bathurst Island.The USS Peary was among the naval casualties in the harbour that day, ironically having only returned the day before to refuel.

The Prime Minister of the day, John Curtin, responded to the attacks with the following comments published in The Sydney Morning Herald on 20 February 1942:

”Damage to property was considerable,” he said, “but reports so far to hand do not give precise particulars about the loss of life. The Government regards the attacks as most grave, and makes it quite clear that a severe blow has been struck on Australian soil”.

Darwin had actually had some warning that the planes were coming when Father John McGrath of Bathurst Island Catholic mission at Nguiu radioed to warn Darwin. This message was transmitted to the RAAF base. Unfortunately the message was largely ignored as they thought it was some returning American aircraft. Since that time the Tiwi people have their own commemoration of the event, with their bombing dance featuring swooping plane movements and shooting. We were lucky to see the dance for ourselves when we visited Nguiu in 1995, as it was our daughter’s first teaching post. A Tiwi Islander, Matthias Ulungura, captured the 1st Japanese prisoner of war on Australian soil, Sergeant Hajimi Toyoshima whose Zero fighter crashed near Snake Bay.

The Bombing of Darwin occurred about 10 weeks after Pearl Harbour and was masterminded by the same Japanese commander, Mitsuo Fuchida with the same squadrons and pilots taking part. It’s interesting to compare the two events, one very well known and one almost unknown. Astonishingly Darwin had 683 bombs dropped on it during that first morning compared with Pearl Harbour’s 271 though without doubt the magnitude of the bombs was smaller. At Pearl Harbour torpedo bombs were used which have a much greater impact. Based on the bombing pattern, it seems the Japanese intent was plainly not just to decimate the shipping and aircraft but to take out the infrastructure so there was no northern base from which Australia, and its Pacific ally America, could mount an offence against Japanese bases in Asia. The indicative number of civilian deaths in Darwin was around 60.

Pearl Harbour


Japanese aircraft



Japanese aircraft carriers



Aircraft destroyed (US/Aus)



Killed (US/Aus)






Ships sunk






Throughout the battle, the 18 anti-aircraft guns were fired constantly until their barrels were red hot. So hot in fact that when the cleaning cloths were used, they burst into flames. Famously one bloke came running from the showers in his hat and boots -with a towel   wrapped around him, that soon dropped off. Artists’ representations show him naked manning the guns.

Many of the women, children and elderly of Darwin had been evacuated to friends and family around Australia in the preceding month or so, and after the bombing most of those remaining went/were sent south. This left the men, civilian and military, and the indigenous people on the Frontline. The list of evacuees is extensive but can be seen here on the National Archives of Australia webpage (click on view digital copy on the right). Some of the evacuees were to become refugees in their own country a second time in 1974, when 33,000 people had to leave the city after it was nearly destroyed by Cyclone Tracy.

The effect of the war in Darwin is easy to ignore, yet visible everywhere. There are military installations scattered around the cliffs and parks, main streets were runways, and down the Track (the Stuart Highway) there are regular signposts to former airstrips, supply depots and the like.

The new Defence of Darwin Experience at the revamped Military Museum, which will be opened this weekend, will no doubt do much to make this part of Australia’s history far more well-known. (Update: we visited this on Saturday 18 February just after it opened, and it really is an excellent insight into the bombing. I’m pleased we’ll be able to visit it on a regular basis so there’s less risk of information overload).

Over the next few days I’ll be posting some photos that relate to Darwin’s role in World War II and to the Bombing. You can find them on my Tropical Territory blog.

And if you are in Australia and have cable TV, the history channel will be screening “The Bombing of Darwin, an Awkward Truth” on Sunday night. It premiered in Darwin tonight and was extremely interesting.

Aerial overview Darwin and Brisbane

Yesterday I flew interstate on an unexpected trip to Brisbane. So what you might say…well, while I’ve made this journey many times, for some reason yesterday’s flight paths were out of the ordinary.

In Darwin, we took off in a westerly direction from the runway, all well and good except Brisbane is south. However the bonus was that we did a wide circuit over the harbour looking at the Wet Season green of the vegetation, the rivers and coastline fringed with white sand, the boats in the marina at Cullen Bay and out on the harbour. The sandbar near Cullen Bay was exposed, something that happens when the tide is particularly low. You could see the waterfront complex and all the new high rises in the city. As they tell you on the guided tours, Darwin harbour is about twice the size of Sydney’s world-renowned harbour so it’s impressive.

You’d be forgiven for thinking, as you look at this tropical magnificence, “oh if only I was down there swimming”. Sadly this isn’t possible most of the year and especially so in the Wet Season. Those beautiful waters are home to stingers which can kill you and they pull out about 200 crocodiles a year, bearing in mind they’re the ones they trap (and relocate). Of course there are no doubt sharks out there too but with the other two “deadlies” out there, what’s a shark between friends. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve swum in the harbour since we arrived in Darwin over a decade ago.

I had business papers to read on the flight so the 3.5 hours of the flight passed quickly among the clouds.

To add icing to the flight-path cake, on approach to Brisbane we came in from the west, which again doesn’t happen all that often. Usually the approach of Darwin flights is from the east over Moreton Island and the Brisbane river and mangrove flats. Yesterday we followed the river’s serpentine path as it flowed past The University of Queensland where I’ve spent many years of my life, parallel to the CBD with my old school off to one side a little, and the Gabba where Brisbane’s major cricket matches are played. We then angled around to come in over Teneriffe and Newstead House.

All in all a wonderful aerial tour of two cities I’ve lived in for many years, topped off by a smooth landing by the Qantas pilot.

Happy Christmas to all! Christmas lights celebration Darwin 2011

Happy Christmas to all my readers wherever you are. I wish you health and happiness today and lots of wonderful genealogy discoveries in 2012.

Today I’m sharing with you some photos from our drive around Darwin and Palmerston looking at the Christmas lights.

This display in Leanyer was the first we saw and was gorgeous….kids were enjoying being photographed near Santa. The owner was chatting to the visitors and was disappointed that his train display and accompanying sound were no longer working as they’d been destroyed by the bad weather. The visitors’ enjoyment was not deterred.

Hotham Street Leanyer is apparently Christmas Lights Central for Darwin. We’ve been here all these years and didn’t know that! Apparently this tree is the tallest Xmas tree in Darwin and required two visits from a cherry-picker crane to set it up and decorate it. Their efforts were well worth it for all the visitors’ pleasure.

By the way, the dots in the  sky are raindrops not snow falling – we have a cyclone around the ridges so there was a bit of rain about. Out in the satellite town of Palmerston this house is apparently another of the top houses for the lights and it was truly spectacular!

In a nearby suburb in Palmerston this display highlights the reason for the season. Happy Christmas!

Christmas is coming Down Under

That's Darwin starred at the top of Australia and you can see from the blue line that we're close to the equator.

Can you believe it will be December tomorrow? I’m having difficulty doing so, even though we’re in the throes of Christmas parties, pageants and concerts and the shops are full of tinsel and gifts (thought I haven’t noticed carol music yet).

Inspired by Geneabloggers I will be doing my Advent Calendar of Memories this year…I was so taken with the thought that I’ve already put some of my stories together. I just have to find the photos to go with them…rather more of a challenge. Still, before I start in on the series, I thought it opportune to set the Christmas scene Down Under for any readers overseas. Readers at home will already know the score.

The Christmas Season Down Under is:

*        The height of the summer season – think temperatures anywhere between 25C and 40C (77F to 104F) depending on where you live, but around 30C (86F) is average. Darwin has projected temps for the coming week of 33-35C (95F) with mostly 80% humidity (which is the kicker) and thunderstorms every day. We’re in the Build-Up so that’s life here.

*        End of the school year: kids graduating, moving on to new schools, classes, teachers and friends, concerts etc. For teachers it’s all of the above plus assessments and reports. These school holidays are about six weeks long and the equivalent of the northern August holidays.

*        End of academic and financial year for anyone working in universities as well: exams and assessments, applications for entry based on final school exams, close off of finances, reappointment of contract staff, frenzied deadlines, parties etc. Not too much Christmas spirit left by Christmas Eve!

*        End of year performances/parties for any activity or sport, adults and/or children are involved with. Crazy time especially if special costumes are involved.

*        The main go-on-holidays season of the year when people pack up and go to the beach or to family for up to a month. Camping grounds around the country will be packed from around Christmas until late January. Flights are heavily booked and expensive!

*        Christmas parties are often in the first weeks of December because lots of people start their holidays as soon as school holidays commence.

*        Competition at work for who gets to take their long holidays over Christmas-January.

*        People are grumpy when out shopping because they’re hot and tired and the carparks (and shops) are full and the cars are hot when you get back to them…but that’s probably true when it’s cold and snowing too, just substitute cold for hot in that sentence, and with more clothes to deal with. 🙂

*        Needless to say, with all this hot weather, Christmas clothing has to be cool and is often casual. Over the years Australians have come to adapt their eating habits too.

*        For lots of pets it’s the time for them to have a relaxing holiday in the local pet resort, and sadly for some, it will be when they are dumped or left to fend for themselves.

*        It’s also daylight from about 4am until about 9pm so Christmas lights don’t have the same impact until later in the night. (lucky Darwin, our daylight sits around 6.15am to 7pm all year).

*        Boxing Day in Australia is a wind-down day after Christmas and a chance to kick back and watch the start of the Sydney-Hobart yacht race or to watch the Boxing Day cricket test match.

Darwin is very much a city where people have come from somewhere else – relatively few are born and bred Territorians. Consequently as many head back to their home states for the holidays and to see families, the city becomes a bit deserted but pleasantly quiet. The tourists usually avoid the hot weather and heavy rain but lately that’s been changing a bit. If it’s raining you can turn on the air-conditioning and let the grey skies convince you that it’s chilly outside as well. The downside to Darwin is that we can’t go swimming at the beach no matter how hot it is, thanks to crocs and stingers! Thank heavens, and Hendo, for the new wave pool. 🙂

I’m looking forward to reading how others spend their Christmas and holiday season through the Geneabloggers’ Advent Calendar 2011.

Relief from the Build Up and a reminder of the Wet

Over the last week Darwin has had some fantastic storms complete with thunder, lightning and very heavy rains….a harbinger of the Wet Season to come. This morning it was pelting down outside and blowing several metres under the roofline and through the doors. The plants love it, and will thrive from the bursts of rain over the past week, the first rain we’ve had for months (or has there been the odd sprinkle?).

Mind you, Darwin has looked pretty good this Dry Season…we had such a big Wet last year the vegetation didn’t turn brown until August. The rain here has to be seen to be believed if you’ve never lived in the tropics: huge black clouds billow through the sky and pick up speed with the wind. Meanwhile the birds are feasting on new leaves and blossoms, there seems to be white cockatoos everywhere, and the parrots are getting drunk on the umbrella tree blossoms. Time to bring out my camera….

On Saturday we went for a long drive with the family in a convoy of 4WDs, a nearly-400km round trip just for a family BBQ…go figure. The blokes went fishing for a while with the small people who were very proud to catch (and release) a couple of small barramundi, as well as the excitement of seeing some big crocs languishing in the river. En route home we stopped to inspect a new site and as we made the return sector the heavens opened and the road turned into a red-dirt floodway adding a bit of adventure to a fairly routine drive. The speed of the transformation was pretty impressive I must say.

We Darwinites have been concerned that we were in for a long unrelieved Build Up this year after a blissfully cool and delightful Dry Season (April-June) and a record Wet Season last year (December-ish to April). Why do we hate the Build Up so much? Well the humidity soars, the temperature stays around 35C during the day and usually doesn’t fall much below 28 or 29 even overnight. There’s a good reason this season is called Mango Madness. Firstly the mangoes are in full fruit so the mango-lovers are in heaven but unfortunately this is accompanied by short tempers and “crazy” behaviour as the weather gets to everyone. The tiniest thing can set put tempers on edge…sort of like road rage without the road. It is a better these days than it once would have been – at least now we have the option of air-conditioning in our houses, cars and offices. It does make me wonder how I coped with Port Moresby all those years ago when the only thing that was air-conditioned was the office.

But right now, with the rain having run of out puff, and a rain-cooled breeze blowing it’s absolutely delightful. A reminder of just why we love the Wet!

Now back to the family history trail….

The Navy is in town: The Old and the New: HMB Endeavour and HMAS Darwin

HMAS Darwin in Darwin: the flags might look pretty but that missile launcher is serious business!

The Navy was in full-profile in Darwin town this long weekend. We missed the Keys to the City ceremony on Saturday but went with a daughter and small grandsons to see the HMAS Darwin on open public display yesterday. Although it was hot and at times slow, we had a great time seeing over the Australian Navy’s HMAS Darwin. Small boys, parents and grandparents were pretty impressed when the missile launcher showed its super rapid and automated response. I would certainly not want to be on board or anywhere nearby when it was all done in earnest: with the LNG gas plant and tankers in the background you realise just how much damage could be done! You also have to admire the ability of the able seamen to navigate those rather steep stairs at speed. Small boys have gone away very proud of the HMAS Darwin hat and badge and adult people happy with an interesting outing.

From the bridge of HMAS Darwin with the Canadian Navy's ship on view.
HMB Endeavour contrasts with the gas tanker and sailing boats.

Then today the replica of HMB Endeavour also motored into Darwin harbour. Although we’d been on the lookout for it nearby we didn’t see it under sail at all but it was still exciting to see something so evocative of Australia’s white history. Perhaps less so for our indigenous Australians but an eventful moment nonetheless: I’ll be curious to see what the Tiwi people thought when they saw it off Melville Island. Darwin had anticipated Endeavour would be anchored off Fannie Bay last night and there seemed to be a very large number of “Endeavour picnics” awaiting its arrival. However it still could not be seen when dark fell so it was a pleasure to see it arrive this morning.

As it came into Fort Hill then Stokes Hill wharves, Endeavour was pushed and navigated by tugs and its C18th century design contrasted with the sailing boats, speed boats, tugs, trawlers, barges and gas tankers. It is now berthed securely on the inner harbour of Stokes Hill wharf, which took a bit more kerfuffle than Cook would have required given there were no wharves etc in Oz in his time. We’re really looking forward to seeing over it and taking the taller of the grandchildren to see it (they need to be >90cm).

The rigging of the Endeavour is most impressive.

Echoes of a recent royal wedding; Endeavour has a very pretty stern.

For the non-Australians reading this, HMB Endeavour stands for His Majesty’s Bark (or Barque) Endeavour, a faithful replica of the ship in which Captain James Cook “discovered” Australia in 1770. The replica is currently part-way through a circumnavigation of Australia.

HMB Endeavour (replica) at Stokes Hill Wharf with HMAS Darwin on the far right at Fort Hill wharf.

Bagpipe Appreciation Day

Darwin & Districts Pipes and Drums: Harmony Day festivities, Darwin, March 2011

Geneabloggers tells us that today is Bagpipe Appreciation Day so with bagpipes in my blood stream how could I let this go. I’ve posted before about my McCorkindale pipers, my grandmother’s brothers ..if you missed that post please have a look at the photos which I think are so evocative.  But to branch out today I thought I’d give you some photos of pipers from recent events. The first is the Darwin & Districts Pipes & Drums at the Harmony Day festivities at the Darwin Waterfront a few months ago. The others are from the recent International Tartan Daycelebrations in Brisbane

This bonnie wee tartan-clad bairn enjoyed every moment of the afternoon.

in early July. The bonnie wee lassie in the tartan absolutely loved her day and was enjoying the pipes as much as any of us. If you have bagpipes in your blood stream it’s just something you love while others find they sound like crazed cats. I can hear the pipes from a great distance and they call me in. They are stirring and can be melancholic, celebratory, or a call to arms, claymore in hand. Flower of Scotland!

The massed pipes included some very young pipers from the Queensland Police Juvenile Pipes and Drums (Cops in the slogan!)

Living with Top Gun in the Top End

Boeing's F/A18s against the sunset from

There are days when our house is like an extra in Top Gun: you know, the movie with Tom Cruise, fly-boys in leather jackets, great soundtrack, lots of super-fast planes and serious motorbikes for those with that predilection. Being the Dry Season in the Top End the annual manoeuvres are on and Exercise Aces North is in full flight with the fighter jocks enjoying our clear blue skies. Unfortunately when the wind is in the right (or wrong?!) direction it means they do take-offs heading straight for us, then a fast-turn of their F/A18s for the next leg right over our roof, with accompanying explosion of noise: tends to scare cats and small children….and sometimes annoys grumpy women-of-a certain-age. Being a bit of a plane junkie I used to get a thrill out of seeing this burst of military might but right now, I’d choose lamb roast over Tom Cruise too!  (for those unfamiliar with this 1990s advertising, do have a look at the video.. it’s amusing!).

Opera under the stars in Darwin

We have just returned from a wonderful evening listening to Opera under the stars with the Darwin Symphony Orchestra with guest stars, tenor Rosario la Spina, and soprano Antoinette Halloran. What a treat it was to hear such talented performers here in Darwin and for a mere twenty dollars as well! I have their Puccini Romance CD so was super-keen to hear them live. I can’t even imagine what it would be like be able to produce such beautiful sounds but I guess while there’s a need for an audience I’ll have a role.

The largely volunteer members of the DSO and the Darwin Chorale also did a great job! Good job on the drums Chris! A splendid night out.

Chilling out in Darwin

This pink frangipani is growing in my courtyard garden. Beautiful against the blue morning sky.

For those who think it never gets chilly in Darwin, this morning was a breezy 16C. Yes I can hear all you non-tropical people laughing like mad but when the normal range is 25 to 32 daily you get a bit spoiled. So when it drops to temps in the teens everyone is in shock, even those of us who love it…count me in the latter group. Out

Desert rose in my garden...currently flowering hot pink.

on the acreage blocks about 25kms south of Darwin it even drops <10 sometimes.

You can be confident that there will be any number of people out and about in Darwin wearing jumpers/cardigans and boots or even Ugg boots, and my grandson will have his jeans on. Serious business!

This morning the Navy patrol boats were out on the water. It’s all “go” for Defence in Darwin as we regularly have international manoeuvres here during the Dry and the Fly Boys are up having fun in their fighter jets. Darwin is after all on Australia’s northern boundary and a front-line defence position so it’s not unknown to encounter an Army APC (aka tank) driving down the road with everyone on their gun positions. A bit freaky the first time you encounter it I must say. (Friday update -the RAAF jet-jockeys were up in their FA-18s this afternoon, doing U’ies over our roof so we got the sonic boom as they took off on the next leg of their circuits….shades of Top Gun without Tom Cruise).

Meanwhile it’s been a lovely clear blue sky kind of day and the tropical flowers are gorgeous. The burn-off has started and the smell of smoke from the fires is in the air daily. Up by the waterfront the exquisite crimson finches were dashing and “peeping” everywhere….their call is a distinctive “peep, peep”. Unfortunately they’re much too fast and flighty for me to capture on camera.

Here are some photos I took today of our beautiful tropical flowers.

I think this is my favourite frangipani but not in my garden, sadly.

A recent acquisition - not sure if I'll be successful with it.
This vivid orange Ritzi hibiscus didn't go with my garden's colour scheme but I had to have it anyway, and it does look gorgeously sunny and sparks up the garden.