Monday, May 17, 2010

An Awkward Truth: the story of the 1942 Darwin bombing

I finished reading Peter Grose’s engrossing An Awkward Truth a few weeks ago but only now have had the time to review it. Written in 2009, the book is a thorough examination of the catastrophic Japanese bombing of Darwin in February 1942. The book opens up with an anonymous poem of soldiers’ doggerel “Bloody Darwin” that has eerie parallels with John Cooper Clark’s 1980s British urban classic Evidently Chickentown. “This bloody town’s a bloody cuss/No bloody trams, no bloody bus/And no one cares for bloody us/Oh bloody, bloody Darwin.” The poem is apt as the story of Darwin’s first bombing (it would be attacked a further 58 times) is one of official incompetence, wilful neglect, looting, desertion and failure of leadership that cast a dark shadow on Australia’s war record.

Yet while Grose is not afraid to talk of what then Territories minister Paul Hasluck called in 1955 a day “of national shame”, he also uncovers another story of personal heroism and dogged counter-attack he says deserves a place in the record books. The force that attacked Darwin on 19 February 1942 was the same one as that attacked Pearl Harbour two months earlier. Led by renowned “Tora Tora Tora” pilot Mitsuo Fuchida (who lived until 1976), the force learned from their Hawaiian mistakes and caused more damage in Darwin, taking more civilian casualties and sinking more ships. At the time Darwin stood with Coventry as one of the biggest air attacks of the war. Its death toll of around 300 people remains the deadliest single event on Australian soil.

The chief villain of the book is not Fuchida but Charles Aubrey Abbott a former NSW Country Party politician who dabbled with the extreme right. He was appointed NT’s administrator in 1937. When war arrived in 1939, the town of Darwin accepted it apathetically believing it was still half a world away. But by 1941 things had changed as Japan looked like entering on the Axis side. Darwin was suddenly a target. On 7 December Japan launched a double strike hitting out at Pearl Harbour while launching a large ground based invasion of Malaya supported by a bombing campaign from Hong Kong to Singapore. Disaster followed disaster. McArthur’s indecisiveness cost the Philippines, Guam fell as did the citadel of Singapore. Japan could now turn its attentions to its real target: Java’s oilfields.

Across the sea in Darwin, authorities drew up plans for its evacuation. But Abbott sat on the plans and argued a state of emergency would cause unnecessary panic. Most women and children were eventually taken out by boat in a chaotic evacuation. Darwin’s port was transformed into a supply base for the defence of the Dutch East Indies. Ships piled up in the harbour as its inefficient design and strike-prone wharfies made for painfully slow loading and unloading. There were also fighting ships from the Royal Australian and US Navy making a total of 45 ships in the harbour at the time of the bombing.

On 19 February, the Japanese Nagumo Force with its four aircraft carriers rendezvoused in the Timor Sea south of Maluku, 350km north of Darwin. It unleashed 188 aircraft, five more than in the first wave at Pearl and set a course for Darwin. They flew southward in the gap between Bathurst and Melville Island before turning in a loop to approach Darwin from the south-east. This had the double advantage of having the sun behind them and being the least likely direction of attack.

They arrived in Darwin without warning around 10am. They divided into two groups one attacking the port while the other strafed the airfield. The bombers exerted maximum damage on the port locomotives, railway trucks and scattering oil lines which caught fire in the water killing those who had dived in for safety. The town lay just beyond the port and suffered heavy damage. A direct hit took out the post office and communication building killed nine civilians inside.

Anti-aircraft guns did their best to return fire but lack of practice and problems with the shells in the tropical heat meant they were mostly ineffective. Over at the airfield, the second force strafed and bombed knocking out planes and communication equipment. Out on the harbour ships struggled to get away from the carnage. The US ship Peary sank with 91 dead aboard. 15 more died on the William B Preston, also sunk and 12 died on the hospital ship Manundra though it did not sink and continued to accept casualties. By the end of the raid, Darwin was a smoking mess.

After the all clear was sounded, dazed Darwinians emerged to survey the damage. But the Japanese were not finished yet and 54 aircraft arrived for a second attack two hours later. They concentrated on the airfield dropping 13,000kgs of high explosives before flying off at 12.20pm. It was from this point on that local officials displayed their incompetence. Neither Abbott nor the army commander took control of the situation. Abbott directed police away from rescue efforts to pack his valuable glass and china and take it south to safety.

Then there was the “Adelaide River Stakes”, a mass exodus from Darwin as rumours filled the void left by the absence of any official information. A convoy of vehicles set off to Adelaide River about 120kms to the south based on the false rumour civilians had been ordered to leave town. Anything that could move, did and the road jammed as drivers groped their way blindly in the red dust. Meanwhile the Army neglected to start a salvage operation, blowing any chance of giving the surviving aircraft a chance if the Japanese came back. With no orders transmitted, army units dispersed to other parts of the Territory.

Worse was to follow when those left behind decided Darwin was ideal for a spot of looting. Army personnel including military police were involved taking goods away by the truckload. By nightfall matters turned violent within drunken military personnel firing over the heads of crowds as they gathered to leave Darwin. There were no sanitary services and all the wharfies had fled leaving surviving ships with no way of unloading. The military police were out of control but as Grose writes “the Administrator’s port, sherry and other fine wines were in safe hands. Otherwise, Darwin was a mess.”

On the day after, the military finally took control. They took eligible men from Adelaide River and signed them up for the army back in Darwin. Non essential people were evacuated and a week later the whole of the NT was placed under Army control. There just remained the tricky problem of what to tell the world.

Unlike Roosevelt after Pearl, the Curtin administration would not trust Australians with the truth. At the time Curtin was engage in a furious row with Roosevelt and Churchill about withdrawing Aussie troops from the middle east. The three journalists in Darwin had splashed the news of the attacks but the Government was keen to underplay the news. Initially they reported the death tally as 19 with damage as minimal. Abbott also pretended in his communications Darwin was back to normal.

By the end of March the secret Lowe commission to investigate the attack reported back to Curtin that 240 died but censors made sure newspapers did not make much of it. Curtin’s secrecy policy backfired as the Japanese went on to attack Broome, Wyndham and other towns but used the excuse of the “national interest” to avoid any further comment or scrutiny. Darwin disappeared from public gaze. As Grose concluded “The full horror of the attack on Darwin was [the government’s] best chance to jolt Australians out of their apathy. Unwisely it chose not to take it.”

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