RAN HEROISM - DARWIN 19 FEBRUARY 1942


In his book, former naval air defence analyst, John Bradford, lists - some for the first time - the names of all military personnel recommended for gallantry awards in the first air raid on Darwin, and discusses how:

1000 RAN, Merchant Navy and US Army personnel could have been killed had the Japanese included torpedo bombers in their strike force.

The absence of torpedo bombers and dive bombers in subsequent raids on Darwin became a contributing factor in the loss of HMAS Armidale in December 1942.

The present-day Australian Government could posthumously honour the gallantryof four WWII RAN personnel. One of them was serving in Darwinon the day of the raid.



'His account .....is valuable in contributing to a complete record of an important event in our national history': Sir Zelman Cowen - Foreword

'This scholarly work........' 'The Advertiser' Books Section, Saturday, September 2000




JOHN BRADFORD


$26.95 Inc. p&p

ADDRESS GIVEN AT CROSS OF SACRIFICE, ADELAIDE,
ON SATURDAY, 19th FEBRUARY 2005
- THE 63RD ANNIVERSARY
OF THE FIRST BOMBING OF DARWIN

As someone who was living half a world away from Australia when Darwin was first attacked - and really far too young to comprehend the momentous events unfolding in the South West Pacific Area at that time - I consider it a great privilege and honour that, today, the South Australian Branch of Darwin Defenders have invited me to give this address on the 63rd anniversary of the first attack by a foreign power on Australian soil.

While at the Public Record Office in England ten or so years ago, I was researching how it was that no one serving in our navy had ever been recommended for a Victoria Cross in WW2 - let alone awarded one. During this research I had come across some files detailing gallant actions by RAN personnel during, and following, the Darwin air raid. Two years later, a history award from the Northern Territory government enabled me to further this research - the book I subsequently wrote profiling the heroism of five RAN personnel in the raid.

A number of other issues associated with the raid were examined, and today I wish to briefly draw your attention to two of them.. They concern:

The frequently-used 'day of shame' label to describe the actions of our servicemen during the Darwin bombing and The little-known story of the 560 US Army personnel of the 148th Field Artillery Regiment who - rather than being disembarked from their troopships in the harbour that morning - had to remain below decks while the battle raged above them.

With regard to the 'day of shame' label, it's long, long overdue that someone got around to explaining how this damning expression came about.

Almost 50 years ago, the Federal Minister for the Territories, the (then) Mr Paul Hasluck attended a ceremony in Darwin at which he alluded to the attack as being 'not an anniversary of national glory but one of national shame'. Hasluck had prefaced this comment by drawing attention to 'the individual acts of heroism that were displayed' - and there were many such acts - but had not shirked away from referring to the panic evacuation that followed the raid.

In the context of his address, his reference to 'national shame' was intended to highlight, not so much what had occurred in Darwin on that day, but more the political bickering and lack of unity and purpose that had taken place in Australia in the years before the war. As he stated later in his address:

'The comparative defencelessness of the town was but a reflection of the defencelessness of the whole nation in which, for more than 20 years, political parties had argued against each other as to whether any defence was necessary .........'.

Four days later, in the Northern Territory News, Hasluck was misreported when a reporter covering the event wrote: 'Hasluck said the anniversary of the bombing of Darwin, on February 19 1942, was the anniversary of a day of national shame'. (Note the word 'day' creeping in here, where none was actually used.) A number of authors and commentators have since found it expedient to remove the word 'national', thereby leaving Hasluck - but more significantly the great majority of those who served at Darwin - unjustly and unfairly condemned ever since. The continued and quite erroneous use of this expression is an insult to those who served there. In the language of today, 'day of shame' has 'passed its use-by date', and it's high time we 'moved on'.

On February 15th, four troopships carrying Australian Army personnel and the US 148th Field Artillery Regiment departed Darwin for Koepang, Dutch Timor. Their escorts were two USN and two RAN warships. On the 16th, the convoy was attacked and forced to return to Darwin, which it did by the 18th. The RAN's official history claims all Army personnel were disembarked that same day. Not so, only the 1100+ Australians had been disembarked by nightfall. As fate would have it, the two troopships from which the Australians had disembarked were sunk, the two troopships with all the Americans onboard weren't. Thanks, to the gallant efforts of US Army machine gunners topside, only four US Army personnel lost their lives.

Numerous comparisons have been drawn between the two strikes on Pearl Harbor and Darwin. For example, the surprise nature of both attacks and the fact that four of the six carriers used to launch the raid on Pearl Harbor also took part in the morning raid on Darwin. However, there was one major difference: the Japanese chose not to send torpedo bombers on the Darwin raid. I believe this was instrumental in sparing many allied lives on the harbour that day.

I say this because apart from the US Army personnel, that morning there were around 500 RAN personnel serving in warships either in, or in the vicinity of Darwin harbour2. Fortunately, none were sunk, again casualties were mercifully light.

The captain of the sloop, HMAS Swan, reported that while a few dive bombers dived steeply onto their targets, most dived at relatively shallow angles. Thus, while dive-bombers did sink some of the larger ships in the harbour - their most notable success being the US destroyer, Peary, which took a reported five hits and sank with the loss of 91 lives - their shallow-diving tactics must have inevitably affected bombing accuracy. (I should add that when the Japanese did use torpedo bombers against an RAN corvette, HMAS Armidale, in December 1942 they soon sank her, at the cost of 100 lives of our sailors and Netherlands East Indies Army personnel.)

There has been considerable speculation in recent years on the actual number of those killed in the Darwin raid. They vary from the official figure of close to 250 to well over the 1000 mark. With certain reservations, I incline towards the lower figure. But that said, it's my opinion that had torpedo bombers been included in the attack, then the higher figure may well have been reached. Though the actual loss of life was bad enough, it was indeed fortunate it wasn’t far, far worse.



1. The two troopships carrying the Australian Army personnel were the USAT Meigs and the SS Mauna Loa. The men from the 148th Field Artillery Regiment were on the SS Port Mar and the MV Tulagi.

2. At the time of the first raid there were five RAN warships in Darwin harbour, two sloops, HMAS Swan and HMAS Warrego, and three corvettes, HMA Ships, Deloraine, Warrnambool and Katoomba.

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