The Defense of Darwin

Japanese air raids on Darwin and northern Australia, 1942–43
On 19 February 1942 mainland Australia came under attack for the first time when Japanese forces mounted two air raids on Darwin. The two attacks, which were planned and led by the commander responsible for the attack on Pearl Harbor ten weeks earlier, involved 188 attack aircraft which were launched from four Japanese aircraft-carriers in the Timor Sea, and a second raid of 54 land-based bombers. The carrier battle group consisted additionally of two heavy cruisers, one light cruiser, seven destroyers, three submarines, and two other heavy cruisers on distant cover.

In the first attack, which began just before 10.00 am, Kate bombers hit shipping, infrastructure and the town; and Val dive bombers escorted by Zero fighters then attacked shipping in the harbour, and the military and civil aerodromes. The attack ceased after about 25 minutes.

The second raid, which began around 11.45 am, involved high altitude bombing of the Royal Australian Air Force base by twin-engine machines.
The two raids killed 235 people with a further 300 to 400 wounded. Thirty aircraft were destroyed, including nine out of the ten flying in defence, nine ships in the harbour and two outside were sunk, and some of the civil and military facilities in Darwin were destroyed.

RAAF Station Darwin after Japanese air raids of 19th February, 1942

The Japanese lost four aircraft to a spirited defence: two Val bombers and two Zero fighters. One of the fighters crash-landed on Melville Island to Darwin’s north, and its pilot was captured by a local Aboriginal man, to become the first prisoner of war taken on Australian soil.

RAAF Station Hangar with aircraft wreckage

Contrary to widespread belief at the time, the attacks were not a precursor to an invasion. The Japanese were preparing to invade Timor, and anticipated that a disruptive air attack would hinder Darwin’s potential as a base from which the Allies could launch a counter-offensive, and at the same time would damage Australian morale. The Japanese also planned to take New Guinea, cutting Australia off from US support. Denying Darwin’s ability to act as a base would help achieve that aim.

The air attacks across northern Australia, centring on the Territory, continued until November 1943, by which time the Japanese had raided the Top End over 200 times. The last enemy aircraft was shot down over the Territory in June 1944. During the war other towns in northern Australia were also the target of Japanese air attack, with bombs dropped on Townsville, Katherine, Wyndham, Derby, Broome and Port Hedland.

The response
In the hours following the air raids of 19 February, believing that an invasion was imminent, some of Darwin’s civilian population began to stream southwards. Approximately half of Darwin’s civilian population ultimately fled. The panic in the town was paralleled by confusion at the RAAF base, where personnel were directed in difficult circumstances to other areas in great numbers. Looting and disorder, and impact of the first raids, subsequently led the government to hurriedly appoint a Commission of Inquiry led by Mr Justice Lowe, which issued two reports, one on 27 March and the other on 9 April 1942.

However, within a few months, Darwin was mounting an even more credible defence, which grew to a coordinated response involving fighters, radar, and searchlights. The response grew steadily to involve counterstrike from bombers, largely manned by US forces. Other squadrons involved Dutch and British aircraft joining the Australian effort, and naval units continued to operate against the enemy. By the end of 1942 the tide was beginning to turn and the Japanese started to be pushed back from the lands they had taken in what is now Indonesia and Timor.

Note that the No 1 Fighter Wing of 3 Spitfire Squadrons, including British 54 Squadron, did not arrive until early 1943.

History of RAAF Station Darwin

Construction of the airfield began in 1938 and RAAF Station Darwin was established on 1 June 1940,from elements of No. 12 Squadron RAAF. No. 13 Squadron RAAF was also created at the same time and was based at the base. Charles Eaton was the first Commanding Officer between 1940-1941. No. 12 Squadron RAAF relocated from Parap Airfield, Northern Territory in April 1941 to RAAF Station Darwin. The base hosted a large number of RAAF and United States Army Air Forces (USAAF) units during World War II. The base was bombed by Japanese forces many times, beginning with two major air raids on 19 February on the city of Darwin, the second of which was a high altitude attack on the RAAF Station/Base that endured for some 25 minutes.

Lewis Kinleside Blackmore

Lewis Kinleside Blackmore, Service Number 33660, enlisted in the RAAF on the 9th September 1940 at age 23 and trained as an Aircraft Fitter II (a) at Ultimo, Canberra, Ascot Vale and Wagga Wagga.

On the 2nd July 1941 he was posted to RAAF Station Darwin and was promoted to Leading Aircraftman on 1st October 1941. He was there for the first two Darwin bombings that included the RAAF Station on the 19th February 1942 and another subsequent 10 bombings (6 of which targeted the RAAF Station).

He and a good friend, Bob Jones, were repairing the airfield with a Roller one day and the field was strafed so they took cover in a bomb crater.

Lew was posted further south to Daly Waters on the 4th April 1942.

One of many satellite airfields around Darwin, Daly Waters housed RAAF bomber and maritime patrol units from early 1942, when enemy raids on Darwin forced a dispersal of aircraft and personnel. By late 1943, the tide of the war had changed, and operational flying from the base ended in favour of more northern bases.

On 5 March 1942 the 34 Squadron RAAF drove to Daly Waters airfield in the Northern Territory, about 600 km south of Darwin, where they established their Headquarters in a tent. The Squadron had been hurriedly formed at Darwin Civilian airfield at Parap in the Northern Territory on 23 February 1942, four days after the first Japanese air raids on Darwin on 19 February 1942. It initially comprised two officers, four airmen and two DH-84 Dragon aircraft. The aircraft was initially used to transport freight and Japanese prisoners. Flight Lieutenant J.W. Warwick was the first acting Commanding Officer of the unit.

Tent HQ at Daly Waters

Lew was at Daly Waters until 22nd July 1942 during which time Darwin was bombed a further 10 times. He was then posted to Uranquinty and promoted to Corporal on the 1st September 1942.

He was granted special leave without pay for 3 months from 11th August 1942 to 8th November 1942 to help his father at Shearing time at “Mt View” Clandulla.

Whilst at Uranquiunty he went absent without leave for three days from 11th December to 14th December 1942 and traveled by train to Tarwin Meadows, Victoria to visit his ailing grand uncle, Robert McGregor Watson, who with his two brothers, Harry and Sidney, had settled at Gregory Downs, in the Gulf Country of Queensland in 1875.

Lew was later posted to Bradfield Park and was discharged from the RAAF on the 25th February 1943 under AFR 115 (t) to “take up civilian employment” at Gregory Downs, Burketown. His great uncle, Robert McGregor Watson, the last surviving of the three Watson Brothers had passed away on the previous day at 83 years of age and ownership the cattle property was to eventually pass to Lew after being held up in the Estates of the last two Watson brothers for a further two years.

On the 6th June 1943, Lew enlisted at Burketown with the 23rd Regiment Volunteer Defense Corps of the Australian Army and was discharged on the 21st October 1945. (Service Number Q230544)

Link to OzAtWar Page – RAAF Darwin Airfields