Day 171: The bombing of Darwin

Tomorrow marks the 75th anniversary of the bombing of Darwin.

Various events are scheduled across the city to commemorate this – huge marquees full of chairs have been placed in Bicentennial Park on the cliff tops by the memorial. Walking tours are taking place over the next couple of days focused on the bombing.

At 9.58am on the 19th February 1942, 242 Japanese aircraft, in two separate raids, attacked the town, ships in Darwin’s harbour and the town’s two airfields.

It is described as the largest single attack by a foreign power in Australia’s history.

In 1942, Darwin – whilst it was the capital of the Northern Territory – was a small town with limited civil and military infrastructure.

However, it was viewed as having strategic importance in the Allied war effort.

The British had identified the town back in the 1920s as a key defence point in the ‘Singapore Strategy’ – a naval refuelling base, supporting a far Eastern fleet based in Singapore.

While Darwin was used for oil storage, the full strategy was never implemented and there was no Fleet at Singapore.

The Australian government meanwhile had concerns that Darwin could be attacked and, between 1937 and 1941 were building up defences… for attacks by land or sea.

An airborne attack was not anticipated.

Around 65 Allied warships and merchant vessels were in the harbour on the morning of the Japanese air raid. Between 250 and 300 people were killed – accounts vary. Many more were injured.

These two raids were the first and largest of 62 airborne attacks on the Northern Territory between February 1942 and November 1943.

Why did the Japanese attack?

It was feared that Australia, through Darwin, would block Japanese expansion through Asia, particularly Timor.

There’s disagreement over whether the Australian government covered up the Darwin raids to maintain public morale.

With the destruction of the above ground oil tanks, a new storage solution had to be found.

Over a year after the initial bombing, so clearly… no urgency… in April 1943, George Fisher was appointed Engineer-in-Charge of the secret project, known at the time as “The Safe Oil Storage”.

Eleven tunnels were to be constructed beneath the city.

Easier said than done.

400 members of the Civil Constructional Corps laboured underground in temperatures of 32°C and humidity of 90%, using picks, axes and handheld pneumatic drills.

Problems plagued the tunnelers.

The ground was subject to cave ins and in the wet seasons, the initial tunnels flooded. Throughout the build and testing, the tunnels were found to leak so storage of valuable fuel was impossible.

Costs rocketed.

When the war ended, six of the tunnels had been completed.

Today the tunnels are open to visitors, for the reasonable sum of 8.50AUD (cash only) and though there are fans, you can still get some sense of what working conditions must have been like for the men labouring down there.

At the entrance, there’s a statue of a construction worker made out of salvaged aircraft as a tribute.

I’d include a web link but it looks like they’re having server problems. The tunnels can be entered at: Darwin Waterfront, Kitchener Dr, Darwin City NT 0800.

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