Photo: Anzac Memorial Collection.
New Zealand born Sydney resident Gordon Nelson Milne was based at the 119 Australian General Hospital (AGH) in Darwin when he received this anxious telegram from his mother in Dunedin in February 1942. Milne, born in Invercargill New Zealand in October 1905, had enlisted with the Australian Army in Paddington on 18 March 1941 and was posted to the Northern Territory. The 119 AGH had been established at the Bagot Compound in Darwin in 1940; by 1942 it had swelled into a sprawling canvas hospital and military base.
Indeed, tens of thousands of Australian and allied personnel served in and around the port town of Darwin in the 1940s when it was in the front line of the Pacific theatre. Yet in early 1942, Darwin with its wide-open harbour facing enemy territory to the north, and with Japanese forces making a rapid sweep through South-East Asia, was vulnerable, if not totally ill-equipped when enemy bombers and fighters flew over and bombed the town shortly before 10am on 19 February 1942. It was an audacious, vicious assault and it was also ‘… the first time that Australia as a sovereign state had come under direct attack from a foreign enemy’. It was perhaps rather natural then, that Milne’s mother, thousands of miles away in New Zealand, was concerned for her son’s safety.
A few days before Darwin was bombed on 19 February, Australians were deeply shocked by the news arriving from overseas. Much to their disbelief and utter dismay Singapore, Britain’s supposedly invincible island fortress in South-East Asia, had fallen on 15 February. The Australian 8th Division was lost and almost 15,000 Australian troops had subsequently become prisoners of the Japanese. The stunning news now brought incursion fears much closer to home and rightly so. Indeed, in the days preceding the raid on Darwin, enemy aircraft had been sighted by observers on Bathurst and Melville Islands to the north. Reports were radioed to the mainland, but remarkably they were not acted upon with any urgency. It was to prove a fatal albeit arguably pardonable oversight; quite simply Darwin was not prepared.
Why did the Japanese bomb Darwin?
Not one, but two terrifying bombing raids dropped from the skies over Darwin on that fateful February day. The first wave of 188 Imperial Japanese naval aircraft were launched from four aircraft-carriers in the Arafura Sea, about 350km to the north-west. The second wave involved 54 aircraft flying out of recently captured airfields at Kendari in the Celebes and at Ambon.
Contrary to widespread civilian fears at the time, and popular myths perpetuated since, the Japanese never intended to invade Australia. They simply wanted to weaken the strength of allied forces based here and, in particular, those in the geographically strategic top end. Japan was intent on invading Timor and Java (then part of the Netherlands East Indies) over the following few days in 1942; disabling Darwin then, was simply part of their shrewd, overarching aggressive wartime plan.
The first raid
The 19 February attack on Darwin began when nine low-flying Zero fighters strafed an auxiliary minesweeper, HMAS Gunbar, as it passed through the boom protecting the entrance to Darwin harbour. Other allied ships in the crowded harbour (there were 47 in total) were subsequently hit by dive bombers and machine-gun attackers with three naval vessels and five merchantmen sunk; another ten sustained damages. The 6600-tonne motor vessel MV Neptuna with its cargo of 200 depth charges caught fire and spectacularly exploded beside the wharf, killing forty-five men on board. It was not to be the only catastrophe for the wharf; at least 21 labourers, gathered for their morning smoko were killed when a heavy bomb destroyed much of the jetty.
As explosive missiles rained down on the town, a direct hit on the Darwin Post Office killed the post-master and his family, together with six young women telegraphists desperately sheltering in a hand dug slit-trench recently built outside. The residence of the Administrator of the Northern Territory was also bombed, killing Daisy Martin a young Aboriginal woman who worked as a housemaid there. Tragically, they were just some of the civilian fatalities caught up in the belligerent, targeted enemy air attack. For many Australians, the fear that the war would reach these shores had now become frighteningly real indeed.
Photo: Postcard of the Darwin Post Office belonging to Gordon Milne. Anzac Memorial Collection.
Photo: Darwin Post Office in ruins after the first Japanese raid. AWM 044607.
The air defence of Darwin
There were a few anti-aircraft guns around the port town. Although they were quickly positioned into action on the morning of 19 February, they were ultimately overwhelmed and RAAF fighter resistance to the attack was also swiftly defeated. Wing Commander Archibald Tindal from Armidale was the RAAF’s most senior officer in the Northern Territory. Aged just 26, he was killed whilst desperately firing a Lewis gun at the relentless Japanese barrage. With hindsight, Darwin's air defences were totally inadequate to protect the town. They comprised just two RAAF squadrons – No. 12 and No. 13 together with ten P40 Kittyhawk fighters of the US Army Air Force, nine of which were ruthlessly shot down during the ferocious raid.
The second raid
Eighty minutes after the first raid, the second commenced and lasted for twenty devastating minutes. During the brief yet furious attack, Japanese aircraft pattern-bombed the Darwin RAAF base. Six lives were lost, much of the base was damaged and nine stationary aircraft, including six Hudson’s were destroyed. It was a deep loss for the RAAF and yet the entire operation had cost the Japanese no more than ten aircraft. It was clearly apparent that the enemy had ‘scored a major success at very little cost.’ And they would attack again; between 19 February 1942 and 12 November 1943 the Japanese targeted the northern port town of Darwin and its surrounds 64 times in stealthy raiding missions from the skies.
Photo: Repairing huts, possibly on RAAF base in Darwin, February 1942. AWM NWA0447.
But it was the first and biggest raids on 19 February 1942 that were to be the most destructive and Gordon Milne’s mother had been right to express her concern in her anxious telegram. By the end of the day, some 243 allied service personnel and civilians had died and a further 300 had been wounded. Much of the town lay in ruins and the RAAF base had been all but destroyed. For reasons of wartime security and indeed to buttress civilian morale, the extent of the devastation wrought that day would not be fully disclosed to the Australian public until 1945. In the days that followed, Gordon Milne, like many others who survived the attack, captured the damage through the lens of his personal camera.
Photos: Photographs taken by Gordon Milne. Anzac Memorial Collection.
A few days after the 19 February air raid, the Army took over the Darwin Hospital and closed the military hospital compound at Bagot. 119 AGH moved 113 km south to the remote Adelaide River. Gordon Milne went with them until he was transferred to the 104 AGH at Bathurst in NSW. Milne was discharged from the Australian Army on 11 December 1944. By then, the Japanese threat to Darwin had abated, fortified by an increase in American troops in the territory and ossified by substantial air-force reinforcements. Darwin remained an important and essential allied base for the remainder of the Pacific War when the conflict moved north to Japanese-held territory in New Guinea and Borneo.
After the war, Gordon Milne lived in Ryde, Sydney and worked as a public servant for the NSW government. He died on 4 December 1967 aged just 62 years, leaving behind his wife Kathleen of 34 years and three daughters. He was buried in the Catholic section at Macquarie Park Cemetery. His wartime letters, telegrams, diary, photos, postcards and prayer book were generously donated to the Anzac Memorial for posterity. Today, they provide us with a small yet fascinating and illuminating snapshot into the day the Japanese brought the war to Australian shores.
Lest we forget.
- Army nurses were based at the 119 AGH from the middle of 1941. They were the only serving women north of Katherine. 119 AGH occupied a new site at Berrimah 25 km south of Darwin in January 1942. Following the attacks on Darwin in February 1942, the following month, 119 AGH moved to the remote Adelaide River a further 113 km south of Darwin.
- Chris Coulthard-Clark, The Encyclopaedia of Australia’s Battles, Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest, 2001 ed, p 204.
- Historian Michael McKernan has suggested that the RAAF operations room in Darwin assumed the aircraft at the time had been American. Michael McKernan, The Strength of a Nation, Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest, 2008 ed, p 237.
- As historian Peter Stanley explained in a talk presented at the AWM in 2002, ‘Darwin was a major Allied base. Ships and planes based there were supporting the defenders of Timor, which was to fall within a week, and Java, which would be overwhelmed by the month's end. Darwin was attacked therefore not as the prelude to an invasion of Australia, but to support Japan's seizure of the Netherlands East Indies.’ See: https://www.awm.gov.au/articles/blog/1942-bombing-of-darwin.
- Chris Coulthard-Clark, The Encyclopaedia of Australia’s Battles, Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest, 2001 ed, p 205.
- The Post Office was located on the site where Parliament House and the Northern Territory Library stand today.
- Approximately 2,000 women and children had already been evacuated from Darwin prior to the attacks.
- Brad Manera et al, In that Rich Earth, Trustees of the Anzac Memorial Building, Sydney, 2020, p 147.
- A lack of adequate reconnaissance and air raid warnings, together with insufficient ground defences and operational failures at the RAAF base in Darwin were later damned by a Commission of Inquiry. The final report was delivered to the government by the Honourable Sir Charles Lowe KCMG on 9 April. The findings were not publicly released until 1945. For a short summary of this inquiry in the Official History, see https://s3-ap-southeast-2.amazonaws.com/awm-media/collection/RCDIG1070525/document/5519808.PDF.
- Chris Coulthard-Clark, The Encyclopaedia of Australia’s Battles, Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest, 2001 ed, p 206. Hajime Toyoshima was the Japanese pilot of a Zero which crash-landed on Melville Island; he was subsequently captured and delivered to the army, becoming the first prisoner of war taken on Australian soil. Ibid, p 206.
- Incidentally, Adelaide River, the site of the 119 AGH was the target of the final Japanese air raid on the Northern Territory on 12 November 1943.
- The exact numbers killed on 19 February 1942 are still quibbled over by historians because some remains were never found. In May 1943, 107 AGH took over from 119 AGH at Adelaide River.