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On 19 February 1942 four of the six Japanese carriers that bombed Pearl Harbour launched another surprise attack. Eighty-one planes were launched against Darwin whose harbour was full of ships. Eight ships were sunk, two were beached and later refloated and many of the other thirty-five ships in the harbour were damaged by bomb or machine gun fire. Darwin town and the RAAF aerodrome were also heavily damaged by the raid.

Darwin would have been without any air defence except that ten Kittyhawks of the US 33rd Pursuit Squadron en route to Java had turned back to Darwin. Five of the aircraft landed while the other five remained in the air. In command in the air was Lieut Robert G Oestreicher who spotted Japanese planes diving on the Kittyhawks. He shouted a warning that Zeros were attacking. However three of the Kittyhawks were quickly shot down with two of the pilots being killed. A fourth American airman, although wounded, managed to land his damaged aircraft. Lieut Oestreicher was the only pilot who stayed in the air during the raid and was able to shoot down two Japanese planes although only one kill was confirmed. The five Kittyhawks that had landed were either destroyed on the ground or were shot down before they were able to regain combat altitude. Two of these pilots, including their Commanding Officer, Major Floyd Pell, were also killed. A second raid of 54 bombers two hours later on the same day met no resistance in the air. Antiaircraft guns that day destroyed four Japanese aircraft and probably destroyed another four.(1)

The raids on 19 February were the first two of sixty-four raids against the Darwin area. Two books, by Douglas Lockwood in 1966 (2) and by Timothy Hall in 1980 (3) have tended to concentrate attention on the first two raids. This article attempts to tell the story of the other raids on Darwin that lasted for 21 months. Other towns raided are also mentioned but main attention is on air defence when firstly American pilots in Kittyhawks and then Australian and British Spitfire pilots met the Japanese in numerous air battles over Darwin. Using the information from the Air Force official war histories, as well as other sources, an attempt has been made to highlight both Japanese and Australian casualties and air losses. There is no authoritative list of either allied or Japanese aircraft losses so the accompanying chart is the best estimate from a number of sources.

Darwin and its nearby airfields bore the brunt of Japanese attacks on mainland Australia. However there were also a number of attacks against Broome, Derby, Port Hedland and Wyndham in Western Australia and against Townsville and Cairns in Queensland. In addition, there were attacks against the small island of Millingimbi, east of Darwin and against Horn Island in the Torres Strait. Broome suffered Australia's second worst air raid on 3 March when 70 people were killed and 24 aircraft including 16 flying boats were destroyed. Simultaneous to the raid on Broome, eight Japanese fighters hit Wyndham setting a petrol dump on fire, destroying an aircraft on the ground and sinking a steamer. Broome was again hit on 20 March, the same day that Derby suffered its only raid. Wyndham was hit again on 23 March.(4)

The third Japanese raid against Darwin was on 4 March with eight Zeros making the attack. This was followed on 16 March with 14 bombers attacking and on 19 March with 7 bombers attacking. However, Darwin remained without any air defence until the arrival, on 17 March, of the United States 49th Fighter Group flying Kittyhawks. While moving to Darwin, the Fighter Group staged through Horn Island. When the Japanese hit that island on 14 March the Americans intercepted the Japanese force of 17 bombers and fighters and shot down four Zeros and one bomber for the loss of one Kittyhawk. Additional raids against Horn Island met no air resistance but ceased in August 1942 except for one bomber which jettisoned its bombs over the island on 28 June 1943.(5)

The 49th Fighter Group was not up to full strength at Darwin until mid April but the Group achieved its first victory during the Japanese raid of 22 March 1942 in what was the first successful radar controlled interception in Australia. During the period 28 March to 27 April, the Kittyhawks intercepted the Japanese on seven occasions and brought down 31 bombers and fighters. Antiaircraft guns brought down another two bombers. Eight Kittyhawks were lost and three American pilots were killed. Damage was not extensive although 30,000 gallons of fuel was lost on 2 April.(6)

The Japanese did not attack Darwin during May but the following month saw a concentrated series of attacks on four consecutive days. From 13 to 16 June, the Japanese attacked each day with 27 bombers escorted by about 20 fighters except for 14 June when only the fighters attacked. Despite the weight of the attacks, casualties were light and so was damage to the installations. The Kittyhawks destroyed 13 Japanese aircraft for the loss of 9 of their own.(7) Second Lieut Andrew Reynolds shot down his fifth victim over Darwin on 16 June and became the first of five allied aces in the Darwin area.(8)

The formation of RAAF radio location stations Nos 31, 105 and 109 enhanced the ability of the Kittyhawks to intercept the Japanese raiders. However, in July the Japanese switched to night raids and from 25 July to 30 July sent small groups of bombers without escort to attack Darwin. Without air-to-air radar these night raids were difficult to intercept. On the afternoon of 30 July, 27 bombers with an escort of 15 to 20 fighters were intercepted by Kittyhawks. Nine Japanese aircraft were confirmed as destroyed with a further ten probably destroyed or damaged.(9)

In late July, three nuisance raids were made against Townsville which was by then the most important air base in Australia. Three Kawanisi flying boats dropped bombs into the harbour on the night of 25/26 July and lone flying boats returned on the nights of 27/28 and 28/29 July. Further bombs were dropped on both occasions but no damage resulted. Several American Airacobras attempted interception on the latter two occasions and probably hit the flying boat on the second occasion without causing any serious damage. A final raid took place on the Australian east coast on the night of 30 July when a single bomb was dropped near a house at Cairns, injuring a child.(10)

The Japanese launched their next attack against the Darwin area on 23 August 1942 with a heavy daylight raid against the RAAF airbase at Hughes, fifty kilometres south of Darwin. Fuel and ammunition as well as two aircraft on the ground were destroyed. The Japanese were intercepted by 18 Kittyhawks which achieved their greatest success in bringing down 15 Japanese aircraft without loss.(11) Among the successful American pilots that day was First Lieut James B Morehead who became the second ace in the Darwin area with his fourth and fifth confirmed kills. This was to be the last fight of the US 49th Fighter Group in the Darwin area since a further seven raids during the remainder of August were minor raids at night which did not result in any interception. In five months in the Darwin area the US 49th Fighter Group had destroyed 72 Japanese aircraft for the loss of 17 Kittyhawks.(12)

Australian Kittyhawks moved to Darwin to replace the US Kittyhawks. In August No 77 Squadron RAAF arrived in the area and was followed by No 76 Squadron RAAF in October. The Japanese changed tactics after the heavy losses in August and abandoned heavy daylight raids for six months. During September, five small raids were made in the last week of the month without causing much damage. The Japanese continued with the same tactics in seven raids in late October but this time they struck Batchelor, Pell and Cox Peninsular as well as Darwin. Without air-to-air radar the Australian pilots found it almost impossible to intercept these Japanese night raids. In the last week of November, the Japanese launched heavy raids of 12 to 18 bombers against Darwin and Hughes on three nights. The only success of No 77 Squadron in the Darwin area occurred on 23 November when Wing Commander Cresswell shot down a nine-man Betty bomber in the first successful night interception over Australia.(13)

No 1 Fighter Wing, RAAF moved to the Darwin area with three Spitfire squadrons, No 54 RAF at Darwin, No 452 RAAF at Strauss and No 457 RAAF at Livingstone, during January 1943. Two small raids causing only minor damage were not intercepted that month. The Spitfires had their first major clashes with the Japanese on 2 and 15 March 1943. On the 2nd, 16 bombers attacked the Beaufighter base at Coomalie about 100 kilometres south of Darwin. The Spitfires destroyed three aircraft. On the 15th, Darwin town was hit by a mixed group of 40 to 50 bombers and fighters. The Spitfires shot down seven and probably destroyed another seven aircraft. Four Spitfires were lost but the only casualty was the Commanding Officer of No. 452 Squadron.(14)

On 2 May 1943 the Japanese again attacked with a force of 20 bombers and 20 Zeros. Spitfires intercepted the Japanese and shot down six aircraft and probably destroyed 4 more as well as damaging 8 others. Five Spitfires were shot down and two pilots killed. However eight Spitfires were forced to land through engine failure or shortage of fuel, although six of these aircraft were later recovered. The press obtained the casualty figures which resulted in press speculation that the Spitfires had not done well against the attacking Japanese.(15) The next raids were against the airfield on Millingimbi Island east of Darwin. On 9 May, the Japanese raid killed twelve servicemen and civilians. Next day, the Japanese were back but six Spitfires were able to intercept the enemy force and brought down two Zeros and a float plane. However, the Japanese sank a store ship and destroyed two aircraft and damaged three others. The third and last attack on Millingimbi took place on 28 May. Spitfires destroyed three bombers but two Spitfires with their pilots disappeared into the Arafura Sea.(16)

The Japanese returned to Darwin in strength on 20 June 1943. The Spitfires intercepted the formation of 21 bombers and 21 fighters, shooting down 9 bombers and 5 fighters. Two Spitfire pilots were shot down and killed.(17) This was the most successful encounter by the RAAF over Darwin, during which Wing Commander Caldwell, an ace from the European theatre, shot down his fifth Japanese aircraft. The other two Darwin aces were RAF Squadron Leaders E M Gibbs and R W Foster of No 54, Squadron RAF.(18) The Japanese again attacked on 28 June with nine bombers and nine fighters. Four fighters were destroyed and two bombers probably destroyed. One Spitfire was destroyed as a result of a forced landing. However the pilot was uninjured. From 30 June the Japanese directed their main attacks against the US Liberator base at Fenton, about 150 kilometres south of Darwin. Spitfires that day intercepted 27 bombers and 23 fighters and shot down 6 bombers and 2 fighters. Six Spitfires were lost, three due to engine failure, and one Spitfire pilot was killed. On 6 July a similar sized Japanese force again attacked Fenton. Seven bombers and two fighters were destroyed with another three bombers damaged. Eight Spitfires were destroyed and three pilots killed. A Liberator was destroyed by fire on the ground.(19)

The raid on 6 July 1943 was the last in strength over the Darwin area. Three raids in August were all at night and resulted in no casualties or damage. The Japanese were not intercepted on any of these raids but four Japanese reconnaissance aircraft were destroyed in mid August. August also saw the last raids against Broome and Port Hedland. On 7 September a twin engine aircraft escorted by fighters was intercepted by Spitfires. Five enemy fighters were destroyed and several others damaged for the loss of three Spitfires, with one pilot killed. Both raids in September were against Fenton but involved no casualties or aircraft losses. In the early morning of 12 November 1943, nine aircraft raided Darwin and Fenton. With the help of searchlights two bombers were shot down by Spitfires. This was the 64th and final raid on Darwin.(20) Japanese reconnaissance aircraft continued to fly over the Darwin area. The last Japanese aircraft destroyed in the Darwin area was shot down on 25 June 1944.


(1)Douglas Gillison, Royal Australian Air Force 1939?1942, Australian War Memorial 1962 pp 430-432

(2)Douglas Lockwood, Australia's Pearl Harbour Darwin 1942, Cassell Australia, 1966

(3)Timothy Hall, Darwin 1942, Australia's Darkest Hour, Methuen Australia, 1980

(4)Gillison, op cit, p.467

(5)Ibid., pp 457 & 552

(6)Mark Clayton, The North Australian Air War 1942?44, Journal of the Australian War Memorial No 8 April 1986 p 41

(7)Gillison, op cit, p559

(8)USAF Credits for the Destruction of Enemy Aircraft, World War II, Alfred F Simpson Historical Research Centre, 1978 p 159

(9)Gillison, op cit, p. 561?562

(10)Ibid, p 562-563

(11)Ibid, p 644-645

(12)USAF Credits, op cit, pp. 336-337

(13)Gillison, op cit, pp 646 & 648

(14)Ibid, pp 651-652

(15)George Odgers, Air War Against Japan 1943?1945 Australian War Memorial, 1957 pp 46-49

(16)Ibid, pp 51-54

(17)Ibid, pp 59-61

(18)Clayton, op cit, p 45

(19)Odgers, op cit, pp 61-65

(20)Ibid, pp 118