Darwin and Distant Thunder

We’re in Darwin at the height of the rainy season. The heat and humidity is staggering, and even on a sunny day you can hear the sound of distant thunder.

Eventually our discomfort is relieved with a cloudburst. The intensity of tropical storms in Darwin has been spectacular. Loud claps and booms rattle doors and windows. They even shake buildings, earthquake-like at times. We’ve already sacrificed one modem to a furious thunderclap, and we wouldn’t be surprised by future casualties.

darwin_mapDarwin reminds me of Alaska. It’s a weird connection to make, these tropical oceanside flats with frozen fjords and soaring mountains. But Darwinians (Darwinites?) have the same no nonsense approach to communication and life in general as Alaskans do. An Australian friend concurred: “It really is the last frontier. Anything past Darwin is Asia.”

While Darwin may not be as remote as Perth in terms of miles or oceans to cross, there are great distances that span between the Northern Territory and the more populated parts of Australia in the southeast. Just like Alaska feels by comparison with the Lower 48, Darwin’s an outpost.

Here in the Parap neighborhood, we’re about ten minutes’ stroll from Fannie Bay. Pete has been bonding with the little dog we’re watching during long walks on the beach. The view of the bay is sweeping, occasionally punctuated with a ship or two. It’s pleasant and quiet, with an inner-ring suburban vibe. The main city skyline lies on the horizon, insulated in a mist of humidity.


Pete and little Westie at low tide, Fannie Bay



Green oasis at the Darwin Botanical Gardens in Parap

But it wasn’t always this peaceful in Darwin. Lately, the distant thunder has evoked thoughts of earlier times. Seventy-some years ago, Darwin was a very strategic target. Thunder coming from the skies was because of war.

In Parap there was a military airfield located a few blocks from the house where we stay. And further down the coastal street where we park to access the beach is East Point, which still has a defensive pillbox structure reminiscent of those that remain at the D-Day sites in Normandy.


IMG_7414-0.JPGEvery February 19th, Australia holds a National Day of Observance for Darwin. This year, services on the City Esplanade were appropriately somber and moving. In one of two prayers, Chaplain Richard Quadrio, RAN, pled God’s blessing on the Australian Defence Force. Remarkably, we thought, his prayer included another request:  for guidance and the ability to properly discern potential threats in the future. His high emphasis on evaluating potential threats appropriately made us want to know more.

On the morning of February 19th, 1942, bombers from a strike force led by the same Japanese commander who had planned and led the attack on Pearl Harbor came in two groups. The first wave, lasting 40 minutes, targeted warships and port facilities, including Darwin’s only hospital. The second claimed heavy damage in a 25 minute sortie aimed at the Royal Australian Air Force facilities near where we live now.

By day’s end, twenty aircraft were hit, eight ships in the harbor were sunk, including the USS Peary (with a loss of more than 100 American lives), and “most civil and military facilities in Darwin were destroyed.”

The result was chaos. Half of Darwin’s population fled 100 km south to the Adelaide River to board the train to other provinces. More than 300 servicemen at the RAAF station deserted. There was widespread looting and disorder. Because Singapore had fallen to the Japanese just days earlier, the Australian government wanted to downplay the situation to ward off national panic. They announced only 17 casualties, when the reality was 14 times higher. Embarrassed, the government suppressed reports of the resultant breakdown in civil order and defense response as well.

But the truth emerged, even if it took decades to do so. By virtually all accounts, facilities in Darwin were under-defended. The reasons for this are troubling. Australia had been officially at war with Japan since Great Britain’s declaration against the Axis. In retrospect, the lack of preparedness seems either an inconceivable miscalculation or a willful denial of threat. Oh, so very familiar to us, from a nation caught by surprise a short ten weeks earlier at Pearl Harbor.

Japanese aggression in the Pacific had moved ominously forward throughout the 1930’s. Plans for national defense allegedly drafted by Prime Minister Robert Menzies had supposedly called for the establishment of the Brisbane Line, stretching from Brisbane in the east to Perth in the west. Menzies had served with a previous pro-Appeasement administration and he had also famously visited Germany in 1938, declaring he was prepared to “give Hitler the benefit of the doubt.”

The political opposition maintained the Menzies government intended the Brisbane Line to be a position behind which the Australian Army would fall back. This would be the strategic defense should the Japanese invade by land. In effect, the plan would have conceded the northern half of Australia’s land mass to the enemy. American General Douglas MacArthur fueled oppositional claims with a reference to the Brisbane Line in the press and other mentions. While the existence of this plan remains in great dispute, there is widespread belief that its attribution contributed to the collapse of the Menzies government in mid-1941. (He would return for a second term in the mid-1950’s.)

With the Curtin government in place only four months prior to the attack, there was little time to get up to speed. In retrospect, Menzies’ extended stay in Great Britain at the beginning of 1941 (where some said he intended to pursue a political career which may have even included an attempt to replace Churchill) might be viewed as somewhat of an abdication. Preoccupied as the acting government and parties may have been in forcing Menzies’ removal by August, 1941, there appears to have been a stunning lack of preparation. Australia just wasn’t ready to stem Japanese aggression and circumvent potential harm in the months leading up to the attack.

By Christmas, 1941, the majority of white Australian women and children had been evacuated from Darwin. Aboriginal women and children were not. While there were many Allied personnel stationed in Darwin, and a sizable Allied fleet in the vicinity, defensive measures appear to have been haphazard. Compounding defense efforts was a dispute between Curtin and Winston Churchill over British troop allocations in reciprocity for Australia’s presence in the European theater.

picsandstuffdotwordpressdotcomCloser rumblings indicated a storm was brewing and closing in: On New Years Day, 1942, a Japanese submarine was observed in Darwin Harbor. On January 20th, a Japanese sub was sunk by the Australian navy 80 km from Darwin. On the 28th, Japanese reconnaissance planes flew 3 km from Darwin center.

In the program for this year’s commemorative events, interview excerpts from a member of Darwin’s  defense unit, William Thomas Dedman, OAM, indicated British Inspector General E. K. Squires did call for strategic placements in the Northern Territory and Queensland. However, the only one to be formed was the Darwin Mobile Force. This army unit consisted of 256 individuals who engaged in a variety of activities: road building, training, and guard duties. In Dedman’s view, there appeared to be little sense of urgency:

“Despite all the activity in Darwin, there were never any thoughts of Darwin being bombed. I can remember the day of that first raid when we saw the planes coming overhead, we thought they were the Americans coming to defend us. . . When that first raid occurred, if it had been followed up with an armed troop landing, I feel sure it would have been successful. We would have been lucky to possess one belt of ammunition between us at the oil tanks on that day. There would have been little hope of surviving and most of us would have been killed or captured.”

We headed over to Defence of Darwin Experience in East Point, an impressive installation with interactive elements designed to give the visitor historical background and first person insights. Its location is on the site of former defensive positions. When you’re done with the museum exhibits and theatre in the round experience, you can wander outside amongst a collection of vintage materiel arranged around the old concrete gun placements and bunkers.


Searchlight and WWII vehicle on the grounds of Defence of Darwin Experience

Defence of Darwin’s exhibit maintains the aftermath of the attacks was more orderly: “Looting certainly occurred; however, the majority of it was sanctioned by authorities. Necessities such as food, furniture , and clothing were requisitioned by the military to provide the basics” for defenders remaining in Darwin. “Few owners ever saw their belongings again and the compensation offered was a fraction of the value of the goods.”

Contradicting itself somewhat, Defence of Darwin’s narrative on the Lowe Commission reports: “The Northern Territory Administrator, Aubrey Abbott, took great exception to the Commission’s findings as they did not paint his leadership in a positive light. . . [M]ajor issues, including poor coordination between civilian and military authorities, delays in giving warning of the impending raids, and the lack of leadership in the aftermath of the raids were all highlighted.”

General MacArthur and Prime Minister Curtin  Photo: naa.gov.au

General MacArthur and Prime Minister Curtin Photo: naa.gov.au

According to governmental archives, it was widely believed that the Darwin attacks were the vanguard of a land invasion. But the real Japanese intention was to disrupt any Allied use of Darwin as a base from which to launch counter-offensives. Nevertheless, this initial bombing of Darwin, like the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, was a huge wake-up call. MacArthur was appointed head of Australian defense forces in March, 1942:

“General MacArthur was ordered by President Franklin Roosevelt to organise Pacific defence with Australia. . .Curtin agreed to Australian forces coming under the overall command of MacArthur and passed the responsibility for strategic decision-making onto MacArthur who was titled Supreme Commander of the South West Pacific. From MacArthur’s point of view this was a workable alliance – he told Curtin to ‘take care of the rear and I will handle the front’.”

Over the next two years, Darwin would be bombed or raided 46 times. The Northern Territory would sustain 64 attacks in all during 1942-1943.

Defence of Darwin’s narrative summarizes:

“In the years since, talk of cover-ups and censorship around the Darwin raids have [sic?] been rife. News of the initial attacks reached the southern papers very quickly, and made the front pages the following day. The release of the Lowe Commission report also made all the major papers, but rarely the front-page headlines. Whether this was the result of censorship, a cover-up or the fact that it was simply ‘old news’ at a time when Australian soldiers, sailors and pilots were involved in numerous conflicts around the world, is open to conjecture.”

One of the most moving aspects of the Esplanade ceremonies was the small number of survivors, veterans adorned with service medals and evacuees, who came to pay tribute to those who were lost. Elderly and many quite frail, it was a reminder that their numbers will grow smaller with each passing year, their legacy committed to memory. The distance of time will soften the vivid reality each of these participants carries; even now we are left with a faded glimpse. It becomes more difficult to imagine, let alone make application and conclusions which might be relevant to our experience today.

Going about your daily business in Darwin, if you even think about the outside world at all, you get the sense of looking at it though the large end of a telescope. It is far, far away. Bad stuff happens, to be sure, but in other places. Not here. Peaceful views from the Dudley Point overlook across Fannie Bay, where searchlights were installed and a boom was laid across the harbor to interrupt submarine traffic, embody this impression.


View from Dudley Point, the southern promontory of East Point, across Fannie Bay over to the City of Darwin

With all this to reflect upon, it can be very easy to understand why Japanese aggression was underestimated or even dismissed. But I think we owe it to the dwindling numbers of survivors, as the Chaplain so fervently prayed, to use what we learned from the bombing of Darwin. There are so many modern-day parallels in fanaticism, military and paramilitary buildup, threats and posturing, levels of barbarism and mayhem.

Here in Darwin, far away from everywhere, frequent distant thunder hints of a storm on the horizon. You can always count on the fact that occasionally one will arrive. Just like long ago.


A storm brews off Dudley Point, headed for East Point

Additional information: Defence of Darwin Experience is open 7 days a week from 11 am to 5 pm,  located at 5434 Alec Fong Lim Drive, East Point, Darwin. Closed only on Christmas Day, Boxing Day, New Years Day and Good Friday. Admission fees apply and free parking is abundant. Additional military heritage sites are dispersed around Darwin and can be visited within easy driving distance. An ongoing formal Roll of Honour to commemorate the dead from February 19th, 1942 has been compiled with the assistance of history groups, families, and archivists. There is free (quite slow and variable signal) wi-fi on site and a Defence of Darwin iPhone app which can be downloaded to enhance your visit. Annual remembrance services are held each February 19th on the Darwin Esplanade waterfront, including a re-enactment and flyover by vintage aircraft.


  1. says

    I did not know the World War II history of Darwin. Thanks for giving me a glimpse into it. A place’s history and its geography give a unique aura to it. This is a great job of describing Darwin in that context. Very intriguing.
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    • Betsy Wuebker says

      Hi Donna – We had no clue either. Slowly the lightbulb went on in our first few weeks here, and we were determined to attend the ceremonies. After that, well, I was off and running in search of more information.

    • Betsy Wuebker says

      Hi Irene – It is definitely sad, but also insightful into the Northern Territory’s indomitable personality. Thanks!

  2. says

    Having lived in Darwin for three years, I well know the feeling of that heat, humidity and sound of thunder cracking through the oppressive air –

    You’ve related a fascinating story in history about Darwin –
    Darwin is such an outpost and maybe having learnt from that tale there is quite a strong military presence (both Australian and American) now based in the Top End.
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    • Betsy Wuebker says

      Hi Linda – You’re right, there’s a sizable military presence now. We ran into a couple of U.S. Marines (“Hey, they’re our guys!”) at the ceremonies and learned there are about 2000 here on 6 month rotations. Our countries are still partnered up. 🙂

    • Betsy Wuebker says

      Hi Donna – Yes, the world history we learned is by default U.S.-centric, isn’t it? By the time the end of the school year rolled around, we’d barely made it to WWII to start with, and then I remember most of the information pertained to the European theater. Glad to shed light on this event and its repercussions.

    • Betsy Wuebker says

      Hi Nancie – We didn’t know, either. I’m such a history lover that it was fun to discover what I could learn.

    • Betsy Wuebker says

      Hi Lyn – I read your comment last night and wondered if the timing you mention had something coincidental with Menzies’ second term as Prime Minister. And yes, he was elected again in the mid-50’s and remained in office until the mid-60’s. Something in me suspects it wouldn’t have served him to allow a lot of information about the bombing of Darwin to come to light during his second, more successful term.

    • Betsy Wuebker says

      Hi Billie – Yes, it’s quite apparent that our history lessons were U.S.-centric, as I mentioned previously. I do remember learning about the bombing of Dresden in high school history class, but then, Germany seemed very far away from my Michigan home town. I think it’s important to note that people our age were first learning history seriously in school with about the same distance from WWII as we now have with the Gulf War. To me, the Gulf War seems like yesterday almost. Imagine what it must have seemed like to the Greatest Generation, who went on to become our teachers, yet who spoke very little about their war experiences (at least the vets I knew rarely did; they came home and established their lives as civilians). Coupled with governmental information suppression, there you have our flawed knowledge base.

    • Betsy Wuebker says

      Hi Shelley – Glad to be able to acquaint you with this story. And yes, we all manage to uncover interesting stories from wherever we roam. That’s all part of it, no? 🙂

  3. says

    Thank you so much, Betsy, for a thoroughly researched and thoughtfully presented article. I am almost embarrassed to admit, as an Australian who has also lived in Darwin for a year, that I was unaware of the details of the attacks on Darwin. I knew, of course, that Darwin had been bombed by the Japanese but that is about the extent of my knowledge. So thanks for enlightening me.
    I loved living in Darwin, but couldn’t take the wet seasons and so moved further south after experiencing two of them. Enjoy.
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    • Betsy Wuebker says

      Hi Yasha – No embarrassment needed. The story was suppressed for many years. The fall of Singapore was devastating with many Australians (civilian and military) taken prisoner. Then four days later this event? It’s understandable in a way. I’ve learned that similar information suppression occurred for the first couple of years the U.S. was involved in the Pacific theater. Our losses were so devastating that it was feared if the truth were told to the American people, the effect on morale would have impacted productivity and public opinion. Not our finest hour in many senses of the word.

  4. says

    It’s amazing how myopic we are sometimes, both in looking towards present threats and back towards out shared history. This is the first I’ve ever heard of Darwin’s involvement in WWII battles, just like so many other WWII sites I’ve stumbled across by surprise in the SE Asia and Pacific region. How is it we’re not taught about these when learning about the war in school as kids?
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    • Betsy Wuebker says

      Hi Stephen – I think there are a variety of reasons. I can’t recall any type of curricula review during my school years; who would’ve even known what to question if the information was suppressed to begin with? It’s an eye-opener to realize how much influence there is over what is and isn’t considered relevant to teach, and then there’s the spin factor. Food for thought.

    • Betsy Wuebker says

      Hi Milosz – It comes highly recommended, but we’ve yet to sit down and watch it. Knowing what we know now, it would be more interesting to do so.

  5. says

    The last time I was in Darwin in the Wet Season was nearly 40 years ago but I still remember that heat and the relief of the afternoon thunderstorms. I am looking forward to visiting Darwin again but it won’t be in the Wet. I did know about the role Darwin played in the War.
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    • Betsy Wuebker says

      Hi budget jan – We’ve never encountered heat and humidity like this; it’s quite remarkable. Darwin is a lovely city nonetheless and we like it a lot. Thanks for commenting. 🙂

  6. carol says

    It’s a welcome thing to read more about the WWII in the Pacific theater. My father also fought with Americans in the Philippines. The strategic location of both Manila and Darwin makes for the similarities in tropical climate and war history. Thanks for such an insightful and beautifully written post!

    • Betsy Wuebker says

      Hi Carol – Yes, many similarities in climate and war history with the Philippines. Glad you enjoyed it. I deleted a duplicate comment that showed up. 🙂

  7. says

    Thanks for a fascinating post and introduction to this beautiful location in Australia. We love history but I have to admit I was completely ignorant about Japan’s repeated bombing of this area or that it was a place of strategic importance. Looks like I’ll be digging into some Australian history… And your photos are gorgeous.
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    • Betsy Wuebker says

      Hi Anita – While it’s fun to discover something new, it’s not so fun to discover that there was such a big omission in our schooling, as others have mentioned, is it? Glad we could inspire you to learn more about Australia’s history. The best book I’ve read so far is “The Fatal Shore” which covers the settlement years. Thanks!

  8. Heather says

    Two of the telephonists that were killed were my father’s cousins, so I grew up knowing the story of the bombing. My father was orphaned as a child, and passed away when I was 18. One of my greatest regrets is that when he said we went to see them just before they went to Darwin I didn’t think to ask who the “we” was.

    • Betsy Wuebker says

      Hi Heather – Reading your comment gave me a little chill. I would also wonder who the “we” your dad mentioned was. Certainly had to be relatives, but who exactly? Thank you so much for sharing.

    • Betsy Wuebker says

      Hi Gabor – In the U.S., it seemed like we learned more about the European theater as well. The news out of the Pacific wasn’t good for the first few years of the war for the Allies. Researching this made me more aware of the gaps in my knowledge. Thank you.

    • Betsy Wuebker says

      Hi Alli – Thank you. There is such beauty here to capture. And you’re right, there is more to explore and write about.

  9. says

    We learned about the fall of Singapore to the Japanese and the brutal occupation when we visited there last February. We have visited Perth twice, and it must have been during one of those visits that I learned that Darwin had, in fact, been bombed. I was unaware, however, of the government cover up. I think that was a lot easier to do before the internet and social media. When you realize that Australia was itself being bombed, you can understand how the Australians were concerned about their forces being siphoned off for the defense of Britain when Darwin was so vulnerable. Thanks for sharing what you learned.
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    • Betsy Wuebker says

      Hi Suzanne – I agree, it was easier to suppress information prior to the internet and social media, although I have no doubt it’s still being done. I struggle back and forth with feeling as though there are some things we don’t need to know, too. Yes, I think Curtin’s frustration with Churchill’s troop allocations was entirely justified, and it was a fascinatingly bold move to cede command of the Australian Army to MacArthur. We’ll be in Singapore in April; did you take a history-based tour? Glad this added to your knowledge.

    • Betsy Wuebker says

      Hi Sue – Thank you so much for a very meaningful compliment. I really appreciate it and am glad you enjoyed the post.

  10. says

    I LOVE getting my history lessons from your posts! 🙂 You make the details so vivid and interesting! So much of this I wasn’t aware of, even though we visited for several weeks last year. We were too busy trying to not get eaten by salt water crocodiles and sharks in the water, lol! 🙂 Where are you off to next after Darwin?
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    • Betsy Wuebker says

      Hi Lisa – So glad we could add a postscript to your visit to Darwin. We’re here for another month and then on to Singapore on the first leg of making our way to Spain for TBEX. Looking forward to your updates from Cuba! 🙂

    • Betsy Wuebker says

      Hi Renegades – Yes, the Top End may not be visited as much as other areas in Australia, but we’re liking it a lot. 🙂

    • Betsy Wuebker says

      Hi Nanette – You’re right. Some places get all the attention and others, not so much. Going off the beaten path can satisfy a lot of curiosity. Thanks.

    • Betsy Wuebker says

      Hi Suzanne – You’re right, we really don’t learn as much about Australia as we should. Glad you enjoyed it.

  11. says

    Hi Betsy,


    I was unaware of Darwin’s history with the War. Really incredible, as I’m usually up to snuff with such history. Crazy stuff.

    Ditto on the thunder. Low season here in Jimbaran so the clouds are building almost daily and we had a whopper of a storm this morning.

    So nice to meet you through Ande Lyons; she’s a doll, isn’t she?

    Have a fabulous day!

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    • Betsy Wuebker says

      Hi Ryan – Thanks! The more we dug into this topic, the more we were surprised by how much we didn’t know. We paid it forward a bit by clarifying the circumstances behind the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki with someone at the Defence of Darwin exhibit. It seems like history is taught from your country’s perspective and interests. Glad to meet up with you. 🙂

    • Betsy Wuebker says

      Hi Brianna – Nor did we. On one level, of course, we knew Australia participated in the war, particularly in the Pacific theater – due to movies like The Bridge on the River Kwai and others. On the other hand, we were not aware that Darwin and the Top End had been bombed repeatedly during the early part of the war.

    • Betsy Wuebker says

      Hi Karen – Yes, Darwin is overshadowed by its bigger sister cities in Australia, but its history is fascinating.

  12. says

    Great lesson of history I knew very little about Betsy. We learn such a US centered version of history here in school. My eyes have been opened through travel and I think that exposure is one of travel’s greatest benefits. Better understanding of cultures and history can only help with relationships around the world.
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    • Betsy Wuebker says

      Hi Alison – I totally agree how eye-opening travel is, and how important the understanding we gain is. We’re all human beings with more similarities than differences. Thanks.

  13. says

    Thank you Betsy!

    The article is incredible! I had no idea what happened in Darwin during the WW2! I am from Europe and here we don’t study about what happened outside of Europe! This is really interesting! Darwin is definitely a very special place that I’d love to visit! The nature there is absolutely stunning!

    Greetings! 🙂

    • Betsy Wuebker says

      Hi Rosalva – I think this is a common theme – Euro-centric histories of WWII – and we should all have a talk with the history book authors. Glad you enjoyed the article.

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