CARRIER ATTACK: DARWIN 1942By Dr Tom Lewis and Peter Ingman. Avonmore Books. 368pp. $49.95.
This absorbing and comprehensive account of the first enemy attack on Australian soil is subtitled The Complete Guide to Australia’s own Pearl Harbour.
It refers to the ferocious Japanese attack against Darwin by carrier aircraft on February 19, 1942. There are surely further questions still to be answered, but with Carrier Attack Lewis and Ingman make a major contribution to our knowledge and understanding of that day.
The authors acknowledge other accounts of the Japanese air raid on Darwin, but they point out that their book is the first in-depth analysis to draw on the Japanese official history, and other newly translated Japanese documents.
They have also made excellent use of the transcripts of evidence given to the royal commission appointed to investigate all aspects of the raid, including both military and civilian issues.
The Japanese raid on Darwin has become part of Australian folklore and Lewis and Ingman not only try to give the facts but also to debunk myths.
There is, for example, a story that a Coastwatcher Lewis and Ingman named John Gribble sent a warning message from Melville Island about the approaching Japanese attack some 20 minutes before the genuine warning of Father John McGrath, a Catholic missionary on Bathurst Island. But there is no evidence to support the Gribble story.
Another persistent myth is that there were many more deaths than the approximately 235 officially counted in the two raids on Darwin on February 19, 1942. Some have suggested there was a cover-up, and that more than 1000 people died. But again, there is no support for such a claim, as military historian Dr Peter Stanley stressed in a talk on the 70th anniversary of the attack, in 2012. Stanley states that news of the raid was diminished but not suppressed by the Curtin government.
Even the 2008 film Australia appears to show Japanese infantry landing on Australian soil. They did no such thing, but for those who learn their history from movies, this could be the making of a new myth.
The raid began with 179 Imperial Japanese Navy machines overhead, and another nine engaged at the other end of the harbour, launched from four aircraft carriers less than 400 kilometres away. They were, the authors tell us, the experienced warriors who had destroyed Pearl Harbour two and a half months previously. Those aircraft, and another 54 Japanese bombers later in the day, left Darwin in ruins, and the survivors were resigned to sharing the fate of Singapore, which fell a few days earlier.
Many people assume, as I did, that this was a rather insignificant action. But the authors stress that by the standards of the Pacific War this was a very significant air attack indeed.
It would remain the largest air attack ever conducted by the Japanese in the South West Pacific during the entire war. About half of the dead were Americans, and 88 of them were from the now-sunk destroyer USS Peary.
After introductory sections detailing the rise and expansion of Japan as an ally of Germany and Italy, and the steps that led to the Pacific War in 1941, the authors give an hour-by-hour account of the fateful day. They examine accusations of unpreparedness and inefficiency towards the civilian and military forces in the north and ask how justified these accusations were.
The main conclusion about the motive for the raid was that the attack was not a prelude to an invasion of Australia. Rather it was believed by the Japanese Command that the modest naval and air forces based in Darwin represented a threat to the Timor invasion operations scheduled for February 20, and therefore had to be neutralised. The Japanese attack on Darwin eliminated this threat to the Timor operation, which then went ahead comparatively smoothly.
In spite of the fact that the air raid did considerable damage, the authors conclude that the raid might have been more effective had fewer attacking aircraft been used.
They conclude that, from the Allied perspective, the Darwin attack could easily have been more catastrophic.
But Darwin was a victim of its own geography, brushing up too close to events of strategic necessity to the Japanese.
The authors say that, while it was a tactical victory for the Japanese, the Darwin raid mattered little in a strategic sense. But the raid dramatically affected Australians’ notions of their own vulnerability and defence became, and remains, a matter of national pride.
Carrier Attack is beautifully produced, copiously illustrated and has fine colour maps.