19 February: On this day in history
What events happened on 19 February in history? Dominic Sandbrook rounds up the events, births and deaths…
19 February 1942: Japan rains fury on Australia
A surprise bombing raid brings death and destruction to Darwin
Few dates are as deeply etched into Australia’s imagination as 19 February 1942, which saw the bloodiest attack by a foreign power in the nation’s history. In all, 242 Japanese planes (from the fleet that had attacked Pearl Harbor) swooped down on Darwin, the Northern Territory’s capital, in two waves of terrifying intensity. “Men who were there during the raids declared it was worse than anything they had experienced in London,” reported The Sydney Morning Herald two days later. “It was a blitz of the most ferocious kind.”
Although Darwin was a key link in the defence of the neighbouring Dutch East Indies, few people seriously expected the Japanese to strike with such deadly speed. Even at 9.58 in the morning, as the first planes appeared overhead, there was no hint of the carnage to come. “There was very little warning of the first raid,” admitted The Sydney Morning Herald. Yet “within two minutes of the alert, bombs were falling. The bombers came over in seven or eight waves. It was perfect formation-pattern bombing. There were nine machines to a wave, and they came over at intervals of about three minutes.”
What followed was bedlam. At least 236 people were killed, and hundreds more were seriously injured. In particular, the Japanese targeted the American and Australian ships in the harbour, killing at least 80 people on USS Peaty alone.
Amid the chaos, order came perilously close to breaking down. Convinced they were facing a full invasion, many men abandoned their posts, and there were several reports of looting of “furniture, refrigerators, stoves, pianos, clothes [and] even children’s toys”.
Yet as clouds of thick black smoke rose above the waterfront, the horror and panic in Darwin did nothing to undermine Australia’s commitment to the struggle. Indeed, the shock of the Japanese attack only strengthened many people’s resolve to fight back. “Whatever the future holds in store for us,” declared Prime Minister John Curtin, “we are Australians and will fight grimly and victoriously... Unity must be our watchword, national service our one desire.”