Never rains but it pours: Historical talks in Darwin

It’s not just the weather in Darwin where it never rains but it pours. Over the past week we’ve had a flurry of diverse historical and genealogical talks. Today I’ll focus on the historical talks.

On Saturday 18th February the Genealogical Society of the Northern Territory, with support from The Northern Territory Archives, hosted a talk by local identity Pearl Ogden on “The impact of the war years on Darwin” though Pearl extended it down to Katherine.  A couple of snippets that particularly caught my attention were that the prisoners were released from the Fannie Bay Gaol so it could be used to house servicemen, the number of army farms growing a wide variety of vegetables, there were Catalinas anchored at Doctor’s Gully (now fish-feeding tourism), the Vic Hotel was favoured by the Americans, and that indigenous women workers were treated and paid the same as men. There were obviously large communities of Army activity around Adelaide River and Katherine. Pearl also talked a little about the the bombings further down the Highway. I’ve now been in Darwin quite a while so as she mentioned innumerable places and streets I mostly knew where she was talking about. A big omission from the talk was any maps or photographs to illustrate the talks. It would have been greatly enhanced if these had been used – and no doubt the interstate visitors would have gained far more from what was a fascinating talk. And I still don’t know where the Victualling Yards are in Stuart Park –need to suss out a Darwin “old timer” and ask.

Monday evening 20th February a large number of people lined up for another session hosted by the Northern Territory Library and attended by many from the combined Unlock the Past and Mat McLachlan BattlefieldWar comes to Australia” Tour. The first speaker was Dr Tom Lewis, former naval officer and Director of the Darwin Military Museum and the wonderful new Defence of Darwin experience. (Previous to last week I hadn’t known there was a anti-submarine boom net across from what we call East Point but technically is Pt Dudley ). Tom’s talk had lots of fascinating detail which addressed some of the misconceptions and myths surrounding the bombing.  In particular he emphasised that some of the statistics bandied around were misleading, for example comparison with Pearl Harbor did not match up because the bomb capacity was lower even though more bombs fell. The torpedo bombs used on Pearl Harbor were far more damaging.  Dr Lewis made a very valid point which was that Nagasaki had only one (atomic) bomb and by a pure comparison of numbers, Pearl Harbor and Darwin would both be more important than that which would indeed be plainly ridiculous. He cited that 2000 civilians died at Pearl Harbour, which did not concur with the 40 listed on the Pearl Harbor website I’d already looked at, and wondered whether some were civilians employed on military bases. Certainly the Bombing of Darwin wasn’t the biggest disaster in Australia’s history and he cited Cyclone Tracy and the sinking of HMAS Sydney. He did not agree that Prime Minister Curtin had covered up the bombing deaths and also denied that we had insufficient  defences with 18 anti-aircraft batteries around town, which were red-hot after the battle. However he did agree that the men had not had much practice prior to the event. My own view was that the talk was fascinating and full of detail and that Tom’s personal experience  of the “fog of war”, as he called it, added to his understanding of the history of the event, but there were times throughout the talk when I wondered if it didn’t blinker him to some of the other views put forward. Shauna Hicks has also posted her views of the talk. What became very clear is that anyone with a serious interest in this historic event would need to read widely and critique what they read before reaching their own conclusions.

The second speaker was Brad Manera who is the Executive Manager of the ANZAC Memorial in Hyde Park in Sydney. Brad spoke more widely about the experience of Australians in war right back to our early white settlement. He also gave a good summary of the different Australian Brigades as they entered World War I. His explanation of the Gallipoli battles was clear and concise. It would be fascinating to be on a battlefield tour in situ to really understand more about this Australian-coming-of-age battle.  His discussion of Australians on the Western Front was informative and no matter how many times you hear the numbers, they remain sobering. Again it’s emphasised for me that a Western Front battlefield tour is one I’d really like to take so an expert can fully explain the mechanics of the battles on the ground. We visited Villers-Bretonneux , Amiens and Fleurbaix back in 1992 as these are “family sites” and they were tremendously moving but to learn more from an expert would add a greater dimension. Another item for the bucket list!

A number of my relatives were in the Light Horse so I was interested to learn that it was the Queensland Light Horse who started the tradition of the emu feather in their slouch hats and that it dated from the 1891 shearers’ strike in which they helped to break the strike –not so keen on that bit. The New South Welshmen apparently wore a black cockatoo feather while unsurprisingly the West Australians chose a black swan feather.

Brad also explained that the ubiquitous presence of war memorials around Australia post-WWI was partly because the families of those who died would never have a burial and were unlikely to ever see their relative’s grave because it was so far away (not to mention that some soldiers’ bodies were never found as evidenced by the huge wall at Villers-Bretonneux) .  Almost every family was affected and every community so they needed to have some symbol of their patriotism and tremendous losses.

Shauna Hicks was the last speaker at this seminar and spoke clearly about how to locate information on your military ancestors. Although I don’t have anyone in the Boer War, I was interested to learn that some of those records remain with the state libraries or other repositories. She also highlighted the Mapping Our Anzacs website, reminding me that adding scrapbook notes to my relatives’ entries is another item on my “to do” list that remains outstanding.  The other helpful site is the ADFA site which has had various incarnations over the years. As usual, Shauna will post her talk on her webpage making it easier to revisit the details.

The Bombing of Darwin 19 February 1942: the 70th anniversary

Darwin is in a flurry of activity this week as the city commemorates the 70th anniversary of the Bombing of Darwin on 19 February 1942. Although it’s said that the event was little known in Australia’s history perhaps it’s more accurate to say that it was a good example of war-time “spin”…perhaps understandably in the sense of keeping up morale.

In the beginning the numbers of fatalities and injuries quoted were sadly underestimated and to this date, the figures remain contested by some people. The prevailing view is that “more than 243” were killed and between 300 and 400 injured.

Similarly the number of Japanese planes in the assault was also underestimated at the time: 70+ or so compared with an actual 188. Much appears to have been made of the fact that 4 enemy planes had been brought down during the two raids which occurred an hour apart, although one of the planes actually crash-landed on Bathurst Island.The USS Peary was among the naval casualties in the harbour that day, ironically having only returned the day before to refuel.

The Prime Minister of the day, John Curtin, responded to the attacks with the following comments published in The Sydney Morning Herald on 20 February 1942:

”Damage to property was considerable,” he said, “but reports so far to hand do not give precise particulars about the loss of life. The Government regards the attacks as most grave, and makes it quite clear that a severe blow has been struck on Australian soil”.

Darwin had actually had some warning that the planes were coming when Father John McGrath of Bathurst Island Catholic mission at Nguiu radioed to warn Darwin. This message was transmitted to the RAAF base. Unfortunately the message was largely ignored as they thought it was some returning American aircraft. Since that time the Tiwi people have their own commemoration of the event, with their bombing dance featuring swooping plane movements and shooting. We were lucky to see the dance for ourselves when we visited Nguiu in 1995, as it was our daughter’s first teaching post. A Tiwi Islander, Matthias Ulungura, captured the 1st Japanese prisoner of war on Australian soil, Sergeant Hajimi Toyoshima whose Zero fighter crashed near Snake Bay.

The Bombing of Darwin occurred about 10 weeks after Pearl Harbour and was masterminded by the same Japanese commander, Mitsuo Fuchida with the same squadrons and pilots taking part. It’s interesting to compare the two events, one very well known and one almost unknown. Astonishingly Darwin had 683 bombs dropped on it during that first morning compared with Pearl Harbour’s 271 though without doubt the magnitude of the bombs was smaller. At Pearl Harbour torpedo bombs were used which have a much greater impact. Based on the bombing pattern, it seems the Japanese intent was plainly not just to decimate the shipping and aircraft but to take out the infrastructure so there was no northern base from which Australia, and its Pacific ally America, could mount an offence against Japanese bases in Asia. The indicative number of civilian deaths in Darwin was around 60.

Pearl Harbour

Darwin

Japanese aircraft

353

188

Japanese aircraft carriers

6

4

Aircraft destroyed (US/Aus)

188

20

Killed (US/Aus)

2402

243+

Wounded

1282

300-400

Ships sunk

10

8

Date

7-Dec-41

19-Feb-42

Throughout the battle, the 18 anti-aircraft guns were fired constantly until their barrels were red hot. So hot in fact that when the cleaning cloths were used, they burst into flames. Famously one bloke came running from the showers in his hat and boots -with a towel   wrapped around him, that soon dropped off. Artists’ representations show him naked manning the guns.

Many of the women, children and elderly of Darwin had been evacuated to friends and family around Australia in the preceding month or so, and after the bombing most of those remaining went/were sent south. This left the men, civilian and military, and the indigenous people on the Frontline. The list of evacuees is extensive but can be seen here on the National Archives of Australia webpage (click on view digital copy on the right). Some of the evacuees were to become refugees in their own country a second time in 1974, when 33,000 people had to leave the city after it was nearly destroyed by Cyclone Tracy.

The effect of the war in Darwin is easy to ignore, yet visible everywhere. There are military installations scattered around the cliffs and parks, main streets were runways, and down the Track (the Stuart Highway) there are regular signposts to former airstrips, supply depots and the like.

The new Defence of Darwin Experience at the revamped Military Museum, which will be opened this weekend, will no doubt do much to make this part of Australia’s history far more well-known. (Update: we visited this on Saturday 18 February just after it opened, and it really is an excellent insight into the bombing. I’m pleased we’ll be able to visit it on a regular basis so there’s less risk of information overload).

Over the next few days I’ll be posting some photos that relate to Darwin’s role in World War II and to the Bombing. You can find them on my Tropical Territory blog.

And if you are in Australia and have cable TV, the history channel will be screening “The Bombing of Darwin, an Awkward Truth” on Sunday night. It premiered in Darwin tonight and was extremely interesting.