Tensions with China are raising fears of another attack on Darwin Australia
Tensions with China are raising fears of another attack on Darwin Australia

Tensions with China are raising fears of another attack on Darwin Australia

  • In February 1942, Japan launched the first of more than 100 airstrikes on the city of Darwin in northern Australia.
  • Darwin’s location and the military bases there made it one of the Allies’ most strategically important ports.
  • Darwin is still strategically important, but now Australia is worried about threats from another source: China.

Just before 10 on 19 February 1942, 188 aircraft from the Imperial Japanese Navy aircraft carriers arrived over Darwin, Australia, and the attack the city and its port. They were followed about an hour later by another wave of 54 land-based bombers.

It was the largest attack on Australia ever from a foreign power and the first of what would be more than 100 Japanese airstrikes on mainland Australia at the end of the war.

Eighty years later, it is remembered as a sober moment in Australian history, both because of the damage to Darwin and the effect it had on the early war effort.

Today, amid rising tensions with China, and as China’s military increases its capabilities and range, the attack is a reminder of Australia’s vulnerabilities.

A terrible time

Australian ships burn after Japanese attack on Darwin

Australian ships burn after being hit by a Japanese attack on Darwin on 19 February 1942.

AP photo


In February 1942, the Allies faced a serious situation in the Pacific.

The attack on Pearl Harbor severely sunk or damaged the core of the US Navy’s Pacific Fleet – except its aircraft carriers and the Japanese invasions of the Philippines, Wake Islandand Guam were either direct or soon victories for Japan.

Meanwhile, the Japanese invasions of Malaya and the Dutch East Indies resulted in stabbing defeats for the British, Dutch and Australian defenders, and Japan was ready to attack the islands of Timor and Java northwest of Darwin. These victories would give Tokyo control over large parts of the South China Sea and the corner of Australia.

At the time, Darwin, the capital of Australia’s Northern Territory, was a small town, but its location and the air and naval bases built there before the war made it one of the Allies’ most strategically important ports.

Oil tanks explode during Japanese attack on Darwin Australia

Oil tanks explode after the first Japanese air strike on Darwin, February 19, 1942.

RAN Historical Collection


It became an operations base from which troops and supplies were sent to the front, as well as a tank and armament station for submarines, warships and aircraft.

By the end of January 1942, additional defenses had been built, and tens of thousands of Allied troops and hundreds of Allied aircraft and warships passed regularly through Darwin’s ports and airfields.

The massive Allied presence also made Darwin a target.

As the Japanese prepared to occupy Timor and Java, they decided to attack Darwin with aircraft and long-range bombers to eliminate it as a resupply base and take out as many transports and warships as possible to further hamper the Allies’ ability to fight.

The attacks

Darwin's home was destroyed during World War II Japanese raid

A home destroyed by Japanese bombs during the attacks on Darwin on 19 February 1942.

AP photo


The first wave of 188 aircraft took off from the aircraft carriers Akagi, Kaga, Hiryū and Sōryū as they sailed south of Timor.

The aircraft carriers had all taken part in the Pearl Harbor attack, and the pilot leading the first wave, Cmdr. Mitsuo Fuchida, had also led the first wave there.

Over 50 ships were in or around Darwin’s harbor when the air strike began at. 9:58. Torpedo bombers attacked the ships and the port’s infrastructure, while the diving bombers and fighter jets attacked the airfields, the city and its port and any remaining ships. .

The second wave of bombers flying from Japanese bases in the Dutch East Indies arrived an hour later, attacking the Royal Australian Air Force Base.

By the end of the day, the Japanese had dropped about 680 bombs, more than were dropped at Pearl Harbor (although the total tonnage of bombs dropped at Pearl Harbor was higher).

Damaged dock in Darwin Australia

A dock in Darwin was damaged during the Japanese raid on February 19, 1942, seen on May 13, 1942.

AP photo


Despite all its military build-up, Darwin’s air defenses were sadly inadequate. The city did not even have a functioning radar, and nine out of the 10 Allied planes that managed to take off to fight the Japanese were shot down. Japan lost only four aircraft.

At least 235 allies were killed, with 300 to 400 more wounded. The largest single loss of human life came aboard the American destroyer USS Peary, which sank with 88 of its 144-man crew. Eleven Allied ships were sunk and 15 severely damaged, with 30 aircraft destroyed. The city, the port and the air base were thoroughly destroyed.

The attacks left many of the available ships destroyed or damaged, paralyzing the Allies’ efforts to supply the defenders of Java and the Philippines. They also created panic as many Australians believed an invasion was imminent and fled south.

There was never an invasion, but the Japanese launched 100 airstrikes against northern Australia in the following years, the last in November 1943.

A new threat

Japan Shinzo Abe Darwin Australia

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe speaks to sailors aboard a Japanese Coast Guard ship in Darwin on November 17, 2018.

Michael Franchi / Pool Photo via AP


Australia’s strategic environment has changed drastically since World War II. In 2018, Shinzo Abe became the first Japanese leader to visit Darwin since the war and the countries continue to strengthen theirs defense band.

But eight decades later, Australia is once again thinking of threats to its northern shores, this time from China.

The relationship between Beijing and Canberra has deterioratedand China’s military modernization – and threats – worries many in Australia.

China has an arsenal of advanced long-range missiles, ie becomes bigger and more skilled. In addition to its ICBMsChina now has middle distance ballistic missiles who can reach Australia.

China’s fleet – the largest in the world – also has surface ships equipment with long-range missiles. China’s small but growing fleet of nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines also carries missiles that can supposedly range so far at 5,000 miles.

The Australian naval base HMAS Coonawarra in Darwin

Royal Australia Navy base HMAS Coonawarra in Darwin in 2016.

Royal Australian Navy / LSIS Jayson Tufrey


Chinese Air Force H-6 bombers with support for refueling from the air or flying from islands in the South China Sea may also reach northern Australia with long-range missiles such as. CJ-10K or potentially hypersonic weapons. China Xian H-20 Stealth bombers that are still under development may be able to carry more ammunition further than China’s conventional bombers.

Australia is pursues its own military modernization in response to these threats. It plans to buy or develop its own long-range missiles and To get 72 F-35 stealth fighters, of which at least 44 are already in service.

Military investment around Darwin is also increasing. The United States has almost committed itself a billion dollars for defense-related projects there. U.S Marines are deployed to Darwin for years, and the AUKUS Security Pact is expected to bring more US forces there in the coming years – even though a Chinese company’s lease of the port of Darwin has raised concerns.

Darwin “remains Australia’s watchtower in the Indo-Pacific,” Michael Gunner, Prime Minister of Australia’s Northern Territory, said last year on the anniversary of the attack.

“This day reminds us that Darwin, and indeed all of northern Australia, plays an important role in the security and prosperity of this nation,” Gunner said. “It was true then, and it is true now.”

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