The day World War II came to Australia
AN AWKWARD TRUTH:
The Bombing of Darwin, February 1942
by Peter Grose
(Sydney: Allen & Unwin)
Paperback: 272 pages
Rec. price: AUD$32.95
Historian Peter Grose’s previous work, A Very Rude Awakening, chronicled the Japanese midget submarine attack on Sydney harbour on the night of May 31/June 1, 1942. Here, in his latest work, An Awkward Truth, he looks at the earlier bombing of Darwin on February 19, 1942, the day World War II came to Australia. He also analyses some of the myths and popular perceptions surrounding those events.
Grose observes that the Japanese attack on Darwin paralleled their attack, only 10 weeks previously, on Pearl Harbor. Many of the pilots, including the squadron leader, had taken part in that raid on the famous US naval base in Hawaii, but with one major difference: they now had actual combat experience, which they had lacked when they attacked Pearl Harbor.
Grose analyses why the Darwin raid was so devastating. Part of the tragedy was that the RAAF did not respond to a warning sent to them a critical 15 minutes before the Japanese appeared over Darwin. Fr John McGrath, a missionary and volunteer coastwatcher based on Bathurst Island 50 miles (80 kms) north of Darwin, radioed to the aviation authorities that he had seen a vast number of Darwin-bound aircraft fly overhead.
The RAAF mistakenly dismissed the warning as a false alarm – there had been one earlier that morning.
Australian aircraft in the Northern Territory were inadequate to resist the two Japanese raids that day. Worse still, because the Japanese succeeded in knocking out signal communications, the Darwin authorities were unable to call for assistance from the RAAF’s air base at Batchelor, some 80 miles away.
Although it was not known at the time, the Japanese had made the decision not to invade Australia. Their immediate target was the oil-rich Dutch East Indies. By bombing Darwin, they hoped to wipe out a base from which the allies could launch counter air strikes.
Grose exposes the ineptitude of Australia’s civilian and military authorities, both of which recognised that Darwin was a likely target. However, their failure to act on this presentiment meant that key installations such as hospitals were not moved a safe distance from vulnerable areas such as port and military installations.
Most women and children were evacuated prior to the attack, but this was poorly co-ordinated. Grose lays much of the blame for this on the territory’s Administrator, Aubrey Abbott. An arrogant official, he had failed to establish rapport with the residents, particularly key civic leaders.
After the first raid, many locals responded to the disaster with great courage. Meanwhile, Abbott ordered three of the 15 policemen in Darwin to remove Government House crockery to safer locations, requisitioning vehicles that could have been better used assisting the transport of the wounded!
Another unedifying episode concerned some military police who, after the second raid, engaged in wholesale looting of property which had been abandoned by fleeing civilians.
Grose shows that the Australian Government did not set out to deceive the public by understating the severity of the Darwin bombing. The figures it released were those that had been forwarded to them by authorities in Darwin.
Even so, it would have been quite understandable had the Government sought to downplay casualties. As Grose points out, only four days before the Darwin bombing, Singapore had fallen to the Japanese and an entire Australian division had been captured. That week was the most catastrophic for Australia in World War II.
Grose examines the debated question of the number of casualties and argues that the figure produced by the subsequent royal commission of 243 – which was a significant increase on the original figure – was low, but not discrepant with the more accurate figure of 297 that Grose argues can be proven from the records.
An unfortunate proofing oversight in the book is a reference to the conservative Menzies Government of 1937 – Menzies did not become Prime Minister until 1939, following Joseph Lyons’s death.
Grose does not challenge the popular misunderstandings that Australian governments before the war had little experience in foreign policy and had failed to appreciate the necessity of securing American assistance in the event of a Japanese attack. These misunderstandings have been thoroughly refuted in David S. Bird’s seminal study, J.A. Lyons – the “Tame Tasmanian”: Appeasement and Rearmament in Australia, 1932-39 (Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2008).
Grose acknowledges that the wharfies’ union regularly engaged in strike action in Darwin, which greatly hampered the war effort; but he fails to mention that their militancy owed much to the fact that they were under the control of the Australian Communist Party.
Nonetheless, An Awkward Truth is a fascinating account of one of the less noble wartime episodes in Australian history. The author skilfully reconstructs, from often contradictory evidence and contemporary accounts, the historical events of February 1942, and provides the reader with a book that is hard to put down.