FIRST RAID ON
Was Our Pearl Harbour
By AXEL OLSEN, "Argus" War Correspondent "
At low tide in Darwin Harbour today the burnt and
twisted hulks of sunken ships rise above the water. At the RAAF and civil aerodromes skeletons of what were once huge hangars, a wrecked hospital, bomb
blasted living quarters, and burnt-out workshops are surrounded by the tangled ruins of aeroplanes. Darwin postoffice is a heap of stone and rubbish, the police barracks a mass of rubble.
It is a grim reminder of February 19, 1942, when the first enemy bombs fell on Australian soil. That day of death and heroism and horror has already gone into Darwin's his- tory as the day of the "big raid." Hundreds of legends have sprung up around it, and there are dozens of versions of what happened.
I was in Darwin during the first raid and saw much of what hap- pened. In the succeeding months, while a feeling of trepidation at our ability to withstand the Japanese was gradually replaced by a firm confidence in the growing strength of our defences, I spoke to hundreds of other people who had also been in tlie "big raid." Some accounts were highly imaginative, many fac- tual and authentic, but out of them there emerged 2 facts-the unpre- paredness for such a sudden and vicious attack and the hundreds of deeds of heroism the raid produced.
In the early hours of February 15 a convoy of ships left Darwin carry- ing men and reinforcements for Timor. The following day the convoy was heavily attacked by Japanese bombers, and was only saved by the brilliant work of an escorting cruiser. Under orders from Sir Archibald Wavell's headquarters in Java the convoy returned to Darwin, arriving at noon on February 18. Next morn- ing the Japanese came after the prey that had eluded them 3 days before. It was an ideal raid morning-clear blue sky with occasional fleecy clouds drifting slowly.
HELL BROKE LOOSE
As the Japanese bombers ap- proached Darwin soldiers at ack-ack batteries, sailors, nurses, and civilians saw the formation of planes. Then hell broke loose. Alarms went off and were still sounding when the bombs
The Japanese force comprised 17 heavy bombers, 54 divebombers. and 18 Zeros. The first bomb, a 1,000 pounder, hit the busy wharf where wharf labourers were unloading a ship. Another 1,000-pounder landed near the post-office, killing the post- master, Mr H. C. Bald, his wife, and daughter, 4 women telephonists, and 2 men employees.
Then, as wave after wave of heavy bombers and divebombers swept over the town, bombs rained down on the ships. Militia ack-ack gunners, lads of 18 and 19 under fire for the first time, blazed unceasingly at the swift moving planes, and, although it was obvious from the beginning that they were fighting a losing battle, they stuck to their job, getting away 100 rounds from the heavy guns in 50 minutes. Lewis gunners on one of the most exposed spots got away 1,000 rounds. They were the heroes
of the day.
Our fighters ma'de a desperate at- tempt to engage the enemy, but be- cause they had had virtually no warning they were shot down before they got above 1,000 feet. Four pilots were killed, a major, after whom an airfield is now named, was shot down at 250ft, baled out, and was killed instantly. Another pilot disappeared and it was not until months after that his body was found in the wreckage of his plane in the bush.
After the heavy bombers had re- leased their bombs, divebombers, dis- daining the ack-ack, selected their targets, swooped down to mast height, and released their bombs dead on the ships. They did just as they pleased. The vessel at the wharf was set on fire; other vessels in the harbour were hit and de- stroyed. US destroyer Peary was hit and began to sink by the bow. As she finally sank with two-thirds of her complement aboard a light ack-ack gun at the stern still blazed defiance at the Japanese. Hospital ship Manunda was hit.
After divebombers had released their first bombs they circled over the town, machinegunning houses and returning for another attack on shipping. The RAAF and civil dromes were bombed, a few houses in town, and the hospital were wrecked.
On the harbour oil from burst pipelines poured flaming into the sea, where oil from a sinking tanker was already ablaze. Men on the burning ships suffered a horrible death, and others who dived into the water were trapped in a sea of blazing oil. Men trapped on the end of the wrecked wharf- were burned or blow to pieces.
SHIP BLOWN TO PIECES
For 50 minutes Darwin was bombed and machinegunned. Then there was utter quiet. The enemy had gone. Suddenly, with an ear-split- ting roar the ship which had been burning at the wharf was blown hundreds of feet into the air, a huge column of black smoke, flame, and pieces of ship. Plates, half-ton lengths of steel hawsers, and wood were rained over the harbour end of town.
Again there was a pause. From the harbour came the hissing of ships' boilers as water reached them, groans of wounded and dying men, and in the town the dazed discus- sion of what had happened. Then at midday the alarm sounded again. Fifty-four heavy bombers- attacked the RAAF aerodrome. Its hangars, workshops, and living quarters must have been a perfect target for the Japanese. It was blown to smoking
All that afternoon civilians, service- men, and police worked tirelessly amid the carnage bringing the dead to decent burial and rescuing
wounded. The civil hospital was at once a place of horror and of order- liness, the doctors and nurses doing heroic deeds. There were many un- sung heroes that day.
Trains were made available for evacuees, the first, which left on the night of the raid, being for the aged, invalid, women, and children. Among the first evacuees was a party of aboriginal children in charge of a group of nuns.
COULD NOT HAPPEN TODAY It was a high price to pay, but it was the end of casual, carefree Dar- win of the past and the beginning of the Darwin of the present. Soon strong fighter forces took the air in defence of Darwin, and from then on shot down Japanese raiders in ever increasing numbers. Soon after more troops arrived in the area, and train- ing and preparedness were improved enormously. A vast amount of work was done, roads and landing-grounds were built, stores and fighting equip- ment arrived in huge quantities.,
Today Darwin is a totally different place from the town of 12 months ago. The "big raid" could not hap- pen today.