Lest We Remember: The Controversies of the Darwin Bombing

by Tori Waqanaceva-Simpson

The bombing of Darwin in February 1942 exemplifies a national process of forgetting and remembering, with the construction of particular narratives – such as ‘Australia’s Pearl Harbor’ – seeking to alter contemporary views of the past. Details regarding the event, particularly the number of casualties, continue to generate competing claims amongst historians and the media. Furthermore, recent proposals have called for national recognition of the bombings, which up until the 1990s had largely been absent. This form of forgetting, which historian Elizabeth Rechniewski offers is more of a “collective shame” originated with reports concerning the looting and abandonment of Darwin following the attack. Arguments have also been made regarding the lack of public knowledge surrounding the many other bombings which took place shortly after Darwin, and their place in Australian commemoration. 

By examining how the bombing of Darwin has been remembered, beginning with the initial reports, the subsequent Lowe investigation, the absence of commemoration, and the recently renewed attempts at recognition and remembrance, the event’s difficult and contested place in Australian memory will be demonstrated. The contested claims, from casualty figures and fears of invasion to accusations of a government coverup will be presented before exploring the nature of national memory including how the bombing of Darwin affected Australian identity, and why there has been an active attempt at commemorating the event in recent years. By exploring these themes, it will become evident that the bombing of Darwin was an important event with continuing competing narratives and an unresolved place in Australian memory. 

Initial reports following the bombing of Darwin reflected the resulting chaos the raids caused. Newspapers were quick to confirm the attack, however the information reported was vague and often conflicting. Prime Minister John Curtin issued a statement calling it a “severe blow,” reflecting the extent of the damage dealt which included the sinking of U.S. destroyer USS Peary.  The government also reported that casualties were listed at 15, which proved to be a severe underestimation. The public criticised Curtin on the lack of information supplied, to which Curtin reasoned that it was to prevent the Japanese from determining the “degree of success” of the raid. Furthermore, it is possible that Curtin wanted to avoid creating unnecessary panic, instead focusing on mobilising Australians toward the war effort. The Curtin government’s response to the bombing reflected the limitations of leadership and communication to accurately obtain closer approximations, and adequately quell confusion surrounding the event.  

While initial newspaper articles reported ‘acts of heroism,’ stories of looting and abandonment also circulated. Indeed, the Lowe Commission, which was appointed to investigate the February 19th raids, referred to looting and confusion regarding evacuation procedures, suggesting that the chaos of the air-raid was compounded by poor leadership and inadequate defence systems. The report also revised the initial casualty figure from 15 to 243. This information, however, was not released to the public until after the war, whereby it only confirmed the reports of looting and panic previously published. This narrative of panic, destruction, and looting pervaded Australians’ remembrance of the Darwin bombing. Unlike the Gallipoli campaign, which was a failure due to poor foreign management and not reflective of Australia’s military capacity, Darwin could be – and was – blamed solely on Australian leadership.

Establishing recognition of the event after the war proved difficult, especially outside of Darwin. Indeed, five years after the raid few commemoration ceremonies were held with The Telegraph reporting that only four people had shown up to Brisbane’s Shrine of Remembrance, which was locked to the public. However, the fifth anniversary held in Darwin witnessed the laying of wreaths and speeches, including government secretary Mr. Leydin who recounts “on that day, Australians were made aware in a shocking and most sudden way how ill-prepared they were to defend themselves.” While the bombing of Darwin remained important to locals, nationally the event failed to gain recognition, eclipsed by other less controversial commemorations such as Anzac Day and Remembrance Day. Indeed, Minister for External Territories Paul Hasluck expressed national sentiment in 1955, when he referred to the raid as a day of “national shame.” What occurred throughout the rest of the twentieth-century was a process of passive forgetting, specifically a ‘humiliated silence’ or ‘collective shame.’ Furthermore, acts of commemoration, particularly in Darwin, suffered from a rapidly changing and transient population compounded further by Cyclone Tracy in 1974. As historian Elizabeth Rechniewski concludes, this left “little continuity of generational or collective memory.”  While ex-military and veterans groups such as the Darwin Defenders – established in 1999 – sought to increase national recognition, historians Tom Lewis and Peter Ingman note that an overall lack of education regarding the bombing has also contributed to an absence of commemoration.

Renewed remembrance attempts took form following a Parliamentary debate in 2011 regarding establishing February 19 as “Bombing of Darwin Day.” This in turn generated political advocacy, with Prime Minister Julia Gillard attending the 70th anniversary of the bombing, referring to it as “Australia’s Pearl Harbor.” Interestingly, Governor-General Quentin Bryce stated at the ceremony that the bombing was “of immense significance that stands alongside Australia Day and Anzac Day in the nation’s hearts and minds.” What may be more accurate, however, are Bryce’s statements regarding the bombing’s effect on Australia’s reliance shifting from Britain to the U.S. This conforms to the ‘Australia’s Pearl Harbor’ narrative, expressed in 2011 by U.S. President Barack Obama while visiting Darwin. The parallels between Darwin and Pearl Harbor are indeed numerous – they occurred 10 weeks apart, were carried out by the same pilots, and used similar tactics – making comparisons between the events particularly persuasive. However, because this parallel has only now been implemented by leaders it is possible that recent commemoration activities may also serve to facilitate Australia-U.S. relations. Alternatively, remembrance of the bombing of Darwin may be linked to the pervasive trend of ‘militarising’ Australian identity, performed most notably by Prime Minister John Howard toward the Anzac myth. 

While there may be political motives regarding the recent attempts at commemorating Darwin, newspapers, movies, and tourism organisations have also contributed to a resurgence throughout the past decade. The 2008 film ‘Australia’ features the bombing amidst a love story, with dramatic visuals re-enacting the raid. While the film certainly contributed to the revival of commemorating this event, Lewis and Ingman argue that the casualty figure and government coverup accusations listed at the end of the film have furthered the event’s contested claims. Recent newspaper articles have also circulated controversial claims, with The Australian reporting on the 70th anniversary that “when war came to our shores… Australians behaved abominably.” However, most other news outlets featured articles which did not include reports of looting or abandonment, instead focusing on the lack of national recognition, or parallels with Pearl Harbor. Remembrance of the bombing of Darwin has also emerged through tourism campaigns, such as an interactive Royal Flying Doctor Service experience, and a heritage tour operated by the Northern Territory’s Tourism Top End. Rechniewski offers that this is an example of ‘war tourism,’ which “seeks to exploit the increase in visits by Australian tourists to the sites of battles in Northern France, Gallipoli and the Kokoda track.” While these organisations and media reports have contributed to a renewed remembrance of the bombing of Darwin, they also present a predominant shift away from the shame associated with the raid. Furthermore, the other bombings during WWII which targeted over a dozen northern towns, including Broome with 70 casualties, are still largely forgotten. The bombing of Darwin, which has undergone a process of ‘collective forgetting,’ has now re-entered Australian memory although the controversies and contested claims surrounding the event are still unresolved. 

In order to understand the challenges presented when remembering the bombing of Darwin, the contested claims – that of threats of invasion, casualty figures, and a government coverup – will be briefly discussed. An article produced by the Parliament of Australia marking the 75th anniversary of the bombing explains the large-scale confused evacuation as a result of “fearing a Japanese invasion.” However, at the Australian War Memorial anniversary in 2006, historian Peter Stanley refutes the claim that the Japanese had planned to invade Australia, with the bombing of Darwin being the first step.  Furthermore, Lewis and Ingman address the ‘myth of invasion’, explaining that the Japanese did not have plans to invade, given the size of the continent and the precondition of capturing Port Moresby, which did not eventuate. Rather the threat was used by the Australian and Japanese governments for propaganda. The ‘fear of invasion’ narrative has therefore been used as a way to explain the behaviour of those at Darwin during the bombing, and also perhaps as a way for veterans to situate themselves in the memory of Australian military involvement.

The contested claims of an accurate casualty figure and of a government coverup continue to pervade discussions surrounding the bombing of Darwin. As noted earlier, the initial casualty figure of 15 was revised following the Lowe Commission’s report, which estimated 243 deaths. However, in reassessing the records Paul Rosenzweig argues that the Lowe Commission made counting errors, concluding that the death toll is more likely 252. Peter Grose asserts that somewhere between 310-320 is more accurate, given the difficulties of identifying bodies lost in the water. While these figures are not extraordinarily different, eyewitness accounts suggest 600-1000 people had been killed. As Lewis and Ingman, Grose, and Rosenzweig conclude, if the casualty figure had been higher there would certainly be more calls for missing friends and relatives, and a proportionally higher number wounded. This perceived discrepancy has been propagated by groups such as the Darwin Defenders, who argue that there was a “media blackout on the number of casualties,” suggesting that the government was involved in covering up the impact of the raid. It has been noted previously that Prime Minister Curtin reasoned that only vague details were sufficient to prevent the Japanese from determining the success of the raids. Furthermore, Rechniewski suggests that:

“It is highly probable that the delay in giving out information and the lack of frankness flowed not only from the desire not to give information about the success of the raids to the enemy but from the revelations of the lack of civilian and military preparedness… so the government had good reason to downplay the impact of the bombings, to preserve the morale of the population and confidence in the military.

While there was a level of government control regarding information made available to the public, it was unlikely the sole cause of the subsequent absence of commemoration. Rather, the release of the Lowe report after the war revealed the military and civilian failings, contributing to a ‘collective shame.’ These contested claims of invasion, casualty figures, and a government coverup continue to blur the facts surrounding the bombing of Darwin, challenging attempts at national commemoration with competing narratives.

Efforts to incorporate the bombing of Darwin into national memory have been bolstered by a ‘militarisation’ of Australian history. This trend was most successfully implemented by Prime Minister John Howard, who aligned Australian identity with that of the Anzacs, developing what historian Matt McDonald has termed a “muscular nationalism.” The mythologisation of Anzac has not only created an idealised Australian – that of a white patriotic male – but it also serves to marginalise and control alternative narratives which do not ‘fit in’ with the accepted norm. This is perhaps why the bombing of Darwin struggled to gain national significance throughout the twentieth-century, and why recent attempts have largely avoided the controversial aspects of looting and desertion, as well as the significant damage the raid caused due to inadequate defences and poor leadership. To bring these issues to the forefront would be to challenge Australian identity. As Peter Grose argues, looting and abandonment were common during all wars, however Australians engaging in these actions proved that they were no better than their contemporaries. Moreover, the lack of capable leadership and prepared defence systems resulting in a military failure would directly challenge the narrative of a militarised Australian identity. 

This in turn helps to understand the ‘Australia’s Pearl Harbor’ narrative, whereby a larger, more aggressive enemy dealt significant damage and inflicted considerable casualties. This narrative perhaps indirectly suggests that any level of leadership or preparation would not have been able to prevent the devastation inflicted, and any actions taken by soldiers and civilians could be excused in response to the attack. While there are considerable similarities between Pearl Harbor and Darwin, Lewis and Ingman argue that the “important differences should be emphasised, not minimised, to do historical justice to both of the attacks.” Through these attempts at creating an alternative narrative of the bombing of Darwin, it seems the very human response which occurred has been replaced by an idealised, and often exclusionary depiction of an Australian archetype. Therefore, the recent attempts at commemorating the bombing of Darwin, which avoid the controversial aspects of the raid and emphasise the relation to Pearl Harbor, have generated further controversy surrounding the militarisation of Australian history and identity. 

By examining each stage of the remembrance of the Darwin bombing, from initial newspaper articles, the Lowe Commission’s report, the absence of commemoration due to a ‘collective shame’, and the recently renewed attempts involving comparisons to Pearl Harbor, it is evident that this event is still unresolved in Australian memory. The contested claims, including a fear of invasion, competing casualty figures, and a government coverup were addressed, noting that the proliferation of these claims continues to challenge commemoration. Lastly, it was argued that the resurgence of commemorating the bombing of Darwin has been bolstered by a militarisation of Australian history, originating with the mythologisation of Anzacs. The bombing of Darwin, through its contested claims and the narratives propagated in recent commemoration, presents a contentious issue for how best to remember the event into the future. 

Image source: https://ntl.nt.gov.au/story/bombing-darwin

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