For lovers of military history or those keen to discover our most northern capital, the commemoration of one of Australia’s most significant wartime events offers a fascinating lens to explore the unique city of Darwin.
February 19 marks the 75th Anniversary of the bombing of Darwin. War came to Australia with a vengeance that day and when the two waves of Japanese bombers departed, more than 200 people were dead and aircraft, ships and buildings lay in ruins. That was the first of 64 air raids on Darwin – the last was on November 12, 1943.
The anniversary will be remembered with many events from memorial services to a play and film screening. But anyone whose interest is piqued by this anniversary will find much to see and do on this theme around the Top End whenever you visit.
Of course time, the war and Cyclone Tracy (which hit on Christmas 1974) have all inflicted some damage on many sites. Even those sites where little is left are well signposted so you can understand their significance.
Several new exhibitions and attractions bring the war into focus in a very modern way. And there are specialist tours that evoke what Darwin was like during the war. It can all be found here.
One of the prettiest memorials imaginable is the Adelaide River War Cemetery. Down the Stuart Highway the manicured cemetery holds the remains of 434 military and 63 civil casualties including nine postal workers who were killed on February 19, 1942.
Adelaide River Heritage Tours operates World War II Heritage and Historic Tours from their office 10km north of Adelaide River township. The tours include Pell Airstrip.
No. 23 Squadrons flying over Darwin in Sept 1945 (Image: Tourism NT)
Pell Airstrip Camp and 4RSU Workshop consists of remnants of the WWII engineering workshops, gun emplacements, squadron camp, roads, parade ground and water bores. Little remains of the airstrip itself but there’s the workshop area and camp, all created as part of the Aerodrome Development Program in early 1942. Pell was an aircraft salvage, repair and servicing facility, while the airfields further north (including Strauss) served as fighter strips.
Strauss Airfield Precinct still has the original bitumen of the 1500 metre-long airstrip as well as remnants of buildings, offices and accommodation (generally floor slabs).
If you wish to see the locations of other sites of wartime significance, there are quite a few to seek out.
One of the most impressive is Hughes Airfield, north of Daly Waters. There’s a 1.9km sealed runaway and taxiways as well as gun emplacements and other remnants. This was the operational base for the Hudson bombers of RAAF Squadrons 2 and 13.
Approximately 83km south of Darwin overlooking Coomalie Airfield, the K5 Anti Aircraft Gun Battery Site is a relatively intact example of a wartime gun battery position with 44 gallon drums, star pickets and the wire used for camouflage netting.
Quarantine Anti Aircraft Battery Site consists of four circular concrete gun emplacements in an arc around a central concrete command post that is partially underground. There are remnants of concrete slab facilities in the area and the walls of a magazine store.
The RAAF Operations Room Site is two concrete floors and another small concrete area.
To get an idea of the size of the war effort, visit the Navy Victualling Yard Building (near Channel 9) that was designed to feed all Navy, Army and Air Force personnel based at Darwin and more. It held enough food to supply 42 days of full rations and 42 days half rations for the entire defence and civilian population, totalling some 8000 persons.
A lot of wartime construction had to do with storage and supply. The Former RAAF Explosives Storage Area is in the Charles Darwin National Park, where there’s a number of historic structures including 12 Armco Shelters, all but two of which are set into the contours of the hills. Shelter No. 5 reveals shell holes attributed to a Japanese strafing attack.
The Navy Oil Storage Tunnels run beneath the south-eastern edge of Darwin city for a total length of 673 metres. Each is 4.5 metres wide and 5.4 metres high and they are connected to the Darwin Wharf area by steel pipelines.
Tours are offering to the World War II Oil Storage Tunnels in the Darwin Waterfront Precinct. These remained secret until opened as a tourist attraction in 1992 to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the bombing of Darwin. The interpretation boards have been upgraded to provide an easy self-guided experience.
The remnant wall of the No. 6 Oil Tank is a semi-circular reinforced concrete shell at the base of Stokes Hill that’s an impressive 600mm thick.
Keeping a lookout was important, too. Observatory Post Sandy Creek was constructed near the Casuarina Coastal Reserve as one of six. It’s `Singapore-pattern' to provide a clear view of the sea and along the beach in both directions. The central raised observation platform had two machine gun emplacements with semi-circular gun turrets on either side.
The Observation Posts Dripstone Cliffs were of various designs between Shoal Bay and East Point. Some on the cliff top within Casuarina Coastal Reserve were constructed to provide a clear view of the sea. Two look towards Rapid Creek and Nightcliff Jetty. The third small, exposed post looks along Casuarina beach.
No 1 RAAF Medical Receiving Station is approximately one kilometre south-west of the intersection of the Stuart Highway and Batchelor Road. The remnants are largely concrete floor slabs of various sizes.
If by now you’ve decided that you need some expert guidance to make sense of it, it can be arranged. Bombing of Darwin WWII Heritage Tours is a small company providing a 3.5-hour small-group tour that operates daily during the months of April through to October.
Take a trip back to Darwin's historic past (Image: Tourism NT)
Darwin City Explorer Tour Hub has been operated by Darwin locals for over 25 years. The tours visit WWII Oil Storage Tunnels, Defence of Darwin Experience, Darwin Military Museum, the NT Museum and Art Gallery, Fannie Bay Gaol, the Qantas Hanger (Mon-Fri only) and the Aviation Heritage Centre as well as Parap Markets (Saturdays only).
Two impressive new developments that give you a good understanding of what the war was like here include the Defence of Darwin Experience at East Point and The Bombing of Darwin at Stokes Wharf.
Defence of Darwin: in the 1960s, the Royal Australian Artillery Association (NT), took action to stop the deterioration of the 9.2-inch gun emplacements of East Point that once were the anti-ship defence of the town. Over subsequent decades, the museum has grown in size. In 2012, for the 70th commemoration, the Defence of Darwin Experience was added to the impressive precinct that already had the Bombing of Darwin Gallery, Darwin Military Museum, artillery pieces, vehicles, uniforms, firearms, models and paintings.
The historic Stokes Hill Wharf showcases two iconic Top End stories in one location: the Royal Flying Doctor Service, that began operations in the NT in 1939 and the Bombing of Darwin in 1942. It features cutting-edge technology including virtual reality headsets and holographic experiences that are the first of their kind in Australia to focus on the history of WWII.
Stokes Hill Wharf in Darwin
Of course, other exhibitions around Darwin tell the WWII story, too. Everyone visiting Darwin should see the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory, which has an exceptional collection of Aboriginal art. The enormous Australian Aviation Heritage Centre showcases dozens of aircrafts, engines and plane crash remnants, including many war birds. It has a Japanese Zero fighter, shot from the sky in 1942, and a North American B-25 Mitchell Bomber that is one of the last in the world and only one of two on display outside the United States.
If you’re ready for a break, head for afternoon tea at Burnett House. Not only has the National Trust building survived against the odds to be one of the city's best examples of tropical architecture but upstairs there’s a small museum that gives a good idea of life in Darwin during WWII.
You don’t really need another reason to visit the Polynesian-influenced Tiwi Islands to the north besides the remarkable Aboriginal culture and heritage there. But it was here that Matthias Ullungura, an Aboriginal man, captured the first prisoner of war on Australian soil: his captive was a Japanese pilot whose plane had been shot down.
Finally, when it’s time to pay your respects, go to the Darwin Cenotaph War Memorial. Originally erected outside Government House in 1921 it was relocated to the Civic Centre in 1970 and then to its present location in Bicentennial Park in 1992.
Whether drawn to the Top End for the fishing, the wildlife, the Aboriginal culture and art or simply for the tropical heat, the rich war history of Australia’s front line is well worth exploring in depth. You’ll come away knowing why the attacks on Darwin and the very real prospect of invasion really did make this Australia’s Pearl Harbor.
Have you visited Darwin? What was your favourite attraction?
(Feature image: Tourism Australia)