On 19 February, 1942 a massed air raid on Darwin, Australia’s northern gateway was made by Japanese aircraft, the first major attack on Australian soil.
This first attack was made by 81 carrier-borne aircraft, composing of an equal mixture of high level bombers, dive bombers and fighter aircraft.
Darwin at this time was a busy war time port and the Australian Navy was well represented there at the time. Some of the Australian ships present were SWAN, WARREGO, PLATYPUS, KATOOMBA, DELORAINE, KANGAROO, KOALA, KARANGI, KARA KARA, KOOKABURRA, GUNBAR, TOLGA and TERKA. Two of the American ships in harbour were the USS PEARY and USS WILLIAM B PRESTON, the latter being a seaplane tender. There were four American transports and merchant ships – MEIGS, MAUNA LOA, PORTMAR and ADMIRAL HALSTEAD. Alongside the main wharf were the Australian merchant ships NEPTUNA and BAROSSA. NEPTUNA’s cargo included 200 tons of depth charges. Other merchant ships in harbour included the BRITISH MOTORIST, TULAGI and ZEALANDIA.
At approximately 0945 the first of the Japanese aircraft attacked 10 American Kittyhawk fighters that were returning to Darwin. These American fighters had earlier left Darwin at 0915 for Koepang but were returning to Darwin due to adverse weather. Four of these aircraft were shot down whilst a fifth was damaged and was able to return safely to Darwin with the other five Kittyhawks. All five were later destroyed as they attempted to take off when the Japanese arrived over Darwin.
The Japanese fighters apparently opened the attack on Darwin as GUNBAR was attacked by fighter aircraft as it was passing through the boom gate at 0957. Nine fighters attacked GUNBAR and the ship was attacked 18 separate times. The first attack hit the ship’s Lewis gun rendering the ship defenceless and it was amazing that it survived. These attacks ceased at 1010.
Only a minute or so after GUNBAR was attacked, the bombers dropped their first bombs from a height of 14,000 feet at targets in the harbour area. At 0958 bombs hit the wharf near the shore end, blowing a railway engine and trucks over the side. NEPTUNA and BAROSSA were soon on fire from direct hits and oil fires were soon billowing over the scene of destruction.
SWAN, WARREGO, PEARY and WILLIAM B PRESTON were soon underway and they were singled out for attention, these ships fought back with vigour. PEARY was soon hit by enemy bombs and was fatally wounded. SWAN was heavily damaged by a near miss and, in the harbour a number of the merchant ships were on fire including the ZEALANDIA, BRITISH MOTORIST, MAUNA LOA and MEIGS, all these merchant ships eventually sank as a result of their damage.
Ships that received damage and casualties included PLATYPUS, SWAN, GUNBAR, KARA KARA, KOOKABURRA, COONGOOLA, the merchant ship ADMIRAL HALSTEAD, the hospital ship MANUNDA and USS WILLIAM B PRESTON.