Thirteen days ago, it was the 70th anniversary of the bombing of Darwin, the first and most devastating Japanese air raid on Australia. In fact, there were two air raids on 19 February 1942: one from the same carrier task force which had attacked Pearl Harbor a little over two months previously, and another later in the day by land-based bombers from recently-occupied airfields in the Netherlands East Indies. Around 250 people were killed, mostly from the military since two-thirds of its pre-war population of 5800 had already been evacuated. Ten ships were sunk, including an American destroyer, the USS Peary. The RAAF station was hard hit too. Electricity and water services were cut (though soon restored); port and oil facilities severely damaged (shown above).
Despite Darwin's status as Australia's northern gateway (it was a prewar QANTAS staging post on the Singapore route) it was poorly defended. There were few anti-aircraft guns, no radars, and only two RAAF squadrons, one of general purpose Wirraways and the other of Hudson light bombers. Only the accidental presence of a squadron of American P-40s returning from an abortive flight to Timor allowed any sort of defence to be mounted in the air. Of the ten P-40s, five were out of fuel and had to land; four were shot down; one claimed two Val dive bombers. Anti-aircraft accounted for another Val and two Zeroes. Wing Commander Archibald Tindal was killed manning a Lewis gun against the enemy; RAAF Tindal is named after him.
Morale in the town held up reasonably well until after the second raid, when rumours began to circulate that a Japanese invasion was imminent. Perhaps not surprisingly: Fortress Singapore had fallen only four days earlier, and the Indonesian archipelago to the north was now coming under Japanese control. An exodus south began, accelerated by a belief that martial law had been imposed. (In fact military control did not start for another two days; it remained until the end of the war.) Civil society broke down as government and businesses shut up shop. People drove (where they could procure petrol), hitched rides (nine people clung to the side of a council grader), or simply walked along the road to Adelaide River, a small township south of Darwin. There were ugly scenes when a train was laid on to evacuate women and children, and men turned up clamouring to be taken too. The unseemly nature of the evacuation gave rise to its sardonic monicker, the Adelaide River Stakes.
Such things might be expected from undisciplined civilians. But the military was little better. Looting of abandoned private houses and business premises went on long after the bombers had left. Some of the remaining civilians took part, but so did Army personnel, including members of the Provost Corps who had been brought in to maintain order. There was also substantial desertion, with the RAAF faring particularly poorly: even four days afterwards, a muster found 278 RAAF personnel absent without leave. The commander of the RAAF station did order his airmen to remove to 'half a mile' down the road and then 'half a mile' into the bush, but that can't explain where the AWLs ended up: some to Batchelor, a distance of 61 miles (100 km) from Darwin; others to Adelaide River, 70 miles; one to Daly Waters, about 385 miles; and one man, infamously, made it all the way to Melbourne, around 1950 miles as the crow (or bomber) flies. [Additional: see below for his side of the story.] That's about the same distance London is from Volgograd (formerly Stalingrad). It took him thirteen days to make it here, which means today is the seventieth anniversary of the end of the Adelaide River Stakes, which is why I'm writing this post today (and not because I forgot to thirteen days ago). For some reason I can't seem to find any reports of speeches and ceremonies to mark this historic occasion; and only one recent press report even mentions the Adelaide River Stakes. It's the race that never stops a nation.
Sources: Wikipedia for the photo. For the attack and desertions: the official history, Douglas Gillson, Royal Australian Air Force 1939-42 (Canberra: Australian War Memorial, 1962) and the officially supported history, Alan Stephens, The Royal Australian Air Force (South Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 2001). For everything else: the report of the Lowe Commission of Inquiry; Timothy Hall, Darwin 1942: Australia's Darkest Hour (Sydney: Methuen Australia, 1980); Peter Grose, An Awkward Truth: The Bombing of Darwin, February 1942 (Crows Nest: Allen & Unwin, 2009).