Media Coverage of the Bombing of Darwin
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19 February 1942
The newspaper and newsreel coverage at the time of the bombing of Darwin appears to have recorded the events as thoroughly as was possible in the 1940s. It is sometimes said, however, that the rest of Australia did not fully grasp the gravity of the attack, and that many people did not hear about the bombing at all.
As with most catastrophic events, initial newspaper reports contained incomplete and varying estimates of casualties and damages. The media coverage of the bombing of Darwin began with a report in the Barrier Miner of the message sent from the Postmaster-General's wireless station:
‘Air raid Darwin started. Station closing down.'
The Barrier Miner scooped the press with the article Japs Drop Bombs On Darwin on the afternoon of 19 February, but there was very little detail available at that time, and the article is a bare account of the government's press release.
A fine example of a newspaper report comes from the Cairns Post on 21 February 1942. Headlined STOP PRESS!, the article provided first-hand accounts of the bombing from evacuees arriving in Townsville:
Vivid stories of the raids on Darwin were told by air passengers who reached Townsville to-night. One man who had been through raids in England said the first attack on Darwin was the worst he had ever experienced. It was a blitz of the most ferocious kind. There was very little warning, and most people were still running for shelters when the bombs began to fall.
The Japanese bombed from 8000 to 9000 feet, and used probably 500lb. bombs. The post office received a direct hit and nine persons were killed. Some of the girls met their death at their posts in the telephone exchange.
Another passenger said the bombers came over in seven or eight waves. There were nine machines to a wave, and they came over at intervals of about three minutes. The dive-bombers came down to within 100 feet of the ground, bombing and machine gunning.
All the eye-witnesses paid a tribute to the excellence of the A.R.P. and Ambulance organisation. The injured persons were carried to the Hospital but this building too was hit by a bomb and damaged. The medical staff and nurses did wonderful work. There was second raid about 11a.m. (sic) In this 54 machines were engaged, in two formations of 27 each.
The number of planes in the first attack was initially under-estimated by about one hundred. This confusion is understandable. The 188 planes in the first wave divided into four sections: nine zeros arrived near Vesteys Beach and shot down Pell's 33rd Pursuit Squadron, then went on to attack ships near the harbour; a second force pattern-bombed the town; a third force attacked the airfield, and did not go near the town; and a fourth group dive bombed the ships in the harbour. There was no single vantage point which would allow an observer to view all the formations simultaneously.
The number of aircraft subsequently reported by the Lowe commission was also inaccurate. It was many years afterwards that the number of 188 in the first raid and 54 in the second was established. At the time, Air Marshall Williams thought there were 27 high level bombers, and 50 dive bombers and fighters. This is less than half of the actual numbers. No wonder the newspapers got it wrong. Most papers reported the planes in the first raid were twin engine, but in fact they were all single engine planes.
An accurate count of bodies was not immediately available. By early March, Police Sergeant Birt recorded that 160 bodies had been recovered for burial. There were some bodies in the town which were not located for some days after the bombing. The US Navy, which suffered 103 of the deaths on that day, did not release figures in Australia.
Precise details of military casualties and damage were not reported by the Australian Government, on the advice of Chiefs of Staff, 'as to do so would give valuable information to the enemy'.
The Sydney Morning Herald published the Prime Minister's first statement on 20 February, in an article headlined, Two Big Air Raids On Darwin; 93 Japanese Bombers Take Part; Fighter Escort:
''Damage to property was considerable," he said, "but reports so far to hand do not give precise particulars about the loss of life."
"The Government regards the attacks as most grave, and makes it quite clear that a severe blow has been struck on Australian soil."
"The statement that has been made is official and authoritative," he said. "Nothing has been hidden. There is no ground for any rumour. If rumours circulate, take no notice of them, and deal sharply with any person who circulates them."