Prior to the Second World War, Darwin was largely dependent upon shipping for supply. A railway ran between Alice Springs and Birdum (a township between Mataranka and Daly Waters) but the road that linked them was a dirt track that roughly followed the Overland Telegraph Line. It was unpassable in places during the wet season.
The outbreak of war in late 1939 forced the military to seriously consider the transportation issues in the north as the threat of war with the Japanese also inferred a threat of invasion. The northern coastline was the obvious invasion route but it was also the key to providing support for allied troops in the Pacific. A dependable north south route through the Territory became a priority.
In August 1940, the Commonwealth Government approved the building of an all-weather road between Alice Springs and Darwin. The task of building the various sections was divided between the road authorities of New South Wales; Queensland; South Australia and Victoria; a truly national effort. The road was completed just before the 1941/42 wet season, however the extreme weather conditions of the Territory, and the increased volume of traffic using the route required constant maintenance and upgrading.
The bombing of Darwin in February 1942 confirmed the fears of military command and more than justified the construction of the North South road. Darwin was evacuated in the wake of further bombings and Alice Springs, at the other end of the North South Road, became the Territory’s main military base.
The Track was called the North South Road until April 1944 when the name was changed to the Stuart Highway, after the explorer John McDouall Stuart who first crossed the continent from south to north in 1862.