The lessons of the bombing of Darwin

By: Luke Gosling OAM, Member for Solomon- NT.

Opinion: When war came to Darwin’s skies 81 years ago, a city’s fate rested in the hands of a few patriots, writes Luke Gosling OAM, Member for Solomon.

They were outgunned. The enemy was overhead. And reinforcements were far away. With nothing but their arms to save the innocent from terror raining down, their anti-aircraft guns and rifles fired back at hundreds of screeching Japanese aircraft strafing and bombing them, the port, and civilians.

As well as killing an estimated 236 people and reducing buildings to rubble, this first of 90 air raids on our homeland during the Pacific War left an indelible mark on our nation’s psyche. The attack was designed to make us feel strategically isolated and cut off from our allies but it backfired.

While on an extended visit to the Northern Territory to tour its defence facilities, Assistant Minister for Defence Matt Thistlethwaite reflected on the bombing at the Adelaide River war cemetery on 20 February. He remarked that this may have been the first time our flag was fired upon on home soil: “The flag was torn and stained and slashed by shrapnel, but the symbol it represented remained unscathed … Torn and stained and slashed by shrapnel, we endured that first attack, and would endure the others that followed.”

The bombing of Darwin forced us to turn to ourselves to ensure our national survival. Coming only weeks after the traumatic fall of Singapore to Japanese forces, the 19 February 1942 raid felled the hope Australian leaders had placed in the capacity of Britain, the imperial centre, to protect us.

This tragedy kindled a new hope in our government and in our people that our salvation would not be secured by an external power, but by our own independent foreign policy. It has been bipartisan policy ever since that Australia looks to its national interests above traditional ties of kith and kin.

A second way that the Darwin raid reshaped modern Australia was paradoxically by forging our enduring alliance with America. The first allied loss on Australian soil, the bombing put our fledgling alliance with America on a war footing when a US destroyer, the USS Peary, was sunk in the attack.

Enacting Prime Minister John Curtin’s famous war-time declaration that Australia looked to America free of any pangs as to our traditional links with the UK, the bombing failed for Japan by steeling our countries to resist in the South Pacific and so helped lay the foundations of our 1951 ANZUS Treaty.

Across every metric, our modern alliance with America is deeper and stronger than ever before.

As Defence Minister Richard Marles recently said, the US has been central to our national security since the war. “To those that argue countries like Australia would be better off ‘going it alone’, I say that our US alliance fundamentally strengthens, rather than diminishes, our sovereignty,” he said.

I saw that first-hand when working in a security role with the US Army and special forces in Afghanistan. Kandahar was a very dangerous place to support an Afghan-led political process, for which the Taliban bombed our compound. But US forces were always reliable in times of crisis.

As the representative for Darwin in the national parliament, I have also witnessed a significant step-change in our security cooperation with the United States in the establishment of our bilateral force posture initiatives under the Gillard government in 2011. These began with the rotation of marines to Darwin, which has now ramped up to the full rotation strength of 2,500 troops.

The 2022 Australia-US Ministerial Consultations in Washington DC also announced a joint commitment to boosting US Army, Navy, and Air Force elements to include bombers and fighters training out of Australian bases in coming years, likely operating out of the Northern Territory.

These measures are all in keeping with Australia’s independent foreign policy. A fundamental element of our cooperation with the US in these force posture initiatives is our longstanding bipartisan policy of having full knowledge and concurrence of all such activities on our soil.

In other words, we welcome US rotations in Australia because they are in our own interest. Successive Australian governments have held the view that a strong US military presence in the Indo-Pacific, which includes Darwin, is vital for deterring threats to the stability of the region.

This policy was directly shaped by the bombing of Darwin. By bringing the war to Australia’s north and constraining our strategic options, it taught us the hard-earned lessons that we needed to be more independent, needed more allies, and needed to be able to keep our adversaries at bay.

Australia’s acquisition of nuclear-powered, conventionally armed submarines under our AUKUS partnership with the US and the UK is just one means of advancing all three objectives at once. This is a capability we simply could not acquire without our allies and which will strengthen our sovereignty.

In my work as chair of the parliamentary friends of the US and AUKUS, I have met with Democratic Congressman Joe Courtney and Republican Mike Gallagher, the House co-chairs of the Friends of Australia Caucus. Our exchanges gave me confidence that AUKUS offers a pathway to increasing our self-reliance.

As a sovereign state, Australia’s highest priority must always be to deter and defeat an armed attacks on our territory. The bombing of Darwin reminds us of the high costs of failure and why we must work tirelessly to grow our defence force and work with our allies to learn the lessons of our darkest hour.


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