There are two events that have left an indelible mark on the city of Darwin; Cyclone Tracy and the bombing of the city during World War II by the Japanese. Reminders of both exist throughout the city centre, suburbs and surrounding region.
On 19 February 1942, at 9:57 am, during World War II, 188 Japanese warplanes attacked Darwin in two waves. The incoming Japanese planes were first spotted by Father John McGrath at the Bathurst Island Mission north of Darwin. McGrath radioed at 9:30 am and the sirens wailed at 9:57 am. It was the same fleet that had bombed Pearl Harbor, though a considerably larger number of bombs were dropped on Darwin, than on Pearl Harbor. The attack killed at least 243 people and caused immense damage to the town. These were by far the most serious attacks on Australia in time of war, in terms of fatalities and damage. They were the first of many raids on Darwin.
This event is often called the "Pearl Harbor of Australia". Although it was a less significant target, a greater number of bombs were dropped on Darwin than were used in the attack on Pearl Harbor. As was the case at Pearl Harbor, the Australian town was unprepared, and although it came under attack from the air another 58 times in 1942 and 1943, the raids on 19 February were massive and devastating by comparison. Another significant raid was conducted by the Japanese on 2 May 1943.
World War II Oil Storage Tanks
The oil storage tunnels under Stokes Hill are perhaps the city's greatest legacy of the Japanese bombing. The tunnels were built to protect Australia's north coastal wartime oil supplies from further air attacks following the bombing of Darwin in February 1942. Like most things past generations of Australians built to protect themselves against foreign invasion, it was a case of "too little, too late".
By the time the tunnels were completed in 1946, the war had been over for a year and besides, the builders had been unable to effectively seal the tunnels from infiltration of water, so they were never used for their initial purpose. Nevertheless, the tunnels are unique in Australia and are a symbol of the dogged determination and willingness to try against the odds that characterises the defenders of this country.
Tunnel No. 5 is open daily for public inspection and features reference material and displays on Darwin's role in defending Australia in World war II. Entry fees apply. Contact: (08) 8985 6322.
Location: Kitchener Dve., Darwin Wharf Precinct
East Point Fortifications
The point's military history that goes back to 1932 and a range of community and tourist facilities including the Darwin Military Museum and the gun turret precinct recall the area's past use. Discover artefacts that chronicle Australia s involvement in international conflicts from the Boer War to the present day. Explore our vast collection of uniforms, weaponry, photographs, interviews, and propaganda pieces that tell the stories of our service men and women deployed overseas.
Take a walk through the lush gardens and find our stunning range of military vehicles and larger artillery pieces. Climb to the top of the gun emplacement and check out the 9.2 gun that it houses. Venture beneath the gun deck and explore our vast collection of Vietnam War artefacts, weaponry and photographs.
Open 7 days a week: Wet Season - (1st November - 30th April) 10.00am to 3.30pm; Dry Season - (1st May- 31st October) 9.30am to 5.00pm.
On 25 December 1974, Darwin was struck by Cyclone Tracy, which killed 71 people and destroyed over 70% of the town's buildings, including many old stone buildings such as the Palmerston Town Hall, the Old Police Station, the Court House and Cell Block all on The Esplanade which runs along Lameroo Beach which could not withstand the lateral forces generated by the strong winds. It was Australia's worst natural disaster. The anemometer at Darwin Airport recorded winds of 217 kilometres per hour (135 mph) at 3:00 am before it stopped working; winds of up to 250 kilometres per hour (160 mph) were estimated to have hit the city. The total damage cost $1 billion. Sixteen people were lost at sea, their bodies never recovered. The historic schooner Booya sunk due to the cyclone.
Photo: The Australian
After the disaster, an airlift evacuated 30,000 people, which was the biggest airlift in Australia's history. The population was evacuated by air and ground transportation; due to communications difficulties with Darwin airport landing was limited to one plane every ninety minutes. At major airports teams of Salvation Army and Red Cross workers met refugees, with the Red Cross taking responsibility for keeping track of the names and temporary addresses of the refugees. Evacuations were prioritised according to need; women, children, the elderly and sick were evacuated first. There were reports of men dressing up as women to escape with the early evacuations.
By 31 December only 10,900 people (mostly men who were required to help clean up the city) remained in Darwin. The city enacted a permit system. Permits were only issued to those who were involved in either the relief or reconstruction efforts, and were used to prevent the early return of those who were evacuated.
Looking at modern day Darwin, it is difficult for those who didn't witness Cyclone Tracy on Christmas Day 1974 to conceive the power of its brute force and the devastation it caused, leading to the city having to be almost totally rebuilt. A stark reminder of this catastrophic event are the ruins of the Old Darwin (Palmerston) Town Hall in Smith Street.
Not far from the old Town Hall ruins is Christ Church Cathedral, which has a memorial to the victims of the cyclone. The only part of the original cathedral to survive Tracy has been incorporated into the architecture of its replacement. The original Cathedral structure on this site was consecrated in 1902, then adjacent to a thriving Chinatown, and the Terminus Hotel. This was relatively early in the settlement's history, which coincided with the completion of the Overland telegraph line in 1872, linking pre-federation Australia with the world. When Cyclone Tracy hit Darwin, winds of up to 270kph passed directly over the Cathedral, and on to the wharf below, demolishing many heritage buildings, and tossing ships and containers around like children's toys. In the case of the Cathedral, all that was left was the western end-wall and the relatively new porch.
Despite the devastation, there was never any consideration given to not rebuilding Darwin and the Cathedral. Church services resumed the next Sunday in the Uniting Church. A new Cathedral was designed and built, and was consecrated on 13 March 1977.
On the 40th anniversary of Cyclone Tracy, The Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory (MAGNT) opened a refreshed 40th exhibition about Cyclone Tracy. It includes interactive stations and a never-before displayed, eight metre railway signal tower that was bent during Cyclone Tracy. The Museum, which has always played a key part in telling the Tracy story and keeping those memories alive for those who were there, saw the 40th anniversary was seen as an opportunity for the Museum to acknowledge those who were involved in the reconstruction effort and the many Australians who came together to support Territorians through this catastrophic disaster.