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1942: The Year the War came to Australia

The bombing of Darwin and the attack on Sydney by the Japanese



Peter Grose

Allen & Unwin,  2021

Paperback    592pp    RRP: $34.99



Reviewer: Robert Ellis, January 2024


This is an 'Omnibus Volume', published 1n 2021, and comprising two books, by the same author, printed as a single volume: An Awkward Truth (2007) and A  Rude Awakening  (2009).


BOOK 1:  AN AWKWARD TRUTH covers the first Japanese air attack on Darwin, on 19th February 1942, in some detail, with  coverage of other air-raids on Broome, Geraldton, Townsville and a few other points seen to have some strategic or tactical value. The Japanese deployed the same aircraft carriers and Naval Air Service aircraft to attack Darwin as had been used for the surprise attack on US naval vessels and facilities at Pearl Harbour on 7th December 1941, but achieved less, for there were fewer major targets in and around Darwin than there were at Hawaii.

There were also, throughout 1942, several attacks on Darwin, the airfields around it, and at least twelve other towns, ports, and air bases, and at least two ships. Casualties were severe – over 300 died in Darwin raids alone, but after the first raid, on 7th February, damage was minimal.

The defensive facilities in and around Darwin were manned by a handful of Australian Army defence personnel, with one battery of heavy 3.7-inch anti-aircraft guns, a handful of semi-obsolete 'Lewis' light machine-guns, and twelve lightly-armed 'Wirraway' training aircraft, none of which, when deployed as  ‘fighters’, survived beyond the second or third raid. The only other air defence available for the first attack were US Army P-40 Kittyhawk fighters, These, flying in from Townsville, arrived at Darwin about the same time as the Japanese raiders, but were short of fuel and flown by tired, inexperienced pilots, with very limited training.  Nine of the ten American aircraft were destroyed, but the pilot of the one survivor claimed two Japanese shot down. Darwin had no defensive aircraft to face subsequent raids until the American Army Air Service was able to bring in a handful of Kittyhawks. In 1942 Australia had no fighter aircraft except for a handful of obsolete Hawker 'Demon' two-seater biplanes, which were completely inadequate to deal with even the slowest and least manoeuvrable Japanese aircraft, so for a short time the port and its installations were effectively defenceless.

Peter Grose goes on to describe many the other Japanese air raids on Australian ports and airfields, and the failures by both military and civil leaders to deal with a situation which should have been foreseen, but which drew only apathetic responses from ill-prepared Australian and Northern Territory Governments, the local police and the few Australian troops and airmen  then stationed in and around Darwin. 

Aubrey Abbott, the Northern Territory Administrator, rightly attracts serious criticism for his failure to perform any of the duties expected of the most senior public servant for the Territory, a position to which he had been appointed by the Menzies-led Federal Liberal Government and for which he had very little appropriate experience or qualification. Much the same can be said of several other public servants and local officials, who shared their shortcomings with both their superiors and colleagues in Canberra, and with senior Armed Forces officers both stationed at the time in Darwin or in other postings round Australia. Those who acted with both efficiency and bravery in a  most dangerous and unnerving situation, did well – but they were few, and handicapped by the apathy and inefficiency of their superiors, their co-workers and the 'general public' for whose welfare they should have accepted responsibility. The Commission of Inquiry, chaired by Mr Justice Lowe in March 1942, was scathing about some of the shortcomings of these administrators and Armed Service personnel, and summarises the casualties and damages from the main raid clearly and fully. Justice Lowe's two reports are cited as Appendices to the text, for which they are also a major source of reliable information.

The book is a major contribution to the military history of Australia and is a salutary lesson as to what we might except if Australia is engaged in a future war with a great power that has the ability and the desire to inflict serious damage on us. I commend the author, Peter Grose, for his diligent and wide-ranging research and his ability to present a clear record of the attempts by the Japanese to reduce Australia's resistance to their attempts to rule most of the Pacific Ocean's eastern littoral. He does this in a clear and informative way in an easily-understood well-constructed narrative.


BOOK 2: A RUDE AWAKENING is an account of another incursion into Australia - the Japanese midget submarine attack on Sydney Harbour in May 1942 Unlike the aerial attacks on Darwin, this raid was a ‘one off’ by the Imperial Japanese Navy on Australia’s major port, which was also the site of what was to become a significant naval based later in the war. It was well-planned by the Japanese, using two-man midget submarines carried into action by larger, long-range I-Class submarines,  and were probably the only ‘secret weapons’ which Japan had in 1941-1942.

Peter Grose has researched this operation very thoroughly, and his detailed account holds the reader from beginning to end. The attack inflicted little material damage. The Japanese planning and execution of the raid was as thorough as possible at the time, but the effect was only minimal. Casualties were few, damage was far less than the Japanese hoped for when measured against what might have been achieved had the attackers been a little luckier, or more experienced in using what was, after all, a new weapons system.

The Australian defensive facilities were ineffective, largely through a lack of proper training, inadequate leadership and shortcomings in both equipment and personnel in the set-up of the Australian command and communications networks and the disposition of the defensive ‘hardware’ around Sydney Harbour. Much more should have been done to ensure that the limited range of defensive equipment was better positioned and manned appropriately, but it had been left to ‘someone else’ to ensure that gun-positions were manned by fully-trained personnel who knew what to do should there be an attack, but the Japanese were, effectively, almost unopposed.

Mr Grose’s narrative also points out that, at the time of the raid, most of the senior Australian and the few senior American naval officers present (from several RAN ships and two US Navy ships replenishing in the port at the time), were at a formal dinner in the home of Rear-Admiral Muirhead Gould, DSC, RN, who had been appointed to the position of Naval Officer in Command, Sydney.  This meant that, at a time when leadership was needed, there were inexperienced (and in some cases poorly-trained) junior officers on duty, and unable or unwilling to act without the consent of their seniors who were  temporarily unavailable. This factor alone lead to slow reaction times, inadequate counter-measures and decision-making - all of which meant that either little was done, or the wrong responses were made to in situations that were outside their experience.


Both books are well-researched and well-written and provide a detailed coverage of the raids. Although this edition is  paper-back, it is well presented, with clear and informative maps, and photographs. Its 573 pages are packed with easily-read, detailed accounts of events which, at the time had a significant impact on Australians who, prior to the raids described, thought that the Second World War was happening ‘somewhere else’, and that, although over 400,000 Australians were participating in it, in Europe, North Africa and our near North, it was not really something about which we should be concerned. We were shaken out of our complacency, but about 80 years later,  many of us have forgotten the lessons that should have been learned in February to May 1942.

There is one criticism of Grose’s two books - neither has an index, which means it is difficult to read them as part of a research project. In all other aspects, they are readable, informative, and show clearly  the need for properly-planned defences manned by well-trained defence personnel, should Australia be likely to be threatened again in the foreseeable future.



The RUSI – Vic Library thanks the publisher for making this work available for review.

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