Darwin and Pacific Defense: Looking Back and Looking Forward


2015-01-02 By Robbin Laird

There is probably not a single American with a pulse who has not heard of Pearl Harbor.

A day that brought the United States into World War II, and led to the Asian war with the United States as a major participant.

When current strategists talk of the Pivot to the Pacific they often forget that the U.S. became a Pacific power in 1898 and that the war in the Pacific cemented for our lifetime a key role of the United States in the geopolitics, economics and conflicts of Asia.

One of the central changes, which happened during the war, was the forging of a very close U.S. alliance with Australia, which replaced its historical one with the United Kingdom.  The United Kingdom entered World War II as a global power, but the realities of World War II would change forever Britain’s role in the world.

he explosion of an oil storage tank and clouds of smoke from other oil tanks, hit during the first Japanese air raid on Australia's mainland, at Darwin on 19 February 1942. In the foreground is HMAS Deloraine, which escaped damage.
he explosion of an oil storage tank and clouds of smoke from other oil tanks, hit during the first Japanese air raid on Australia’s mainland, at Darwin on 19 February 1942. In the foreground is HMAS Deloraine, which escaped damage.

Australia learned rapidly at the beginning of World War II, that isolation from conflict depends on how far way the aggressor actually is.

The expectation was that the British fortress known as Singapore would provide the buffer against Japanese expansion to the South.

As Peter Grose put it in his analysis of the Darwin bombing attack:

On 15 February 1942 the unimaginable happened: Singapore fell.

It remains the worst military disaster in Australian history.

The Australians lost 1789 dead and 1306 wounded in a vain defence of the ‘impregnable’ British base.

Worse, the Japanese captured 15,395 Australian troops, the Australian Imperial Forces’ entire 8th Division.

The catastrophe numbed the Australian population at home.

What more terrible news would the future hold?

Would Australia itself be next, put to the sword by the all-conquering Japanese?[ref]Grose, Peter (2009-02-01). An Awkward Truth: The Bombing of Darwin, February 1942 . Independent Publishers Group. Kindle Edition.[/ref]

With the expansion of Japan, Australia faced the Empire of Japan directly. Credit Graphic: Mark E. Stille, The Imperial Japanese Navy in the Pacific War (Osprey Publishing, Kindle Edition).
With the expansion of Japan, Australia faced the Empire of Japan directly. Credit Graphic: Mark E. Stille, The Imperial Japanese Navy in the Pacific War (Osprey Publishing, Kindle Edition).

But the rapid movement outward in the Pacific after Pearl Harbor by the Japanese surprised everyone, including the Japanese.

With the fall of Singapore and the worst losses Australia has experienced to date in armed conflict, and the movement of the Japanese into the oil fields of Indonesia, suddenly Australia faced the Japanese directly.

As with all of the democracies, including the United States, no one was really ready for war. 

This meant that those who had been planning for conflict for a decade Japan and Germany would have clear advantages, and exploiting these advantages established very large empires very rapidly.

For Japan, the sweep south was viewed as necessary to gain control over the energy resources necessary to fuel its empire.

Australia was then viewed as a threat because it was the only territory not under Japanese control from which allied powers could strike back at the Japanese forces.

Although Pearl Harbor is well known, the bombing on Darwin is not in the United States.

In February 1942, virtually the same air and naval leadership, which led the attack on Pearl Harbor, led the attack on Darwin.

Only this time, with Pearl Harbor experience under their belt, and the possibility of using land-based bombers as part of the follow on attack, the Japanese were more effective than at Pearl Harbor.

In a book by Peter Grose published in 2009 and entitled An Awkward Truth: The Bombing of Darwin, February 1942, the author provides a powerful look at the period leading up to the raid, the raid and its aftermath.  The parallels to Pearl Harbor and to the Japanese strategy are striking.

As Peter Grose provided the initial entry into his subject, he summarized the parallels and differences.

Few people are aware that the carrier-borne force that attacked Darwin was precisely the same carrier-borne force that had attacked Pearl Harbor ten weeks earlier.

The same pilot, Mitsuo Fuchida, led both attacks, flying from the same aircraft carriers and supported by the same air crews.

There was a difference.The Japanese pilots had now tested their revolutionary tactic of naval bombardment by plane and not ship’s gun. They made mistakes in Pearl Harbor.

They did not repeat them in Darwin.

More aircraft attacked Darwin in the first wave than attacked Pearl Harbor in its first wave.

More bombs fell on Darwin than on Pearl Harbor.

More ships were sunk in Darwin than in Pearl Harbor. The second wave of Japanese bombers attacking Darwin did not fly from aircraft carriers.

They were land-based, heavier aircraft carrying heavier bombs.

The town of Darwin and its civilian population suffered badly in the first attack, unlike the nearby city of Honolulu during the Pearl Harbor attack.

The fact that fewer people were killed in Darwin is simply explained: there were fewer people in Darwin to kill.

When it happened, the raid on Darwin stood with that on Coventry, England, as one of the biggest and deadliest air attacks yet seen in the Second World War [ref]Grose, Peter (2009-02-01). An Awkward Truth: The Bombing of Darwin, February 1942 . Independent Publishers Group. Kindle Edition.[/ref]

And with this attack, the Japanese would forge the modern U.S. and Australian strategic alliance. 

Americans as well as Australians died that day in the harbor of Darwin, and the common desire to defeat the “Japs” was clearly evident. 

Having both suffered from their own Pearl Harbors, the Japanese provided in swift attacks, the importance of being prepared and not being deluded about the intentions and capabilities of one’s adversary.

But both the Australian and US forces were not well prepared to deal with the Japanese attacks, and both suffered from proper preparation for the “asymmetric” enemy.

Deterrence is based on readiness, and on preparing to defeat the adversary one will face, not the one would wish to face.

Darwin Military Museum from SldInfo.com on Vimeo.

Shifting forward to 2014, Darwin has returned to the forefront again of Pacific defense.

It was in 2014, that the new phase of cooperation between Australia and the USMC has begun. 

It is part of the Australian government’s effort to shape an effective defense for the Northern territories.

Indeed, the current government is looking to shape forces, which can provide extended defense for Australia, and to participate in an effective deterrence in depth strategy.

2014 was important in another way as well which is almost the obverse of Darwin 1942.

Instead of an attack on Darwin driving Australia and the United States together against militarist Japan, 2014 saw Japan and Australia drawing closer together along with the United States in shaping a Pacific defense strategy to protect himself or herself against the latest regional player seeking dominance, namely the PRC.

The Japanese government under Prime Minister Abe has been in the throes of reshaping Japanese defense policy in order to provide for perimeter defense of Japan against various threats, notably against the PRC.

And Abe’s visit to Australia marked an important moment in working towards new cooperation in defense, including in arms industry.

The recent visit of the Japanese Prime Minister to Australia has clearly underscored that both countries see their efforts as not parallel but joint.

One key piece of the effort is to share defense technologies, and the two countries have signed an agreement to explore ways to share submarine technologies and in the Australian case, to help shape a way ahead for 21st century submarine technologies.

And in an announcement at the end of 2014, the F-35 program office announced that Japan and Australia would be key players in shaping the Asian sustainment effort for the plane.

And the event passed with little notice in the United States but in reality it is a key element of laying a new foundation for Australian, Japanese and American Pacific defense capabilities and strategy.

It is part of an overall process of change and strengthening effective 21st century working relationships; it is not just about putting wheels on an airplane.

1942 marked Darwin being on the front lines whether it wanted to or not; 2014 saw its emergence as part of the evolving deterrence in depth strategy which supports the key democratic powers in the Pacific.

It is only directed against the PRC if the leadership of China wishes to act in ways to make this inevitable.

But make no mistake; 2014 is an important year of transition in Pacific defense.

On Darwin and the USMC in 2014, see the following:










Background Note:

The 6 month rotation in Australia is an important part of the distributed laydown and building convergent capabilities among core allies and partners in the region.

Notably, a key element in shaping a 21st century Pacific defense structure is working convergent or cross-cutting modernization between the United States and key allies like Japan, South Korea, Singapore and Australia.

And those allies are working their own cross cutting convergence often in multinational exercises sponsored by the United States in the Pacific or US training ranges. For example, the Australian Wedgetail commanded and controlled allied aircraft in a recent Red Flag exercise with South Korean and Japanese F-15s as part of the force. And this was after the South Korean F-15 crossed through Japanese airspace to get to the exercise.

At the end of my visit to Australia, I discussed the upcoming MRF-D rotaton with Lt. General Robling, the Commanding Officer of the Marine Forces in the Pacific or MARFORPAC. According to Robling:

It’s not about just building relationships in the region. It is about collective security in the region. Building collective security requires, in part, a process of building partner capacity, and working convergent capacities to shape effective and mutually beneficial relationships which underlie the evolution of collective security.

Our working relationship with Australia is a case in point. Even though they see themselves… rightly… as an island continent, they’ve really got to be part of the entire region’s ability to respond to crisis, both natural and manmade.  To do this, they can’t stay continent bound, and must engage forward in the greater Asia Pacific region.

By becoming part of a collective Pacific security apparatus, they get the added benefit of defending their nation away from their borders.  The Australian military is small in comparison to the US, but it is a lethal and technologically sophisticated force. In the face of a large-scale threat, they, like the US and others in the region, wouldn’t be able to defend by themselves.  They would have to be a part of a larger collective security effort and ally with the US or other likeminded nations in the region in order to get more effective and less costly defense capabilities pushed farther forward.

The MRF-D rotation comes at an important point in the Australian modernization effort itself.

The Marines are viewed as important contributors to working with the Australians to enhance their own joint force operational approach as new capabilities are added, notably the F-35.

And Australian modernization benefits the USN-USMC team in the region as well as the Aussies add important new capabilities to their forces which can contribute directly to enhanced coalition operational performance.

Note: The videos above highlight two aspects of the history of Darwin.

The first shows Brigadier Gen. John Frewen, commanding officer, 1st Brigade, Australian Army, welcomse the Marine Rotational Force Darwin or MRF-D to the Northern Territories. T

The second shows the Darwin Military Museum being visited by US Marines.

12/14/2011: U.S. Marines with 2nd Fleet Anti-Terrorism Security Team out of Norfolk, Va., visit Darwin Military Museum in Darwin, Australia, Nov. 26, 2011. FAST Marines are attending Exercise Semper Fast 2011, a combined training event hosted by 5th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment focusing on small arms ranges, direct fire ranges, military operations on urban terrain, and light infantry operations.

Credit: EX Semper Fast 2011:11/26/2011

The Darwin Military Museum was founded in the mid 1960s by Lieutenant Colonel Jack Haydon and members of the Northern Territory branch of the Royal Australian Artillery Association.The Association, through its numerous contacts, soon started accumulating war memorabilia from all over the Territory. Since then, several notable local collectors have also contributed greatly to the museum’s exhibits. The museum was Darwin’s very first and is housed in the original concrete command post bunker, used by the army to command the two massive 9.2″ guns nearby.

The bunker is now fully air-conditioned and displays a fascinating array of weapons, photographs and equipment used by the fighting men and women of the day. A theatrette continuously runs a 15-minute film that contains dramatic live footage of the Japanese bombing of Darwin Harbour and the township.Set in four acres of tropical gardens by the sea, Darwin Military Museum is not just for the military enthusiast, but for every member of the family. It is a unique combination of Australian military heritage and modern tropical garden and surrounds. While out our way, don’t forget to see some of the 2,000 wallabies that graze nearby and perhaps catch one of Darwin’s spectacular sunsets.