|What piqued your interest in the bombing of Darwin and prompted you to write a book about it?
I’ve had a lifelong interest in the politics and history of the Australian military, particularly the Air Force, and I had this kind of boyhood enthusiasm for the aeroplane, so I decided I’d look at the politics of Australian aviation in the 1930s. I’m a Republican, and the further I got into it, the more outraged I was by the extent to which men of empire undermined the interests of the country.
Can you sum up your book’s findings?
That a group of, well, they would probably call themselves ‘British Australians’, such as Robert Menzies, actively undermined the policy decisions of their own cabinet, ignored the advice of the head of the Australian Air Force, and pushed aside local aviation heroes like Sir Charles Kingsford Smith in an effort to ensure that Australian aviation, both militarily and in civil air transport, conformed to the interests of Britain.
What exactly were the consequences of their irresponsible actions?
The consequences were that in December 1941, when the Japanese entered WWII, there was not a single fighter aircraft in the whole of Australia, there were no radar sets to warn of the approach of enemy aircraft, there were no heavy bombers, and those combat squadrons that did exist only had half their trained personnel. So the fierce determination to build the Australian aviation industry in the image of London had very sharp consequences in early 1942.
What difference would it have made, having those defences?
Firstly, the Australian defence system would have known that Japanese reconnaissance flights took place over Sydney, Melbourne and Hobart two days after the fall of Singapore. The Japanese were able to mount reconnaissance flights over those key Australian cities without the Air Force even being aware of the fact. On February 19, 1942, Darwin was bombed unopposed by any Australian aircraft––more than 250 people died.
Would it have been practical to arm Australia to a reasonable extent in the time frame you’ve described?
Absolutely. Arguably the best military mind that Australia has ever had, a chap called Richard Williams––who was the head of the Australian Air Force in the 1920s and ’30s––had advanced plans for the construction of an Australian fighter aircraft in 1938. And it was that kind of rational, national-interest planning that Menzies and his colleagues pushed aside.
Did they have a stated reason for doing so?
One of Menzies’ colleagues in this was a chap called Stanley Melbourne Bruce, who was a conservative Prime Minister in the 1920s, and then went on to be the Australian High Commissioner in London. Bruce advised the government in 1937 that the Australian people had to be convinced that only Britain could defend them. What we see at this time is a competition between those like Menzies and Bruce, who had no belief in Australia, and those like Richard Williams and Charles Kingsford Smith, who had a positive vision for Australia.
But without the backing of Britain, Australia would have had a hard time standing up against almost anyone, wouldn’t it?
Australians have a sense of insecurity because it’s a big place and there’s few of us, in relative terms. But from a military and geopolitical point of view, those problems are much more profound for an aggressor against Australia. A successful invasion of this country would be a very difficult thing to mount because there are huge distances involved and we’re a long way from any kind of supply base that would support an invasion force. The Japanese did consider an invasion and discounted it precisely because of the reasons I’ve just indicated. But the Japanese certainly had very advanced plans to bomb the east coast of Australia and destroy the industrial infrastructure. Had that happened, we’d think back on 1942 in very different terms, and the only reason it didn’t happen was because of an accident of history that Australia had no control over, and that was the Battle of the Coral Sea.
Were the upper echelons of government really convinced that Singapore wouldn’t fall, as the population was?
No, not at all. The Australian military through the ’30s was telling the Australian Government that relying on Singapore was not a viable national defence strategy. Those propositions were put by a chap called John Lavarack, who was the chief of the general staff through the 1930s. He was kind of the Army equivalent of Richard Williams.
Did the Japanese know that Australia had no air defence?
Presumably they did because one of the things that I uncovered in the book is that the Japanese actually undertook reconnaissance of Australian air bases six months before the outbreak of the war. And in June 1941, the Australian Army recorded that a Japanese reconnaissance flight had taken place, but that there was nothing on hand to oppose it. When they bombed Darwin, the leader of the Japanese attack formation––who incidentally led the attack on Pearl Harbour—described the air defences as “contemptible”.
Why bomb Darwin? It was hardly an eastern seaboard industrial hub…
You’re right; Darwin was more of a tactical target for the Japanese. In February 1942, the Japanese had conquered what was then called the Netherlands East Indies––now Indonesia––and they were in the midst of invading Java, Sumatra and Borneo, for their oil reserves. Darwin was the last supply stop for the Allies fighting in Java and Timor, so the Japanese mounted that raid on February 19, 1942.
|And Darwin was completely defenceless?
Completely defenceless in the sense that there were no Australian fighter aircraft there. There were a few anti-aircraft batteries, but they didn’t get into effective operation until well after the bombing started because there was no radar warning set. There was subsequently a Royal Commission into the Darwin bombing, and it concluded that at any time a radar set could have been installed in Darwin. One of the reasons they weren’t installed was that the Australian Air Force was then headed by a chap called Charles Burnett––a British officer whom the Menzies government appointed to get rid of Richard Williams. Burnett had absolutely no interest in local defence, and the radar sets that were delivered to the Australian Air Force in 1940 were delivered to the University of Sydney so they could be studied by physics students. In the meantime, our first-line defence bases, such as Darwin, made do with the human eyeball and a pair of binoculars.
I understand that there was some warning of the impending attack, but that went unheeded as well…
Yes, that’s right. It was a bit like Pearl Harbour. An American fighter squadron was staging through Darwin to go to Timor, and it turned back because of bad weather. The Australian Air Force commanders thought the incoming Japanese might have been those American fighters, so the base wasn’t put on high alert.
You’ve said defence personnel based around Darwin were more concerned with their own welfare than that of the civilians they were there to protect. How so?
Without effective leadership, because few of the Australian commanders had been in action, and indeed the Air Force base was commanded by a reserve officer who had no combat experience, command and control broke down, rumours got around, and there was an exodus of service personnel into the interior because of the fear of Japanese invasion. If there were some failures among the rank and file, there were many more failures of command and, of course, the greatest failure was a political one, in that the Menzies Government of the late 1930s refused to take the advice of their military professionals.
Had the Battle of the Coral Sea not gone the way it did, what do you think would have happened to Australia?
The Japanese were committed to cutting the supply route between Australia and America through the invasion of New Caledonia, Fiji and Samoa––there were very advanced plans for the Japanese to do that in the middle of 1942. But for the Battle of the Coral Sea, we’d have had Japanese aircraft carriers off Sydney, Newcastle and Wollongong, and probably Melbourne, bombing industrial sites that were irreplaceable.
How come, 70 years on, the average Australian doesn’t know about this?
There are a couple of reasons. Immediately after Darwin, the Curtin Labor Government wasn’t keen to publicise Australia’s vulnerability, so there was a measure of censorship, and the Royal Commission reported in Canberra, so I suppose the worst defects were not released to the public. After the war, interest in the dark hours was probably less than it might have been, so there was little reflection until quite recently, with this re-emergence of debate over whether 1942 really constituted a defence crisis.