Darwin's Historical Attractions

Australian Aviation & Heritage Museum, Darwin, NT. © Tourism NT

Discover Darwin’s World War II history

Learn about the day World War II came to Australia in Darwin’s historical attractions.

Before the bombs began to fall, Thursday 19 February 1942 was as a typical, steamy Darwin morning.  At 33 degrees in the shade and 90 per cent humidity, Darwin’s 2,000 residents – including just 63 women - were already sweating. 

The heat was the least of their worries, when at 9.58am, Japanese planes released the first bomb over Darwin Harbour. Over the next hour, more than 300 bombs fell, killing 243 people and wounding 300. Many of the 188 Japanese planes had attacked Pearl Harbour just a few months earlier.

Despite its sizeable military base, Darwin was ill equipped to deal with Australia’s first enemy attack.  With no water, electricity, communication or clear leadership and with rumours of foreign invasion flying, the people of Darwin panicked.

Many soldiers abandoned their training, joining civilians in the stampede out of the city. People ran, rode bikes, horses and drove cars, not stopping until they reached Adelaide River, a small rural community 115 kilometers south of Darwin. Later termed the ‘Adelaide River stakes’, this exodus south is documented in Baz Lurhman’s new film epic Australia.

The attack on Darwin, and subsequent chaos, fear and flight was largely concealed by the Australian government. Worried about national morale just a few days after Japan had claimed Singapore, it reported that 17 people had been killed and 24 injured in Darwin, a shadow of the true statistics.  Over the next 18 months, Darwin lost more than 1,000 people in a total of 64 air raids. Yet news blackouts meant that most Australians had little idea of the seriousness of the country’s most prolonged attack. 

You can explore Darwin’s World War II history in sites scattered across and around the city. There are original B52 bomber planes at the Aviation Heritage Centre and a variety of old airstrips in and around town. Visit ammunition bunkers that formed part of Australia northern defence line in Charles Darwin National Park or see the remains of a rest camp for 100,000 military personnel in Berry Springs Nature Park, 47 kilometers south of Darwin.

At East Point Military Museum, close to the city centre, you can walk through the bunker where Top End defence strategy was planned and see live footage of the bombing that brought World War II to Australia. Make your way through the war oil storage tunnels that run under the city or see artillery observation posts in the Casurina Coastal Reserve, also a sacred Aboriginal site.

You can also take in the Top End's wartime history on a tour or self drive trip from Darwin down the Stuart Highway. See military airstrips lining the highway and visit the museum and war cemetery in Adelaide River. Learn more about wartime life in Katherine and hear the local’s wartime stories over a cold beer in the colorful, historic townships of Larrimah and Daly Waters.

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