Discover the untold stories and historic sites of Northern Territory's capital city of Darwin during World War II.
By Stephanie Williams
Scattered across Darwin are numerous historic sites and museums dedicated to sharing the story of how our northernmost city (then a small town) was exposed to war. On 19 February 1942, Japanese planes dropped more than 300 bombs on Darwin Harbour. Despite its sizeable military base, Darwin was ill-equipped to deal with Australia's first enemy attack. The attack on Darwin, and subsequent chaos was largely concealed by the Australian government. Today, visit the bunker of the Darwin Military Museum, see the oil storage tunnels, wander through the Aviation Heritage Centre to see original B-52 bomber planes, or follow a self-drive itinerary to see as much or as little as you like. The waterfront precinct is where many of the military history sites are, so base yourself at one of the hotels there, such as the Hilton Darwin or Vibe Hotel Darwin Waterfront.
- Visit the Darwin Military Museum and watch footage of the 1942 bombing
- Pay your respects at the Cenotaph, overlooking Darwin Harbour
- See the B-52 bomber that defended Darwin at the Aviation Heritage Centre
Top historical experiences and attractions in Darwin
Aeroplanes and ammunition
You can explore Darwin's World War II history in sites scattered across and around the city. A good starting point is the Aviation Heritage Centre. You’ll find an original B-52 bomber (one of only two on display outside the United States) along with other military aircraft, engines and the wreckage of a Japanese Zero fighter shot down in the 1942 air raids. Visit ammunition bunkers that formed part of Australia's 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 kilometres (29 miles) south of Darwin.
Walk through historic bunkers and tunnels
At the Darwin Military Museum, close to the city centre, you can walk through the bunker where the Northern Territory's defence strategy was planned and see live footage of the bombing that brought World War II to Australia. Make your way through the oil storage tunnels that run under the city or see artillery observation posts in the Casuarina Coastal Reserve. The reserve is sacred for the local Larrakia people. Look out for Dariba Nunggalinya (Old Man Rock), visible at low tide from Dripstone Cliffs lookout.
Visit the Darwin Cenotaph at Bicentennial Park
Originally built in 1921 outside Government House, the Darwin Cenotaph was moved to Bicentennial Park in 1992. It commemorates the service men and women who lost their lives in all wars and is the focus for Anzac Day memorial services on April 25 each year. The current location, overlooking Darwin Harbour, is particularly significant because it is the port where Australian soldiers departed during World War I, it overlooks where many died during the Japanese attack in 1942 and it is the site where the first shots were fired in defense of Australia on Australian soil during World War II.
Learn about the Royal Flying Doctor Service
The Royal Flying Doctor Service (RFDS) played a pivotal role during the bombing of Darwin and today is an important provider of medical services to Australians living in remote areas. Visit the Royal Flying Doctor Service Darwin Tourist Facility to see a virtual reality hologram presentation about the Japanese air attack on Darwin and the history of the RFDS. There’s also a decommissioned RFDS Pilatus PC 12 aircraft and a life-sized replica Japanese Zero aircraft. Learn about the activities of the RFDS pilots, engineers, doctors, and nurses and the experiences of the patients who are cared for each day.
How to get there
Darwin has a domestic airport with connections from most state capital cities, as well as an international airport with links to Asia. Consider getting there by train aboard The Ghan which will take you on an epic journey through the Red Centre of Australia from Adelaide or Alice Springs. If you have more time, Darwin is also served by interstate bus companies. Get there from Western Australia via Broome and Kununurra, from Queensland via Mt Isa, or from the south via Alice Springs.