The Buzz

Raid on Darwin: Australia’s Pearl Harbor

The sun was just rising and the day promised clear skies overhead. Since 5 am maintenance crews had been running the engines, making last minute adjustments, and arming the scores of aircraft sitting on the steel flight deck of the Japanese aircraft carrier Akagi. She had started life as an Amagi-class heavy battlecruiser but had been converted to an aircraft carrier. On February 19, 1942, Akagi served as the flagship of the Imperial Japanese Navy’s First Air Fleet, commanded by Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo.

Directly behind Akagi, at a distance of about 8,000 yards, was her sister ship Kaga, the other member of the 1st Carrier Squadron. On Akagi’s port side, 8,000 yards away, sailed the carrier Soryu, flagship of Rear Admiral Tamon Yamaguchi. Behind and equidistant from Soryu and Kaga was the carrier Hiryu. Like Soryu, her partner in the 2nd Carrier Squadron, Hiryu was smaller and a bit faster than Akagi and Kaga. As on the Akagi, the sailors of the Kaga, Soryu, and Hiryu were scurrying on and below the decks readying their warplanes for action.

An array of Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) vessels supported the carriers. These included the bristling shapes of the heavy cruisers of the 8th Cruiser Squadron: Tone, Chikuma, Maya, and Takao, sporting 10 8-inch guns each, stationed 10,000 yards from each carrier. Between them, in front, and behind, was a screen of nine destroyers from the 17th and 18th Destroyer Divisions, 1st Destroyer Flotilla, under the control of the light cruiser Abukuma. These craft were each armed with six 5-inch guns and eight excellent Long Lance torpedoes.

Objective: Darwin

Surveying the frenetic activity of the Akagi’s personnel that morning was Commander Mitsuo Fuchida, the task force air leader. The 39-year-old Fuchida, who had entered the Navy in 1921, was a specialist in horizontal bombing in the naval air arm. His ability as a tactician and administrator led him to command the attack against the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. On that fateful day, he coordinated the entire Japanese aerial assault against that bastion of American power in the Pacific. Once again, 10 weeks after he and his comrades had wrought such thorough destruction on the naval might of America, Fuchida would be leading another airborne strike force against the enemy.

At 7:30 am, Fuchida signaled all the carriers that the launching of their planes was to begin. The sea breeze freshened from the northwest, which required that the flattops turn while the aircraft took off. When the fleet reached nine degrees south latitude and 129 degrees east longitude 220 miles northwest of the target, Nagumo ordered reversal to a reciprocal course to bring the carriers into the wind. The other warships also turned, and the entire fleet commenced to steam away from its objective and would continue to do so, though at a reduced speed, until the aerial strike force returned three hours later. Having completed their turns, heading full into the wind, the carriers increased speed until velocity over their flight decks reached 25 miles per hour.

After a final briefing the pilots and their crews climbed into their cockpits. Fuchida and his two crewmen boarded their three-seater Nakajima B5N2 Kate level bomber. When all planes were ready, the Akagi’s skipper, Captain Taijiro, ordered them to take off. Eighteen Mitsubishi A6M2 Zero fighters roared from the flight deck followed by 18 Aichi D3A1 Val dive-bombers, and 27 Kates.

Astern of Akagi the warbirds of the other carriers hurtled into the blue. When all were airborne at 8:45 am, Fuchida brought the attacking force of 188 aircraft, comprised of 36 Zero fighters, 71 Val dive bombers, and 81 Kate high-level bombers, onto a compass bearing of 148 degrees, with the Zeros, flying above and ahead of the others, acting as a protective screen against possible enemy fighter interception. With the prevailing northwest wind the Japanese expected to be over their objective in a little more than an hour. That objective was the Australian port city of Darwin, and the IJN air branch planned to deliver a destructive blow only surpassed by that visited upon Pearl Harbor.

Allied Military Buildup in Darwin

The massive IJN air raid winging its way to Darwin in mid-February 1942 was a response to a joint military command set up by the Allied Western governments designed to stem the Rising Sun’s advance across Southeast Asia. ABDA (American, British, Dutch, and Australian, as the command was named, became operational in January 1942 and established its main supply base at the port of Darwin in Australia’s Northern Territory. From Darwin vital military supplies were funneled to the Dutch East Indies, Singapore, and the Philippines. Further, Darwin was critical to the transfer of Allied fighter aircraft that staged from Timor to Bali, then to Java. Without these air assets Java would fall to the Japanese, and the entire Dutch East Indies, with its vast oil and rubber resources crucial to the Japanese war effort, with it.