Falling bombs and the rise of a nation: The props turn
A little while ago I announced a series I would do about the bombing of Darwin, Australia. I've done three posts so far and it's time for part four. You can find the other three by following the links part one, part two and part three here.
Darwin, Australia - Early hours 19th February 1942
The pilot flashed the navigation lights of his scout plane, noted the corresponding flashing torchlight from the ground, performed a lazy circle of the harbour noting the position of the warships below, and headed back out to sea. The spy on the ground has done his job.
Down below, aboard the troopship Zealandia, Third Officer Charles Stewart stood anchor-watch. He noted the Japanese reconnaissance plane, the obvious communication with someone on the ground and decided to log it but not disturb the Captain until morning.
Japanese aircraft carrier Akagi
The mechanical crews had been running-up the engines since 0500, arming and positioning the attack planes on deck for takeoff. Now, a few hours later, Flight Commander Fuchida (as mentioned in part two) inspected his plane, tail code 301, noting his 500 pound bomb complete with fuse were in place.
Satisfied, he headed over to Lt. Commander Itaya, the leader of the 36 Zero fighters that would escort the bombers, and received the message they were prepared.
Fuchida already knew the dive bombers were ready to launch from aboard the carrier Soryu and so with a last glance at the weather report over Darwin, scattered cloud but good visibility, he moved back towards his command-bomber even as the loud speakers boomed "All HANDS TO LAUNCHING STATIONS!" src
The Zeros launched first heading upwards to patrol the 360 degrees of sky around the carrier group to protect the high-level bombers as they launched. It took 20 minutes to get all of the bombers airborne and for them to form up into their flight-formation, all done silently as a strict radio-silence-protocol was being maintained by the Japanese.
The time was 0845 and as Fuchida brought the attack-force to a bearing of 148 degrees he knew he would be over his target in just over one hour: Darwin, Australia.
Tiwi Islands mission
Father John McGrath and a local man spot the flight of Japanese planes at high altitude and they rushed to call it in.
"Eight SE to VID. Big flight planes overhead. Going south. Very high. Over."
"Eight SE from VID. Message received. Stand by." Lou Curnock, the VID duty officer replied. It was 0935.
History would note that Lou's log showed an entry at 0937 reading simply: Phoned R.A.A.F Operations 0937. (R.A.A.F stands for Royal Australian Air Force).
Protocol for Lou at Operations was to pass the message to Area Combined Headquarters, then the Navy, the Army and finally the air-raid-siren wardens.
But there were no sirens on this day.
Casuarina beach, 19th machine-gun battery
Radio exchange - Sergeant Bill McDonald to Captain Brown, 23rd Brigade HQ:
"Sir, there is a large formation of Japanese planes crossing the coastline right above my head."
"Mac, I'm busy, how do you know they're Japanese?" Captain Brown replied a little testily.
"Because they've got BLOODY GREAT RED SPOTS ON 'EM SIR!"
20 miles inland over the Mary River
After crossing the coast above the 19th machine-gun battery and flying 20 miles inland Fuchida's attack group performed a 180 degree turn to approach Darwin from the South-East, with the sun behind them - A classic back-door attack.
One of Japan's tactics of the day was to use a much larger force than was required to perform the task. It reduced the margin for error, boosted morale amongst the pilots and crews and struck fear into the enemy...The attack force approached confident that their attack would be a surprise and a success.
They were right.
Ten American P40 Kittyhawk fighters on escort duty
They took off from Darwin around 0915 to escort a convoy of ships to Timor. Due to very low cloud the escort was called off and the flight turned for Darwin, splitting into two flights on the way back, A and B flights one at high altitude and one at low.
At 0937, the same time Fuchida's attack force was flying inland, nine Zeros, fresh from downing a hapless Catalina flying boat, came across the P40's and attacked from above.
Lt. Robert Oestreicher was in command of the flight of P40's:
"I was able to get a small burst into one Zero who rolled in his climb and shot me. I spun out, regained control at 4,000 feet and climbed again to 12,000. That was when I encountered another eight enemy planes at 20,000 feet circling like hawks. I then called over the radio for the others to head for the clouds five miles south of Darwin which were at an altitude of 2,500 feet but no one responded."
Oestreicher was alone in the air, except for the Zeros which were in an attack frenzy. The rest of B-flight was dead or ditched into the ocean after a brutal dogfight that only took minutes.
Jack Peres, the first pilot to be killed in combat over Australia, crashed at Gunn Point. His plane was found many years later and the tail section showing his tail number 189 now sits in the Darwin Aviation Museum.
That was the first dogfight above Darwin, one in which the enemy reigned supreme. I have purposely shortened it as I may cover it a bit later but wanted to mention Lt. Robert Oestreicher and his P40 Kittyhawk called Miss Nadine. I may expand upon the dogfight and this pilot later on.
All the players were in place now, the Japanese attack force was preparing it's bombing run and the people of Darwin, unsuspecting of the attack, went about their day...
...Remember Duty Officer Lou Curnock at VID station? He received the radio communication from the Tiwi Islands...He was still at VID station receiving messages and he now logged the time as 0958. It was almost 10am and the bombing of Darwin was about to begin.
The day was 19th February 1942, the day Australia would be bombed for the first time.
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An original post written by a human
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