Books & Literature

Book Review: Australia Under Attack: The Bombing of Darwin 1942, by Douglas Lockwood

HISTORY: To this day, Australia Under Attack remains the most reliable and accurate account of the Darwin bombings on 19 February 1942.

An accurate but dull account of the Japanese attack on Darwin.
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Douglas Lockwood was a newspaper reporter, editor and author for his entire working life, joining his father’s newspaper West Wimmera Mail at the tender age of 12. He was working for the Melbourne Herald in Darwin when the Japanese attacked in February 1942 and he enlisted in the AIF in June of that year.

The attack on Darwin should not have been a surprise to Australian authorities. Since the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Japan’s military forces had captured Hong Kong, Malaya and only four days earlier, Singapore had fallen. Reconnaissance flights had also been seen flying over on previous days and there had even been early warnings of massed Japanese planes radioed in by observers on Bathurst and Melville islands. But even these were not reacted to with urgency.

In the initial attack, bombing and strafing continued for almost three quarters of an hour sinking eight of the 47 ships in Darwin Harbour and totally overwhelming the few anti-aircraft guns. All ten US Air Force planes were destroyed. A second wave attacked the RAAF station located further inland. The number killed was estimate to be around 250 and included members of all the armed service – both Australian and US – merchant seamen, civilians, both black and white, ranging from a teenager to a grandfather.

Lockwood describes how the details of the damage and death were minimised for the sake of morale but nonetheless, stories of the panic and disorder following the air raids, including desertions and looting, were much exaggerated. The Lowe Royal Commission report published in 1945 provided a more balanced response, as did the original version of this book published in 1966 as Australia’s Pearl Harbour.

As an author – spurred on by the desire for accuracy – Lockwood spent many years tracing and interviewing people involved in all sides and aspects of the Japanese attack on Darwin. The book includes information and commentary from both attackers and defenders, providing valuable insight into their mindsets and plans. For ease of reading, the book is divided into sections which present a particular viewpoint – such as that of the Japanese attackers – rather than a strict chronological narrative.

While this has its benefits as it provides in-depth analysis from a range of viewpoints, it also has a tendency to become dull when one reads several views of the same event. This is somewhat surprising from an experienced journalist such as Lockwood as I expected a far more ‘readable’ account. Given this was the first attack on an Australian city by a foreign power – clearly a momentous and historic occasion – I was disappointed by the author’s accurate but tedious narrative.

Reviewed by Jan Kershaw

Distributed by: New Holland Publishers
Re-released: March 2020
RRP: $26.99

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