Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 22, 2009

An Awkward Truth (2009), by Peter Grose, read by Frances Greenslade

an-awkward-truthAn Awkward  Truth audiobookThis is not the kind of book I would normally read because I am just not very interested in books about war, but I’ve always been rather intrigued by the snide comments I’ve heard about the debacle in Darwin.  The author Peter Grose quotes one of these in his introduction to An Awkward Truth, The Bombing of Darwin February 1942 published by Allen and Unwin.  The quotation doesn’t seem like the kind of comment that ought to be made at a commemorative ceremony, and it fits ill with the Anzac tradition, not to mention the stirring scenes we saw in Baz Luhrmann’s Australia.  Yet this is what Paul Hasluck, Australian Minister for Territories said in 1955, and this scornful epithet to a tragic day is what most people believe about it:

“Speaking to the Northern Territory Legislative Council while unveiling a plaque commemorating the civilians killed by bombs in the Darwin Post Office. Hasluck described 19 February as ‘not an anniversary of national glory but one of national shame.  Australians ran away because they did not know what else to do.’ “  (pxi)

Grose’s book goes some way towards redressing this cursory impression of a disastrous day in Australia’s military history.  (The seven volume Official History of the Australian Army in WW2 offers only two pages of thousands about the attack on Darwin, presumably out of embarrassment.)  Grose admits there was ‘panic, incompetence, looting and desertion’ but there was also a ‘disciplined and dogged counter-attack from the Australian anti-aircraft gunners, and an exemplary display of heroism by a tiny handful of US Army Air Corps fighter pilots’ as well as heroism from the Australian rescuers who ‘braved burning oil, strafing aircraft and huge explosions from ships in Darwin harbour to pull their comrades to safety.’ (pxii)

How did this come about? Well, partly because Darwin was a frontier town, with hopeless administration and far from adequate defences.  When it copped the full brunt of a surprise Japanese airforce attack to rival Pearl Harbour there was no hope of any plausible defence.   It was common sense to get out of their way – and yet some did not.  The courage of those people should not be overlooked because others did not share it.

Even after the 1872 Overland Telegraph Line linked Darwin with the rest of the world, there was little law and order and no attempt at democratic government.  In 1911 the Federal Government took over administration of the territory because its failed economy had saddled South Australia with enormous debt, but apart from changing its name back from Palmerston to Darwin they did little.  At the time of the Darwin raids the town still had no phone connection to rest of Australia, and there was still no representative government.  In the time-honoured Aussie tradition of sidelining embarrassing politicians to positions they were unfit for, they appointed the loony right-wing Audrey Abbot as NT administrator who distinguished himself by managing to get almost everyone offside with his divisive personality.  It didn’t help that there was also a bunch of Bolshie unions who were very obstructive, (including during the war).

By the time it was 1939 and the European war was in full swing, there was still very little in the way of preparation in Darwin apart from some desultory first aid training attended by very few people.  Civil Defence was an unfunny joke, there were few shelters and there was a turf war over the legal powers of the ARP wardens to evacuate anybody.  They had a badly organised port and the town design clustered vulnerable buildings together, making defence impossible.  On top of that, they had almost no armaments worth speaking of, because there were hardly any to be had anywhere in Australia.

The bombing of Pearl Harbour on December 7th 1941 prodded authorities into evacuating the women and children, not out of any sense of chivalry (says Grose) but because they used up resources without contributing anything to defence.  (Foodstuffs all had to be brought in by road from the south, over dreadul roads that were impassable during The Wet).  Once these civilians left in a chaotic evacuation (p61) , Darwin was a military town, and its role as a sanctuary for Allied planes and ships meant that it became a target, although poor management and union interference hampered its role as a critical supply base for operations in the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia).

Grose has a somewhat sarcastic turn of phrase, and he’s quite scornful about analysts who write about the Japanese never having any intention of occupying Australia.  He acknowledges that it’s true, but claims that no one knew that at the time and that the prospect was closer than most people admit.  This strikes me as being a rather melodramatic proposition, generated by his somewhat dubious assertion that:

There is a noisy orthodoxy that says the Japanese never had any intention of invading Australia in 1941, 1942 or any other time.  Whoever proclaims this usually follows up with a paragraph of two mocking the large number of Australians, mostly of older generations, who are convinced a Japanese invasion was once imminent.’ (p63)

Well, of course, I don’t know what evidence there may be for this pervasive mockery, but in my experience younger Australians are inclined to listen to older generations talking about their wars with immoderate respect.  Even in the anti-war 70s, all kinds of dubious propositions about Australians in both World Wars were never challenged in polite company.  Today, in respectful silence,  nothing is said in response to claims that there were no gays in Australian armies, that Australians never committed any war crimes,  that there were no Australian desertions, that Australian women made a huge contribution to the war effort, that there were terrible deprivations on the home front and that Australian soldiers never raped anyone.  Those wars are quarantined from this type of scrutiny in a way that the Vietnam war was not.

It seems to me that Australians then were probably not much different to the way they are now.  Most are decent, honest, reasonable people -mostly interested in home, family and self-preservation.  They tend to be knowledgeable about things that interest them, and blissfully ignorant about things that don’t.  They mostly rise to the occasion when it’s needed and occasionally succumb to temptation when it’s placed in their way.  Neither saints nor sinners, they usually need an inspiring leader to get the best out of themselves.  I think most people around the world are like this, now and throughout history.  I think that most of our soldiers probably were brave and deserve our respect and gratitude, and because of that we acquiesce when Nana and Pa tell us that their heroic generation saved us from a Japanese invasion.

For Grose, however, to claim that no one at the time knew Japanese intentions regarding Australia  is bizarre. It’s true that the success and speed of the Japanese advance through Southeast Asia took everyone by surprise, but the strategists of the time must have realised that Japanese aggression was a response to being denied oil by the West, and that having taken the Javanese oilfields, the enemy had achieved its goal.  At that time Australia was still mostly an agrarian economy and oil was not discovered here till well after the war in 1953.  While the Japanese had every reason to destroy Allied armaments that could strike back at the Japanese assault, they could not spare troops for an invasion force and manage their new territories as well.  These former European colonies could barely feed themselves (malnutrition was rife throughout Indonesia, for example), land transport was primitive, there were no industrialised cities that could be used to manufacture additional armaments and there was little prospect of being able to conscript their new subjects to bolster occupation forces.  Geography and climate were against them too. For Japan, the challenge was to be able to keep their new possessions once the European war was over and the British, French, Dutch and Germans wanted their colonies back.

While most Australians were probably as ignorant of these strategic considerations as they would be now, I don’t believe that this is true of government or Allied Command.  They knew that the Japanese had over-reached their capabilities and they also knew (as the Japanese did) that the US had the capacity to re-arm rapidly after Pearl Harbour.  I think it suited government to engage an apathetic citizenry through fear of  invasion.  Australian loyalty to Britain had already sent troops to Europe, but they hadn’t flocked to the recruitment centres as they did in 1914.  Roosevelt had to promise the American electorate that there would be no US involvement in foreign wars to get re-elected in 1940,  because after the carnage of World War I there was widespread distaste for war.  Would Australians have signed up to liberate southeast Asian countries from the Japanese if they perceived there were no threat to themselves?

The strength of this book is that it clearly depicts how that apathy made our most vulnerable city even more vulnerable, but that Australia was pathetically defenceless anyway due to its small population.  Our huge land mass was an advantage in the sense that it made occupation unviable, but a disadvantage because it meant defence troops and equipment had to be spread too thinly, across a vast continent with inadequate road and rail.  Darwin, with its flotilla of Allied shipping in the harbour, was an irresistible target for the Japanese, and it’s no wonder they succeeded in destroying it.  They had a methodical attack plan, their flight path meant that inexperienced defenders were facing into the sun, and they outgunned and outclassed the hapless Allies.

Grose paints a riveting picture of events, such as the gallant efforts aboard the US Willy B, and courage and tenacity from the Katoomba, but there were less impressive efforts.

Of the three services, the RAAF emerges from the Darwin raid least well.  The Army gunners put up a spirited fight,  The ships of the US Navy and the Royal Australian Navy did their best with limited resources.  The RAAF had next to nothing to fight with, and it showed. (p110)

Not only that, most of them weren’t fighter pilots – they were maintenance men.

There were heroic efforts from rescuers.  ‘As the dive-bombers sank ships, the burning oil-smeared waters of Port Darwin filled with sailors forced to abandon their vessels and swim for it.  A makeshift armada of lifeboats, boom-net vessels, tugs and larger ships now set about rescuing them. (p119)  Grose tells a tale that demonstrates both the best and worst of it, in an anecdote about four soldiers – Phillip Herring, Vince Highland, Tommy Reynolds and Sam Langwich – who saw a crew from one of the stricken ships abandon a rowboat and flee . These four landlubbers, under fire from dive-bombers and fighters, used this small boat to rescue eight seamen from the Tulagi and the Port Mar.  Interestingly, in another anecdote about the heroic John Wilkshire and Don Bergin who drove into the danger zone to help, the author fails to name the ‘wharfie’ who volunteered to help get the wounded to hospital.  Just an oversight?  It’s a pity, because this disdain for unionists and his other caustic commentaries blemish the book as being perhaps not quite as objective as it might be.

The first attack lasted 42 minutes but there was more to come, and in the absence of any leadership, it was the second which devastated morale.  Grose lists the actions that were needed to sort out the confusion and destruction after the first raid so that a counter-attack could be mounted with the remaining planes and armaments.  He  acknowledges that it would have been a huge task, but that leadership may have made a difference:

Men and women are remarkably willing to brave dangers to help others, often displaying selfless and exemplary courage in the process.  But they need to be able to see clearly what to do, and they often need to be told to do it, and where to do it first….Darwin needed someone to step forward and take charge. (p138)

Conflicting accounts at the Royal Commission afterwards notwithstanding, it appears that there was a leadership vacuum.  There was a hasty scramble to evacuate, leaving no one to deal with salvage operations; and servicemen abandoned Darwin – some in confusion because of a muddle of orders and about 25% were deserters.  A drunk declared martial law and there was looting.  Merchant seamen refused to unload or move the remaining ships, and Darwin was in chaos.  The unpopular administrator, Abbott, had taken steps to secure his cellar, and money in the banks was sent off to Adelaide River so his priorities seem somewhat warped – but the charge that he deserted isn’t true.  He stayed put for 12 days, and on February 27th he also wrote an honest and purposeful report to the government, making the full implications of the disaster quite clear to them.  (p196)

Prior to this, however,  authorities in Australia found out what had happened piecemeal. The honours go to a quiet man called Lou Curnock who stayed at his post throughout the raids.  Between the first and second attacks, he sent a message in Morse Code to the Department of Civil Aviation in Melbourne : ‘Devastating air raid.  Staff and station intact’ (p172).   With the help of another brave man, Ted Betts, he managed to transmit a further warning for civil aircraft to keep out of the area, and he stayed on duty for two days straight, providing the only communications with the merchant navy still out at sea and with  the coastwatch.  After salvaging Morse Code equipment and cables from the ruins of the Post Office, engineers Harry Hawke and William Duke followed Curnock’s first message with a longer message to Adelaide, but the second raid cut the cable and they had to set it all up again out of town.  There was also a shore-based signal station, HMAS Coonawarra, which sent damage reports to the navy, and the good old ABC had a mobile recording unit which sent out the first news of the attack at 10.05am, seven minutes into the raid, advising that the town was under attack and that they were closing down.

And what was the War Cabinet’s response?  The great irony of this event is that on the very same day, the War Cabinet – in complete ignorance about what had happened in Darwin –  was in the middle of the row over Australian troops being brought back from the Middle East to defend Australia. Prime Minister Curtin, in hospital receiving treatment for exhaustion, was dealing with furious cables from Churchill and Roosevelt.  The War Advisory Council and the government wanted to bring the troops home, while the Opposition wanted them diverted to Burma as Churchill wanted.  When the facts gradually became known to the government, the number of fatalities was withheld for some time, partly because of confusion and partly because of misguided censorship.  There were fears about public alarm and concern about awkward questions being raised about the inadequacy of Australia’s defences.  This public ignorance about the Darwin raid had unforeseen effects…

The most likely consequence of a truthful account of the Darwin raid would have been a surge of national fury, followed by an angry determination to fight back.  The Australian government railed endlessly against public indifference to the war effort.  The full horror of the attack on Darwin was its best chance to jolt Australians out of their apathy.  Unwisely, it chose not to take it. (p187)

It is still not known exactly how many died, but Grose is confident that claims of 900 or 1100 are fanciful.  He says that a minimum of 297 deaths can be proved from the records, and that bodies exhumed and buried in the Adelaide River War Cemetery is the largest group of war graves in Australia.  It is unfortunate that even Grose even here manages to take a swipe at unionists, stating that ‘Some wharfies remained unaccounted for, but they are far more likely to have disappeared down the Adelaide River road than died on the wharf and drifted away on the harbour.’ (p191).  He also doesn’t make any mention of Aboriginal deaths, other than those in Abbott’s house, which seems a little remiss.

However many died, events in February 1942 were disastrous for Australia.  Singapore had fallen on 15th February with the loss of an entire Australian division and Churchill was refusing to allow our troops home to defend Australia, and four days later there was the Darwin raid.  The subsequent Lowe Commission came to the conclusion that lack of leadership and inadequate defences made things worse, and that Administrator Abbot and the RAAF Station Commander Sturt Griffith were most to blame.   So how did this day in Darwin come to be known as Australia’s day of shame?  Grose says that it is mostly due to the civilian exodus from Darwin, and this is unfair, because that’s what civilians do when bombs start falling.  They flee.  They failed to live up to newsreel images of stoic Londoners and their ANZAC inheritance.  They were judged harshly.  As were the looters, the general lack of discipline among the services and the unionists who failed to pitch in.  This is what people remember about the Darwin attack.

Which must be galling for the unsung heroes:

The doggedness of the Army and Navy gunners, the heroism of the Kittyhawk pilots, the selfless bravery of the harbour rescuers, the dutiful response of the disbanded ARP wardens, the parallel response of the hard-pressed police, all add up to something Australians can look on with pride.

To have risked your life to save others, and yet be branded cowardly by your countrymen, is a poor reward for selfless courage.

For all its minor faults, I’m glad I read this book and recommend it highly.

BTW I listened to most of this as an audiobook, but I also borrowed the print copy so that I could quote from it.

Update: Feb 20, 2012 6.48am  updated 7.14 am

An article, ‘Darwin 1942, Remembering Australia’s ‘Pearl Harbour’ by Duncan Kennedy from BBC Darwin at BBC News Magazine, cites me as ‘author and blogger’ implying indirectly that I am the author of ideas attributed to me.  These ideas derive from this review of Grose’s book.   I *am* an author, but of other books, not of any book about the Darwin bombing, only of this review of Grose’s book.  Please note that in reviewing An Awkward Truth I have summarised and discussed Grose’s work, and I do not take credit for any ideas which derive from his book.  I have contacted BBC Online and made a formal complaint, asking them to clarify this.

The BBC did not contact me at any time before the publication of their article.

Author: Peter Grose
Title: An Awkward Truth; the bombing of Darwin, February 1942
Publisher: Louis Braille Audio, 2009, first published in paperback by Allen & Unwin, 2009
Source: Casey-Cardinia Library

Fishpond: An Awkward Truth: The Bombing of Darwin, February 1942


  1. This has been nominated by my f2f group and like you the thought of reading a ‘war’ themed book left me cold. However I have just read your review and you have altered my perception completely and I look forward to being enlightened about a shameful and little known part of our history.
    Thank you!!


  2. I picked up this book in my local library because I like Australian history. I was fascinated by the details of the Darwin raids by the Japanese and hadn’t known that there were further raids on other towns round about. This particular event should be more widely known than it is because its important that the truth be known, and not the general idea of cowardice and looting that abounds.


  3. I agree, Vicki, I think we owe it to the heroes of this incident to set the matter straight.


  4. […] come across two books by Peter Grose, both of them myth-busters.  An Awkward Truth is the story of the Japanese raid on Darwin during World War II in 1942, and A Very Rude Awakening […]


  5. I read it and thought it was rubbish. Carries on about being more important than Pearl Harbour. That killed about 3000 people. Darwin about 250 died.


    • Hello Aussie Jack, welcome to chatting about books on ANZ LitLovers.
      It’s too long since I read the book for me to comment directly on what you say, because I don’t remember the author claiming that the bombing of Darwin was more important than Pearl Harbour. I myself am usually wary of claiming that one event is more important than another on the basis of how many people died: Jesus Christ was only one person but his death is considered highly significant to Christians, and most Americans probably think that the numbers killed in the Twin Towers are more significant than the much greater number of people killed in the Iraq war.
      I do think that Grose makes a compelling case for Darwin being more important *strategically* than it appeared at first glance.


  6. There has been no mention of the Warrnambool that was there at the time perhaps he needs to research more on this event. My dad was there in Darwin on the Warrnambool at the time and has photos to prove this of the involvement in the rescue of survivors on the Paray and Donisdro
    Sharyn Verdoorn 18th March 2011 contact email


    • Hello Sharon, thank you for taking the time to share this. Perhaps as a starting point your dad should get in touch with the Australian War Memorial to let them know about his photos, if he hasn’t already?


  7. […] which focussed on the stories behind the occasions when Australia came under attack on home soil: An Awkward Truth: The Bombing of Darwin and A Very Rude Awakening: The night the Japanese midget subs came to Sydney Harbour.  This new […]


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