Story & Photography - Peter Scott

It is the gateway to Asia, the capital of the Northern Territory and some say, the last of our frontier towns. This is Darwin, a city with a colourful and eventful history where there is little remaining of the early days of settlement in Australia’s north, due largely to two significant and relatively recent events - the World War II bombings by the Japanese and the destructive force of Cyclone Tracey which destroyed most of the city in 1974.

A poignant and significant reminder of one of those events is a large plaque on a stone memorial near Government House which commemorates the 292 lives lost on 19 February 1942 when the city came under attack from Japanese bombers. Other reminders of the cyclone and its dramatic damage can been easily seen - the modern city scape is just one reminder of a town which was very much, prior to 1974, an architectural reminder of colonial days.

Since the days of those two dramatic events, Darwin has been rebuilt and is today, a modern and thriving tropical city. On the 70th anniversary of the bombing of Darwin by the Japanese carrier fleet, the same fleet which devastated Pearl Harbour and brought America into the war, it is timely that we focus on Australia’s northern capital.

While much of Darwin’s history is relatively short when compared to other Australian capital cities such as Sydney, Melbourne and even Brisbane, it is perhaps the most tumultuous and significant in terms of its place in connecting Australia to the rest of the world.

It was the opening of the Overland Telegraph in 1872 which linked Australia to the rest of the world and cemented Darwin’s strategic importance to Australia, as a nation. In the Government Precinct of today’s modern and well designed Darwin city, the site of the first telegraph pole has been preserved.

Across the road from Government House is a statue commemorating the laying of the cable from Java (now Indonesia) to Darwin and the first message sent by telegraph from London to Australia.

 In fact, at the time, Darwin had been a settlement for just three years and really was an outpost of colonial South Australia. Earlier attempts to colonise northern Australia at Victoria River by a detachment of the New South Wales Corps had ended in failure less than a year after the camp was first established. Isolation was the main cause. Other attempts at settlement at Raffles Bay and Fort Dundas had also failed.

Officialdom in the new colonies were patently aware of the importance of having a strategic outpost in northern Australia so,  a new settlement called Palmerston, after the then Prime Minister of Great Britain, was established on the site of present day Darwin City in February 1869 by George Goyder, Surveyor-General of the Colony of South Australia. His orders from the South Australian colonial administration were to establish a settlement to facilitate pastoral expansion in the north.

Darwin Harbour or Port Darwin as it was originally known, was first discovered by Lieutenant John Lort Stokes and named by Captain J. C. Wickham in 1839 when HMS Beagle sailed  the northern coastline of Australia. Some 30 years later, Captain William Douglas chose the site for the Government Residence in 1870 and the township of Palmerston began to take shape around the harbour. Darwin was known as Palmerston until 1911 when the city reverted to Darwin when the federal Government took control of the Northern Territory from South Australia. Interestingly, the name Palmerston was not lost to history as in 1982, in response to the growing shortage of residential lands in Darwin, a new satellite city called Palmerston was developed, south of Darwin.

The site of Palmerston was selected as the land was adjacent to existing transportation and service corridors. Acquisition of the site by the Crown occurred in 1973, so that an orderly expansion of the Darwin area could be accompanied by a Government backed program of land development. The decision to proceed with the development of Palmerston was made in 1980, just six years after the devastation of Cyclone Tracey razed the city.

However the real story of the development of Darwin began because of the need to link Australia with the rest of the world, via the Overland Telegraph to the southern states of Australia. In November 1871, the 1100 nautical mile submarine cable between Darwin and Banjoewangie in Java was laid. This in turn was connected through Batavia (now Jakarta), Singapore, Europe and London.

During the construction of the Overland Telegraph Line between Port Augusta and Darwin from 1870 to 1872, line workers uncovered some alluvial gold near Pine Creek, 200 kilometres south of Darwin.

The influx of miners and machinery passing through Palmerston led to the establishment of a railway to Pine Creek which was officially opened in September 1889. Although the line was extended further south to Larrimah, it was finally closed in 1976.

Darwin, until 2004, remained relatively isolated from the rest of Australia and none more so than during the war years. Although a rail line from Port Augusta to Alice Springs had been completed in 1928, it was to be another 76 years before the Great Northern Railway as it was called when construction first commenced at Port Augusta in 1878, would eventually link Darwin with Alice Springs and the southern states.

In 2004, the terminus for the Ghan and northern bound freight trains was completed some 15 kilometres south of Darwin, near the satellite city of Palmerston.

The sheer distances between Darwin and the southern capitals meant that a unique culture developed in this frontier town and many Territorians, even today, maintain that distinct culture - a culture bred more of isolation than neglect. However the city does have its own significant problems. Darwin has the highest crime rate in Australia, real estate prices are the most expensive in the country and more than 400 people, mostly indigenous, live on the streets and in the parks of Darwin.

However, despite its social issues and its cosmopolitan population with a kaleidoscope of eclectic cultures which a strong Asian influence, it is a strategic city for Australia. It is the headquarters of the powerful NORFORCE, Australia’s front line defence force. In addition, HMAS Coonawarra, the Darwin Navy Base is home to 10 of Australia’s Armidale Class patrol boats, emphasising its importance in Australia’s defence strategy.

The modern city of Darwin is built around its magnificent deep water harbour. The harbour is a modern port facility and is important for the much maligned live cattle export trade with nearby Indonesia and as a commercial fishing port. Darwin Harbour is three times the size of Sydney Harbour and during the war years, a massive 5.2 kilometre boom net (the longest in the world) stretched across the mouth of Darwin Harbour to protect the port city from submarine intrusions and attack.

While much of the city was rebuilt after Cyclone Tracey flattened the colonial city in 1974, there remains strong evidence of the war years. Along the cliff face of Darwin’s modern waterfront with its superb wave pool, can be seen evidence of the 14 oil tunnels used to store valuable fuel away from possible air attacks. There are many air raid shelters and storage bunkers located around the city and its parklands, particularly in Charles Darwin National park where there are several storage bunkers with relics of the war years. Their contents have remained sealed for more than 70 years and represent a snapshot in time. Defence Force officials believe many more remain undiscovered and have been lost in time. Darwin, during those tumultuous years of the Second World War, had 25 known air raid shelters and many have also been lost over time.

Aviation played a significant role in Darwin's early history. Ross and Keith Smith landed here to achieve the first flight from England to Australia in 1919. Early planes struggled with the distance from Europe so Darwin became a vital stopover airport.

It was however the dramatic Japanese air attack in 1942 which shocked the nation. At 0958 hours on 19 February 1942, a strike force of 188 carrier-borne Japanese aircraft dropped the first bombs on Darwin, killing 243 people, including 49 civilians and wounding 300-400 more. That first air raid destroyed many public buildings, including the post office (where 9 people perished after a direct hit on the bomb shelter). Eight allied ships were sunk in Darwin Harbour and 24 allied aircraft were destroyed. A second enemy air raid at noon that day targeted the Darwin RAAF base.

Between February 1942 and October 1943, the Japanese launched more than 60 air raids over Darwin. It is a little known point in history that the Japanese carrier fleet dropped more bombs on Darwin than Pearl harbour. Today, there are still10 World War II wrecks in the harbour.

The bombing of Darwin by Japanese forces has had a lasting effect on Darwin, both in the destruction caused and the massive build up of the area by allied forces. At the beginning of World War II Darwin only had a population of around 2000 people and was extremely isolated with a small airport, unsealed roads to the rest of Australia and little infrastructure. Darwin was totally unprepared for the arrival of the war and as such, suffered considerable damage from subsequent air raids.


To aid the war effort, the road to Alice Springs was upgraded and sealed, large military airports were built at Darwin and Batchelor, Manton Dam was built to secure water supplies, recreation areas were built at Berry Springs and Howard Springs and sheds, wharves and other structures were built. Whilst the war caused considerable damage, it was also a factor in the sudden development of the northern outpost.

After the war years, Darwin’s future seemed assured. Its strategic importance had been recognised and its close proximity to Asia emphasised it ongoing importance to the country’s defence and northern export markets.

However, it was to be the powerful force of nature that was to forever change the face of Australia’s northern City. At 3.00am on Christmas Day, Darwin was flattened by one of the most ferocious cyclones ever to hit mainland Australia.

There was little left standing and a massive reconstruction program followed. With the city totally devastated, the decision was taken to evacuate Darwin which put into play, the largest airlift of people in the country’s history. Cyclone Tracy had killed 66 people and injured thousands more - the largest loss of life in a single event since the bombings of Darwin in the 1940s. Many of those who died or were injured were struck by flying debris. Others perished in ships sunk in the harbour.

More than 30,000 of the city's then 43,000 people were evacuated to cities and towns all over Australia, immediately after the cyclone had passed. Brigadier Alan Stretton and Brisbane’s long serving and visionary Lord Mayor Clem Jones were tasked with the responsibility of rebuilding Darwin into a cyclone proof northern city. This massive post-cyclone rebuilding program gradually turned Darwin into the most modern capital city in the nation although much was done to preserve what remained of the city’s historical buildings. A fine example of such preservation is the Christ Church Anglican Cathedral, destroyed in the cyclone, it was rebuilt behind its surviving frontage. The Northern Territory Administrator’s Office was also heavily damaged in the cyclone. The wind force was so extreme that it blew the mortar from between the bricks in the building walls. Other buildings of some infamy which survived the impact of the cyclone included the Fanny Bay Goal, a cruel reminder of an outdated justice system. Today it is a museum to the Territory’s colonial justice system.

As a lasting legacy of the Cyclone Tracey, the Northern Territory capital is now a shining example of modern architectural styling in a tropical environment. The Government Precinct, the site of the old Palmerston Town Hall sits quaintly beside the modern Northern Territory Parliament House, built on the site of the old post office which was destroyed in the first air attack on the city in 1942.

The Territory’s Government House commands superb views over the expansive harbour and the entire Civic Square and State Square opposite are amongst the city’s most popular tourist attractions.

Darwin has  survived its tumultuous modern history and is now a city largely dependent upon its role in tourism, defence and mining. The development of the Ranger Uranium Mine has provided the Arnhem Highway and the town of Jabiru, in turn opening up Kakadu National Park and tourism on a large scale.

In recent years major upgrades to Australian Defence Force strength in Darwin, Palmerston and Katherine have made a major impact on the city. The discovery of oil and natural gas in the Timor Sea in 1983 by BHP Petroleum provided considerable momentum. Darwin’s importance as a defence centre cannot be underestimated. Darwin airport has the longest runway in Australia and the airport was the diversionary landing strip for the American Space Shuttle program. The city’s airport is actually located in the middle of the city.

Darwin is a city like no other - there are no traffic jams here and its diverse culture is a major attraction. It has fine restaurants, pubs with a touch of nostalgia where the real Territorian spirit can still be experienced and unique events such as the Mindil Sunset Markets offer an insight into past, present and future Darwin. The city has superb sporting facilities, magnificent botanical gardens, Australia’s most cyclone proof marina in Cullen Bay Marina and a wonderfully laid back lifestyle, albeit the cost of living here is high compared to southern capitals.

Tourism is the city’s biggest industry and the Territory’s well promoted advertising campaign, ‘You’ll never never know if you never never go’ brings thousands of people to this northern city each year for a glimpse of Australia’s unique natural heritage including Arnhem land, Kakadu and Litchfield National Parks and Ayres Rock.

However, despite its modern facade, Darwin remains as Australia’s last frontier town, for better or for worse. As we celebrate and commemorate the 70th anniversary of the bombing of our northern capital, it is well to remember that Darwin is closer to Asia than it is to Canberra and that sense of isolation will forever remain in our last northern outpost.