How Darwin was betrayed

The man who knew: Richard Williams in 1916 as Commander No. 1 Squadron, Australian Flying Corps. Photo: AWM A04556

“The planes came in from the south-east, and I looked up and they appeared to me like a cemetery, the white underbellies … coming across the blue sky. We fired and were terribly disappointed because the shells fell behind and below the planes. The fuses were powder fuses, which they found out later didn’t last long in the tropics. It was a big shemozzle the whole lot of it. The communications between the air force, the Americans, the army and the navy was non-existent.”

Anti-aircraft gunner, Darwin.

ON THE morning of February 19, 1942, Air Vice-Marshal Richard Williams finished a leisurely breakfast at the elegant, colonial-style Hotel Darwin on the town’s Esplanade. The 52-year-old former Royal Australian Air Force chief was on the last leg of a journey from his posting in London home to Melbourne.

A few minutes before 10am, as he waited for the local RAAF commander to join him on the hotel’s palm-fringed lawns, Williams reached for his 8-millimetre cine camera to record the scene: a bright blue sky, an anti-aircraft gun emplacement across the road – waiting for an attack that everyone in Darwin knew was imminent. As he did, waves of high-flying Japanese bombers appeared overhead, releasing bombs that glinted silver in the sunlight as they fell. Williams dived for cover in a concrete gutter, and it was from that dusty vantage point that he witnessed an attack he had foreseen for so long.

Exactly what went through the former RAAF chief’s mind as the raiders went about their deadly business, picking off targets at will, one can only guess. Williams was the RAAF’s pre-war commander who had drawn up detailed plans to realise a national air defence capability – plans that had been ignored.

More than 30 years would pass before the stoic, deeply loyal public servant shared his views publicly on what had occurred under Australia’s northern skies that day. ”No steps had been taken to form even one fighter squadron … we had nothing with which to effectively oppose them,” were his perfunctory comments in his pointedly titled 1977 autobiography, These are facts.

The bombing of Darwin by Japan on February 19, 1942, killed at least 274 people and injured hundreds more (famously, more bombs were dropped than on Pearl Harbour). Until now the narrative has largely been one of courageous improvised defence – acts of heroism in a battle against overwhelming odds – counterpointed by a breakdown in military discipline that led to some servicemen going AWOL immediately after the raid.

Less well documented, however, was the catastrophic failure of public policy that left Australia so vulnerable to attack 70 years ago – a failure, argues historian Dr Peter Ewer, stemming largely from Australia’s slavish adherence to Britain’s imperial defence strategy, and the refusal of successive pre-war governments to heed the advice of their most expert military adviser.

Ewer has spent 12 years uncovering how Williams’ advice was ignored, and the prescient air chief eventually sent into exile, undoing plans that would have given Darwin a fighting chance. ”There’s a lot of populist drum-beating about Darwin … but there are deep questions of public policy that have not been explored in the years since the event,” he says. ”And we have been diverted from the most important issue of all: the cause of the most significant national defence failure Australia has ever experienced.”

Ewer’s contention of a catastrophic failure of government is shared by others, including senior military figures and analysts. The bombing of Darwin ”was a situation in which Australia should never have been placed”, says Air Marshal George Jones, who took on Williams’ role as RAAF chief later in 1942, ”and I have always felt that those responsible were never properly called to account for it”.

In his book Wounded Eagle – The bombing of Darwin and Australia’s air defence scandal, Ewer argues that the virtually unopposed attack on Darwin was the result of a series of ill-judged political decisions that left Australia effectively undefended in the opening phase of the Pacific war. He maintains that historians since have been reluctant to delve into the topic, revealing an enduring aversion to grappling with a painful truth. ”Given the descriptive interest in the bombing of Darwin, I find truly amazing the absence of a debate about why Australia was so unable to defend itself,” he says.

The level of disarray is made clear through the testimony of those on the ground that day.

RAAF Sergeant Lionel King was 18 years old when he sheltered in a slit trench at the RAAF base as the bombers struck. ”We were up there with virtually no defences,” King related 65 years later. ”I know it’s an embarrassment to the government at the time … this is why they imposed strict censorship. When you hear that the anti-aircraft gunners were using World War I ammunition, army regiments had five rounds per rifle. We as an air force unit had nothing, not a rifle. Darwin was caught completely unprepared.”

Central to Ewer’s thinking is a need to re-appraise the career of the ”father of the RAAF”, Richard Williams, who forecast the air attack that devastated Darwin 16 years before it took place. How Williams was undermined, depriving Australia of its most prescient defence planner, is key, says Ewer, to understanding what did and didn’t happen in Darwin in 1942.

BORN in 1890, in South Australia, Williams was the son of a copper miner whose family had migrated from Cornwall. His military career began at 19 when he enlisted in the South Australian Infantry Regiment before joining the army.

In 1914, he became the first graduate pilot of Australia’s inaugural military flying course at Point Cook in Victoria. Two years later, as commander of No. 1 Squadron Australian Flying Corps, he was deployed to support the allied advance on Palestine.

His actions in the Middle East are the stuff of legend. Awarded the DSO for gallantry, the young aviator’s duties included providing air support for Lawrence of Arabia’s irregular forces fighting the Turks.

”Williams’ work in Palestine is little known, but he was a world-leading pioneer of air power, and he understood how to apply engineering and technical solutions to the tactical problems he faced,” says Ewer.

With the formation of the RAAF after WWI, the young wing commander was appointed its first chief of air staff in 1921. Four years later he drafted a paper titled ”Memorandum regarding the air defence of Australia”, which became a blueprint for the RAAF’s structure as an independent service.

From the outset, however, Williams was on a collision course with key political leaders. Rather than integrate the RAAF into Britain’s imperial defence system, he took as his starting point the need to secure mainland Australia, identifying a force structure needed to fulfil the role – 30 squadrons with 324 aircraft. The advice was ignored by successive governments who allocated the lion’s share of spending on the navy, in line with imperial defence agendas.

In September 1926, Williams began a remarkable voyage. He climbed into the seat of a fragile De Havilland biplane on the Point Cook runway where he had learnt to fly, and began a 16,000-kilometre round trip to New Guinea and the Solomon Islands. He wanted to see for himself the topography of the islands and sea routes that would be crucial in defending Australia in a future war. The voyage, made two years before Charles Kingsford Smith first flew across the Pacific, would inform his thinking on Australia’s defence for the rest of his life.

By contrast, as the war with Japan drew closer, Stanley Bruce’s Nationalist government, and then James Scullin’s Labor administration, looked for comfort to ”Fortress Singapore” – the cornerstone of Britain’s imperial defence for Australia. By the 1930s, the Singapore Strategy, based on the notion of British naval power, reigned supreme, despite its many dissenters in the Australian military, including Williams.

Dr Alan Stephens, official historian for the RAAF, supports Ewer’s contention that the politicians of the day got it wrong. ”I blame the politicians and the fact that we were focused on naval defence. In the inter-war years we put something like two-thirds of our defence spending into the navy. When war started in the Pacific, the navy was of very little use to us.

”It was obvious in the 15 years before the war that the way to stop a potential invader was by air power. We simply didn’t give priority to that aspect of our defences, and we should have.”

Stephens notes that Williams was ”a prickly, puritanical kind of person, which a lot of people found annoying, and he made a lot of enemies over the years. He was highly intelligent, extraordinarily demanding, and he stood up for his beliefs against great opposition.”

What made Williams unique, Ewer says, was his ability to combine strategic vision with detailed technical awareness. In 1933, Williams visited Britain to find an aircraft with an amphibious capability that could meet the RAAF’s needs for maritime reconnaissance. He found it in a plane for which the Royal Air Force showed a distinct lack of interest – a single-engine amphibian known as the Seagull. Williams set about modifying the design and contracted 24 production examples. Within months, the RAF had ordered 168 of the modified planes and renamed it the Walrus. It would go on to play an important role in both air forces.

Three years later, an aircraft developed far from the aviation industries of Australia’s ”mother country” would prove the most controversial procurement under Williams’ leadership. In early 1936, to the astonishment of British defence planners and their Australian acolytes, the RAAF recommended Australia’s newly formed Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation (CAC) build an American-designed aircraft to be known in Australia as the Wirraway.

Immediately the Australian government faced British objections, most of which rested on the alleged harm it would do to equipment standardisation between the RAF and RAAF.

”The Wirraway was an outstanding example of pioneering technology transfer between the United States and Australia,” says Ewer, but he adds that Williams’ insistence on promoting the national interest above Australia’s traditional ties with Britain created ”huge political tensions”.

The Wirraway would eventually go into production at CAC’s Fishermans Bend factory in Melbourne, but the political backlash would eventually bring down Williams and set back by years Australia’s ability to build combat aircraft suitable for its own defence. ”His commitment to an independent national interest eventually was too much for empire loyalists in the Australian government to take,” says Ewer, ”and there’s no doubt that they set out to discredit him.”

In late 1937, Archdale Parkhill, defence minister in the Lyons government, lost his seat at the general election and with it Williams lost his political protector. Immersed in procurement plans, Williams’ attention was increasingly being diverted by a growing political crisis over the accident rate in the RAAF. In February 1936, an RAAF plane at an air show in Tasmania had killed two civilians. A year later, a cross-country flight by the RAAF was blighted by five accidents, in one of which a pilot died. Though investigations of these and other cases confirmed either pilot error or technical failure as the likely cause – and the crash rate was no worse than the RAF’s – Williams’ political enemies saw an opportunity.

In April 1938, under fire from the Labor opposition which used the accident rate to attack the Lyons administration’s defence credentials, the government announced that former RAF chief Air Marshal Sir Edward Ellington would be invited to ”inspect” the Australian air force and ”report on its preparedness”. Ellington’s private secretary later vouched that his boss, who had risen through the RAF as an administrator and who had no operational experience, ”knew little about aviation”. Williams would later share his conviction that the instigator of the Ellington review was the Lyons government’s treasurer, Richard Casey.

The same year, Williams produced what would be his final assessment (as RAAF chief) of Australian air defence needs. He specified three possible passages a Japanese naval fleet made up of aircraft carriers would take to carry out an attack – a direct attack on Darwin was one. To counter the threat, Williams proposed the establishment of land-based aircraft at the vital northern port and went on to craft design specifications for a more powerful, armed version of the Wirraway to do the job. Again his plans would not be acted upon.

On January 16, 1939, the government released a statement accepting the recommendations of the Ellington report, which criticised the RAAF’s accident rate, discipline and training. The announcement added that the RAAF’s chief of staff ”could not be absolved from these criticisms”. Williams learnt of the judgment when reading the newspaper the next morning. “This was the government’s method of communicating with me,” he would later write tersely. The same day the Australian Defence Ministry told him that, having accepted the report, it was, ”politically expedient for the government to send you to England at the present time”. Exiled on attachment to the RAF in Britain, Williams left the stage.

Meanwhile, the Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation that had so raised the hackles of the British was deliberately sidelined and the Australian government poured its manufacturing resources into building a British-designed bomber – the Beaufort – under the terms of a deal with Britain.

At the outbreak of war in Europe, Air Vice-Marshal Charles Burnett – a British officer in semi-retirement who had been Williams’ junior commander in Palestine – was appointed his successor. Burnett’s advice to the government was that there was ”a continuous lessening of the probability of an attack on Australian territory by Japan, and therefore the possibility of carrier-borne aircraft operating against this country is remote”.

In April 1940, on Burnett’s recommendation, the Australian war cabinet cancelled Williams’ plans for a national fighter defence force. ”Burnett was the most disastrous figure in the history of the RAAF,” says Ewer, ”and his ineptitude cost lives at Darwin.”

Burnett’s technical incompetence was certainly notable. After Williams’ axing, the RAAF received a full briefing on the new technology of radar. Two complete radar sets were delivered to Australia. The first, which arrived in September 1940, was sent to Sydney University as a research curiosity, because ”no practical use” could be found for it. The defenders of Darwin 18 months later received no effective warning before the bombs fell.

In December 1941, two weeks after the Pacific war began with Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbour, the first combat aircraft to be designed and built in Australia first appeared, not in the skies but on the drawing board. It was all much too late. The Boomerang, a protege of the Wirraway, would not see operational service until 1943.

Under Burnett’s watch, the RAAF concentrated on the newly introduced Empire Air Training Scheme to train Australian pilots to resource the RAF in Europe. ”To do so, Burnett cleaved the RAAF in two,” says Ewer. ”As a result, after two years of war, the RAAF faced its greatest trial with no fighter aircraft, no heavy bombers and no radar equipment.”

The subsequent royal commission failed to look into the policy decisions that had led to the lack of defence, concentrating rather on the breakdown in military order. Justice Charles Lowe’s report concentrated on the lack of co-ordination between civilian and military authorities, the delay in warnings on the day itself, and the lack of leadership in the panic that followed.

”It was over and done within six weeks, and as soon as the Curtin government received the report, cabinet ordered that it be suppressed,” Ewer says. ”Look at the extent of the official American reflection on Pearl Harbour. There was a congressional inquiry still issuing reports in 1945 for public record. It was still being investigated. The comparison couldn’t be any more extreme.”

Williams was to spend most of the war overseas. After secondment to the RAF, he headed the RAAF’s office in London before a posting to Washington. At war’s end he was forcibly retired and appointed Australia’s director-general of aviation. He was knighted the year before his retirement in 1955. Sir Richard Williams, KBE, CB, DSO, died aged 89 in Melbourne on February 7, 1980, and was given a full air force funeral.

His autobiography gives the only glimpse of his frustration at his treatment at the hands of his political masters. ”There were times when I believed I was being treated inequitably,” he wrote with typical understatement, ”… not by my own ministers but by prime ministers, both Liberal and Labor …

”I wondered what had been gained by my graduation at the army and the RAF staff colleges as well as the Imperial Defence College – or indeed by obtaining a first-hand knowledge of this continent and its adjacent islands. For neither Liberal nor Labor government sought training, knowledge or experience of this sort in those appointed [RAAF] chief of staff during the war.”

Historian Alan Stephens believes that if Williams had been backed, the course of history could have been very different. ”If he’d been given full political support, by early 1942 we could have had a strong anti-maritime air force that would have made an attack by Japan totally unfeasible.”

In 2005, Williams’ Australian Flying Corps wings were carried into space on the space shuttle Discovery by Australian-born astronaut Dr Andy Thomas. Four years later, the Sir Richard Williams Foundation was launched to strengthen Australia’s national security by ”advocating the need for forward-looking policies which take full advantage of the potential for air power to shape and influence regional security”.

”These are worthy tributes to the best military strategist Australia has ever had,” Ewer says, ”but an even better one would be for us to inquire into the lack of national self-confidence that blighted our pre-war defence planning and which contributed to the awful trauma of Darwin.”

Michael Sweet is a Melbourne-based freelance journalist.

Dr Peter Ewer is the author of Wounded Eagle – The bombing of Darwin and Australia’s air defence scandal (New Holland) and Storm over Kokoda (Pier 9).

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