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The Adelaide River Stakes is the name given to the mass exodus of people prior to and following the Japanese air-raid in Darwin on 19th February, 1942. Thanks mainly to an ill-informed statement by a former Governor General, Paul Hasluck, that it is a story full of shame for our national persona, but it is a myth.

The truth is that with much closer examination it was anything but a shameful episode in our most serious year of peril.

The propaganda disseminated by the government of the day was based on inadequate information, over-the-top censorship and a failure to take the population into its confidence. The faults lie with a succession of failed civilian and military administrations which, like the behaviour of most politicians, was a deliberate trail of cover-ups and refusal to admit fault.

This is a story that might seem to be long winded to focus on a single event in 1942 but in order to correct the imbalance that persists, even today, in the interests of completeness it is necessary to look back to the source of Japan’s belligerence in WW2. It is a long story that will appear in several episodes.

The genesis of this event began as far back as 1904. At that time Japan was at war with Russia. It coveted Russian territory sitting opposite Japan’s west coast. At the time Russia was a very vast country with no reliable land connection between Moscow and its far eastern provinces. Seaward connection was impossible for over 6 months of the year because the northern shores were ice-bound. The Russian fleet sailed from the Baltic Sea, around the Cape of Good Hope then on to Japanese waters. By that time the ships were fouled with barnacles and other marine growth that impeded their manoeuvrability. The fleet was wiped out by the Japanese navy in its home waters in 1905 and the war ended.

Japan, at that time had an impressive navy. When WW1 broke out it became one of the allies and achieved considerable success in pushing the German East Asiatic Squadron out of the Pacific. A Japanese cruiser was one of the escort vessels protecting the fleet taking the first Australian contingent to Egypt in 1915.

The Germans had a strong naval presence in the Pacific and Indian Oceans based at Tsingtao in northern China and had colonies in the Caroline Islands, Marshall Islands and The Marianas. It had also established radio stations at other Pacific Islands for controlling the East Asiatic fleet. The Japanese captured them all.

At the League of Nations conferences held following the end of WW1, The Western powers did not want Japan to become a dominant force in Asia as the colonial powers, predominantly Britain, France and Holland, did not want to risk losing their Asian colonies,. In the post-war division of spoils Japan was granted a mandate over these former German territories. That was a meagre return for the considerable contribution of the Japanese Navy when they were the ones that captured these territories in the first place.

The Washington Naval Treaty of 1922 and the London Naval Treaty of 1930 limited the strength of the Japanese Navy to 60% of that of the USA and Britain. Japan had requested 70%. Japanese foreign policy had been consistent throughout the start of the 20th century that there should be an Asian nation counted among the great powers of the world and nominated themselves as that nation. Nevertheless they signed the treaties and were rewarded by unlimited assistance from Britain in the design and construction of naval resources including the supply of plans and specifications.

The USA was not so generous.

During the 1930’s Japan conceived the idea of a Greater Asian Co-prosperity Sphere proposing that the Asian colonies of the European colonial powers and the USA should pass to Japan. This project was formally announced in 1940. The proposal was not greeted with any enthusiasm by the four colonial powers or Australia and New Zealand. Japan concluded that the League of Nations was a European club. She withdrew from the League and the two naval treaties and commenced a rapid construction program of warship and warplane building.

As the Japanese government became dominated by the military, there were substantial internal differences between the rival armed forces. The army decided that Russia was the logical enemy and planned accordingly. The navy considered the USA to be the logical enemy because of its powerful Pacific fleet so planning began with the army looking West and the navy looking East.

The naval strategy was based entirely on defence and fighting an attacker in home waters. Admiral Yamamato had been the Japanese Naval Attaché to Washington and was well informed, as he was impressed, by the industrial capacity of the USA. He recognised that Japan could not match US output in quantity so it concentrated on quality.

More speed, more arms and ability to fight in the stormy seas surrounding Japan.

The army was the first to move when it seized Manchuria in 1931 and set up a puppet government. Full scale war broke out in 1937. China’s area size and population was more than the Japanese army could hope to conquer so its aim was to overturn the Chiang Kai-Shek government and install another puppet government.

These military incursions alarmed the colonial powers and the USA which controlled The Philippines, Hawaii and several small Pacific islands. In January 1940 the USA cancelled its commercial treaty with Japan. In June it imposed sanctions on the export of aviation motor fuel and lubricants and No.1 heavy melting iron and steel scrap. It also increased support for China.

In retaliation, Japan signed a deal with Vichy France, a German ally, to station troops in French Indo-China, nowadays Vietnam. It did so in large quantity. In January, 1941 the Thais, seeing how easily Japan had pushed the French out of Vietnam, invaded and captured what us now Laos. Japan became a mediator between Thailand and Vichy France and expanded its deal to occupy northern French Indo-China. By July it had 120,000 troops stationed in what is now North Vietnam.

In a counter punch President Roosevelt froze all Japanese assets in July, closed the Panama Canal to Japanese shipping and extended the embargo by banning all supplies of oil to Japan. The USA had been Japan’s main source of petroleum products. Its alternative was to look to Borneo and the Dutch East Indies where there was abundant supply.

Soon after the embargo was imposed, American code breakers intercepted a cable from the Japanese Foreign Minister to his ambassador in America which said that “Commercial and economic relations between Japan and third countries led by England and the USA, are gradually becoming so horribly strained that we cannot endure it much longer. Consequently, our Empire, to save its very life, must take measures to secure the raw materials of the South Seas.”

In the 1930’s Japan had a group of clear headed military thinkers as good as anywhere in the world including Admirals Yamamato and Nagano (Chief of the Naval General Staff), both well aware of American industrial strength. They were ably supported by a group of younger officers led by Mitsuo Fuchida who eventually was to lead the attack on Pearl Harbour.

This group concluded that conventional naval strategy based on surface vessels had to be abandoned and replaced with aircraft launched from aircraft carriers. The division between army and navy increased when the army was intent on attacking Russia.

Yamamato was opposed to war because he believed that Japan could never defeat the USA in an extended war but the need for oil was paramount. Yamamato and Nagano disagreed on strategy. Nagano favoured a sudden conventional strike on the East Indies oil fields arguing that it would be all over before the US Pacific fleet could arrive on the scene. Yamamato favoured an air strike to put the US navy completely out of business.

Yamamato prevailed but was still opposed to war. He conceded that the only means of success was to mount a sudden knock-out blow against the US fleet at Pearl Harbour. Yamamato threatened to resign if his plan was not approved and on 3rd November, 1941 his plan was adopted and he was appointed to lead the carrier strike force for the raid on Pearl Harbour. The raid took place on 7th December, 1941. It was an obvious success in itself but failed to meet its objectives. Yamamato concluded that all they had done was to wake a sleeping giant and America entered WW2.

Simultaneously the army launched itself on the SE Asian mainland and secured the needed oil supplies.

The raid on Pearl Harbour failed to catch the US carrier force which was still at sea. It also failed to destroy the oil storage facilities that would have crippled any ability to send a pursuing force. The Japanese strategists knew that the obvious place for an American fight back to be based was Australia. It rapidly consumed the Dutch East Indies and the island of New Britain which was part of the PNG mandated territory awarded to Australia by the League of Nations.

On 10th December, 1941 the tactics conceived by Yamamato and Nagano were again proved correct when Japanese aircraft sank the British battleships Prince of Wales and Repulse off the coast of Malaya. At the same time Guam was captured from the Americans.

 

In Darwin various plans were triggered in a somewhat state of mild panic. An evacuation plan had been drawn up by Edgar Harrison, Permanent OIC of Air Raid precautions. The plan, as a first priority, was to evacuate all women and children followed by other non-essential civilians. Darwin at the time had a population of 6,000. It had no sewerage system and relied on sea transport for its supplies of just about everything. There was no rail link and no paved road surface connecting south. Sea transport was the sole means of supply of bulk material. Air transport was virtually non-existent for these purposes. Preparations were made on the basis of the town being cut off from supply rather than being invaded.

At the outbreak of WW2 Darwin had nearly 100 years of chequered history. It was first mapped by Lieut. John Stokes, a friend of Charles Darwin, who named the place in his honour. Europeans began settling in 1869 and objected to the name of a man who inferred that we were all descended from monkeys so it was changed to Palmerston, a former British prime minister. In the 1850’s an overland and undersea cable was laid from London to Java. Competition arose between the Australian colonies to have the cable extended to Australia and South Australia was the winner.

At that time the Northern Territory was part of South Australia. In 1862 John McDouall Stuart made the north/south crossing from Adelaide. The next step was to connect Java to Palmerston then on to Adelaide. 36,000 poles later the line was finished and Australia was connected to the world. Gold was discovered at Pine Creek and hundreds of Chinese workers who had been brought to work on the telegraph line left for the diggings. At one time the Chinese at Pine Creek outnumbered Europeans by 15 to 1. The telegraph attracted more settlers and station owners from the South and Queensland. They expanded their holdings by setting up in the Northern Territory. Pearling became an established industry and at the outbreak of WW1, the English company Vestey built a giant meat works at   Darwin. The port became a major distribution centre for meat and minerals.

Film circ 1946

In the 1890’s, the general belief was that white men could not do hard manual work in the tropics. 3,000 Chinese indentured workers were brought in to construct a railway from Darwin to Pine Creek. At the time there were only 400 Europeans in the entire top end. During the wet season the Chinese workers went gold digging. The successful ones set up businesses and remained there for evermore. Many Japanese pearl divers and lugger crews arrived followed then by Greeks and Italians. Darwin was a very multi-cultural place dominated by non-Europeans and especially non-British people.

In 1910 the public debt of the Northern Territory was at 4 million pounds and became a strain on the South Australian budget. In 1911 ownership passed to the Commonwealth. The rationale was that unless development proceeded and the population increased another nation might step in and fill the gap. It was a national defence measure that drove the transfer. On 18th March, 1911 the Governor General reinstated the name Darwin. The territory was ruled by an Administrator appointed by the Minister for Territories. It was administered as a colony of Canberra the local population having no elected representative. Alice Springs wanted their own separate administrator. Instead they were given a “District Officer”. In 1930 Darwin briefly had a town council. It was a failure and control reverted to the Administrator. The locals resented the fact that they had two taxing authorities but no parliamentary representative, a situation which did not change until 1947.

Raising the flag in Darwin on 2 January 1911 when the Commonwealth formally took over the Northern Territory.

The administrator at the time of the Japanese raid was Aubrey Abbott, appointed by the Menzies government in March, 1937. Abbott had a distinguished career in WW1. In 1925 he was an active member of the Country Party and was elected to parliament for the seat of Gwydir. In 1928 he became minister for Home Affairs then lost the seat in the 1929 elections. With the onset of the depression he became an organiser for The New Guard, a far right wing para-military group. This role ended in 1931 when he was re-elected to parliament and remained there until his appointment as Administrator. In this role he was addressed as “His Honour”.

Abbott was a very unpopular appointment. He had no rapport with those under him, held the common working class people in contempt, was an incompetent administrator and attempted to curry favour with the pastoralists and landowners. The findings of the Lowe Royal Commission held shortly after the Japanese raid found him to be the one most responsible for the chaos and disorganisation that followed. He was highly self-opinionated and was inflicted with the common civil servant complaint of inertia.

In addition to the administrator, there were three other forces present with independent authority; the army, navy and the air force. As well as that there was another powerful force at work; the militant left-wing North Australia Workers Union (NAWU) which controlled the workforce and owned the only newspaper in the town. Four months after his arrival, Abbott organised a group of civil servants as strike-breakers to intervene in an industrial dispute on the wharves. He lost and became the permanent enemy of the unions.

AERIAL PHOTO OF DARWIN c1930s - photo Jill Kinang

When WW2 broke out the citizens of Darwin could see that they were a potential front line but the war was so far away that they did not believe there was ever a likelihood of being directly involved. The Red Cross attempted to arouse public awareness by arranging lectures in first-aid, home nursing, air raid precautions etc but barely anybody turned up and they were discontinued.

In June, 1940, the Government Secretary appointed the Chief Surveyor, Arthur Miller, as Chief Air Raid Warden. Miller set about trying to raise a volunteer civil defence force to construct air raid shelters. In August he abandoned the plan due to a lack of volunteers. The only project achieved was at the workman’s camp at the RAAF aerodrome. In 1941 when Japan appeared to be likely to enter the war on the axis side Abbott asked Miller to revive the ARP organisation. He did so with more success. A formal agenda was drawn up, the three military services worked in conjunction with the ARP and Miller took on the job as Permanent Officer-in-charge of the ARP as a full time occupation. By September however apathy took over and 10 days before Japan declared war a well advertised meeting was called but only two people turned up.

On 3rd October, 1941 John Curtin replaced Bob Menzies as Prime Minister. His minister for Labour and National Service was Eddie Ward, a firebrand long standing supporter of the union movement. Ward tried to talk the unions into a more co-operative frame of mind to no avail. Militancy reigned supreme regardless of the risks of the war and strikes continued all over the country. In Darwin the situation was far worse than elsewhere to the point where the troops and the community at large regarded the wharfies as saboteurs. Darwin was a disunited town in every respect. It had a mixed population, was cut off from the rest of the country, had no elected government and the Administrator was held in mutual contempt by all sides.

When the Philippines fell a number of American ships made their way to Darwin thus increasing further the strains on the local economy and facilities. On 5th December Edgar Harrison handed a plan for evacuation to the Darwin Defence Coordination Committee comprised of the three service heads and the Administrator. The plan was accepted. Three days later Japan entered the war. Abbott did nothing to execute the evacuation plan.

On 11th December an air raid siren was accidentally set off resulting in a mild panic. The following day the four senior air raid wardens demanded that Abbott exercise his powers to declare a State of Emergency and commence the evacuation orders. Abbott refused stating that such a declaration would be bad for morale and cause panic. Curtin then stepped in and made the order to evacuate.

The Adelaide River Stakes is the name given to the mass exodus of people prior to and following the Japanese air-raid in Darwin on 19th February, 1942. Thanks mainly to an ill-informed statement by a former Governor General, Paul Hasluck, that it is a story full of shame for our national persona, but it is a myth.

The truth is that with much closer examination it was anything but a shameful episode in our most serious year of peril. The propaganda disseminated by the government of the day was based on inadequate information, over-the-top censorship and a failure to take the population into its confidence.

The faults lie with a succession of failed civilian and military administrations which, like the behaviour of most politicians, was a deliberate trail of cover-ups and refusal to admit fault.

In Darwin various plans were triggered in a somewhat state of mild panic. An evacuation plan had been drawn up by Edgar Harrison, Permanent OIC of Air Raid precautions. The plan, as a first priority, was to evacuate all women and children followed by other non-essential civilians. Darwin at the time had a population of 6,000. It had no sewerage system and relied on sea transport for its supplies of just about everything. There was no rail link and no paved road surface connecting south. Sea transport was the sole means of supply of bulk material. Air transport was virtually non-existent for these purposes. Preparations were made on the basis of the town being cut off from supply rather than being invaded.

When the Philippines fell a number of American ships made their way to Darwin thus increasing further the strains on the local economy and facilities. On 5th December Edgar Harrison handed the plan for evacuation to the Darwin Defence Coordination Committee comprised of the three service heads and the Administrator. The plan was accepted. Three days later Japan entered the war. Abbott did nothing to execute the evacuation plan.

On 11th December an air raid siren was accidentally set off resulting in a mild panic. The following day the four senior air raid wardens demanded that Abbott exercise his powers to declare a State of Emergency and commence the evacuation orders. Abbott refused stating that such a declaration would be bad for morale and cause panic. Curtin then stepped in and made the order to evacuate.

The purpose of this series is not to present a description of what happened before, during and after the 19th February, 1942. It is to refute the slur cast upon the Australian people by someone who would be expected to leap to our defence come what may. Perhaps Hasluck was the first of the woke brigade.

The myth created by Paul Hasluck was not that there was no evacuation but that it was a mad stampede which he described as a “day of national shame”.

Paul Hasluck had a distinguished but thoroughly useless career, first as an academic at the University of WA followed by a stint as a public servant then as an elected member of parliament where he served as a minister in the Menzies government. He was an unsuccessful contender for leadership of the Liberal Party and Prime Ministership claiming that he only nominated to prevent Billy McMahon being elected unopposed.

When John Gorton became PM he did not want a potential contender serving in his ranks so he promoted him to Governor General, a useless position for which Hasluck was well qualified with his public servant background and suffering from the bureaucratic disease of inertia.

On 25th March, 1955, while Minster for Territories, Hasluck unveiled a plaque in memory of those who died at the Darwin post office during the first Japanese raid. In his speech he referred to the “panic evacuation” after the bombing and to 19th February as “the anniversary of a day of national shame”.

photograph: Georgina Bliss

Hasluck was not present in Darwin on 19th February, 1942 but Mr. F. W. Drysdale, MLC was. He has stated that he saw no evidence of panic that could not have been avoided if the military and civil authorities had done anything about performing their directive activities. Hasluck had many critics and the Darwin N. T. News editorial stated that “this was not an occasion for the political butchering of a piece of dead history.”

Another correspondent, Mr. J. A. McDonald wrote to the editor of the N. T. News accusing Hasluck of “eating our salt, drinking our beer and insulting his hosts by declaring that this was our day of shame. He agreed that there had been an exodus but it was lead “by departmental heads and their satellites”.

There are very few comprehensive first hand records of what happened on 19th February largely because of government censorship and that there were not many civilians left in the town. One of the few, and the one I consider the most, possibly only one, is that of Douglas Lockwood, a very highly regarded lead writer for the Melbourne Herald. He was there, and his book Australia Under Attack, published in 2005 is the most authoritative record of what happened. That includes the report of the Royal Commission which is a collection of evidence taken 6 weeks after the event from only those who remained and were available. Lockwood challenges some of the conclusions reached by the RC as patently wrong.

 

Women and children being evacuated from Darwin by ship on December 1, 1941

It is interesting to note that Lockwood wrote to Paul Hasluck, then Minister of Defence in 1964 seeking permission for access to the transcript of evidence taken on oath by the RC. Hasluck refused permission stating that many service witnesses had been assured of secrecy.

This is pertinent because the most direct and damning criticism of the RC was directed at the Air Force and the Army. The RAAF, in particular, came in for much criticism as its members were ordered by their CO to “take to the bush”, and they did. The Army, on the other hand, led by the Provost Corps, remained and was the leading element in the looting of abandoned houses. The few civilians who remained in town after the raid were forced to arm themselves to protect their homes and possessions from marauding soldiers, mainly military police, intent on helping themselves to whatever they could get their hands on.

The chief protagonist was Sergeant MacArthur Onslow of the Provost Corps. A known drunkard and bully, he marched into the civilian police station on the day after the raid brandishing a revolver and stated that Darwin was now under martial law and that the four civil policemen “.will now take orders from us.”

The civil police, who knew no better, believed him and under MacArthur Onslow’s instructions proceeded to order the remaining civilians to get out of Darwin. The looting started soon after. The military police split to town into sections and allocated them to specific groups who had exclusive access to whatever they could steal.

Excerpt from Chips Rafferty movie " The Overlander " Not only people were evacuated, but cattle as well. 

Captain Bernard Coleman who controlled the Provost Corps told the RC that he was powerless to stop what was going on

The first orderly evacuation was organised by Chief ARP Warden Miller who scheduled 822 people on the basis of need to be taken south on the army supply ship Zealandia due to depart on 14th December. Administrator Abbott rescinded this plan and substituted an allocation based on addresses rather than need. When this was eventually sorted out the first group of evacuees left on 19th December, 1941 on board the Koolinda, a coastal cargo and passenger ship, followed by another 530 on the Zealandia the next day.

As fortune played out, an American liner, President Grant had escaped from Manila and took another 222 to Brisbane on 23rd December.

 

The MV Koolinda

Although the departures of these civilians was orderly the arrangements in getting them on board were chaotic thanks to the ineptitude of Administrator Abbott. He interfered with what the wardens were arranging and devoted most of his time arguing about who had authority to do what. At government House he employed four policemen to pack and load the government china and silverware which he sent on to Alice Springs by car with his wife. He determined that orders prepared by the ARP Warden and Permanent Civil Defence Officer had no authority because a national Emergency had not been declared. In brief, he did nothing positive himself but prevented others from taking charge and doing their duties.

At a public meeting on 7th January, 1942 a unanimous motion was passed that the Administrator be sacked. He was not but had he been there was no immediate replacement available. It was an established fact that the Administration did not have powers to order an evacuation, this could only occur if and when the federal government proclaimed a State of Emergency. In that respect Abbott was technically correct but nevertheless the Administration proceeded to delude the population into believing that it did have statutory power to order their removal and a steady orderly flow of volunteer evacuees ended with 1,900 women and children being evacuated in the period from mid-December to 1st February, 1942. A further 300 left in the following 18 days on returning aircraft ferrying wharf labourers from Queensland. The population at that stage was reduced to about 2,000.

 Following the raids on 19th February, the last orderly evacuation took place when the Army laid on a train which would take them to Larrimah and then by road to Alice Springs. The train was laid on for women, children and elderly people. Younger men who tried to force their way on board were subdued when two soldiers, armed with sub-machine guns, were brought in to support the Chief Air Raid Warden. A second train was being organised for later the same night but this effort was abandoned when drunk, armed and out of control provosts prevented any men from boarding.

 

Darwin Post Office before the Bombing

The disorganised stampede began on December 11th when a soldier threw a brick through a shop window and set off an air raid alarm. Provosts and civilian police acting under the provosts orders began ordering people to evacuate by whatever means they could but were not allowed to use civilian cars. Following the air raid this reached a crescendo of vehicles of all and any kind heading for Adelaide River. There are several conflicting accounts of what happened but the RC concluded that the mass evacuation was no different to the behaviour of citizens in European countries faced with an invading force and that there was no panic. Douglas Lockwood disagrees with the RC on that point and its interpretation of the evidence.

However, what fault may lie at the feet of the civilians does not justify the remarks of Hasluck in 1955. Any accusation of national shame should be reserved for absconding soldiers and particularly the RAAF, the members of which fled in clear panic as soon as the second raid ended.

The RAAF personnel were mainly service personnel, not air crew or base defence staff. Without any logical basis they were ordered to “take to the bush”, about a mile away, where they were to re-assemble and be fed. Admittedly the RAAF base had been heavily bombed and the hospital was overloaded with injured airmen and evacuees from the Dutch East Indies. Thankfully the bedridden occupants had been moved into trenches dug in preparation for such an emergency and were saved.

Darwin Post Office after the bombing

The RAAF came in for most of the criticism of the Lowe RC, particularly the senior commanders for their failure to maintain good order and discipline. The senior RAAF officer at the time was Group Captain F.R.Scherger who later became Air Chief Marshall and the most senior of all RAAF officers. In light of the degree of panic and the seriousness of the chaos that prevailed, Scherger got off very lightly from the RC.

The principal target for blame from the RC was the base commander, Wing Commander Griffith, for his failure to maintain good order and discipline among his men, his failure of leadership and the desertion of his base by his men.

Even today in 2023, it is difficult to be adamant about pointing any finger of blame due to the conflicting evidence before the RC, some of which was contradictory evidence from the same witnesses, and as Lockwood has pointed out, the flawed interpretation of the evidence of Mr. Justice Lowe. Compounding these flaws is the ironclad secrecy imposed by the then federal government which is still in place today.

Next in line is the Provost Corps of the Army. Their behaviour was consistent with the reputation held by all who have served in the army that they are the dregs of the service. Major General Blake was the subject of criticism from the RC and the failings of his troops and the Provost Corps in particular.

Finally, The mass panic and chaos displayed by the base staff of the RAAF who should have set an example to the remaining civilians and the failure of their senior officers.

 

There are many tales of great bravery and sacrifice by individuals from all walks on the day of the raid but it is totally baseless to accuse the civilian population of acts of national shame. Such accusations should start with the first Menzies government and the retention of Abbott as Administrator with the powers that he was given and failed to use.

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