January 2019

The last quarter of 2018 was largely taken up with settling in after we moved apartments in September, and by the after effects of knee replacement surgery in late November.  Fortunately, recovery from the operation was well-enough advanced five weeks later to enable us to join extended family in Darwin for Christmas—even allowing for the wet season being recognised as the worst time of year to be playing tourist up north!  Our visit also offered the welcome prospect of catching up again with good friends Bob Watt (the grandson of the subject of my 2016 book The high life of Oswald Watt) and his wife Alison.

Bombing of Darwin 1942

Although heat and high humidity provided great incentives to avoid going out anywhere during the daytime, we were genuinely glad to have had the opportunity to visit the Royal Flying Doctor Service tourist facility on Stokes Hill Wharf on Darwin Harbour—and not solely because it has air conditioning!  Opened in a pristine modern building in 2016, the facility provides visitors with historical tributes not only to the RFDS but also the first Japanese bombing raids inflicted upon northern Australia on 19 February 1942.  The latter is so appropriate because the Stokes Hill wharf was one of the primary targets of the two raids that day.

The technology used for the museum’s dual displays is truly impressive and engaging.  Visitors get to view well-crafted and informative halographic presentations on both the RFDS and the bombing raids; stand on a viewing platform around a video floor to take in a birdseye view of the Japanese attack unfolding over the harbour below (with sound and other special effects used to enhance the experience), at the same time as ground-level imagery of the attack is projected onto a glass window opposite; and don special headsets to experience an immersive virtual reality program that leaves the viewer feeling they are actually there as the attack develops around them.


My particular interest in the first Darwin air raids (there were more than 60 over the subsequent 21 months) was initially sparked by once reading that Air Vice-Marshal Richards Williams, former chief of Australia’s air force, happened to be in town when the Japanese attack occurred.  Having arrived only the night before on a flying boat from London, where he had been heading the RAAF’s Overseas Headquarters, Williams was actually standing outside the Darwin Hotel on the esplanade waiting for a car to collect him at 10.00 am to take him out to the RAAF base at Winnellie, where a landplane would be waiting to take him to Townsville.

As Williams recounted in his 1977 autobiography, These are Facts (p.289), he had only just begun his vigil for his car when he noticed men from an anti-aircraft battery located across the road from the hotel running towards their guns.  No air raid siren had sounded, so he assumed they were about to carry out some drill.  He reached into his luggage for an 8mm movie camera that he was carrying, hoping to get some pictures.  It was then that his attention was drawn to the large formation of aircraft overhead, approaching from the south at about 15,000 feet, and he saw the ‘glint of the sun on bombs as they fell away from the aircraft.’  Williams wrote: ‘I exposed some film in an endeavour to photograph the attacking aircraft but … the result is [emphasis added] not very clear.’

Williams’ narrative continued: ‘It was about this time that the air raid warning sounded and I turned my camera on to the anti-aircraft guns in the hope of getting a picture of the first shot fired in the defence of Australia.’  Unfortunately the gun crews took so long that Williams thought he would run out of film, but eventually he got his shot.  When single-seater fighters began strafing the battery with machine-guns, he took cover in a concrete gutter near the hotel, which was not attacked.  Later he took a taxi to the RAAF station and joined the base commander in checking for damage sustained in the attack.  While there, the airbase became the main focus of attack by a second wave of Japanese aircraft, and Williams was obliged to again take shelter in the nearest slit trench he could find.

It is not widely known that the officer described in later decades as the “Father” of the RAAF had actually experienced the devastating first attacks on Darwin, and I have often wondered what became of his film footage of this pivotal moment in Australian history.  If the film survived, it would have been quite a coup to have some of its frames incorporated into the displays of the city’s newest must-visit museum.

Centenary of England-to-Australia air race 1919

The other wonderful opportunity that came our way while visiting Darwin was the chance to view reminders of the historic flight by the Smith brothers (Ross and Keith) from England to Australia in 1919.  When the Smiths’ converted Vickers Vimy bomber touched down at Darwin on 10 December (when the town of about 2000 people was also in the grip of the wet season!), they and the two mechanics who had kept the aircraft in the air qualified for a £10,000 prize posted by the Australian government for the first Australians to achieve this feat.  A century later, preparations are in hand to commemorate the Smiths’ epic achievement with a variety of special events later in 2019.


Visitors these days will have no trouble finding the memorial cairn along the East Point Road at Fannie Bay, opposite the junction with Ross Smith Avenue, which commemorates the Smith brothers’ remarkable 27-day flight from Hounslow in west London.  Although close to where their feat concluded, it is however not immediately apparent that the old Parap airstrip actually lay some distance away, behind where the old Fannie Bay gaol still stands.  Few people (Darwin residents included) realise that there is even a separate marker commemorating the exact point where the Vickers Vimy touched down—located further east still, in a vacant block along Giles Street.  We only found it because Bob Watt was on hand to show us what was even for him a relatively recent discovery.


As a former RAAF Historian, I was perhaps more impressed with the subsidiary pioneering effort by two military pilots from Point Cook, outside Melbourne, who undertook the first transcontinental flight across Australia in support of the Smith brothers’ expected arrival.  Because no established route then existed to bring air travellers from Darwin to the then national capital at Melbourne, Captain Henry Wrigley and Sergeant Arthur Murphy were dispatched in a small two-seater BE2E training machine to survey an inland route to Darwin through western New South Wales and Queensland.  Their equally epic flight also took 27 days, and concluded two days after the Vimy’s arrival.  Hopefully the commemorations later this year will not overlook the significance of Wrigley and Murphy’s achievement.

Wrigley’s BE2E (right) parked alongside the Smith brothers’ Vickers Vimy at Darwin, Dec 1919.

Perhaps the last word on the magnitude of the Smith brothers’ achievement in 1919 can be found in the saga that unfolded the following year, when attempts were made to emulate it with a trail-blazing flight from London to Cape Town, South Africa.  This time it was the London Times newspaper which sponsored the competition with a £10,000 prize for whichever pilot first achieved the goal.  The attempt was made by two South African aviators with First World War experience, including Lieutenant Colonel H. A. (“Pierre”) van Ryneveld who would become famous as the “Father” of the South African Air Force (matching “Dickie” Williams’ later status in the RAAF).

Ryneveld and his co-pilot took off in February 1920, also in a converted Vickers Vimy.  After they crashed their machine in Egypt the RAF at Heliopolis ‘loaned’ them another Vimy, which they duly crashed at Bulawayo in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), forcing them to borrow an Airco DH9 single-engine ex-bomber to eventually complete the flight.  Although disqualified as winners of the Times’ prize, the South African government nonetheless promptly awarded the two flyers £5000 apiece—and knighted them both to match the recognition accorded to the Smith brothers.

Interestingly, van Ryneveld also featured in the Oswald Watt story, because it was his flight of the Royal Flying Corps’ No 17 Squadron at Suez that Watt’s flight of No 1 Squadron, Australian Flying Corps, was sent from Heliopolis to replace in June 1916.