Around 10am on February 19, 1942, in the Darwin Post Office, telegraph supervisor, Archibald Halls, was testing a connection to Adelaide when he interrupted himself: “The Japs have found us and their bombs are falling like hailstones,” he tapped out in Morse code. “I’m getting out of here. See you
Halls sheltered with eight others, including the Postmaster Hurtle Bald and his family, in an air-raid trench dug into the backyard of the post office. They took a direct hit from a 500-pound bomb, smashing a crater the size of a bus. No-one survived.
It was the first of almost 100 raids by Japanese bombers on mainland Australia. The combined death
toll on that day was more than 240 people, perhaps as many as 300.
Australia’s communications link with the world, an overland telegraph that met an undersea cable, had run through the post office and was severed in the strike. With Japanese planes still buzzing in the sky, three men emerged from their shelters to reconnect the line. The rest of Australia needed to know the threat. In less than an hour, they had jury-rigged a connection and tapped out a message that the first ever wartime attack had occurred on Australian soil.
Brett Bowden, Professor of History and Politics in the School of Humanities & Communication Arts at Western Sydney University, detailed the bombing and the heroic acts that saw Australia’s communications restored, in his book, Direct Hit: The Bombing of Darwin Post Office.
Need to know
- The Darwin Post Office was bombed in 1942
- It was the first ever wartime attack on Australian soil
- Brett Bowden is the first to examine aspects of the incident
It was the first time the story of the post office had been told. Bowden dug out never-seen archives, comprising thousands of pages of first-hand accounts to piece the details together.
Bowden was inspired when he stumbled across a personal connection with Postmaster Hurtle Bald. He hailed from the same town as Bald and he couldn’t put aside the thought that this important part of Australian history was missing the recognition it deserved.
“People will go and walk the Kokoda Trail in remembrance and they’ll visit the Gallipoli Peninsula
on Anzac Day, but very few bother to go to the north of Australia to see what happened in 1942,” Bowden says. The popular history book was a change of pace from his usual, more academic work. Bowden says he found a great deal of satisfaction in telling the story. “I am still getting emails or letters, old-fashioned handwritten letters, from people who are grateful to me for telling this story.”
He says that it’s important, particularly with the recent rise of the far-right, that Australia knows its own history, “Having a good understanding of history means that hopefully we don’t make the same mistakes again.”
Meet the Academic | Professor Brett Bowden
Brett Bowden is Professor of History and Politics in the School of Humanities & Communication Arts at Western Sydney University. He is a multi-award-winning author and has previously held appointments at the University of Queensland, the Australian National University, and the University of New South Wales at the Australian Defence Force Academy. He has held visiting positions in the Centre for the Study of Democracy at the University of Westminster in London, and in the Centre for Interdisciplinary Research at Bielefeld University in Germany. He is an elected Fellow of the Royal Historical Society (UK) and an elected Fellow of the Royal Society of New South Wales. He is a recipient of a Distinguished Alumni Award from Flinders University.
Higher Degree Research at Western
Future-Makers is published for Western Sydney University by Nature Research Custom Media, part of Springer Nature.