The Darwin Military Museum & Defence of Darwin Experience – Northern Territory, Australia
On 19 February 1942, Japanese aircraft bombed Darwin in Australia’s Northern Territory. It was the first direct attack on Australian soil. At least 243 civilians and service personnel were killed, and it was the first of over 60 bombing raids on the frontier town between February 1942 and November 1943. Darwin’s proximity to Southeast Asia made it a strategically important location for the war in the Pacific and at its peak in 1943, there were over 110,000 servicemen and women based in the town and surrounding areas.
The strategic value of Darwin was recognised as early as 1892 when military planners perceived a threat from Japan. In 1911 Field Marshall Kitchener had recommended that two batteries of 6-inch guns be situated at the east and west points of the harbour entrance although this was not acted upon. In 1919 as part of Admiral Jellicoe’s plan for the defence of the Pacific a recommendation was made to establish a Far Eastern Fleet in Singapore with a secondary bases in Australia including Darwin. However, with the development of the ‘Singapore Strategy’ in 1923, Darwin’s role as a major naval base was removed and instead it was to be a naval refuelling facility protected by four 6-inch guns.
In 1932, Australian Army troops arrived to construct the fortifications and garrison accommodation and by 1936, four 6-inch guns, two each at East point and Emery Point, magazines, command posts and searchlight stations had been installed. In 1944 the 6-inch guns were replaced by 9.2-inch guns, but apart from firing test rounds in March 1945, not a shot was fired in anger and after the war, the guns were sold as scrap to the Fujita Salvage Company.
The battery emplacements at East Point are now the home to the Darwin Military Museum and co-located Defence of Darwin Experience. Originally established in 1965 by the Royal Australian Artillery Association (NT) Inc to showcase Darwin’s history during WWII, the museum has expanded to include exhibits from all Australia’s conflicts from the Boer War to the present day.
6-inch Naval Gun. This gun was originally on HMAS Brisbane and was subsequently deployed to East Point to form part of Darwin’s coastal defence. After the war the guns were manned by the local militia unit, 121 Medium Coast Battery and remained in service until 30 June 1960, when the battery was disbanded. During its operational life, this gun was situated on the cliff some 300m to the right of the museum. Photo: Julian Tennant
3.7 inch Anti-Aircraft gun. 3.7 inch guns were employed extensively around Darwin during WW2. A battery of these guns were sited on the old Darwin Oval and were the first guns to engage the attacking Japanese on 19 February 1942, firing around 800 rounds in the first raid from 0958 to 1020 hrs. Photo: Julian Tennant
Armoury room at the Darwin Military Museum. Photo: Julian Tennant
Badges, gasmask and 50 cal machine gun in one of the older displays at the Darwin Military Museum. Photo: Julian Tennant
The exhibition spaces have spread beyond the original museum which was situated in the command post bunker and are a mixture of indoor, covered outdoor and open air displays. Being in the tropics, this is presenting obvious preservation issues for some of the exhibits, particularly some of the paper and textile items that are not housed in sealed climate controlled environments.
Naturally, emphasis is given to the Northern Territory’s role in Australia’s military history, past and present and there are some very interesting exhibits. of particular interest to me were the displays related to the little known 2/1st North Australia Observation Unit (NAOU), nicknamed the “Nackeroos” or “Curtin’s Cowboys” which had been raised by an anthropologist, Major William Stanner. The unit was tasked with patrolling northern Australia looking for signs of enemy activity, patrolling in small groups on horseback and maintaining coastwatching outposts. As the threat of Japanese invasion passed, the unit was reduced in strength and disbanded in 1945. The concept was resurrected in 1981 with the formation of the North-West Mobile Force (NORFORCE), which is based in Darwin and one of three Regional Force Surveillance Units employed in surveillance and reconnaissance of remote Northern Australia.
Early NORFORCE uniform. Note the felt unit colour patch on the slouch hat and the privately purchased basic parachutist badge on jungle green backing. Photo: Julian Tennant
A slightly battered NORFORCE Slouch Hat on display at the Darwin Military Museum. Photo: Julian Tennant
2/1st North Australia Observer Unit (the ‘Nackeroos’) WWII parade uniform. Photo: Julian Tennant
NORFORCE stable belt detail. Photo: Julian Tennant
The Australia Under Arms Gallery, which highlights a mixture of conflicts. Photo: Julian Tennant
WW1 Australian Infantryman display in the Australians Under Arms gallery. Photo: Julian Tennant
EOD display in the Australians Under Arms gallery. Photo: Julian Tennant
Korean War infantryman wearing a mixture of Allied apparel, as was common, as the combined nations sought to find the best equipment to battle the extreme conditions. This soldier wears a British steel helmet, a US issue cold weather field jacket, Australian battledress trousers with US leggings and 1937 pattern Australian webbing. Photo: Julian Tennant
Vietnam War display area at the Darwin Military Museum. Photo: Julian Tennant
Viet Cong uniform and equipment display in the Vietnam War section of the Darwin Military Museum. Photo: Julian Tennant
Australian infantryman in the Vietnam War display room of the Darwin Military Museum. Photo: Julian Tennant
Five cent Military Payment Certificate (MPC) currency note and Christmas card. Photo: Julian Tennant
Vietnamese communist flag on display in the Vietnam War section of the museum. No provenance is provided for this particular item and I have reservations about its authenticity as I was able to buy an identical flag (detail and stitching), which was sold to me as a copy, at the Dan Sinh Markets in Ho Chi Minh City for US$20. Photo: Julian Tennant
North Vietnamese Army shirt. The insignia indicates that it belonged to a member of the Dac Công, which was the Special Forces unit of the PAVN. Photo: Julian Tennant
Vietnam War medals of Royal Australian Navy sailor Graham Pattle. The medal on the left appears to be the Vietnam Medal (reverse) but the ribbon is incorrect for the award. In the background are some Vietnam Zippo lighters. However I have reservations about the authenticity of these lighters ( which are one of my collecting areas) and unfortunately no details regarding their provenance is provided. Photo: Julian Tennant
Australian Army Aviation Corps display in the Vietnam War section. Unfortunately this is another mistake on the part of the museum as the badge being worn is that of the 1st Aviation Regiment and was only instituted in 2013-14, long after the end of the Vietnam War. The soldier should be wearing the AAAVn badge on a black backing. Photo: Julian Tennant
Royal Australian Navy aviator in flying suit. Note the distinctive ‘Northern Territory’ patch. Photo: Julian Tennant
WWII US Army Air Force navigator’s uniform from the 5th Air Force. USAAF. Photo: Julian Tennant
WWII US uniform representing a pilot from the 5th Air Force. USAAF. Photo: Julian Tennant
However, as a collector and researcher there are also some disappointments. My interests are quite focused, and my knowledge reflects those limitations but some of the mistakes in the exhibits are glaringly obvious to even somebody with a more general interest in Australian militaria. These include presenting contemporary uniforms and insignia in displays that are described as being from earlier conflicts and including reproduction items as originals without identifying them as copies. Whilst these omissions may escape the notice of the general viewing public, they do undermine the integrity of the museum and the accuracy of its representation, which is unfortunate if its role is to preserve history and educate.
WWII German items on display, although the authenticity of the helmet is questionable. Photo: Julian Tennant
Described as a WW2 US Marine Corps fatigue/field cap, this is in reality a fantasy /fake piece. The Marine Corps actually wore the early short brimmed Army HBT cap in olive drab until the latter part of the war when they introduced the P44 caps for the marines. Futhermore, the camo in WW2 was printed on the same army HBT material for both Army and Marine Corps. This cap has the repeating chevron throughout which, I have been informed, is a sign of the reproduction camo material. Photo: Julian Tennant
Described as WW2 US Marine Corps. This display features a reproduction uniform (identified by the cut and stitiching) plus contemporary K-Bar scabbard embossed with the EGA insignia. Several US collectors have also questioned the authenticity of the belt and magazine pouches used in this display. Whilst it is understandable that museums sometimes include reproductions in their dispays, it undermines the integrity of the institution when they are not identified as such. Photo: Julian Tennant
French Foreign Legion uniform representing a legionnaire of the 4e Régiment Étranger, 4e RE. This is the training regiment of the French Foreign Legion and has been stationed at Quatier Capitaine Danjou in Castelnaudary, France, since May 1986. I am not sure why this is on display at the Darwin Military Museum, but here it is. Photo: Julian Tennant
Americans in the Top End display commemorating the close relationship between the US military and the Northern Territory since WWII. In the foreground is a plotting table from the command post of the two 9.2 inch guns that were located at East Point. Photo: Julian Tennant
Australian made Austen submachine gun. Photo: Julian Tennant
The Defence of Darwin Experience galleries. Photo: Julian Tennant
Japanese auxiliary fuel drop tank from a Mitsubishi A6M2 Zero fighter dropped in the Darwin area during an air raid during WW2. Photo: Julian Tennant
One of the newer areas of the museum, which is done very well, is the co-located Defence of Darwin Experience. This is presented as a stand-alone attraction in a lot of the tourist orientated promotional material but is really just a new section of the museum which was added in 2012 and included in the one admission fee. This section tells the story of Darwin’s role in World War II through a combination of objects, firsthand accounts and multimedia presentations. Naturally there is an emphasis on the bombing of Darwin and unlike in some of other sections of the museum, the provenance of the artifacts is well documented presenting an engaging insight to the war in the top end by connecting the objects to the participants and their experiences.
Overall, I found the Darwin Military Museum to be a mixed bag, sometimes disappointing due to the inclusion of fakes or reproductions that were not identified as such, obvious curatorial errors and the effects that poor display conditions are having on some of the objects. But the exhibits also include some very engaging personal stories and unusual artifacts that are not often found in the public domain. I spent half a day examining the exhibits, jumping back and forth between the various exhibition areas. Visiting the museum resulted in a much better understanding Darwin’s history during the war and when complimented by the ABC’s Bombing of Darwin Podtour, I was able to develop a much more informed exploration of the military related sites in the area.
The Darwin Military Museum LOT 5434 Alec Fong Lim Dr East Point, Darwin, NT 0820 Australia
Entry Fees: Adults: Au$20 Children aged 5 – 15: Au$10 Children under 5: Free Seniors (65+): Au$10 for Northern Territory residents, interstate and international visitors, Au$15 Family pass(2 ADULTS, 3 CHILDREN U16): Au$45.00 University/TAFE students: Au$10.00 Disability carers: Au$12.00 Serving Military Personnel: Au$15
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