The Darwin Military Museum & Defence of Darwin Experience – Northern Territory, Australia


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Keith Swain: ‘Japanese air attacks on Darwin Harbour, 19th February 1942.’ Swain’s painting depicts the Japanese air raid on Darwin on 19 February 1942. Japanese aircraft fly overhead, while the focus of the painting is the Royal Australian Navy corvette HMAS Katoomba, in dry dock, fighting off the aerial attacks. Of the 13 ships in the harbour at the time of the attack, 9 were sunk. Australian War Memorial Accession Number: ART28075

 

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.  

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Parade at a 6-inch gun emplacement, East Point, 1942. Photo: Northern Territory Library

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.

9.2-inch gun at East Point

9.2-inch gun at East Point at the end of World War II. AWM Photo Accession Number: 126155

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Replica of a 9.2-inch gun in its emplacement at the Darwin Military Museum, East Point. Photo: Julian Tennant

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.

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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.

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WWII Buffalo LVT amphibious transport. Powered by a 250hp Continental radial engine, the Buffalo was originally of Australian design (according to the museum’s description panel, which I think may be incorrect) but its manufacturing rights were sold to the USA during the war. This particular example was slightly modified to allow it to be operated from outside the driver’s compartment, which would have become unbearably hot due the tropical weather and the engine being mounted directly behind the driver. Holes were cut into the armour plating on the front and the steering columns, accelerator and brake pedals extended through these apertures. Whilst the Buffalo had potential to be an outstanding utility vehicle, its design did not allow it to operate in any but the calmest of seas without taking on dangerous levels of water. Photo: Julian Tennant

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Turret detail of a 1954 Ferret MkII Scout Car. The ‘Nightcliff 1st Cavalry’ insignia is a mystery to me as no such unit is known to have existed and the badge appears to be a variation of the British Royal Hampshire Regiment (minus the crown). Photo: Julian Tennant

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1968 Australian variation of the Pandora Productions satirical anti-war ‘Fly Far Eastern Airways: This vaction visit beautiful Vietnam’ poster. Photo: Julian Tennant

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‘Cheap Charlie’ badge. The ‘Cheap Charlies’ were like a lot of other clubs of its type in Vietnam and served the same purpose… to break the monotony and drink booze. To qualify one had to be first and foremost a cheap bastard. Meetings were held every two weeks and fines were handed out to those found guilty of not being cheap, i.e. giving someone a smoke, buying someone a beer etc. The badge had to be carried at all times and be produced to another member on the demand of “Cheep Cheep” – the shower being a popular challenge location. Photo: Julian Tennant

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1943 dated Imperial Japanese Navy hat issued to Hiro Hikita (Volunteer No. 25664) of the Kure Naval Arsenal, which was established in 1903 near the city of Hiroshima. The Kure Naval Arsenal was one of Japan’s largest shipbuilding and repair facilities. The battleship Yamato was built here and commissioned in December 1941. Photo: Julian Tennant

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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.

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A somewhat strange RAAF ensemble featuring a post WW2 Officer’s summer tropical jacket with current RAAF buttons and WW2 period pilot wings, plus pre-1950 tropical pith helmet. Photo: Julian Tennant

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One of the unusual ‘creative’ interpretations on display in the Darwin Military Museum. The mannequin includes a British Para smock, which I think may be the 1959 pattern, with Airborne forces Pegasus patch and Parachute Regiment beret but it also includes a Glider Pilot Regiment shoulder title which would not be worn by members of the Parachute Regiment and was not worn on para smocks. The Glider Pilot Regiment was disbanded in 1957. Unfortunately this is one of several mistakes that are displayed in the museum. Photo: Julian Tennant

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Melbourne Argus front page of 20 February 1942. (National Library of Australia)

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.

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War Damage Commission armband on display in the Defence of Darwin Experience gallery. The War Damage Commission was established to enact the Australian ‘War Damage Compensation Act.’ From 1 January 1942, under the ‘national Security Act’, every owner of fixed property in Australia was guaranteed compensation for war damage and was compelled to contribute to a fund from which the compensation would be drawn. After the boming of Darwin, skilled builders and tradesmen were recruited to assess the damage and make compensation recommendations. The assessors wore these armbands to ensure entry into all areas across the military-run district. The War Damage Commission made two major visits to Darwin, in August 1942 and July 1943. Claims were not limited to purely bomb damage; many buildings were purposely destroyed or stripped of materials for military purposes and claims continued to be made by property owners well into the 1950’s. Photo: Julian Tennant

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Uniform of Sergeant F.G. Jarvis during his service with the Volunteer Defence Corps (VDC) during WW2. The VDC (aka Dad’s Army) was made up of recruits too old to enlist in the regular forces. The majority of the men in the VDC were veterans of the First World War. Sgt Jarvis was one such veteran having served at Gallipoli as evidenced by the brass ‘A’ on the colour patch indicating active service with the 27th Battalion AIF. The cross-flags insignia represent qualification as a signaller. Photo: Julian Tennant

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.

 

Darwin Military Museum Map

The Darwin Military Museum
LOT 5434 Alec Fong Lim Dr
East Point, Darwin, NT 0820
Australia

Phone: +61 (0)8 8981 970
Email: info@darwinmilitarymuseum.com.au
Website: https://www.darwinmilitarymuseum.com.au/#/

Open: Every day 10:00 – 15:30

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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