Flat White

Comparing Pearl Harbor and the Darwin Raids 80 years on

9 December 2021

12:00 PM

9 December 2021

12:00 PM

Pearl Harbor is often compared to the Darwin attack but the similarities are very few. Although both were ‘surprise’ initial raids on an enemy of the Japanese Empire, the destruction caused in each raid was disproportionate in the extreme.

Some people say Darwin was ‘bigger’ than the Pearl Harbor strike. For example, the chairwoman of the Northern Territory’s Centenary of Federation committee in 2001 said: ‘It was bigger than Pearl Harbor … and it’s time the nation knew about this.’

Many say: ‘More bombs fell on Darwin’, a phrase now common in much of the publicity surrounding the commemoration of the first raids.

True enough, but it is just used to be sensationalist if used without the correlation that the tonnage of bombs which fell on Pearl Harbor was greater; the Japanese were using smaller bombs in the Darwin raid. It’s a bit like saying the Darwin assaults were more significant than the Nagasaki raid because that attack on Japan only used one bomb.

The following summary figures – drawn from the detailed tables in our book Carrier Attack by Tom Lewis and Peter Ingman (Avonmore) – are:  

Pearl Harbor waves:

Total No. bombs: 421

Total tonnage (kgs): 101,420kg


Total weapons released including 40 torpedoes: 461

Bomb tonnage including 40 x 800kg torpedoes: 133,420kg

Port Darwin – Carrier and Land-based strike:

Total No. bombs: 681

Total tonnage (kgs): 114,100kg

The comparison is also a rather disingenuous one. A torpedo strike from a Japanese bomber would do far more damage than a bomb from the same aircraft. As air group leader Fuchida discussed in conferences before the attack, ‘…the torpedoes below the surface would do more effective damage than bombings from the air.’ Torpedoes were not used at Darwin, but they inflicted massive damage on the American base. To just compare the weapons by their weight is to miss this point.

Some say that more civilians were killed in the Australian raids. Untrue. There were 2,388 lives lost in the Pearl Harbor raids compared to 236 killed in Darwin. It’s generally held 68 civilians were killed at Pearl Harbor while 26 were killed in Darwin.

What about the ships sunk?

It has been claimed more ships were sunk at Pearl Harbor than in Darwin. Eleven ships were sunk in Darwin with nine inside the harbour. The largest warship was a destroyer, the USS Peary, with 88 of her crew killed. At Pearl Harbor, all eight battleships of the US Pacific Fleet, the most important capital ship at the time, were sunk or badly damaged. The size difference between a destroyer and a battleship is immense. The comparison is similar to that of a car set beside a three-trailer truck. The firepower is commensurately similar.

Three cruisers (big, important ships), five destroyers, and seven other ships were also sunk or grounded. Most ships were raised and repaired, although for many wrecks this took years.

The strike at Pearl Harbor was a massive loss for American aircraft too, and that raid was far more destructive than Darwin’s. For example, 350 aircraft were destroyed or damaged, whereas in the Australian assault, 30 were lost.

None of this is to say that the 19 February 1942 strikes were insignificant. The attacks were the first on the Australian landmass which signaled a new and sometimes desperate stage of the war which, if Australians had not stood alongside Americans and prevailed in New Guinea, may well have seen invasion.

The writer, Douglas Lockwood, called his 1960s book Australia’s Pearl Harbour. It was the first to be published about the Darwin Raids. It’s a good and deserved title, but the important differences should be emphasized – not minimized – to do historical justice to both of the attacks on Pearl Harbor and Darwin.

Dr Tom Lewis OAM is a military historian.

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