Impact site for bombs (first air raid)
Port of Townsville
Northern side of Ross River, near oil tanks, South Townsville 4810
In July 1942, the 2nd Group of 14th Kokutai (Air Group), Japanese Naval Air-Force, under the command of Major Misaburo Koizumi, decided to undertake night raids on harbour facilities and airfields at Townsville. In all, five raids were planned; three actually occurred. After the first two raids, there was to be another attack on the night of 28 July, but this did not proceed and no details were recorded. The aircraft destined to attack Townsville on 31 July experienced difficulties and decided to bomb near Cairns instead.
Later code named by the Allies as “Emily", the Kawanishi H8K1 flying boat was an advanced design and regarded as extremely difficult to shoot down. Heavily defended, its armaments comprised dorsal and tail turrets cannons, with machine-guns in two beam blisters, ventral and cockpit hatches and bow turret. Not only did it carry considerable protective armour, its fuel tanks were partially self-sealing and designed that if punctured, fuel was collected and pumped into undamaged tanks. Additionally, the hull tanks carried a carbon-dioxide fire extinguisher system. With a range of 2567 miles, this meant that a fifteen hour flight to a target such as Townsville and returning to base was possible.
The initial raid on a large Queensland city revealed how well prepared materially Townsville was for air raids in this early stage of the Pacific war. However, at the same time it showed deficiencies in training, communications and aircraft recognition. Prior to the first raid on Townsville, the only other locality which had been attacked in Queensland was Horn Island. That Townsville came under aerial attack before Cairns reflects how highly the Japanese regarded the city as a military target.
Townsville would receive a warning that a raid would soon occur. This clue was unfortunately unheeded by military authorities. For three days prior to the first air raid on the city, Anti Aircraft units (A/A) were on high alert, with yellow alerts and unidentified aircraft reports occurring more frequently than usual.
At 0920 hours on 22 July 1942, unidentified aircraft were seen flying at 25,000 ft over Townsville. At 1000, Y A/A Battery at Mount St. John reported:
"white balloon at 25,000 ft. slowly descending".
The Japanese were using drop sondes to record wind speed and direction at certain heights and the data collected was radioed back to the aircraft. This information was vital if a raid was to proceed on a target so that aircraft could bomb accurately.
There was probably a drop sonde mission on the afternoon of the raid too, with 3 Fighter Sector Headquarters (3FSHQ) issuing a yellow alert at 1720 on 25 July when unidentified aircraft were observed high over Magnetic Island.
On the night of 25/26 July 1942, the fears of military strategists and civil authorities were realised when Japanese 'Emily' flying boats attacked the city. At 1618 a RAAF Kana interceptor at No.1 Wireless Unit (1WU) at French Street Pimlico detected a coded transmission from the Rabaul area. Unbeknown to the Japanese, at the very moment the radio operator on the lead aircraft sent this message, it was simultaneously transcribed in Townsville. After a few practice taps on the transmitter/receiver, the Japanese operator sent out the Morse:
"To call sign De call sign, KA N"? (base from aircraft, can you hear me and at what signal strength?)
First thought to be heading for Milne Bay or Port Moresby, it was subsequently discovered that the aircraft was heading towards Townsville with an ETA of 2330.
At 2340, the city received a yellow warning, with two aircraft observed approaching from the north at 8,000 ft. The warning was changed to red at 2348. One aircraft was sighted over Mount St. John at 21,000 ft two minutes later; the second was seen 14 miles south-west of the city at 15,000 ft at 2358. One of the aircraft subsequently conducted reconnaissance, as at 0003 engines were heard to the south of Mount Stuart on a course towards the west of Mount Louisa. At 0008, engine noise was heard between Mount Stuart and Cape Cleveland. At a height upward of 20,000 ft two aircraft were briefly caught in the beam of searchlights. They then flew out to sea in an easterly direction over Cape Cleveland.
Their target was clearly the port and fuel stores. The first bombs were released at 0040, six seen to fall on the eastern side of the harbour. By 0050 the aircraft had banked and were heading NE at “240 miles an hour", seaward of Mt. Marlow. On the ground the all-clear signal (white) was given at 0115.
The known pilots of two of the aircraft were Captains Asai and Mizukura, although a Lieutenant Commander Jitusaburo Koizumi has also been mentioned as flight leader. In Mizukura’s log, he reported that they arrived over the city at 2330, 10 minutes before the yellow warning. Both Mizukura and Asai also noted in their respective logs bright lights in the city and on the wharves. Even though their bombs failed to hit the target, they recorded the wharves and the presence of three ships. Indeed there were three ships in the harbour that evening: HMAS Swan, SS Burwah, and the Dutch ship SS Bantam.
Only six bombs were counted by those on the ground near the outer harbour; only four craters and one unexploded bomb were eventually discovered in shallow water near the mouth of Ross River. As each aircraft was capable of carrying eight 250 pound bombs where did the other bombs land, or were they just jettisoned at sea? What could have been a significant and serious assault on Townsville’s important port facilities, if full precision bombing had taken place in the absence of A/A response, turned out to be a tactical blunder on the part of the Japan.
No. 76 Squadron, with Squadron Leader “Bluey” Truscott had departed Townsville’s Weir airstrip for Milne Bay barely 24 hours beforehand. They received an order to intercept the flying boats on their way back to Rabaul. Although airborne that morning, no interception was made; they were an hour too late. At around 0715 on 26 July 1WU intercepted the last message from the flying boats, “RI KU” [we are landing].
On 3 August, a description of the raid made the front page of The Bangkok Times; it was blatant propaganda:
"Tokyo. It is authoritatively understood that during the first Japanese raid on Townsville on the night of - by a - of the Imperial Jpaanese [sic] Navy Unit many (?) vessels anchored in Port and along the Quay were set on fire. Bombs found their mark on respective (?) objectives. The entire area, it was ascertained by the returning airmen, was reduced to a sea of flames with columns of black smoke shooting to the sky."
A surprising amount of detail about the area was released:
"Townsville, with a population of about twenty-six thousand is situated approximately three thousand four hundred miles from Tokyo and is an important point forming a huge triangle with Tokyo and Hawaii. Beyond Townsville lies an important part in Queensland with the majority of the commodities produced in the vicinity, are exported to the countries abroad. Since the outbreak of the Great East Asia War, great importance has been attached to Townsville as an intermediary base. Following the construction of a huge airfield about half a mile from the northern extremity of the city, Australia has been sending air reinforcements from the United States to Port Moresby."
In a handwritten report submitted the morning after the raid, the Intelligence Officer for 3FSHQ
"the next 3 nights are full moon periods, further raids must be expected as this raid appeared to be in the nature of a try out."
This view would become realised as Townsville would experience a further two raids before the end of the month.
The Bangkok Times, 3 August 1942.
Bleakley, Jack, The Eavesdroppers, AGPS Press, Canberra, 1991.
Bradley, Vera, I didn’t know that: Cairns and Districts Tully to Cape York, 1939–1946, Service Personnel and Civilians, Boolarong Press, Moorooka, 1995.
Francillion, Rene J, Japanese Aircraft Of The Pacific War (2nd ed.), Putnam & Company, London, 1979.
Gillison, Douglas, Australia In The War Of 1939–1945: Royal Australian Air Force 1939–1942, Australian War Memorial, Canberra, 1962.
Jenkins, David, Battle Surface: Japans Submarine War Against Australia, Random House
Australia, Milsons Point, 1992.
The North Queensland Line: The Defence of Townsville in 1942". Ray Holyoak unpublished
Honours Thesis, James Cook University, Townsville 1998.
Piper, Robert, Townsville Under Attack, Unpublished, 1987.
Operations Record Book Fighter Sector [HQ] and Fighter Control [Units] Nos 3, 103-106 and 109-114 February 1942 to January 1949 (Abbrev); AWM series 64, item 11/1.
Reports by intelligence officer - operation of No.3 fighter sector headquarters; ACT series AA 1969/100/445, item 5/7/AIR.
Townsville Coast Artillery [Whole diary - 3 items] (Mar - Jul 1942; Jan - Mar 1943; May 1943 - August 1944); AWM series 52, item 4/19/11.
Townsville Defence Scheme 1942; Vic series MP1587/1, item 218P.
16 Heavy Anti-Aircraft Battery (16 Hvy AA Bty) [Whole diary - 12 items] (Mar 1942 -Nov 1944);
AWM series 52, item 4/16/20.