Monday, September 28, 2015

Air Raids Over Darwin: The VID Radio Story

At the time when the Maritime Coastal Station VID was installed in Darwin in Australia’s
Northern Territory, the total population was only a little over one thousand residents.  This rather discordant frontier settlement was almost totally disconnected from the rest of Australia; there was no reliable interconnecting motor highway, there was no interconnecting railway system, and of course at that era, passenger plane travel had not yet been developed.  However, there was one unreliable single wire telephone line stretching across the intervening desert areas for more than one and a half thousand miles, connecting the far north with the distant south.
At that early era, local residents were struggling for employment, though gold had been discovered at Pine Creek, 140 miles south of Darwin.  Other residents were involved with attempted food production on a large scale, various forms of government leadership, and of course, the maintenance of the cable system connecting Adelaide to the south and Singapore to the north west.  There was also a large ethnic group of Larrakia Aborigines living in Darwin and the surrounding areas.
In 1911, the Australian section of the British Royal Navy recommended that a total of sixteen coastal wireless stations should be installed around the Australian coastline; three high powered stations and thirteen medium powered stations.  Darwin was to receive a medium powered facility.
The new coastal wireless station for the northern coast of Australia  was constructed at Frogs Hollow, Darwin, and a 5 kW spark transmitter designed under the Balsillie system was installed in the new wireless station building.  They generated their own power, and the transmitter was paired with a simple crystal set receiver.  A postcard from this early era shows a single pole as the support for the simple aerial system.
This new wireless station was officially opened for service exactly 102 years ago, on September 25, 1913, under the coastal system callsign VID.  Two years later, the navy took over all of the coastal wireless stations surrounding the Australian coastline as a World War 1 wartime exigency, including VID Darwin.
However, some time after peace returned in Europe and to the rest of the world, all of these wireless stations, including VID, were finally  returned in October 1920 to their previous owners, the government operated PMG system.  Then, another change in ownership took place two years later, and VID, with all of the others, was taken over by the well known Australian radio organization, AWA.  Under AWA, the ancient spark equipment was replaced by valve radio equipment.
As more recent history tells us, another world war came on the scene, and the navy once again took over the control of the entire network of coastal wireless stations, though AWA still retained the ownership and operation of the stations.  That was on September 3, 1939, when open hostilities broke out on continental Europe.  Military guards were appointed to guard each of these Australian wireless stations.
However one and a half years later, political events demonstrated that the war was on the horizon in Asia and the Pacific, and it was moving towards the continent of Australia.  Thus it was that the navy wireless station near Darwin, VHM at HMAS Coonawarra, took over all navy communications from the commercial wireless station VID.
Following the tragic attack on Pearl Harbor towards the end of the year 1941, VID was again making contact with navy vessels, under the code callsign VID6.  By this time, Darwin was a very busy harbor with a multitude of navy vessels, Australian, British and American, traversing the nearby seas.  In fact, at this stage, there were an additional 10,000 service personnel from the United States and elsewhere serving in the armed forces in the Darwin neighborhood.
Then it came; at 9:58 am on February 19, 1942, the first air raid on Australian soil.  The first wave of Japanese aircraft, 188 bombers and fighters, bombed and strafed the city, the harbour, and the radio station.
A Zero fighter strafed the radio station with machine guns, damaging the antenna beamed towards the headquarters coastal station VIS in Sydney.  A second wave of 54 Japanese bombers attacked Darwin just two hours later in a raid lasting half an hour.  The airport radio station was destroyed, and VID was asked to take over all aircraft communications.  In total, anywhere up to a thousand people were killed,
In another raid four months later, station VID was very badly damaged when 50 bombs were dropped in the area, though several did not explode, due apparently to the fact that they were old left over armament that had deteriorated.
Then two months later again, Radio station VID received its worst war time damage on August 27 (1942) when it sustained a direct hit, thus destroying or damaging all equipment and much of the structure as well.  At this stage, the navy station VHM at Coonawarra took over all of the VID communication services.
However, soon afterwards local staff repaired and rebuilt the station, and in progressive stages VID once again took over its regular communication services.

* Warnings from the North
The Tiwi Islands lie just 50 miles north of Darwin where the Arafura Sea joins the Timor Sea. They comprise two larger islands, Melville Island and Bathurst Island, together with nine smaller uninhabited islands, and they are administered as part of Australia’s Northern Territory.
The largest of the Tiwi Islands is the very irregularly shaped Melville Island which stretches approximately 70 miles by 70 miles.  This island is Australia’s second largest island, after Tasmania.
There is a small settlement on the north coast of Melville Island and an unpaved landing strip for small aircraft.  The total population, mostly Tiwi Aborigines, numbers around one thousand.
On the western edge of Melville is Bathurst Island, again with a very irregular coastline, and this one is shaped approximately like an equilateral triangle with each side stretching 40 miles.  The two islands are separated by a rather narrow winding channel.   There are two settlements on this island, again mostly Tiwi Aborigines, with a total population around 1500.
The first European to sight the island was the Dutch explorer, Abel Tasman, who is honored with his name attached to the island state of Tasmania.  Bathurst Island was named in honor of an English government official, the same official whose name is memorialized in Canada with another Bathurst Island over there.
Back nearly two centuries ago, there was a failed attempt at establishing a European settlement on Bathurst Island, though it lasted for only five years before the inhabitants were transferred to the nearby Australian mainland.
A Catholic mission was established here a little over a century ago, in 1910.  The European priest in charge, Francis Gsell, established a pattern of buying Aboriginal girls who had been betrothed to older men so that they could marry younger men.
On Air Raid Day, Thursday February 19, 1942, observers on both islands, Melville and Bathurst, sent radio warnings to Darwin, but both warnings were somewhat ignored, in the same way that a similar warning was ignored just before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in the Hawaiian Islands.
At 9:15 am, Lt. John Gribble at the small air force base on Melville Island radioed VHM at the Coonawarra navy base near Darwin that a large flight of Japanese planes was passing over the island with the obvious intent of attacking Darwin.  In Darwin, this information was not acted upon immediately.
Then 20 minutes later (9:35 am), the Catholic priest John McGrath on nearby Bathurst Island, reported to VID Darwin on the pre-set X Band channel in the 6 MHz band (6840 kHz) that a huge flight of bombers was headed towards Darwin.  Two minutes later, VID telephoned this information to the Royal Australian Air Force base 8 miles south of Darwin, but the information was incorrectly interpreted, assuming that the flight was an American formation of planes returning from an aborted flight to Java in the East Indies (Indonesia).
While over Bathurst Island, eight Japanese planes peeled off from the main formation and attacked the Catholic mission station.  The radio hut, together with its pedal wireless transmitter 8SE, was damaged, but during the day McGrath repaired the damaged equipment.  At 6:00 pm the same day, he radioed another report to VID Darwin in which he gave details of the damage inflicted on Bathurst Island.
We plan to complete this interesting Darwin radio story three weeks from now.
(AWR Wavescan/NWS 343)