Eighty years ago the Japanese sow panic in northern Australia and the western USA


Over 200 aircraft from four Japanese aircraft carriers and a number of land-based medium bombers launched attacks on the Australian port city of Darwin. Darwin was the nearest major port in Allied hands to the Indonesian islands and might have been used to support attempts to halt the Japanese invasion of this territory. Despite Darwin's strategic location the defences were weak with no radar functioning to warn of the attack. Hundreds of casulaties were inflicted, thirty aircraft were destroyed  on the ground including USAAF fighters in transit  and a dozen or so vessels sunk or beached. The port was practically interdicted. There was widespread confusion and a near-breakdown of civil order. Japanese casualties were minimal.

A Japanese submarine bombarded an oil refinery at Ellwood in California with its deck gun, causing slight damage and no casualties.  The operation did inspire a state of near panic, which led to the "Battle of Los Angeles" the following night in which air raid sirens were sounded and a barrage of anti-aircraft artillery let loose. This lasted some hours and over one thousand rounds were fired. There was no hostile activity at all.

A new head of RAF Bomber Command was appointed to replace Air Marshal Richard Peirse who was viewed as a failure in the job. He had been handicapped by the fact that his aircraft in the first two years of the bombing campaign were not truly up to the task, although the failure to do anything about the appallingly low navigational ability of his command could be laid at his door. The previous summer the Butt Report by a senior civil servant had established that very few RAF bombs fell anywhere near their target. Peirse's successor was Arthur Harris who was remorselessly efficient and, once he had overcome his scepticism of radio navigation aids, oversaw a thorough upgrade of  the technology used by his crews. He was also fortunate in taking command just as the superb Lancaster and the adequate Halifax were becoming available in quantity.

Churchill faced the delicate task of a major ministerial reshuffle to ward off discontent at the government's handling of the war without giving too much power to potential rivals. Extreme left-wing Sir Stafford Cripps was made leader of the House of Commons and Lord Privy Seal. Cripps was a vocal partisan of aid to the Soviet Union, which was a very popular cause. He had little support from the Labour Party, though, because of his Communist leanings. Labour's Arthur Greenwood who had been an important voice against compromise with Germany in the early days of the Churchill government was dropped; he had not been an effective minister partly because of his drinking. David Margesson, was sacked as army minister in a transparent piece of scape-goating for military failures and the elimination of almost the last relic of the Chamberlain regime. The real winners were not particularly allies of Churchill or even politicians but men respected for their competence: former civil servant James Grigg and businessman Oliver Lyttleton.


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