Broome is a city shaped by its history and poised for its future. On 3 March 1942, it was the site of tragic bombing by the Japanese, the second most serious attack on an Australian city.
Pic by Jon Russell
It was a day when 80 people lost their lives, countless others were injured, and much property was destroyed
What put Broome at the centre of the Japanese crosshairs? There were a number of factors. For one thing, Broome was strategically situated at the northwest shores of Australia, a city with prime placement for incoming and outgoing traffic.
The Allied planes used it as a major refueling stop in that part of the Pacific, especially after the bombing of Pearl Harbour.
Also, the Japanese were no longer able to import oil from America, and they needed to find a way to keep the Allies at bay whilst they established their territory so that they could take what they needed.
Indonesia at that time was called the Dutch East Indies, where oil exports had reached quite a healthy level. Japan badly wanted to take over the area and control the oil.
In late February the Japanese staged a battle over Indonesia on the island of Java. This rendered Broome a place quick with human traffic by the beginning of March:
Approximately 1,500 people were streaming into the city, many of them military, evacuated from Java. In addition there were a number of Dutch civilians, family members of the evacuated military personnel.
It was a place ripe for tragedy.
On the 2nd morning of March, a reconnaissance plane flew at an altitude of about 12,000 miles above Broome. However, it banked back out to sea, and, with no other planes in sight, people thought little about it. They had enough on their minds with the incoming refugees.
But on the next morning, a contingent of nine Zero fighters and a reconnaissance plane were dispatched by the Imperial Japanese Navy from Kupang, Timor, from the southeast area of Indonesia. They came in from behind Gantheaume Point and went to work. Because there was regularly quite a bit of air traffic in the area, it took time before the people on the ground realized that an attack was in progress.
The Japanese strafed the area of Roebuck Bay—high speed firing runs using automatic guns from low-flying aircraft.
Of the nine Zeros, three of them stayed high in the air to cover the work of the other six, which descended low to pummel the area.
There were a lot of flying boats in Roebuck Bay at the time, as these large-hulled, huge-winged planes were popular transports at the time. They hit 21 Allied planes—from the U.S. and the Netherlands—as well as an airborne U.S. plane carrying a couple dozen wounded soldiers.
Of the 80 people who died, many of them were women and children, killed outright in the attack or left to swim through oil burning on the water.
At the same time they struck the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) station based at Broome Airfield, destroying another 7 aircraft.
The Japanese did not drop bombs at either place, but they did jettison their external gasoline drop tanks, a destructive maneuver that exploded over important installations and automotive vehicles on the ground below.
The huge flying boats sent massive clouds of acrid black smoke up into the air.
Only one Allied soldier successfully returned fire—a Dutch pilot named Gus Winckel. He took an automatic gun from his plane and shot back at the Japanese, but he hit only one plane. Another Zero was ditched by its pilot when it ran out of gas.
The Broome attack cost more than lives. When an airliner carrying West Java refugees from Bandung was struck, the plane went down with an additional four lives—and possibly forty million dollars in diamonds.
There was a second attack on 20 March when a handful of medium-sized bombers returned over Broome, but they remained at a high altitude. There was one more civilian killed in this raid and some ground damage.
In August of 1942 and 1943, Broome was again targeted, but with no loss of life or damage.
However, the threat of attack threw Broome and its inhabitants into a despondent decline. The pearling industry had all but halted, and its Japanese residents were interred and untrusted.
But the spirit of the Broome natives prevailed, and as the war ended, they picked themselves up, dusted off their resolve, and built the city back into greatness. Today, Broome shares a unique if solemn souvenir of that fateful March in 1942 with a sister city also in the Pacific: Like Pearl Harbour, the craft that were bombed remain in the water today.
In Pearl Harbour, travellers can tour the remains of the USS Arizona. At Roeback Bay, the wrecks of the flying boats still lay out in the water, a reminder that Broome remains dauntless.
Check out this page, Attack on Broome, including some interesting details about individuals involved in the battle.