Peter and Sheila Forrest

Historians & Writers

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Battling: Territorians and their war

Battling: Territorians and their war

Most Australians now know at least something of the 'Bombing of Darwin.' If they are well informed they will know that there were two ferocious air raids in Darwin that day, resulting in terrible loss of life and physical destruction.

Not so many Australians know that the bombing of Darwin on 19 February 1942 was only one episode in a war that was bitterly fought in and around the Northern Territory through 1942 and 1943. They were the most challenging years in our national history, terrible years but deserving to be fully understood by the whole Australian community because they were so perilous, so terrible and so decisive for Australia's future.

After hostilities ended in 1945, proud Australian achievement at Milne Bay and on the Kokoda Track in New Guinea was justly honoured. At those places in 1942 Australians held the line and then turned the enemy back. There was no honour for a similar victory in the Northern Territory where the Japanese air attackers on the Australian mainland had first been challenged and then turned away. There was very scant acknowledgment of the stark truth that that in 1942 and 1943 there had been a hard fought war in this country; a war in the Northern Territory when Australians had to fight for their country on their own soil. It was an uncomfortable truth that most Australians did not want to confront and still do not readily accept.

It had been a total war, a time when for several years everything in the Northern Territory, including civilian lives, had to be subordinated to the war effort. In the late 1940s Australians heard a lot about the awful plight of refugees in post-war Europe; displaced persons who had to search for their homes, their families and their communities now that the war was over. Little was heard about Australia's displaced persons, Australians whose lives had been fractured by the war in the north.

Their war began in the 1930s when a massive defence build-up overwhelmed Darwin and pushed aside the town's civilians. Then, from December 1942 thousands of people were compulsorily evacuated from the Northern Territory and were obliged to live far from their homes for the duration and then for some time after the war's end. They were refugees in their own country, without recognition and sometimes more hindered than helped in their struggles to get home and start again. Those who had been able to stay in the Territory through the war, in hinterland places between Pine Creek and Alice Springs, found that their lives were completely subordinated to the war effort.

Those people have been left out of our history; their trials and tribulations, their tenacious struggles to rebuild their lives and reconstruct the Northern Territory have not found their way into many history books, nor into many Australian hearts and minds. That is an injustice.

We Australians look to our warriors when we seek our noblest national heroes but we overlook the fact that war isn't only about soldiers. War is also about what happens to ordinary people, civilians who happen to be entangled in war and then have to put the broken pieces back together after the soldiers have left.

Seventy years later, it is time to do justice to those people, time to bring them into more honoured places in Australian hearts and minds. That is the purpose of this book, Battling: Territorians and Their War.