This Sunday, on February 19, two very different anniversaries occur.
Because Australians are not always very good at history and The Briefing originates here, I think they are worth noting. They may be of interest to others too.
The first is the bombing of Darwin, during World War II. It began 9:58am, 19 February, 70 years ago, in 1942. For the first time, the effects of a war which had raged mainly on the other side of the world – albeit at the cost of thousands of Australian soldiers’ lives – were felt on home soil. Arguably it was the most dreadful emergency of our history.
It was widely feared then that the Japanese planned to invade Australia, though it seems more likely to historians now that Darwin was attacked for its wider strategic defence value (as a port and airfield staging post for the war in South East Asia).
Today, most Australians know next to nothing of these events, perhaps because Darwin’s population then was much tinier. Details were also kept from the great bulk of Australians down south, presumably for morale’s sake.
Perhaps it’s also because most Australians aren’t very interested in history (certainly not as much as my superficial impression of North Americans). But I have been surprised to discover that [sources: frontlineaustralia.com.au (pdf); National Archives]…
- The attack was led by the same Japanese commander who led the original Pearl Harbor attack a few weeks earlier.
- The first raid that day involved 188 planes. Overall that day, there was a greater tonnage of bombs dropped than was dropped on the first Pearl Harbor attacks. Likewise, it sank (8 or 9) and damaged (15?) ships; that’s more Allied shipping (but much less tonnage) than the first Pearl Harbor attack.
- The attack caused wide panic and at least 243 deaths. About half the remaining civilian population of Darwin (and some military personnel) fled south in the ensuing chaos and fear.
- Attacks continued until November 1943, with Darwin bombed 64 times, and other towns in northern Australia bombed 33 times – from Townsville (in Queensland) through to Broome and Port Hedland (in Western Australia).
I have no particularly deep Christian message to draw from this except to say that in a world where warfare still rages, this Sunday is a good day to pray for Australian Defence Force personnel, (or those of your own nation) especially those serving in conflict zones overseas like Afghanistan…
God of righteousness, we give thanks for those who have served our nation in times of conflict. Thank you that they were willing to scorn the way of personal safety to work for the establishment of freedom, peace and justice.
We also ask you to comfort all who now suffer sickness, injury or handicap as a result of their military service, and for all those who have lost loved ones in warfare.
And we pray for all who currently serve in Australia’s Defence Forces. Give them courage and comfort in all dangers as well as discipline in the just use of force; and help us, we pray, to seek for all races and peoples the freedom to serve you and each other in quietness and peace.
Lastly, we ask you to bring about the final conquest of evil and suffering, through our Lord Jesus Christ, who himself suffered death that others might live. Amen.
By the way, you may have noticed the accompanying picture (courtesy: Mark Whitelock) was of a stained glass window. I took the chance to put it up to see if I could get a such a traditional photo past the censors at Matthias Media (warning to the serious: joke alert!)
Actually it comes from the cathedral building in which the congregations I serve meet. Please notice the picture of a young man at the bottom and his date of death. His name was Thomas Fowler and he died on MV Neptuna on the day I am referring to, 19 February, 1942, in Darwin, 70 years ago.
The Neptuna was working as an ammunition supply ship and was reported to have been carrying 200 tons of depth charges. It was unloading high explosive anti-aircraft shells onto HMAS Swan alongside when the attack began. Unbelievably (but not untypically for Australia!) there was an industrial dispute, about whose job it was to unload the ordinance, between the ‘wharfies’ (unionised port labourers) and RAN sailors. That was soon put in perspective when Neptuna was hit directly several times and exploded some time after the enemy planes had departed. (Source.)
Records vary as to the number killed but the Australian War Memorial Commemorative Roll lists 36. Thomas Fowler was one of them, a 6th Engineer in this Merchant Navy ship. Clearly he came from a family at St Michael’s, who erected the window in his memory, and like every horrible death of a young person in warfare, his loss must have been felt dearly.
I don’t know what you think theologically or practically about stained glass windows. I have mixed feelings. But what might be of interest to contemporary Christians, in understanding former generations, is to note the main image the family selected to go above their son’s small memorial.
It pictures the Lord Jesus Christ stilling the storm.
What an appropriate image for those remembering a mariner killed at sea. In so many ways, it said Christ was still in control, not only of the unruly waves of nature, but also of the unruly wills of men and the tragic wars and personal suffering they unleash.
That window (and others like it here) tell me that evangelical Christians (and St Michael’s has only had evangelical ministers in its history since the 1830s) from that earlier generation last century believed the gospel of Jesus in the Bible were still intensely relevant and reassuring to men doing some of the toughest jobs in our times about two millennia later. Amen to that.
Lastly, I also take this chance to commend the ministries of:
- Fighting Words Australia – a very Bible-based evangelical “network of Christians in Defence who are committed to serving the Lord Jesus Christ and working to build the kingdom of God”, with staff workers at Defence Force training bases in Canberra, Albury-Wodonga, and Wagga Wagga; and
- Defence Anglicans – who say they are “are a diverse group of Anglicans who serve in the Australian Defence Force. Our commitment to our Lord Jesus Christ is expressed in ministry” (And I hope no one minds this disclaimer: it would be important to note that this ‘diversity’ is greater than reformed evangelicalism; however my observation as an outsider is that Defence Anglicans – as opposed to Anglicans nationwide in Australia – are solidly orthodox rather than liberal; furthermore I have been impressed with the practical biblical advice on a number of questions to do with the defence forces and the issues facing Christians in military service).