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The aircraft that devastated Darwin – the Kate high-level bomber

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The bombers which did the most damage to Darwin only visited once, but left a town irrevocably changed.

Flying from four aircraft carriers, the three-man Kate bombers approached their target from the south-east on the morning of Thursday 19th February 1942. Their commander, Mitsui Fuchida, had chosen that direction to give himself an element of surprise and to fly away to safety rather than having to circle back over his angry victims.

The Kates carried a crew of three: a pilot, a navigator/bombardier/observer and a radio operator/gunner. The gunner was armed with a machinegun which was used for defending the bomber if it was attacked from behind, the usual method for a fighter coming in to try its luck.

The bombers were called “Kates” by the Allies, who found the Japanese manufacturers’ names too difficult to pronounce. Built by Nakajima, they were a single-engine machine, usually armed with one 800 kg bomb. While up to six 130 kilogram bombs could be carried, it was the single-bomb configuration that was used in the Darwin raid. 

The 81 Kates that flew over Darwin during the first raid dropped one bomb each. These impacted in a straight line from the big freighter Neptuna, moored at the wharf, across the Administrator’s Residence, the post office, the police barracks and on to the hospital at the end of Mitchell Street.

Then the Kates flew away, without even one being lost. They were at 10, 000 feet – around 3000 metres – and none of the Anti-Aircraft batteries nor the defending Kittyhawk fighters managed to bring one down. The Val dive bombers and their Zero fighter escort then moved in to finish the job. 

The Kates did the most damage to Darwin of any raid. With 235 lives lost. Although the north of Australia was under attack for nearly two years, the Kates never came back. All subsequent assaults were carried out by land-based bombers, the bigger Bettys and Nells.

Nakajima B5N2 Kate BII-307 high level bomber from carrier Hiryu. (Alford Collection)