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Australia’s entry into World War II

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In 1939, on 3 September, Australia entered what was to become known as World War II.

In Darwin, a quiet town far away from the big southern cities of Australia, the Northern Standard – a forerunner to the NT News – was not published every day. The edition of 1 September had carried a few stories about the events on the other side of the world, with an aggressive Germany continuing its advance on other countries.

But it wasn’t until the next edition, on 5 September, that Darwin residents could read about what had happened. The rest of the Territory was less well-served, although radio was keenly listened to – while television and the Internet were decades into the future.

The newspaper declared:

BRITAIN DECLARES WAR

EMPIRE HAS MORAL SUPPORT OF WORLD

DOMINIONS BEHIND BRITAIN

Britain is now at war with Germany.

This fateful announcement was made in the House of Commons on Sunday by the Prime Minister (Mr. Chamberlain) after he had broadcast a similar statement to the nation from No. 10 Downing Street, at 7.15 p.m. Darwin time.

This was grim news. Although it’s hard to understand now, Australia was a part of the British Empire, and this essentially meant the country was now at war with Germany.

The Australia Prime Minister, Robert Menzies, followed up the announcement – which was also played over radio – with accusations that “Herr Hitler had repeatedly broken his promises and dishonoured agreements.”

All across the country people pondered the story that a war was starting. The Great War – as what we now call World War I was then known – had stunned the world with its massive casualties, counted in the millions.

Now, 19 years after its conclusion, Germany was resurgent. Military technology was much more lethal. Aircraft were a real threat with their bombing; artillery was further-reaching and more accurate, and submarines were no longer science fiction.  What other countries could become involved? Japan, an ally in the previous war, might now be a threat.

But it probably all seemed a long way away to the residents of the Territory. Little did they dream that in just over two years Darwin would be the subject of the most intense air raid ever made against Australia – and that it would be just the first of many.

A colourised photo of Darwin circa 1939. The "Vic Hotel" is to the right. This section of Smith Street is now the Darwin Mall. (Ian Skennerton)