How Max Dupain might have helped save Darwin
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How Max Dupain might have helped save Darwin

As the 70th anniversary of the bombing of Darwin on 19 February 1942 approaches, a University of Sydney expert in the history of wartime camouflage says key figures at the time were arguing for Darwin to be much better protected.

Dr Ann Elias, a lecturer at Sydney College of the Arts, has researched a little-known group of artists, designers and architects, including the photographer Max Dupain, seconded to the war effort to deploy optical tricks and visual illusions for civilian and military protection.

But Professor William Dakin, a marine zoologist from the University of Sydney who had become the Technical Director of Camouflage for Australia, believed the army was ignoring advice from the civilian scientists and artists.

In October 1941 Dakin sent one of his top men, Eric Thompson, an Australian who had worked in the US as a set designer with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, to survey Darwin by plane.

Thompson had been disguising aerodromes in Sydney “using elaborate, deceptive facades,” Dr Elias writes in her recent book Camouflage Australia: art, nature, science and war.

She adds: “It was this type of camouflage that Dakin wanted applied to air force bases in Darwin to make them look like sports grounds, racetracks, farm houses, factories — anything but aerodromes.”

Dr Elias says that after his 1941 survey, Thompson wrote bluntly that if the port and town “is at present the front door of Australia as far as defence is concerned, it seems more like the back door as far as camouflage is concerned”.

Dakin was frustrated by what he felt was military indifference and apathy. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour on 7 December 1941, he complained to reporters at the Daily Telegraph and the Sydney Morning Herald that the camouflage defence of Australia’s north was urgent.

“Dakin finally got the outcome he wanted when funds were released to undertake the concealment of the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) aerodrome in Darwin,” Dr Elias writes.

The SS Zealandia, a merchant ship and coastal liner serving as a troopship, was sent from Sydney with a cargo of ammunition and camouflage materials. But on the morning of the 19 February 1942, it was still anchored at Darwin Harbour waiting to unload.

“The Japanese air raids sank the Zealandia after a spectacular explosion, sending its cargo of camouflage materials to the bottom of the harbour,” says Dr Elias.

Dr Elias says that two weeks before the Darwin bombing “a secret war cabinet minute noted that disputes between the army and the air force delayed the transportation of camouflage materials to Darwin and Port Moresby”.

After the Darwin bombing, the military placed greater importance on camouflaging the north, sending ‘camoufleurs’, as they were known, to assignments in Darwin – including Max Dupain, who spent a year in the north disguising oil tanks and air bases.