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The Empire Strikes South – Dr Tom Lewis OAM

Review by Zac Yates.

The actions of Japan against the Australian mainland are essentially general knowledge. The fact Darwin was attacked in a Pearl Harbor-style raid not long after that Day of Infamy is just one of those things most people know. This reviewer – like many, as author Tom Lewis writes – thought the February 1942 amounted to the sum total of Japanese air attacks against Australia. But The Empire Strikes South uses a wealth of research to educate and inform the reader of no less than 208 combat missions flown by Japan against Australia’s Top End.

This book sets out to document each combat mission flown by Japanese crews against the north of Australia, from single-aircraft reconnaissance flights to major bombing missions, in almost a diary fashion. Nine chapters cover the initial, best-known raids against Darwin, the nature of air combat at the time, coverage of Australian defences, and then a look at Japanese missions against Darwin and the Interior, the coast of the Northern Territory, Western Australia and Queensland. Time is taken to look at how fallen Japanese were interred and memorialised in Australia before moving into very thorough appendices. 

The level of informational detail is sometimes staggering: thanks to surviving Japanese unit records, the precise amount and type of ammunition expended is listed (be it 7.7mm bullets or 60kg bombs), the tonnage of ships recorded by a recce flight, and, in many cases, the graduating academy classes of certain airmen are also given. Even take-off and landing times are supplied. Where aerial combat took place both Allied and Japanese accounts and claims are listed.

There is also much space given to observations by non-combatants, to reinforce or refute Japanese claims, and stories of wounded personnel making their way to safety. Stories of Japanese survival are also of interest, including those who made it to internment camps such as at Cowra. Lewis follows these stories as far has his research allows and it does much to break up what can be a monotonous account of mission after mission. 

The two aforementioned appendices are, again, of staggering detail and information. The first tabulates Japanese air combat flights over northern Australia with aircraft type losses and numbers – 62 aircraft across ten types – and the second lists those flights ending in Japanese fatalities, with each known airman named of the 186 total. It is a remarkably detailed piece of work.

A good number of photographs from both sides are included, some of questionable quality due to the march of time or apparently being acquired from online sources (a Japanese propaganda poster is partially covered by internet watermarks), and there is an uncredited map which is welcome for readers (such as this reviewer) not familiar with the geography of the Top End.

The majority of colour illustrations in the book, however, come in the form of profiles, three-views and artwork by Michael Claringbould. I have seen his work in magazines for some years and was disappointed to see it on the cover of this book as the quality has always struck me as similar to that of video games of more than fifteen years ago – perhaps technically accurate, but not finessed enough to be in the league of Ronnie Oslthoorn or Adam Tooby. The ‘action’ images of computer-generated aircraft superimposed on photographed sky and landscapes aren’t very lifelike as the 3D models used aren’t as refined as they could be (for example, the head-on elevation of a Mitsubishi G4M1 ‘Betty’ on page 78 features angular engine cowlings). Another issue is that, possibly due to being 3D models as opposed to 2D, the profiles have lighting effects (as if there is a bright sun at the 10-11 o’clock position) which cast very hard shadows and make it hard to see some detail. The paint chosen by Claringbould for the Mitsubishi A6M ‘Zeroes’ seems especially dark compared to depictions in other publications and formats and one profile – a Kawasaki H6K4 ‘Mavis’ on page 134 – is especially difficult to discern any detail, seeming to be in a very shiny black or even chrome silver thanks to the lighting.

There are a handful of typographical errors such as referring to the Supermarine Spitfire’s ‘formible’ reputation and the ‘Fairy’ Fulmar, but these are rare and minor in the scheme of things. There was also a curious mention about aircraft-mounted searchlights in use by the RAAF I was not able to learn more about with a brief internet search, so I’m hesitant to call it a mistake as Lewis may have simply been referring to the British Turbinlite project.

As mentioned previously, this can be a monotonous read due to the ‘sameness’ of the many missions listed. It truly is, at points, like a diary, but it is an important and informative book on a subject many today will simply have little knowledge of.

ISBN 978-0-945889-1-3

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