When Madras Was Bombed By Japan During The Second World War

by Venkatesh Ramakrishnan - Oct 12, 2019 02:13 PM +05:30 IST
When Madras Was Bombed By Japan During The Second World War Fighter planes. 
  • The World War marks an epoch in the history of Madras. It left Madras’ residents deeply seared by fate’s unkindness as a faraway war changed their lifestyles for five long years.

    For those years their disposition was far from cheerful, and though there were few casualties, their life was soured.

The Second World War was the most widespread conflict in history. It was a global feud lasting from 1939 to 1945. Nearly every country in the world participated and so did India. Indian soldiers participated on almost all fronts, but very few of them fought on Indian soil, except in Nagaland.

Field Marshal Sir Claude Auchinleck, Commander-in-Chief of the Indian Army from 1942 said, “The British couldn't have come through both wars I and II if they hadn't had the Indian Army.” It is estimated that more than 87,000 Indian soldiers are buried in foreign soil.

Ironically, Madras citizens Lakshmi Sehgal of the Rani Jhansi regiment fought for the Axis powers and Paramasivam Kumaramangalam (later head of the Indian Army) fought for the Allied forces.

Historically, Madras was a relatively peaceful state. The French took it in the 1740s, Hyder threatened it half a century later and the German cruiser, Emden, bombed it in 1913. So, it was not prepared for the effects of a long-drawn war although the theatre of conflict was far away.

Madras had just one day of direct tussle in the six years of the deadly war, and yet, it suffered from a hysteria never seen in her history. Madras had to bear its share of the almost insupportable weight of the entire world waging war and the threat loomed and the hue and cry over a distant war disrupted life for over a decade.

Those were years that the citizens must have borne with every evidence of distaste. But to rest in the shade of peace and view those dangerous days from the distance of 70 years is often bewildering and evokes much amusement as well.

Government advertisements on restrictions in a time of scarcity. 
Government advertisements on restrictions in a time of scarcity. 

On the evening of 3 September 1939, Subash Chandra Bose, while addressing a public meeting on the Marina beach, announced the invasion of Poland by Germany. To the citizens of Madras, it was a distant war. Like Panipat or Plassey.

Two distant alliances were fighting, and the war was slowly engulfing the globe but it was still too far-flung for the city. Little did they think it would affect their day-to-day life.

The Viceroy of India, Linlithgow, declared that India was at war with Germany on 3 September 1939. Rajaji, the premier of Madras, objected strongly. Saying, “It is wholly unsatisfactory and calculated to rouse resentment among all those who are anxious to gain India's independence," his ministry tendered its resignation. That was the first political fallout.


War disrupts manufacturing and supply lines and triggers hoarding. So scarcities are felt by the population. The frequent representations of the Madras Hotel Association to the government give a clear picture of the food situation during that period.

With Burma under attack and shipping lines targeted by Japanese torpedoes, rice — the staple food of the Madras presidency — became scarce. Idlies and dosas were being taken off the menus of most hotels. Idlies — the staple dish of the city — became scarce with strong rumours that the government would ban the food item.

Wheat was being imported as well as being moved in from the north. But the food tastes of people were not very easy to change. Free cooking demonstrations of wheat dishes were given at street corners.

Rava idly and wheat dosas were invented during this period. Every type of home need like firewood and kerosene was scarce. Even matchboxes were rationed.

The government categorised weddings as a major usage of food and restricted wedding invitation lists to 30 people. The organisers had to advertise to guests not to turn up for weddings.

“I am not in a position to issue invitations to relations and friends for the function. Those who would like to convey their blessings to the bridal couple, may do so by post which will be gratefully accepted as offered in person,” says a press advertisement of the period.

The cinema industry was one that suffered most — mainly because the world’s largest film manufacturers were in Germany and Japan, and they were at war with Britain. In 1943, the government imposed a raw stock film control and ruled that no cinema film should exceed 11,000 feet (the average length of a Tamil talkie at the time was anywhere between 18,000 and 20,000 feet with 50 songs).

Directors struggled with the craft of telling a story crisply or without too many songs. The war period produced lesser talkies with fewer songs and the unwritten restriction that heroes had to be good singers also faded.

It laid the line for actors proficient at other aspects — like stunt scenes and oration — to become heroes. MGR and Sivaji Ganesan found their feet post-war.

Conservation was considered a major step towards combating scarcities. The railways actually advertised asking people not to travel.

“The last journey you made — was it necessary?” asked an advertisement of M&SM (Madras and Southern Mahratta Railway) railway. Airways too advertised asking customers to avoid needless travel.

The scarcities gave rise to peculiar situations. War was a glutton for metal. Wiring for radios and planes, casings for bullets and bombs to stop them from fouling — all of these were made of copper.

Unfortunately, more copper was in the coins circulating in the market than in the inoperable mines. So, people realised that the intrinsic value of the coin was higher than its notional value (six annas of copper was in a four anna coin).

This led to a large-scale hoarding of coins and a shrinking of trade. The government —unable to crack down on the coin hoarding — introduced the coin with a hole in the middle.

Maria Montessori, the education pioneer arrived in Madras mainly to escape the war in Europe. Ironically, she was arrested as an alien, being an Italian whose country had allied with Hitler.

Forcible war fund collection was another irritant. Money was collected in Madras to buy planes for the RAF (Royal Air Force). The aircraft were even called St George, Anantapur, Bellary, Guntur, Kurnool, Madura, Malabar, Ramnad, and Trichinopoly as a gesture of thanks.

A city not used to military presence having thousands of troops — mainly foreigners — with little knowledge of local customs, was a fertile ground for conflict. Rival sects treated one another with cold hostility.

Some hotels had placards saying “Out Of Bounds For Soldiers”. There were constant rumours that the city would be handed over for military rule. That terrified the population.

And then, in late 1942, the war became a serious reality for Madras, which till then was suffering only from scarcities. The Japanese Air Force and Navy were conducting daring attacks in the Indian Ocean and had captured Singapore and Andaman Islands from the British. The threat across the Bay of Bengal was imminent.

The first attack happened in Colombo. In April 1943, on the Easter Sunday, 75 Japanese planes dive-bombed on the harbour. Sir Andrew Caldecott, Governor of Ceylon, speaking in Tamil, asked people to not panic. The death toll was only 50, “much less than the daily casualties from the street accidents in London,” he tried to reassure.

The same month, a single Japanese plane fired at Cocanada (Kakinada), a port town 700 km north of Madras, damaging two ships. and on the same afternoon at 1.45 pm, a small group of planes attacked Visakhapatnam.

In spite of censorship, Madras was scared. Blackouts were issued in the night. Defence of India Act made the Marina Beach a prohibited area between lighting-up time and sunrise and anyone found there after sunset, which ironically included fishermen, were fined. Trenches were dug along the roads for people to hide after air raid warnings were given.

The lights on the Marina Beach were fully extinguished. Glass windows had to be removed. Trees were not supposed to be cut. To hide the city from a Japanese bomber seemed the primary motive.

In the midst of all this, the city resorted to a pestilential pastime of rumour-mongering. Every noise was suspect. Every bird in the sky was frightening.

However, Madras was not altogether unprepared for the eventuality of an aerial attack. Preparations went on in full swing. Some very drastic ones too. Madras had a century-old zoo. The municipal corporation started wondering, “What if a stray bomb opened up the zoological garden?”

Realising that wild animals let loose would be a major problem to the city, the governments issued a culling order to dispose of the animals. The zookeepers must have dispatched the animals with mixed feelings.

Herbivores were dispatched by special trains to Erode and carnivores by guns. Three lions, six lionesses, four tigers, eight leopards, four bears and a black panther were shot in the matter of an hour.

The British government thought an air attack and a seaborne invasion of Madras was imminent. But of what interest was Madras to the Japanese? It was just a sleepy town in the corner of the empire. Perhaps, the Japanese intelligence knew more about Madras and particularly its suburb Avadi than the locals under censorship.

Avadi is described in 1946 as the largest military base of its kind in India and possibly the British empire. Built at the cost of Rs 8 crore, it covered 20 square miles and was entirely self-supporting with water and electricity.

It had multiple airfields and a huge railway within. Three transit hospitals nursed the allied soldiers hurt in the war. The Avadi base employed 10,000 people in an ordnance depot and could repair guns, tanks, lorries and even amphibious aircraft ( seaplanes landed in the nearby Red Hills water reservoir). There were even theatres and swimming pools for the staff.

Censorship didn’t last long in Madras. Thousands of refugees from Burma landed there. And with them came stories of Japanese cruelties in conquered areas. People were scared to the hilt. Obviously to their mind, Madras lay next in line, helpless like meat on a butcher’s table.

When the government issued an advisory on 13 April for people to move away from exposed positions, even Gandhi advised: “There is no cowardice in orderly withdrawal. Moving to villages will help the city defence to work better.”

Then commenced the biggest evacuation in the history of Madras. The rural areas seemed like paradise in comparison and five lakh people moved away from the city. Trains were full. The highways were demarcated for fast and slow traffic. Those exiting by bullock carts used the Kodambakkam-Sriperumbudur route for slower traffic and automobiles used Madras-Poonamallee-Kundrathur Road meant for fast traffic.

The government was under no delusion either. The collector, high court and the government moved away from their Beach Road premises. Banks moved inland or shut shop. Businesses lowered their shutters.

There ensued a shortage of locks, for people wanted to secure their homes before leaving Madras. There rose a gang of robbers who specialised only in stealing locks that were being sold at a premium in the black market.

But in two to three months, luckily for Madras, the tide turned in the war. The Japanese were being beaten clearly in the Pacific and were on the back foot. Madras was not a japanese priority any longer when they needed to defend the territories they had captured.

Many of the evacuees started returning to Madras. By July-end, news about evacuees and their problems almost disappeared from the newspapers and it was clear that the city had almost come back to its normal self.

However, there was an anti-climax to this series of events. There was a torrential downpour in the month of October and the city was severely flooded. The two rivers Cooum and Adyar even linked up and the city was under a blanket of water.

And when the city was grappling with flood rehabilitation measures and cleaning up the mess, the Japanese struck, though in a feeble way.

On the night of 11 October 1943, a single Japanese reconnaissance plane dropped a few bombs resulting in, what the government claimed as, ‘light damages’ and casualties.

Strangely, the ARP (Air Raid Precautions) unit did not sound any alarm or warning siren to alert people. The government took two weeks to explain this failure, finally saying it had not operated the alarms since the floods had damaged the electrical supply.

With no alarms and no newspapers, the people did not even know they had been bombed for a week. Less than 10 persons had been killed, other than some livestock. But soon, rumours spread that the Japanese had bombed the reservoirs, and hence the flood.

In 1945, when the Japanese surrendered, Governor Hope took a salute at the Monroe statue during the victory march past. Soldiers danced on the streets. The people were relieved and special pujas and abisekams were done in the temples of Madras in the name of the king emperor.

The World War marks an epoch in the history of Madras. It was not written in blood as in other parts of the globe. But it left Madras’ residents deeply seared by fate's unkindness as a faraway war changed their lifestyles for five long years.

For those years, their disposition was far from cheerful, and though there were few casualties, their life was soured.

Venkatesh Ramakrishnan is a bilingual novelist and historian. He authored the sequel to Kalki’s ‘Ponniyin Selvan’ and a novel on Delhi Sultanate’s invasion of South India called ‘Gods, Kings and Slaves’. He specialises in the history of Madras city. 

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