The Bengal Famine – Was Churchill to Blame?

This is an extract from my book Burma 44:

 Before heading across the Bay of Bengal, the men and tanks of the 25th Dragoons were based briefly at barracks to the south of the centre of Calcutta. Because it was suspected that the city was seething with Japanese agents, the tanks were hidden away in a secret compound at the docks. The men would go there every day to carry out the waterproofing needed before the crossed the sea; this involved filling any water-admitting slits and other openings with softened pitch and adding extended and vertical exhaust pipes. This was essential because the landing beaches on the far side were long and shallow, which meant the landing ships would hit the bottom further out than was ideal and as a result the tanks would have to disembark into 5 feet of water. The last thing anyone wanted was for these precious machines to break down and be left stranded in the sea.

This brief stay did, however, mean the men could head into the city. For a young British soldier like Tom Grounds with a bit of back-pay in his pocket, the heart of Calcutta offered much: there was the Maidan, the large central park at the city’s heart, there were cinemas (where he  watched Gone With the Wind for the first time), restaurants offering Chinese and European food, bars, clubs and sports – and brothels too.  Grounds reckoned the Chinese restaurants were the cleanest so these were where he tended to head. The food was plentiful enough and like nectar after long months of unappetizing rations, while the hotel he was staying in was clean and with a pleasant view over a lake surrounded by trees.

Calcutta, the former British capital of India, was a vast city and still reeling from the catastrophic famine that had struck Bengal in the early summer of 1943. Tom Grounds had last been there in September, during a brief stint of leave, and had felt severe pangs of guilt that he, as a white European soldier on leave, had been getting plenty of food and enjoying what downtown Calcutta had to offer when the Bengalis themselves were so obviously suffering badly. Grounds had been shocked by the poverty and utter wretchedness of many of the Indians, while at night, during the blackout, he and his mates had found themselves stumbling over the mass of starving people forced to live – and die – on the streets.

The famine was now, at the beginning of December, abating, but it had left as many as three million dead from Bengal’s population of more than sixty million, a humanitarian disaster of truly gargantuan proportions. It had been caused by a terrible combination of factors. A cyclone had hit Bengal the previous autumn – one of the reasons the Arakan offensive had been delayed – and had brought three separate tidal waves that had wiped out 450 square miles, badly affected a further 400 square miles and damaged another 3,200 square miles. These floods alone had ruined or severely damaged the homes and livelihoods of as many as 2.5 million Bengalis. A fungus then hit much of what rice stocks remained, while the misery of the people had already been heightened by the confiscation of river craft earlier in the year when the British had been trying to stem the Japanese advance and the threat of an enemy invasion of India. There had been a concerted effort at relief, not only in terms of food, but also in loans and grants of money for boats in those areas where they were permitted, and for new homes – but not in time to prevent catastrophe.

Most Bengalis lived an extremely precarious existence. Some ten million were utterly dependent on agriculture, but of these more than half held less than 2 acres of land and many none at all. There was charity and relief but no social welfare; they had to fend for themselves. Through the first half of 1943 food prices had increased dramatically. In some parts of India rice remained at around 8 rupees a maund (around 37 kilograms), but in Bengal it had risen to Rs.21 per maund at the start of the year and by August was more than Rs.31. This was due in part to the shortages in Bengal but also to increased demand for the feeding of troops in India, as well as demand from around the world. It was artisans who suffered first, because as poverty increased so the money available for goods dried up. Then the shortages hit the wider Bengali population, many of whom left the country for the cities. By the time Tom Grounds was on leave in Calcutta, the city was bursting with the influx of impoverished families searching for food.

Yet while the cost of food was certainly a factor, the biggest problem now facing the authorities was how to get food to Bengal and urgently. The state had already been an importer of food for over a decade and most of it had come from Burma, now closed to India. The loss of Burma had been disastrous for Bengal’s fragile economy and the subsequent cyclone had made it catastrophic. Where else could it be sourced? North America and South America were the obvious places, but the amount needed was enormous and would have required a major diversion of shipping at a time when the demands on such seaborne transport  had never been greater.

That August, Churchill was not prepared suddenly to release shipping to take food to Bengal; however draconian that may seem, far away in Britain the problems of the Bengalis seemed less pressing than the urgent need to maintain supplies at a crucial moment in the war. Britain and America were fighting in Sicily – an island that could be supplied effectively only by ship; they were about to invade mainland Italy, which also required an amphibious operation and supply; they were preparing for the invasion of north-west Europe; and they were fighting the Japanese throughout the Pacific. Was Churchill really expected to interrupt the war effort, and current operations, with millions of lives at stake in theatres of war around the world? Who was to say what effect such a diversion of shipping would have on the eventual length of the war, with its implications for further loss of life? In any case, ships could not be diverted from the far side of the Atlantic, for example, at the drop of a hat. Churchill was not to blame.

Not all India was facing famine – only Bengal and the north-east. One problem was that, in 1935, the government had ceded considerable central power to the provinces, where the regional governments were all democratically elected. The previous year, 1942, these had all agreed to introduce trade barriers between one another. The central government of India now announced there should be free trade in grain, but plans to send relief to Bengal had been obstructed by local government officers, police and other officials who feared their own provinces risked suffering a similar fate to that of Bengal. Wavell, in one of his first acts as Viceroy-Designate, had forced the issue by threatening legal and even military action,  and by August substantial amounts of grain had finally begun to arrive in Bengal.

It was, however, too little too late to bring a swift end to the humanitarian disaster rising horrifically throughout the region. Relief kitchens hastily set up in Calcutta and elsewhere were simply not enough. With malnutrition came disease; those not dying of starvation were just as likely to succumb to typhus, malaria or cholera, and there were not enough hospitals or medical care to cope.

The famine had certainly been exacerbated by the war and by the fact that the Indian government had prioritized combatting the Japanese above all other matters. Yet the authorities, although slow to react, were certainly not immune to the horrors unfolding and, of course, while the tragedy of human suffering was truly appalling, the famine was yet another massive problem for the Allied command to overcome. It stretched already overstretched lines of supply, pushed the limited medical services to breaking point, affected food supplies to the troops, further sapped the morale of those who witnessed the starving, dying and dead throughout Bengal, and damaged the reputation of the British even more, and all at a time when there was a new Viceroy and Commander-in-Chief.

Back in September, Tom Grounds had made his own small contribution to the disaster relief. ‘In view of the widespread famine here,’ he had written in a letter to his parents, ‘I sent a subscription of 30 rupees to the cathedral fund towards the maintenance of the relief food kitchens.’ It was not much, but it was something.[i]

This time around, in early December, Grounds was no longer stepping over the dead and dying, but he was all too aware of the febrile atmosphere in Calcutta, one of India’s most politicized cities. One night, in the Indian Coffee House, he and some friends got talking to a group of Indians and the conversation soon turned to Home Rule and the Quit India Campaign. One of the Indians quoted Sir Walter Scott: ‘Breathes there the man with soul so dead, who never to himself hath said: “This is my own, my native land!”. . .’

‘There was really no answer to this,’ noted Grounds, ‘except that the Japs had to be defeated first.’[ii]


The Quit India movement had been gathering momentum before the war, led by the Indian National Congress. This growing nationalism, led by men like Jawaharlal Nehru and Muhammad Ali Jinnah, but with Mahatma Gandhi as its undoubted spiritual head, had declared in 1930 that complete independence from British rule was their primary goal, and there had been a mounting inevitability within the British Raj that this could not be too long in coming. With the onset of hostilities, however, Britain had made it clear there could be no independence until the fighting was over; Indians and British alike had to pull together to rid the world of a grievous threat first. As the British quite reasonably pointed out, no matter how much Indians might resent British supremacy and rule in India, they faced considerably more draconian and even brutal rule from the Nazis or Imperial Japanese. The message was clear: help win the war, and then talks about independence can begin.

Yet the catastrophes that had befallen the British and the ruthlessness with which they had reacted to these disasters had prompted a further rise in nationalism. The once mighty British had revealed themselves to be weaker than supposed, and furthermore, in the ignominy of surrender and retreat, their treatment of Indians had been perceived to be at best callous and at worst murderous.

Particular fuel to the nationalist flame had come during the traumatic retreat from Burma. The country was inextricably linked to India, even though it was a separate nation. Rich in timber, oil and numerous metals, as well as rice and cash crops, Burma had provided a home and livelihood to as many as a million Indians. While the then C-in-C India, Field Marshal Wavell, and his subordinate commanders had their hands full trying to get what remained of British forces and equipment clear of the advancing Japanese and safely back into India, so the million Indians in Burma faced a terrifying and desperate choice: stay in Burma and face the potential brutality of the Japanese, or risk fleeing to India too, across a country with no railway, minimal roads, plenty of mountains, thick jungle and a host of noxious diseases . Exhaustion, hunger and dysentery were just some of the other hardships to be faced, while those still struggling with the long trek in May would then encounter the horror of the monsoon. In the end, more than half decided to flee, and of those 600,000, as many as 80,000 never made it.

The scenes of starving, emaciated and ill refugees pouring into Bengal were almost as shocking as the sight of defeated and equally foot-sore Indian Army troops. These were images that further undermined British supremacy. Word spread, as did the knowledge that British and other white civilians had been given preferential treatment – not least because they could afford it – in the evacuation of Burma. ‘Hundreds, if not thousands, on their way from Burma perished without food and drink,’ Gandhi told American journalists, ‘and the wretched discrimination stared even these miserable people in the face. One route for whites, another for the blacks!’[iii]

In this climate of fear about an imminent Japanese invasion, British India had reacted in much the same way that Britain itself had responded in the face of the fall of France in May and June of 1940: recruitment posters for the armed forces everywhere, the hurried building of air-raid shelters, particularly in the east and in Bengal, advertisements for blood donors, and V for Victory signs. More significantly, however, a number of  repressive measures had been enforced, including the clamping down of the free press and civil liberties – all in the interest of the war effort and maintaining morale. While these infringements had been, for the most part, taken on the chin in Britain, in India the nationalists merely claimed them as further examples of British tyranny.

These measures were imposed by the civilian government, which, at the time was headed by Lord Linlithgow, the then Viceroy, although such matters were decided hand in hand with the military command of Wavell, whose task it was to inform and advise on all military matters, including civil defence. It was Wavell and his staff, for example, who had urged the need for a stringent ‘denial policy’ – or scorched earth. The British were fully aware that Japan was a resource-poor country and that one of the prime reasons for its war of conquest was to gain access to the resources it needed without having to pay the west for the right to do so. Too many of Singapore’s and Malaya’s resources had fallen into the hands of the Japanese, and the British were determined that such bounty should not come their way again in Burma or India. In the former, the British had destroyed oil installations in what became the largest oil fire the world has ever known, while extensive preparations were made for similar action to be taken in Bengal, Assam, Bihar and Orissa in eastern India. In case of invasion, all power stations and oil refineries would be destroyed, as would the port facilities of Calcutta and Chittagong, as well as all wireless and telegraph stations. Railways were to be broken up and rolling stock removed, while all river craft were also to be destroyed.

Because the much-feared invasion had not yet happened, many of these preparations remained just that. There had been, however, one exception. In March 1942, the Governor of Bengal, under pressure from Wavell’s Headquarters, announced that all boats in southern Bengal were to be forcibly destroyed. By the end of the year, more than twenty thousand had been broken up, requisitioned or removed to reception stations. It had been a political and humanitarian disaster, and a decision made prematurely on a purely military basis rather than one that recognized the very delicate nature of the Bengali economy and way of life. ‘To deprive the people in East Bengal of their boats is like cutting off a vital limb,’ Gandhi declared.[iv]

He was not exaggerating. Around the coastal areas the land was richly fertile but criss-crossed with a mass of rivers and waterways. With the lack of roads – and bridges – boats were not just the main means of travelling but crucial to the existence of millions. Without boats, many Bengalis would be deprived of their livelihoods. Fishermen could no longer trade; the coastal trade of goods also all but ceased in parts of southern Bengal.

To make matters worse, the war had already forced food prices to rise – caused by the demands of the military, problems of supply and local protectionism. In Britain, for the most part, the civilian population had embraced rationing and the call to produce home-grown crops even in the smallest of gardens. Such a policy was not possible in India, where most people already ate fewer calories a day than was healthy and where the climate was far more extreme and erratic.

The retreat from Burma, the stringent measures against the Bengali boat people, rising food prices and loss of confidence in their colonial masters all added fuel to the Quit India Campaign’s fire. Gandhi was especially vocal and unequivocal: the time for the British to leave India was not some ill-defined moment after the war, but now. It was also apparent that members of Congress were travelling the country and holding meetings and discussions regionally about whether to embark on a campaign of civil disobedience. In July, the Congress Working Committee even passed a resolution recommending such a campaign, which was then confirmed by the All-India Congress Committee. The government was having none of it, however; this was war, and the Raj was in crisis. Action was swift: in early August 1942 the Congress leaders, Nehru and Gandhi included, were arrested and imprisoned at Ahmednagar Fort in central India. They were still there now, nearly a year and a half later, at the end of 1943.

Initially, the response to these arrests was pretty muted, but by the middle of August 1942 many parts of India were in open revolt. Peasants and millworkers, the disenfranchised and the impoverished, fuelled by underground activists – who were, in fact, quite separate from Congress – began to protest, sabotage, disrupt and even murder. There were bomb attacks in Bombay and Poona, government buildings and post offices were torched, telegraph poles uprooted, Raj officials attacked by mobs.

The response was fast and ruthless. British troops may have been trounced by the Japanese, but as a colonial police force they proved to be on surer turf. Fortunately for Wavell, who as C-in-C had the task of trying to subdue the uprising, few Indian troops seemed to be much impressed by the rebellion, highlighting the huge gulf between soldiers and civilians in India. Nonetheless, Wavell was forced to use some fifty-seven infantry battalions – around fifty thousand men – as well as aircraft to deal with the disturbances.

Among those battalions brought in to help restore the peace were the 1st Battalion, Somerset Light Infantry. They had been serving on the North-West Frontier but after a long spell battling rebellious Pathans had been posted to New Delhi to carry out viceregal guard duty. New Delhi was quite a change from the sparse, remote frontier, and the men enjoyed all the amenities on offer, from swimming pools and cinemas to sports, bars and restaurants. Suddenly, though, the easy life of ceremonial duties was over and the companies were spread throughout the city and working alongside the police. ‘It was a bit tricky,’ said Philip Pasterfield, then the Battalion Signals Officer. ‘I mean, you could never take a military lorry down the Chandni Chowk , which was the richest street in Old Delhi, unless you had the truck protected by wire mesh, because nasty things like bottles full of petrol could be thrown.’[v] Part of Pasterfield’s duties was to oversee the setting up of an alternative signals system between the companies based in the Red Fort and the one at Roshana Gardens in case the telephone lines were cut. ‘So I had to have heliographs and signalling lamps and radios and so on,’ he said.

The worry for the British was that the uprising was taking place with direct collusion between Congress and the Japanese. As it happened, nothing could have been further from the truth, but it underlined to Wavell the necessity of acting swiftly and decisively. What followed were mass arrests and detentions without trial, lashings and collective fines, all carried out under the blanket of the Defence of India rules. On a number of occasions troops opened fire on the mob, and in the six weeks of the uprising at least a thousand were killed, although some claimed the figure was more than double that. By the autumn of 1942 the uprising was over, but for many Indians it was unfinished business.

Although much has been made since of the August uprising, a large part of the population remained rather indifferent about who actually ran the country. Captain Philip Pasterfield, for example, did not see much trouble himself, even though he was in New Delhi, which had been one of the pressure spots. A much bigger concern was what might happen once the British left India, which they all knew could not be too far off. The battalion had a number of Indians working for them, both Muslims and Hindus. Pasterfield’s Muslim bearer would often tell him that when the British left they would kill every Hindu they could find all the way to Bombay. ‘You know,’ said Pasterfield, ‘with a sort of cheerful smile.’[vi]

The Quit India Campaign and the human catastrophe of the Bengal famine both ensured Britain’s war against Japan was harder than it might otherwise have been. They also added significantly to that increasingly urgent imperative to get on with the campaign and beat the Japanese. If they suffered yet another reverse, not only would the global humiliation be immense, but the British knew they would most likely face open revolt and civil breakdown in India too.

It was just another reason why defeat was so utterly unthinkable.




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