Chennai: “The British couldn’t have come through both wars if they hadn’t had the Indian Army,” said Field Marshal Claude Auchinleck, Commander in Chief of the British Indian Army in 1942. World War 2 changed the course of our history as we know it.
This week marks its 80th anniversary. The Russian center of science and culture have organised a photo exhibition until 7 September that shows the days of Madras during the great war. Senior assistant professor at Presidency College, Dr Anbu Arumugam, former Air Marshal of the Indian Air Force, M Matheswaran and professor and head of department of politics at University of Madras, R Manivannan along with consul general of Russia, Oleg Avdeev took part in a panel discussion to speak about the war.
Madrasis and the Britishers feared that our city will be bombed by the Japenese or the Germans. As Japan continued to spread its territorial region from the East, so did the Germans from Europe. Madras was a strategically and politically vital capital for the British Empire. Naturally, the Axis powers had their eyes on our home town.
“We had a large population, most British Empire’s government offices were here and we also had a large military base in Avadi,” said writer and historian, R Venketesh who curated the photographs.
It is said that the staffs working at the military factory were sworn to secrecy not to reveal the nature of their job. Interestingly, back in those days, the Redhills reservoir was used by the Britishers to land amphibian military aircrafts!
“The threat of war loomed throughout World War 2,” said Venketesh. “People were scared. Nearly one-third of the population left.” The Britishers shifted their Government offices to other cities and neighboring towns. Thousands thronged the streets and left with their belongings.
There is a painting at the exhibition that depicts “refugees” leaving their homes. “Main roads were split into two to regulate the traffic,” said R Venketesh. “One was for people moving on bullock carts or by walk, while the other way was for people traveling in cars.”
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The Britishers took several actions to be prepared for the war. Their coffers were running dry as war in the European theatre severely deteriorated their wealth. As a result, they forced several laws to their occupied colonies. Among which were the restrictions to consume rice. “Idlis were nearly banned and the Britishers encouraged people to consume more wheat,” said R Venketesh.
The demand for locks rose high as Madrasis started leaving the city. Very few were available in shops. So people were forced to buy from the black market, which was stolen by burglars from homes that were locked by residents who left town. “It was a cycle that affected the city for a long time,” said Venketesh.
Also, the Madras Zoo followed a protocol which is done during war. “Wild animals like lions, panthers were shot dead,” said Venketesh. “The elephants were left as there were no people around to bury them.” This drastic move is done to prevent animals from escaping their enclosures if a zoo is bombed by enemy forces.
During the war, blackouts were common in Madras. “Grandparents in your home would have experienced it,” told Venkesteh to students gathered. Advertisements and posters selling thick curtains, black paints were aplenty. Spencers & Co Ltd at Mount Road was a hub for war safety equipment.
The Britishers also ordered people not to organise large gatherings. There is a photo on display where a resident “PT Rajan” advertises about his daughter’s wedding saying, “In view of the present food situation, I am not in a position to issue invitation to relations and friends for the function… no presents please.” Other advertisements that consistently appeared was from the Indian Air Force calling out for pilots, agencies telling people to be insured before air raids, and donations to offer for the Madras War Front.
Madras is the only city in India to be bombed during the World Wars. During the Second World War, citizens came to know about the bombings after four days! Japanese aircraft flew over our city and dropped arsenals. Severe floods had lashed Madras and the city was dropped into darkness at that time. “With no electricity or radio, people came to know about it later,” said R Venketesh. The panelists encouraged students to take part in more such sessions and to learn our history.