The only person to possibly have witnessed the Japanese bombing of Calcutta (Kolkata) during WWII were my paternal grandparents. I have never seen my maternal grandparents thus never would know their version of the history. My grandmother was a born storyteller, a prolific writer she had the finesse to tell stories and she told it in a way which would surely attract anyone especially a 10-year-old boy which was me. My grandfather was on the other had a man of few words and would be busy in his own world writing diaries and listening to radio something which he continued to do even when cable television had arrived and continued until his death.
Of all the stories that my grandmother would tell me the stories of war would interest me the most. She would tell us about how the windows were all covered up with newspapers to prevent light getting out during an air raid and how the street lights were all covered up from the top so that the lights would not show up skywards. There were also air raid shelters dug up in our locality and all the people would rush to them once the air raid siren would set off.
Fortunately, none of the bombs fell anywhere near to Ballygunge but they did elsewhere in the city. Since my grandmother had very less access to open information which we now luckily have due to the advent of Internet she for most relied on the newspaper to report on the bomb raids. As the norm, during any war, the news reports are censored and often reported to show less casualty or less damage to the home front so as to not spread panic amongst the civilians. Instead more often they carried news of Allied victories against such raids.
With the limited information, she would tell us how the bombs mostly fell in the open fields of Maidan which in a way were true but they also did fall on other parts of the city especially at the Kidderpore docks. My grandmother was an ardent supporter of the freedom movement especially the non-peaceful one thus her support was always for the INA (Indian National Army) which had been fighting from the Burma front along with the Japanese.
She always felt that the son of the soil Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose would never harm the citizens of the city and would always drop the bombs just to scare the British. In reality, however, this was very different, the Japanese Imperial Army was under massive pressure from the Chinese Front and they were actually struggling. The Chinese were being supported with arms, ammunitions and the most important with fuel by the Allied forces. And all of these were trickling into China from India. As difficult it may sound today but almost all of the shipments to China and Burma were landing at Calcutta (Kolkata) at Kidderpore docks from where they were transported by multiple trains (due to the difference in railways line gauges) passing Bengal, Assam and to China/Burma.
Remarkably fuel supply was done all the way to China from Budge Budge by using pressurized pipelines. That is another story which I shall tell you in another blog. So in a gist Calcutta (Kolkata) was a pain in the neck for the Japanese Imperial Army and they had to do something to stop the supply chain and get a breather since they were on the back foot in the Burma and China front with the Allied forces slowly taking back occupied territories.
The initial air raids were mainly night raids with a smaller number of bombers. These bombing raids were less accurate since back then the bombs were not laser or GPS guided but bombed on a prior selected target area which was pointed on maps. Night raids were safe for the Japanese since the chances for retaliation were limited.
This all changed on a December morning when the Imperial Japanese Army Air Service (IJAAS) raided the docs of Kidderpore perhaps this audacious attack with a huge number of bombers was a last ditch attempt to disrupt the supply lines from Kolkata. This raid was the deadliest of all with death toll reported to be nearly 500. A large number of coolie (porters) at the dock were killed along with a massive damage to the ships stationed at the dock. Even the allied forces suffered losses with many deaths in the air raids followed by the counter air attack by the allied air forces some of whom were killed while attacking back.
There are many articles available only which describes these air raids and I am not going to repeat them in details, instead of in this blog I have tried to map the places which were bombed in the city. All these sites were listed from the various documents that exist along with some newer ones which I have managed to get through various official sources. What I am trying to attempt is to show you the places that were bombed, I have some old visuals of those sites and will compare them with how they look now. Most of these places have drastically changed over the years but surprisingly some places still look the same the day it was bombed.
Japanese Bombing Raids
The Japanese had bombed the city of Calcutta (Kolkata) from 1942 – 1944 around three years. While the Allied forces responded by arranging to position squadrons of Hurricanes, Spitfires, Typhoons, Lysanders, Beaufighters at air bases around the city. The British built a large airstrip at Baigachi (near Dankuni) along with using the existing infrastructure at Dumdum Airport making it one of the busiest in the world. At a later stage, even ground based radars were brought in along with a Balloon Squadron (read my earlier blog to know more about them).
Red Road (Maidan) in Calcutta (Kolkata) was transformed into landing strips overnight. Some historians point out this activity to more of a morale booster to the local population rather than practical usage. All the open fields around the Maidan area were converted into open warehouses housing jeeps, oil tankers, and other engineering divisions. Apart from this Salbani Airfield, Madhaiganj Airfield and Chakulia Airfield were also used.
Kidderpore dock was bustling with activity as all these hardware’s were flowing into this region from the dock. Majerhat Railways Station was also a key junction point since most of the military equipment being transported to the western Chinese provinces were placed on railways goods carriage and transported up to the Assam frontiers through to China.
As per multiple sources, I have got the following verified dates of Japanese air raids on the city. However, as per reports, there were many such raids in between which I shall keep updating once I get verified sources.
The notable was the first bomb raids on the nights of 20th December 1942 followed by raids on 21st and 22nd of December. That Christmas season saw multiple day sorties notably the 24th December Christmas Eve raids. The next major air raid was next year on 15th of January 1943. Most of these bombing raids were done with smaller (lighter) bombs since the distance between the Japanese bases and Calcutta was too long for heavy bombs to be flown thus the damages were relatively low but did cause some casualties.
I have tried to bring together the names of prominent places which were affected by the Japanese night raids some of which are Central Telegraph Office, Mango Lane – Messrs MacKenzie Lyall & Co., Ismaili Jamaat Khana, A C Mohammed and Co at Bentinck Street, Northern end of Maidan Lyall Marshall & Company (4 Fairlie Place), a vegetable market in North Kolkata (most probably Hatibagan), and in front of Great Eastern Hotel. There may be others but till now I have managed to track these and if in future I get additional information then will add on to the list.
Kidderpore Dock Yard Raid
The most disastrous attack on the city was on 5th December 1943 on the Kidderpore dock yard killing around 335 – 500 people. Maximum of the victims of this raid were coolies and laborers sleeping in their quarters. Unlike previous night raids, this was day time raid something which the allied forces had not anticipated and the squadrons meant for defending the city had just returned to Calcutta from Chittagong and were just not ready to retaliate.
The RAF (Royal Air Force) somehow managed to scramble Hurricane & Spitfire to counter the attack but it was late and no match to the massive scale of the attack. The desperate Imperial Japanese Army Air Service (IJAAS) who flew all the way from the Andaman Islands flew over the Bay of Bengal to attack the city. The ground radars failed to detect the incoming aircraft since at that time the radars were not so accurate and the ground operators could not judge if they were heading towards Chittagong or coming towards Calcutta.
Japanese made a sly tactic (Operation R1) previously before this massive attack by constantly air raiding Chittagong which forced some of the squadrons to shift base from Calcutta and with fantastic intelligence on the ground they exactly knew the void in the city’s defense.
The Japanese were perhaps desperate to break the supply line and attacked with 18 Mitsubishi ki-21 (Heavy Bomber), 9 Mitsubishi G4M (Twin Engine Bomber), a large number of Nakajima ki-43 (Single Engine Tactical Fighter) & Mitsubishi A6M Zero (Long Range Fighter).
Unlike the previous bombing raids which used light bombs this raid, however, used high impact bombs clearly meant for large scale destruction. Massive numbers of bombs were dropped in the dockyard and also along the rail lines all the way up to Majerhat. At the dock three merchant vessels were damaged along with one navy vessel. Fifteen barrages were also damaged in the air raids.
RAF fighters suffered massively against the incoming Japanese attack. Their Hurricanes were no match to the swift and agile Nakajima Ki-43 and Mitsubishi A6M Zero. A total of nine Hurricanes were shot down by the Japanese in the ensuing dog fights in contrast only one Mitsubishi Ki-21 and another being just damaged. One Nakajima Ki-43 had to do a forced landing as it had run out of fuel.
The Last of the Raids
24th December 1944 saw the very last the Japanese attacked Calcutta (Kolkata) after which they shifted their focus away from the Burmese/Indian front concentrating more on protecting their already retreating fronts in China as well as their ongoing battle in the Pacific.
I am unable to post recent photographs of the dock and railway station that were damaged in the air raids due to security issues at these places, especially the dock yard, is a strict no photography zone but for the very first time ever you can see the actual photographs of the aftermath of the Kidderpore bombing air raids. It took me months of research to get these and I am thankful to the US Army Combat Camera Unit for filming it in the first place.
This blog is dedicated to the memories of my grandmother who actually inspired me to write this blog in the first place. I am sure she would have told a better story if she had the information that I am currently having.
All the information in this blog has been collected from multiple sources like:-
Chicago Tribune which is perhaps the only western newspaper mentioning the casualties at the dockyard bombings. The Statesman which mentions about the first air raid in the city. Gian Paolo for the details of the dockyard raid. BBC War History for some details of the air raids and the type of allied aircraft used for protecting the city.
In the Districts of the Raj by Y.D. Gundevia for highlighting some of the bombed locations within the city. Amitabha Gupta for the reference of Chicago Tribune.
Shaikh Sohail for traveling with me in Kolkata summer sun helping me to track the original building. Peter Garwood BBRC for providing perhaps the most valuable document the dock bomb locations. Last but not the least family members of RAF who have thoughtfully shared critical information.