While writing the blog about the places bombed by Japanese in Calcutta one name that often crept up was “Baigachi RAF Airfield”. For some time I was not being able to locate its exact position since the name of the locality has changed and has nothing to do with an airfield anymore.
The one reference that kept coming up was a locality located 50 kilometers northeast of Kolkata. I could finally track down an old newspaper mentioning the airfield and what was being done with it after the end of WWII. Finally, I could place Baigachi on the map and I could close another piece of the puzzle of WWII and Calcutta.
History of Baigachi RAF Airfield
A vast part of WWII only concentrates on Europe and completely ignores Asia especially Sri Lanka and India. In India, the main focus of the Japanese was that of Calcutta especially its ports. Calcutta proved to be a lifeline for the supply of oil, machinery, and arms support for China and Burma.
The Japanese army had already occupied Burma and their next move was to attack the heart of India by striking at Chittagong and Calcutta. In Calcutta, they were targeting Kidderpore dock and King Geroge Dock which were aiding the allies to bring in supplies through ships. Additionally, the Japanese were also targeting communication networks especially in central Kolkata around the Dalhousie area.
The Japanese Air force was sending reconnaissance aircraft before a showdown and it was important to move some of the squadrons out of Dum Dum and create multiple backups. Calcutta then was protected by airfields in Dum Dum, Alipore, Barrackpore and a makes shift strip at Red Road in central Calcutta.
The RAF airfield at Baigachi was constructed specially to defend Calcutta and its housed No. 81, No. 152, No. 155 Squadron (Spitfires MK V and MK VIII), No. 176 Squadron (Bristrol Beaufighter MkV IF) around 8 and Airborne Interception Hurricanes.
Some of the Beaufighter was equipped with radar to track incoming Japanese aircraft apart from the ground radar at Assam and Burma border. Ground watchtowers were also established at regular intervals to provide exact movement details.
Before the arrivals of the Beaufighter, the city lacked in night-time advance attack and defense, and with much of the attacks coming at night these squadrons from Baigachi proved a strong wall of defense.
The infamous 1943 Boxing Day attack on Calcutta was tracked by the radar and the Baigachi Airfield was alerted accordingly. Eight Spitfires took off to the sky to face the Japanese at 8 AM. The Japanese tactfully selected Boxing Day assuming that the troops would surely have celebrated a long Christmas night and would be sloppy to respond. Mitsubishi Ki-46 reconnaissance aircraft with air to air missile capability had entered from the South East. The Spitfires managed to track the fleet and bring down quite a few of them with a perfect kill.
Location of Baigachi RAF Airfield
The locality is now known as Ashoknagar Kalyangarh and is often dubbed as a sister town of Kalyani. This place comes under Barasat Subdivision.
If you go now you will surely be disappointed since this locality has no memorial or any marker of its past. Several airmen had given their lives to defend the city of Calcutta and now we have completely forgotten about them.
It was difficult to place the airstrip on the satellite map online since the old photograph of the runway did not have location pointers. It took me some time to superimpose the old airport photo on the satellite image and then mapping out certain markers like ponds and main arterial roads. Finally, after a few days of hard work, I was able to get the exact position of the runway on the satellite map.
With the freedom of India in 1947, there was also a huge number of refugees from East Pakistan (Bangladesh) who had come to places around Kolkata. The state government decided to develop this as a satellite township for the refugees. Around 12,000 houses were planned for the refugees to settle down. This would become a planned satellite township similar to the ones that we see in Kalyani and would cater to middle-class refugees only who can purchase the land on direct cash payment or hire purchase.
Since Kolkata was already served by Dum Dum Airport (Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose International Airport) thus it was no need to keep this additional airstrip functional after the end of WWII.
What Can Be Seen At Baigachi Now?
There is no evidence of the airstrip or the hangars as these were all demolished for building housing colonies. However, what surprisingly remains are four Sun Pens (Sun Shelters). These are small concrete sheds long enough to house a single aircraft for basic repairs, testing, and pre-flight arrangements. These provided a small shaded area from the sun and rain to help the engineers attend to the aircraft.
These Sun Pens were located a bit far from the main airstrip to keep the aircraft under camouflage in the event of an aerial attack the airstrip can easily be spotted from the top but difficult to spot a Sun Pen far away amongst trees.
Somehow these structures have remained untouched and still very much visible. The locals however mistake these for aircraft hangars.
The first one has been converted to cowsheds and you need to navigate between cows and buffaloes to reach the structures. The locals will surely start asking you strange questions as to your actual motive etc. Just tell them that you are interested in British period history.
The Second one is in its best shape as a boundary wall has been built around it and a local municipal building has been constructed within the premises which I presume is a community hall. The gate was locked so I had to jump over the fence to go close to the structures. The structures have surprisingly survived nearly 70 years without any maintenance. At some portions, the concrete has weathered off revealing the thick iron rebar which is possibly the reason why these have survived so many years.
The third one is also a cow shed now and the most difficult to access since it has been cordoned off. I casually walked in through the gate and clicked some quick photographs before the business owners who were up ahead could figure out what I was doing.
The fourth one has small huts built underneath and the locals do give you a strange look which I assume is due to their illegal occupation of government land.
Apart from these structures, nothing else has survived. Since a lot of construction work has been done over the years for building houses nothing else of the airfield has survived.
It has always intrigued me as to why no one talks about WWII and South Asia especially Calcutta and Colombo as these two places were heavily attacked and were under the constant radar of the Japanese Imperial Army. We should at least put up a commemoration plaque at Baigachi honoring the several men who laid down their lives to protect Calcutta for a direct attack from the air.
Location Of Sun Pen at Baigachi On Map
Other Blogs On WWII and Calcutta
Spitfire: The Biography by Jonathan Glancey
Air Battle for Burma: Allied Pilots’ Fight for Supremacy by Bryn Evans
Beaufighter Aces of World War 2 by Andrew Thomas
Alistair D N Edwards