Impressions of India

On March 15th 1943 I sailed from Liverpool with thousands of other service men and women in a convoy of ships 40 or 50 strong. We didn’t know where we were going, of course there were plenty of rumours doing the rounds. Had one taken any notice of them we were about to visit every war front in the world, provided we arrived safely, considering we were carrying such a vulnerable load of explosives. At least that's what some of the rumours said. It’s amazing how at a time like this, every rumour is most unpleasant, for instance, no one seemed to insist that we were going to America or Canada.

Well, for days and days we steamed out into the murky, cold, grey Atlantic and apart from the comforting sight of the other ships in the convoy, there was nothing to be seen except a Sunderland or a Catalina Flying Boat keeping constant watch over us, until we got out of range for them. If you’ve ever watched a convoy of ships, I think you’ll agree with me that it’s a very fascinating sight with the Commodore ship leading and all the others in their correct positions, no matter how much it is necessary to zig-zag or turn-about to avoid enemy action.

Well, after 12 days sailing, during which time we must have almost touched America, we called at Freetown on the N.W. coast of Africa From there we went on down across the equator until one Sunday morning, when we went up on deck, Table Mountain was looming up out of the morning mist in front of us. There is no mistaking this famous Plateau and during the morning we passed quite close to Cape Town, nestling below it. We rounded the Cape of Good Hope and in a day or two put into Durban, where we were taken ashore and put into a transit camp. This is a very lovely city with its miniature skyscrapers, beautiful gardens, glorious climate and plenty of everything which was so severely rationed at home. Could it be true that we were going to stay in this land of plenty.

No, after a week we boarded a Dutch boat, and this time made our way up into the Indian Ocean, across the equator again and after a voyage of 8 weeks, docked in Bombay, here once again we went into a transit camp. At last we were getting near our destinations, and every day we all anxiously awaited news as to where we would be posted. Perhaps it would be Ceylon or Central India, maybe the N.W. frontier or the Burma Front. Ah, the Burma Front! that was a hot spot then as the Japs were doing pretty well, so of course most of the rumours centred around this. I think the worst one was that 2 or 3 squadrons had been wiped out with malaria there and we would almost certainly have to replace them.

At last our posting came through and with quite a number of other chaps I was posted to a place called Kanchrapara, in Bengal. Now Bengal is the next province to Burma, but we decided it wouldn’t be too bad as our camp wasn’t far from Calcutta. To get there meant a journey right across India and this we did by train, sleeping and eating on the same wooden seats for 4 days. It was during this journey that we really had our baptism of heat, for it was May, the sun scorched plains were dried up, the breeze which came into the carriage was hot, and we were all horribly uncomfortable with perspiration, soot and grime. We eventually arrived in Kanchrapara, and felt pleased that we now had a definite address and with reasonable luck could expect some mail within a few weeks at the most.

For the first few days we had to tolerate some of the old sweats, who seeing that we were just out from England, [to use RAF terms] insisted on shooting the time - airing their Hindustani to Indians who would probably have understood English better - telling us how to get into Calcutta free on the trains and so on. Well, we soon settled down and began to get used to our surroundings.

Now, to give anyone a reasonable impression of India in a few minutes is a hopeless task. I was out there for 2 and a half years and it still mystifies me, so the best thing I can do is to mention one or two of the things that stand out in my mind regarding India - things that I do not associate with any other country. Such things as the host of diseases - malaria, dysentery, the railways and stations, the over-crowding causing such disorganisation, seeing snow-capped Everest before breakfast and last but by no means least, Sudder St Methodist Church, Calcutta.

Now, to take these one at a time - the diseases, the most common of which in the part of Bengal where I was stationed, was malaria and dysentery. I was always rather scared of getting either of these as in may cases there is not a positive cure. Considering that about two thirds of the chaps at Kanchrapara had had either or both of these complaints, I consider myself very fortunate, especially as I didn’t always observe one of the most important anti-malaria rules. As I expect most of you know, malaria is carried by a certain species of female mosquito and as these appear after dark, it is an order on most camps that long sleeved shirts and long trousers must be worn after sundown. In my job this was practically impossible. I worked in the testing section for aeroplane engines which were turned out from the maintenance unit to which I was attached and I was on night shift most of the time. Well, in the terribly humid summer and monsoon seasons, it is uncomfortable to say the least of it to work with anymore than a pair of shorts on before 11 o’clock.

Looking back, some of the malaria precautions were quite funny, though we didn’t think so at the time. Of course we all had nets suspended over our beds and quite often you would see a fellow get on to his bed and laboriously tuck his net in all around him, satisfying himself that no mosquitoes can get in, but there must have been one in waiting for him because no sooner had he settled down and he hears one buzz past his ear. He immediately flashes on his torch and begins searching for it like a searchlight looking for a bomber. Now and again he gets it in the beam of his torch and muttering something under his breath makes a grab at it, but misses. This goes on perhaps a score of times, until with patience almost exhausted the fellow makes his victorious grab, opens his hand and there finds his enemy, squashed.

Another malaria precaution was the spraying of billets every week, and this annoyed those of us on night shift immensely. For this job a team of Indians was employed and at about 10 o’clock on the spraying morning, you would be rudely awakened by a petrol engine, to which the sprayer was attached being wheeled into the billet. Needless to say these unfortunate men were most unpopular, for they weren’t at all particular about what they sprayed and if you didn’t get out of bed, cover your belongings up and get out of the hut you and your belongings would smell of Flit for evermore.

Unlike malaria dysentery is mainly carried by flies so the best precaution against this is to be very careful as to what you eat. Of course, food tends to become absolutely covered with flies in the hot season and unfortunately they seemed to like foul matter as much as they like our food, though quite often we ourselves could see little difference. From this if can be seen that the best way to minimise dysentery is to keep the flies off the food and all foul matter well out of the vicinity of the cookhouse.

The railways and stations. On Indian railways there are 4 classes, 1st, 2nd, inter and 3rd, the first being less comfortable than our 3rd and their 3rd being just wooden seats, always very overcrowded. Railway journeys in such a vast land as this often consist of 3 or 4 days and nights travelling and if you are travelling in 1st or 2nd class and are not too crowded you may be lucky enough to get a bunk at night-time, but as far as other ranks were concerned you usually had a little bit of a wooden 3rd seat. The large stations are very similar to ours in lay-out, but add, usually, the scene of filth and squalor. Many people seem to live on stations and in order to get from the station entrance to either of the platforms you must pick your way amongst people who are sitting and sprawling all over the place. At night these people just wrap themselves completely in a sheet, and sleep on the hard concrete platform.

The tremendous over-crowding of the cities must be seen to be realised and everything seems inadequate for the population, the greatest problem in this direction nowadays of course being food.

In Calcutta the tramways run quite a good service but these are always packed to capacity with people hanging on outside to anything they can catch hold of.

In Bengal it was customary for the servicemen to spend his leaves in the foothills of the Himalayas, where the climate is more comparable to our own. One of the favourite places being Darjeeling, the famous tea centre. I went there 3 or 4 times and although it involved a journey of practically 24 hours, it was well worth it. It was from here that my pal and I walked 17 miles before breakfast one morning to see Mount Everest. The reason for going so early was not our lust for early rising, but it was only visible at sun-rise while the air was clear as it’s 100 miles away. It was well worth going for, not only to see Everest, but the grand panorama that we had of pert of the Himalayas was a sight to be remembered.

I have said nothing of Missionary work out there, but when I saw the difficulties in such a land as this, the people, the climate, the terrain, my admiration of the missionary certainly grew. I saw something of Methodism in Calcutta as I always attended Sudder St. Church when I could. Here I enjoyed some of the best services I have ever attended and at the evening service it got absolutely packed out, mostly with servicemen and in order to get a seat for the 6.30 service it was advisable to be there by 6pm. The Methodist Churches in the cities are very much like the English ones except for the whirr of electric fans overhead and the much more comfortable seating arrangements. They nearly all had a service sing-song in the hall afterwards.

I have deliberately avoided saying anything about the present communal troubles for two reasons.

  1. It is far too involved a subject to tackle in a short paper like this.
  2. I am in no position to tackle it as that is a job for those who know a lot more about India than I do.

It was just coming to a head when I left and rioting had begun, so much so that we had to double the guards not a very popular idea.