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Bengal: The forgotten frontier of World War II


Published : 18 Feb 2023 08:13 PM

‘When you hear the term “World War 2,” which countries come to mind first?’ Some second-year students of the University of Dhaka gave answers that were unsurprising. The most common answers included Germany, the U.S.S.R. and the United States. Some uncommon ones included names like Japan, France, China and the United Kingdom. Albeit sad, there is no surprise in the fact that none of the countries of our own sub-continent made it to the list. 

Indeed, when it comes to cities that bear the mark of this violent war, historians and researchers tend to speak of Warsaw, Berlin and Leningrad. The Asian cities that slipped into the list are usually the likes of Nanking and Bataan. But it is a fact of history that there are two major cities within these very lands that bear the mark of one of the bloodiest conflicts in human history – Kolkata and Chattogram.

Chattogram

Myanmar fell to the Japanese on March 8, 1942. Consequently, Bengal became the most strategic location in the Southeast-Asian theatre of the war. Owing to its shared borders with Myanmar and its strategic sea-ports, Chattogram was used as a forward base by the British to fight the Japanese in Burma. As a result, the city came under immediate fire. The Imperial Japanese Air Force conducted bombing raids in the city in April and May of 1942, resulting in temporary relocation of troops to Comilla. The attacks resumed in December. 

The city of Chattogram saw significant aerial fighting between the British and the Japanese. Archives of the war mention the exploits of one Satoru Anabuki, an accomplished Japanese fighter pilot who took down at least 6 ‘hurricane fighters’ of the Royal Air Force in the skies of Chattogram. 

The Chattogram Commonwealth War Cemetery (estd. 1945), at no. 19 Badshah Mia Road in the Damapara locality stands in the city to this day as a witness to the fighting in the city, consisting of 755 graves, 17 of which are unidentified. The memorial register contains the names of 6,500 sailors and merchant seamen whose lives were claimed by the conflict at sea. A similar memorial stands in Comilla.

Kolkata

The other Bengal city to bear the scars of the war, on a much broader scale, is “the city of joy”, Kolkata. Kolkata was another forward base of the British in this region. After the fall of Burma to the Japanese, this city became a vital part of the British military’s supply chain. By October of 1943, a pipeline was laid from Kolkata to Tinuskia in Assam. Kolkata was bombed extensively by the Japanese during their occupation of Myanmar. The first record of attack dates in December 20, 1942. The attacks repeated up to the 28th of the same month. The British Royal Air Force fought back quite effectively; the skilled British pilots downed many Japanese aircrafts and established air superiority, as a result of which the Japanese halted their bombardments of the city for nearly a year. 

By the end of 1943, the best RAF planes in the region were moved to Chattogram to tackle the enemy there, and Kolkata, nearly defenseless, came under fire once more. It is estimated that 500 civilians were killed as a result of the Japanese attacks during this time period.

After the Battle of Imphal (state capital of Manipur, India), where the Japanese were driven back to Burma with heavy losses, the tide of the battle turned. Allied ground forces subsequently marched into Myanmar and started driving back the occupying Japanese army, and Bengal was finally relieved.

Bengali soldiers in Europe 

Bengali involvement in the Second World War isn’t confined to Southeast Asia. Bengal being a part of the British Empire till the late 1940s, Indian and Bengali soldiers played an important role as part of the British army in both world wars. National poet of Bangladesh, Kazi Nazrul Islam, was a part of the 49th Bengal Regiment during the first war. 

During the First World War, the entire British army participating in the conflict amounted to 5 million soldiers – a staggering 1 million of them were Indian and Bengali. Many of these soldiers settled in mainland Britain after the war, and even though they had served with distinction, they faced racial discrimination and financial struggles in their new lives. 

At the beginning of the Second World War, there were 50,000 active Indian and Bengali troops fighting in the British army and navy. By the end of the conflict, the number grew to 2.5 million. These soldiers played huge roles in the African front of the war, and in the British army’s fight against the Japanese. 4,000 Indian soldiers received decorations for their valor, 38 of whom received the Victoria Cross (highest British military honor for valor in combat) or George Cross (highest British military honor for valor in non-combat situations).

The Bengal famine (1943-44):

The biggest wound inflicted on Bengal, however, was not from aerial bombings or overseas casualties – It was a famine, caused by administrative incompetence and indifference instead of drought or food shortages, in an act that many today call the worst atrocity inflicted by the British Empire in India.

Bengal had seen many famines in the 18th Century, the causes of which had been what one would expect – droughts, floods or cyclones. But the famine of ’43 was the worst one to befall the nation. After Singapore and Myanmar fell to the Japanese, the British in Bengal had stockpiled food for their troops to prepare for a possible Japanese invasion of Bengal. Boats, carts and elephants were confiscated from locals in Chattogram, hindering the livelihoods of fishermen and farmers and inhibiting food production. As a result of these policies and the factors that ensued, a famine struck killing 3 million people, leaving many who were forced to resort to eating grass and cannibalism. 

Although the narrative at the time was that the famine was caused by weather-related factors, this fact has been disputed by Nobel-prize winning economist Amartya Sen in 1981, and by journalist Madhushree Mukherjee and weather researchers in the US and India in recent times. Their studies show that supplies available at the time should have been able to feed the Bengali population at the time, and that the weather-conditions at the time did not coincide with that of a drought. It was in fact, Britain’s celebrated hero Winston Churchill’s policies which led to the famine. At the time, when Churchill was informed of the millions of deaths in India, he had responded that the famine was the Indians’ own fault, for breeding like rats.

Few people outside the Indian sub-continent know the stories of Bengal and her people, and the sufferings and strife they have endured throughout history. Even when it comes to what is possibly the most-discussed conflict in human history, the people of Bengal are seldom mentioned. However, this is a plain truth that surprisingly, we ourselves do not know a lot of this history as it is glossed over and inadequately covered by our schoolbooks. Despite that, history remains a witness to the contributions of this land to the world, and the pain inflicted on this land by those considered heroes. 

sThis history must be remembered, and passed on, as an ode to our forefathers who had to give up everything they had.


Rahee Nayab Oyshi is a student at the Department of Mass Communication and Journalism, Dhaka University