Legends have been woven around the 1914 bombing of Madras by the German cruiser Emden, but little is known or remembered about the tough times the city faced during 1942 and 1943, when it lived in the fear of Japanese planes. In fact, in October 1943, a lone Japanese reconnaissance did bomb Madras. In a four-part series, A. Srivathsan digs into the archives of The Hindu to piece together a crucial phase of history that altered the lives of thousands of citizens

It was in the middle of World War II. Japanese air force and navy were conducting daring attacks in the eastern seas and captured Singapore and Andaman Islands from the British. In return, American planes that flew out of the Indian air base bombed Japanese ships at Port Blair. The threat across the Bay of Bengal was clear and imminent.

The first attack closer home happened in Colombo. On April 5, at about eight in the morning, on an Easter Sunday, 75 Japanese planes dive-bombed and opened machine-gun fire on the harbour and adjoining areas. The British claimed the attack was effectively repelled. Sir Andrew Caldecott, Governor of Ceylon, speaking in Tamil, asked shopkeepers near the harbour to not panic. The death toll was only 50, “much less than the daily casualties from the street accidents in London,” he tried to reassure.

But his words failed to improve confidence and many left Ceylon and arrived in Dhanushkodi and Tuticorin in Tamil Nadu. The news of the refugee exodus reached Madras. The city, by then, had started receiving evacuees from Burma. By the end of March, a batch of about 700 Tamil refugees who fled Burma following Japanese attacks, managed to reach Calcutta, caught a train and arrived in Madras. Their accounts narrated the horrors unleashed by war.

If there was any sense of security that still held the city together, it vanished on April 6. At about seven in the morning, a single Japanese plane fired at Cocanada (Kakinada), a port town 700 km north of Madras, damaged two ships, killed one person and injured five.

There was more to come. In the afternoon at 1.45, a small group of planes attacked Vishakapatnam, another port town. They returned in the evening at five to attack again.

The government press release mentioned that about 20 bombs were dropped and not much damage was caused. However, in a rare moment of disclosure, the officials admitted that five were killed and 40 were wounded. It is not clear whether the news reached Madras the same evening. But the night’s sleep was abruptly cut short for certain.

On April 7, the air-raid alert rudely woke people up at 4.35 in the morning. The hour that followed was probably the longest torturous hour the city would have faced. When an ‘all-clear’ signal was sounded at 5.55 a.m. to everyone’s relief, no bombs had been dropped and no shots had been fired. There was no damage, but panic swept Madras. About 50,000 people fled the city everyday. The trains were madly crowded. Those who reached the station in the evening found the platforms dark without lights. Some were worried that the sound of the alerting siren would not reach them amidst the din of the station. As one reader of The Hindu wrote, anxious men pushed their women and children “through the windows like parcels” so they could secure a place. It was chaos and confusion.

People left in a hurry leaving their houses locked. Streets were empty and restaurants and lodgings closed. Prisoners were shifted to jails in Andhra Pradesh by special trains; wild animals in the zoo were shot as a precautionary measure. The bustling metropolis shut itself down to “sombre silence.”

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