In the thick of World War II, on April 5, 1942, 75 Japanese planes dive-bombed and opened machine-gun fire in Colombo, killing 50. The next morning, a single Japanese plane fired at Kakinada, 700 km north of Madras, damaging two ships, killing one person and injuring five others. On April 7, panic struck closer home when Madras woke up to an air-raid alert. About 50,000 people began fleeing the city every day. In the second part of a series on the bombing of Madras in 1943, A. Srivathsan digs into the archives of The Hindu to revisit possibly the largest mass exodus witnessed by the city
Anticipating attacks on the city, an Air Raid Preparations (ARP) unit was set up in January 1942.
ARP trained volunteers to enforce blackout rules, offer first aid, and guide people to shelters during an emergency. By end of March, about 4,400 volunteers were ready. The government built air shelters and cut 22 miles of safety trenches. It also disseminated information about various kinds of siren sounds and screened motivational movies.
Not all was well with the preparations, however. Poor training and lack of coordination between ARP personnel and the police often resulted in comical situations. Tram drivers got confusing instructions during blackout. While ARP insisted that tram drivers switch off the lights and drive, the police pulled them up for driving without lights on. When it came to the crunch moment, none of the training helped.
The government kept appealing for calm, but it often betrayed its nervousness and contributed to the confusion. After April 7, it imposed regular blackout sessions and advised private and public companies to relieve their staff who were volunteers of ARP, by 4 p.m. To top it all, on April 12, government issued a communiqué advising non-essential population to leave the city within the next few days. Madras was not safe, it seemed to say.
People were not waiting for government advice. Immediately after the first air raid alert, they started to leave. A large number rushed to Central and Egmore stations. Railways hurriedly commissioned four special trains to Villupuram and added additional coaches to Malabar and Bangalore express trains. On a single day, on April 8, tickets worth about Rs. 50,000 were sold.
A bewildered government cautioned that it would maintain normal train service only until it was possible. When the exodus exceeded the limits, it warned of shutting down train services and fifteen stations, including Basin Bridge, Perambur and Kodambakkam. Meanwhile, special trains to Triuvallur, Gummidipoondi and Chengalpattu were commissioned and travel was free of cost.
Not all roads were open for intercity travel. Only four routes — Velachery-Tambaram road leading to Grand Trunk Road, Kodambakkam-Sriperumbudur for slow traffic, Madras-Poonamallee-Kundrathur Road for fast traffic and Great Northern Trunk Road for all kinds of traffic — were operable.
By the third week of April, about 5 lakh people had left the city. Most of them reached their native villages. Among those who wanted to stay near the city, large numbers opted to go to Chengalpattu. Vellore was another city that received a large influx of people from Madras. For those who did not have relatives or friends to go to, temporary camps were set up at six villages — Nandivaram, Nandambakam, Periyapalayam, Attur, Vengattur and Thruapallam — around the city.
The government was not brave either. Essential sections of the Secretariat shifted to Madanapalle in Chittoor district, non-essential offices to Ooty, the inspector general’s office to Vellore, Board of Revenue to Salem and the surgeon-general to Anantapur. Unlike Lord Pentland, the Governor of Madras who stayed away from the city when Emden attacked, Arthur Hope, the Governor in 1942, decided to stay in the city with his advisers.
Private firms that stayed back shifted their premises from George Town to the interior parts of the city. Advertisements announcing the change of address frequently filled the front pages of The Hindu. Such shifts created a crisis for Madras Corporation. In a general body meeting of the Mayor’s safety committee on April 13, the mayor V. Chakkarai Chetti wondered how to mange the city when most of the government offices had left. He confessed it was not clear what would happen to civic administration. Probably the military might step in to meet the “grave situation,” he indicated.