By Gp Capt Kapil Bhargava (Retd)
This is a very personal tale of a teen age schoolboy during World War II. My father, an ICS officer, had elected the judiciary within four years of joining the service in 1929. He was determined to avoid having to implement the oppressive British rule. Most of his service was in UP towns, except for the last five years when he was a judge in the Supreme Court.
At the time of declaration of war, we were in Bulandshahar where my father was the District & Sessions Judge. In July 1940, prior to the start of the academic year, he was posted to Gorakhpur also as the District & Sessions Judge but with a significant increase in his grade. I mention this as the events of 1942 Quit India movement were very relevant to his career, of which (maybe) I will write some other time. In Gorakhpur I joined St Andrews High School in the 8th Class for the start of my regular schooling.
My ambition to become a pilot went back to 1936 as an eight year old when I saw and touched an Empire Airways flying boat at Allahabad, our home town – of sorts. By the time the WW II started, I was firm in my decision to join the Air Force. Naturally even before my thirteenth birthday, I was following the news of the war quite regularly. I read about the British capture of Benghazi, Libya’s second largest city on 9th February 1941. The British forces, with large contingents of Australians, had little trouble defeating the Italians who were then the colonial rulers of the country.
The British Government decided to celebrate this “Fateh Benghazi” in a grand manner even in Gorakhpur. Apart from other events which I was unable to attend due to being too young, a fireworks display in a public park was open to every one. My parents allowed me to go for this, escorted by an orderly. The display was quite impressive. But I got a bad fright when a rocket instead of going up came sliding on the ground directly towards me. By stepping aside a bit in a hurry, I missed it by a few inches. This should have been an ominous warning sign to me. But I was in no mood to worry about it.
Incidentally, I learnt a few days later that Gen Rommel came over with his Afrika Corps and captured Benghazi back from the Allies by early April! But by then I had already become a casualty of the war.
I was an active boy scout in school. One day in the first week of March, our Scout Master told us about the Government’s plans to observe a Focal Day. This was scheduled for Monday, 10th March 1941. The Focal Day was conceived to encourage Indians to take full part in the war effort, presumably to help with food, money and manpower. But the main stress was on passive air defence. We were already observing blackouts, all our glass windows had been papered over, and a sort of shelter room with emergency supplies and medicines had been set aside.
The Scout Master explained that the main intention of the Focal Day was to demonstrate passive air defence precautions and practices. He mentioned that we were under threat from the East and could get bombed at any time. As such we would see how air raid shelters should be constructed at home and used during air raids. A Civic Guard had already been raised and was identified easily by its light blue uniform and the words Civic Guard on the shoulders. The Focal Day was mainly for training the personnel of this force and to show to the public how obedience to their instructions would save lives.
The Scout Master then came to the crux of the show. He said that an aircraft would fly over and drop bombs. My ears pricked up! Any citizens who did not take refuge in the shelters would get injured and be taken away for treatment by the team acting as the Red Cross. Civic Guards would encourage citizens to get into the air raid shelters and be safe. He then asked for volunteers to play the role of citizens. My hand was up instantly. And because citizens were supplied by the school, my parents allowed me to join in.
On the day, we arrived at the large open field, presumably the sports grounds of an Army establishment. Years later, I guessed that this ground was at the recruiting centre which was very actively enrolling Gurkhas who came across from Nepal to join the Army. In it, tents had been put up as our houses. We were four of us in the tent, all boys from my own class. After the show began, suddenly the air raid siren went off. We promptly came out to look out for the aircraft due to bomb us. But just as promptly the Civic Guards pounced on us to drag us to the air raid shelters. I protested loudly but to no avail that I had come only to watch the aircraft not for hiding in a shelter. But the show was also meant to demonstrate how the Civic Guard would force citizens to take shelter despite any resistance from them and save their lives. I suppose my genuine reluctance was appreciated as good acting by the authorities!
I was frog-marched to a shelter and installed in it. The shelter was quite deep underground with perhaps eight or ten steps going down from either open end. It retained a fairly sturdy layer of the original ground as its roof. It had enough space inside for a man to stand up without having to bend. Benches had been placed along the full length of the shelter on one side for us to sit down. The first place was already occupied by a Civic Guard. I was seated at number three from the end which was not used for entry. An adult man was between the two of us.
The Civic Guard had a basket full of dark coloured spheres, slightly larger than cricket balls. These were powerful bombs (fire crackers) with fuses sticking out of them. As the single engine aircraft, almost certainly a Hurricane, flew overhead, the pilot dropped small sand bags from the open cockpit. Civic Guards nearest to the bag where it hit the ground exploded the large bombs. I suppose it was as good a simulation of bombing as safely possible. Soon enough it was our turn. The Guard climbed the steps fast and let off the cracker.
The blast of the bomb was quite powerful and we felt the hot air from it inside the shelter. The wind blowing towards us also helped greatly. I immediately requested him to let off the next one away from the entrance and place it where the wind would not blow its blast towards us. He lit the fuse of the next cracker and I do not know what happened next or why. All the bombs in the basket exploded at once. There was a large ball of fire blown inwards. The shelter was filled with the thick acrid smoke of burnt gun powder. Apparently, the Civic Guard had not even gone out of the shelter while lighting the fuse. I could see he was badly inured. There was a hole in his shirt at the stomach and through it raw flesh was visible above his belt. The skin had disappeared. There was capillary bleeding which made it look pink and red. He also lost the skin on his forearms and around the knees. But his stockings protected his lower legs. A little above the knee, there was no injury due to the half-pants preventing the blast scorching the thighs and the groin. He was moaning in pain, unable to move.
The person sitting between the two of us had disappeared. He was wearing a full sleeve shirt, trousers and glasses. He escaped the way we had entered away from the blast side and was not injured, though I believe one or two sparks had marked his skin somewhere with tiny black dots. He claimed that these could not really be called any type of injury. All other almost twenty occupants of the shelter escaped from the entry end which all of us had used earlier. Seeing the condition of the Civic Guard, I helped him out of the shelter from the other end, called for first-aid and handed him over to them. They carried him away on a stretcher.
Out at last in the fresh air, I could see the aircraft make another pass and drop more bags. The big crackers were going off all over. I started to walk towards my tent and felt cool wind on the legs. I looked own to find that the skin on my legs had also vanished. On the right leg its left side was injured but on the left leg it had gone from all sides except the back. The flesh was visible and capillary bleeding had started. The loss of skin was limited between my half-pants and socks. The knees had not been hurt. The injury was a surprise to me as the fireball had been on my right. Yet the greater damage was on the left leg with the right side of the right leg unmarked. I did not think that it was any terrible injury and reached the tent.
My lucky Sikh tent mate had somehow escaped being taken to any shelter. He had watched the bombing runs quite well. But the moment he saw my legs he vomited and then continued to retch. I could not tolerate the sight of him and came out of the tent. I was spotted by the Red Cross pretenders who pointedly helped me walk to the first-aid tent, though I did not need their assistance. The Scout Master joined us fast enough and decided to take over the treatment.
The Scout Master’s treatment was simplicity itself. He wrapped dry cotton wool all over the exposed flesh and wrapped bandages around both my legs from just under the knees to the line of the socks. By then my parents had also seen me crossing the ground first to the tent and then to the first-aid centre. My father asked my mother if I was wearing red stockings. She said that I had nothing of the sort at all. My father came to the centre and immediately whisked me away to the Government hospital. The civil surgeon was there and took charge. He said that the cotton had stuck to the flesh and had to be removed or else the wounds would turn septic. He spent the next three hours cleaning it off. At the end he applied some ointment and bandaged the legs.
While at the hospital my temperature had begun to rise. The doctor explained that this was due to extensive inhalation of smoke from the gunpowder in the crackers. According to him, this was the real danger to my life. But the fever got over after four days. The Civil Surgeon was not quite right in his instant verdict. After a week or so, there was a foul smell from both legs and they were perhaps turning septic. Some scab had formed in parts. He asked me to be brave and I promised not to cry or scream. He then ripped off the bandages, scab and all. This was my bravest act in the accident – I did not even whimper. The surgeon explained to me that if the legs did not heal they might need to be amputated below the knees. But they responded to frequent application of tannin.
It took several months for me to be able to walk again and later do a slow jog. That is when I was allowed to call some school mates and arrange a game of rounders in our grounds. My first slow run around the diamond was applauded by all of them. Soon enough, I was well again though I have marks on both legs as incriminating evidence of this injury. Once the Civic Guard and I were well, the Government, with the British Commissioner officiating as the senior-most officer in town, decided to honour us with a parade. It was a simple parade with the two of us standing in front with a squad behind us. I was called first and handed over a scroll which was a “sanad” for meritorious war work signed by the Governor of UP. The Civic Guard got a watch. As we returned to our places, he said to me that he wished he had got the sanad and I the watch. He thought that a document like that would have helped him land a Government job. I heartily agreed with him.
I no longer have this scroll. I suspect that my father with his nationalistic leanings had got rid of it. This was obviously meant to prevent me crowing about it any time in future. In fact this is the first mention of it in any of my writing so far. Perhaps some time later I will describe how my father functioned during the Quit India movement (August 1942) to his eternal credit. The consequences of the choices made by him stood him in good stead in later years. My choices landed me in the Air Force, but after a few hitches.