Air panics of the British Raj

As long-time (and very patient) readers of this blog will know, I am fascinated by the historical evidence for what I term air panics. Most obviously this includes phantom airship and mystery aeroplane panics, but also rearmament panics, Zeppelin base panics, red balloon panics... anything and everything which provides evidence for what the British people thought and felt about the danger of aviation.

Perhaps the best-known example of an air panic is the exodus from London in September 1938 at the peak of the Sudeten crisis. Supposedly some 150,000 middle or upper class people fled west in anticipation of a German air attack.1 Such a large movement of people represents impressive evidence for the reality of a fear of a knock-out blow from the air. But I've never looked into this in any detail, and nor, as far as I know, has anyone else. So we don't know much about what actually happened during the 1938 exodus, or why.

The 1938 exodus was not, of course, unique. (People had trekked out to the countryside to avoid air raids in the First World War.) It wasn't the only one in the British Empire. (There was one in Australia.) In fact, it wasn't even the biggest. As I was surprised to learn from reading Srinath Raghavan's India's War, numerous spontaneous evacuations due to the fear of air raids took place in India in 1941 and 1942.2 Admittedly this was during wartime, but some of these panics took place before Japan entered the war, and others from places that were never even threatened by air attack.

Ironically, the fears appear to have taken hold when the government began to institute air raid precautions (ARP). According to Raghavan,

In the hill station of Shillong, for instance, the preparations for ARP in April 1941 led people to believe that the town would be targeted. Hence, the influx of workers in spring from other parts of Assam was 'less than usual despite the large number of temporary visitors'. A call for volunteers for ARP in Cawnpore led to an exodus of 4,000 people in one week. Similarly, efforts to recruit Air Raid Wardens in Agra and Jhansi resulted in the 'timid' relocating their families to the country.3

Shillong is very far east, but the other places named here are in Uttar Pradesh, in northern India, not particularly close to any real threat from the air.

After the Japanese attack on British forces in Malaya in December 1941, there were more exoduses from Indian cities. The largest was that from Calcutta (modern Kolkata) in Bengal, of around 700,000 or 800,000 people out of 2.1 million in less than a month; 73,000 from the industrial area of Howrah alone. Most of these people were drawn from the 'working poor'.4 Calcutta was in fact bombed during this time, albeit only on a small scale -- 5 raids, 160 bombs -- and even as early as April 1941, street-sellers were telling people to 'Take what is available now, in a couple of months' time we shall all have stopped bringing supplies to Calcutta on account of the impending air-raid'5 But even though it was still very distant, the possibility of a Japanese invasion of India must have played a part.

However, these explanations seem harder to credit in the case of Bombay (Mumbai), which is on the western coast of India, nowhere near the battlefront and, as Raghavan points out, never bombed by Japanese aircraft. Nevertheless, a substantial exodus began there in January 1942:

At the height of the panic in early April 1942, over 55,000 workers -- almost 25 per cent of the total industrial workforce in Bombay -- were reported absent. No fewer than six special trains were running every day to cope with this exodus. Steamers and ferries out of Bombay were packed with people fleeing the city. Special buses with extra rations of petrol were stationed at various places to facilitate the movement of people.6

Clearly the authorities, or at least those involved in managing transport, were trying to manage this outflow, but they didn't initiate it. Why it started in the first place is not clear.

In the case of Vizag (Visakhapatnam) on the Bay of Bengal, population c. 71,000, 'A practice air raid towards the end of March [1942] touched off a huge wave of panic'.7 The air raid siren was interpreted as signalling a real attack, reinforced by a magistrate closing down his court, followed by the other courts, leading to widespread rumours and 'a large exodus'.8 When a real, if small (10 aircraft), raid struck on 5 April, it happened again on an even bigger scale. The governor reported that:

The railways were practically paralysed and all the subordinate staff and labour fled from the place... All provision shops were closed and practically everyone fled the town. The port employees fled, as did the coolies employed on the construction of the new aerodrome. There was an acute food shortage and the DM [district magistrate] had to order the police to forcibly open and run some of the provision stores.9

There were also exoduses from the industrial towns of Ahmedabad (in the west) and Jamshedpur (in the east). In the latter case, where 'By early February 1942, 63,000 people -- nearly 40 per cent of the population -- had left the town by rail, by bus and on foot', rumours of scorched earth policies seem to have been to blame.10

If Calcutta had the biggest exodus, the most sustained was perhaps from Madras (Chennai), like Vizag on the Bay of Bengal, but further south, in Tamil Nadu. In late December 1941 and January 1942, nearly 30% of its 700,000 people headed away from the coast, and 200,000 left between 8 and 14 April alone; they started coming back in May but something like normalcy seems to have returned only by the end of the summer. Again rumour played its part, but this time the incompetent local government kicked things along by telling people that there was no reason to leave, but if they didn't have a reason to stay and they did want to leave then they should do so now. The result: panic and an exodus. The government itself, apart from the governor and other key personnel, relocated inland. The result: more panic and another exodus.

By this time [April 1942], people of all classes who could leave the city were doing so. 'Railway stations became gateways to heaven for the city-folk', wrote Pudhumaipithan. All available modes of transport were pressed into service: coal-fired buses and bullock carts were departing the city as packed as the trains. The working poor fled to their villages or nearby towns. Rickshaw-pullers abandoned Madras for adjacent towns like Kanjeevaram, Dindivanam and Vellore. Even the ubiquitous beggars disappeared. As the writer A. K. Chettiar mordantly observed, 'Beggars can survive only if there are people in the city.'11

To be fair, the Madras government did receive advice from the military that a Japanese invasion was expected along the southeast Indian coast. But the army was itself suffering from nerves: a battalion defending the coast mistook a RAF Catalina for a Japanese aircraft and set off a air raid alert.

Raghavan gives a lot more detail, including some less qualitative indices of panic like withdrawals from post office savings accounts.12 But it's the rumours which I find especially intriguing: as was quipped at the time, 'R is for rumour, someone told me at noon / that a Japanese army has invaded the moon'.13 To quote myself,

Rumours, and the spreading of rumours, can provide people with a sense of agency in uncertain circumstances, along with a means of social control. They can represent a dialogue between popular and elite discourses, not merely reflecting elite concerns about foreign policy and military strategy but reflecting them back at the elites in an altered and amplified form. Especially in wartime, rumours work as improvised news, overcoming the limitations placed by censorship and combat on the quantity or quality of officially-sanctioned information reaching the home front. Rumours can also help make sense of the novel and often confusing experiences of wartime by assimilating them into a pre-existing ‘myth-complex’, as John Horne and Alan Kramer term it: a collection of cultural images and beliefs which explain what is happening and so provide a feeling of control and a basis for action. As Catriona Pennell notes, the historical value of rumours lies not in their correspondence with an objective reality, but in their subjective truth – in what they reveal about the hopes and fears of the people who passed them on and, at least sometimes, believed in them.14

In this, the Indian public was much like its counterpart in Britain. Except that, of course, India was not quite like Britain: it was in fact colonised by it. There seems to have been a recent surge of interest in rumours and panics in imperial contexts, including in British India itself, and Luise White has shown how even apparently quite bizarre rumours can tell us much about how colonial subjects understood colonial power.15 Indeed Raghavan describes two widespread classes of rumours in wartime India which would seem to support this: one about the eagerness of colonial administrations to relocate to safer locations (as indeed really happened in Madras), the other about the lack of preparedness to defend Indians against Japanese attack.16 So while a better understanding of what Indians understood about aviation and airpower would be helpful, a close reading of the colonial context would also be necessary to explain the power of these rumours to create air panics on such a large scale.

  1. Richard M. Titmuss, Problems of Social Policy (London: His Majesty's Stationery Office, 1950), 31. 

  2. Srinath Raghavan, India's War: The Making of Modern South Asia 1939-1945 (Penguin, 2017). 

  3. Ibid., 263. 

  4. Ibid., 265. 

  5. Ibid., 257 

  6. Ibid., 266. 

  7. Ibid. 

  8. Ibid., 267. 

  9. Quoted in ibid. 

  10. Ibid., 267. 

  11. Ibid., 268-9. 

  12. Ibid., 264. 

  13. Ibid., 260. 

  14. Brett Holman, 'Constructing the enemy within: rumours of secret gun platforms and Zeppelin bases in Britain, August-October 1914,' British Journal for Military History 3, no. 2 (2017), 23–4. 

  15. Luise White, Speaking with Vampires: Rumor and History in Colonial Africa (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000). 

  16. Raghavan, India's War, 260-1. 

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