From steel rails, armaments to a tank called Tatanagar, Jamshedpur played a small but crucial role in the two World Wars. ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY uncover the war history of India’s first steel city
Jamshedpur is renowned as India’s Steel City, but few know of its significant contributions to the world. Decades ago this pretty little town with tree-lined avenues was a war zone, when fumes emanating from its chimneys mingled with smokescreens, factory hooters merged with air raid sirens and anti-aircraft fire lit up the skies. While the world celebrates the centenary of World War I and the end of World War II, Jamshedpur’s history lies forgotten.
It was a lecture by philosopher Thomas Carlyle in Manchester that inspired JN Tata to establish India’s first steel plant. Motivated by Carlyle’s words “The nation which gains control of iron soon acquires the control of gold”; Tata roped in top American geologists and engineers to give shape to his vision. In 1907, the Tata Iron and Steel Company or TISCO (now Tata Steel) was established. The first ingot rolled out on Feb 16, 1912, ushering in an era of industrial revolution and the eight-hour work schedule in India. However, it took a global event to give the town its name…
When the First World War broke out in 1914, much of India’s steel output was diverted to construct steel rails for transporting troops and supplies. Nearly 1,500 miles of rail and 300,000 tonnes of steel produced in Jamshedpur were used in military campaigns across Mesopotamia, Egypt, Salonica and East Africa. After the war, a British parliamentary report affirmed, “It would have been impossible to carry on the campaign without the iron and steel of India, which has been the foundation of railway and water transport, as well as the telegraphic and telephonic equipment employed in the country.”
In 1919, Viceroy of India Lord Chelmsford visited the Tata Steel plant and praised the company for producing steel that had saved the Mesopotamian campaign. As a fitting tribute, Lord Chelmsford christened the steel city Jamshedpur in memory of its founder Jamsetji Nusserwanji Tata and renamed Kalimati railway station as Tatanagar.
Tata Steel helped shape another iconic landmark – Calcutta’s Howrah Bridge. Of the 26,500 tonnes of steel used to construct the cantilever bridge, 23,000 tonnes of heavy tensile steel came from Jamshedpur. During WWII, as Japan entered the China-Burma-India theatre of war, the British feared the steel plant was a high value target that might be bombed. ‘Yellow signals’ wired from Calcutta warned of impending Japanese air raids. Several bomb shelters were set up across the city while anti-aircraft guns were placed at Jojobera.
Tata Steel came up with ingenious ways to protect itself. Steel ropes were tied to gas balloons and released to prevent Japanese fighter planes from diving down to bomb the factory. As camouflage, tar boilers were set up 40 ft apart within the steel factory to create smokescreens. Bartholomew D’Costa, an enterprising Anglo-Indian contractor was entrusted this task while apprentices were paid an extra allowance of Rs.15 per month for round-the-clock supervision.
Since there were no proper hotels in Jamshedpur to lodge Allied troops, Bartholomew’s son John was asked to hastily build one! Using bricks from his kiln and cutlery bought from Lord’s, a Calcutta hotel that was closing down, he set up The Boulevard Hotel in December 1940. Interestingly, British airmen paid 14 annas per head a day and managed their own mess while the Americans paid one rupee 16 annas a day for room and board. Taking us on a tour of hallways lined with sepia prints of wartime Calcutta, John’s son Ronald D’Costa chuckled, “There were regular drunken brawls between American and British troops. The chairs and tables that survived the fights have been used in the hotel and the attached Brubeck Bakery.” The exposed bricks bore the initials DC (D’Costa)!
But Jamshedpur’s best was yet to come. During WWII, when United Kingdom could not meet the demand for Armoured Fighting Vehicles, Commonwealth countries began developing their own armoured cars. India developed a series of Wheeled Armoured Carrier, Indian Pattern or ACV-IP better known as the ‘Tatanagar’. The vehicles used Ford truck chassis imported from Canada and armour-plated hulls constructed by Tata Steel. Between 1940 and 1944, 4,655 units were built at the Railway workshop with a special plant set up for Armour, Hull, Axle and Tyre tracks. Tata Engineering & Locomotive Company or TELCO (now Tata Motors) completed the last order in 1945 when it took over the railway workshop.
Ironically, the first vehicle to roll out of Tata Motors was not a truck, but a tank! The multi-role Tatanagar was widely used for reconnaissance, ferrying personnel, mounting anti-aircraft weapons and as a Forward Observation Officer’s vehicle. Weighing 2,626 kg with 14mm armour, it could seat 3-4 people and touch speeds of 80 km/hr. Impenetrable by ordinary bullets, its hull saved many lives and won the admiration of soldiers. It was used by various Indian Infantry Divisions across Syria 1941, North Africa 1941-42, Malaya Command 1941 and Italy 1943-45 and also saw action in the 1950 Korean War, aiding the 18th British Infantry Division, 8th Australian Infantry Division and Royal New Zealand Artillery.
For nearly half a century its legacy lay forgotten until two Tatanagars were found in the Indian Army scrap yard. By cannibalizing the parts of one to help build the other, the Tata Motors team from Engineering Research Centre and General Transport managed to get one to working condition. It even featured in the Carnival parade from Jubilee Park to Gopal Maidan and local Republic Day celebrations in 2014. When we visited Tata Motors, it was thrilling to see the original 95HP Ford V-8 Petrol Engine rev to life.
Jamshedpur’s war history was not restricted to the ground. Not too far from the city, a slew of airfields once bellowed with bombers taking off for the first overland bombings of Japan. We drove down the Jamshedpur-Kolkata highway to the closest airstrip at Dhalbhumgarh, an ancillary field for more strategic ones nearby. Driving a mile off NH-33 past neat rows of sal trees we turned left onto a wide unmarked highway. Oddly, clumps of vegetation shot through the tarmac like obstacles in a gaming video. Only after driving a few hundred meters on this ramrod straight superhighway did we realize that we were on an old airstrip! Hidden by overgrowth were the ruins of an abandoned air terminal.
Built around 1942 to conduct raids against advancing Japanese armies in Burma and aid transport operations in China, many such airfields were clustered around India’s eastern frontier, with easy access to the port at Calcutta. Since Japanese control of the China Sea cut off seaborne supplies, pilots had to fly 500 km from India to China over the world’s tallest mountain range, the Himalayas. With its harsh terrain, misty peaks and sudden weather changes, ‘The Hump’ as it was called, was the world’s most dangerous overland air route.
An excerpt from the poem Flight of No Return, by Sunny Young captures the perils.
“Crumpled engines, wings and tail… help pave the Hump’s Aluminum Trail…
A dog tag here, a jacket there, a picture worn by love and care…
A parachute unopened lay, no time to jump, no time to pray…
In this far, forgotten place, of jungles, mountains, rocks and space…”
Targetting enemy transportation in Burma, sorties bombed bridges, locomotives, railroad yards and other targets to delay movement of supplies to Japanese troops. In Nov 1943 Operation Matterhorn was launched for overland operations against the Japanese homeland. But the airfields were not big enough for the new American bomber, B-29 Superfortress. Four air bases in India would be upgraded as launch pads for the B-29’s four staging posts in China’s Sichuan province to bomb Japan.
By December, special Air force teams arrived as thousands of Indians toiled to improve Kharagpur, Chakulia, Piardoba and Dudhkundi airfields with 7500 ft long runways and 10-inch thick concrete. On April 2, 1944 the first B-29 bombers touched down in Chakulia. It took a month to fly over the South Atlantic Transport route from Kansas via Florida, the Caribbean, Natal in Brazil, the South Atlantic Ocean to West Africa, re-assembling at Marrakesh, flying through Algeria and Egypt to Karachi before crossing India to reach this eastern nook!
The first combat mission took off from Chakulia on June 5, 1944 with squadrons of the 40th Bombardment Group attacking the Makasan railroad yards at Bangkok. At the time, the 2261-mile round trip was the longest bombing mission during the war. Often black paint was applied to the aircraft’s underside to reduce reflection from Japanese searchlights while flying low-level night missions. Planes emblazoned with strange names like Gallopin’ Goose, Calamity Sue, Postville Express and Old Bitch U Airy Bess sitting on runways in this rural hinterland would have been quite a sight.
Bombers struck aircraft plants in Burma, Yawata steel factory in Japan, besides transportation centers and naval installations in Thailand, China, Indonesia and Formosa. Fired by these successes, the B-29 squadrons moved to more strategic locations in the Central Pacific – like Tinian in the Mariana Islands from where Enola Gay and Bockscar dropped the bombs Fat Man and Little Boy over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, ending the war.
Post-war, there was huge demand for construction and hence road rollers. On April 22,1948 amid shouts of Vande Mataram and Jai Hind, India’s first swadeshi road roller ‘City of Delhi’ rolled out of Jamshedpur, followed by others named after India’s big cities – Calcutta, Bombay, Madras, Jubbulpore and Patna. It wasn’t until 1954 that the first Tata truck was produced in collaboration with Daimler Benz. As for the airfields, some were modified for commercial use while most others lay abandoned. We saw cattle roaming on runways that once roared with fighter planes! Traces of these historic airfields and taxiways are best comprehended when viewed from the air, much like the Nazca lines of Peru…
Jamshedpur is 130km from Ranchi, the capital of Jharkhand and 283km from Kolkata. Drive 60km from Jamshedpur on the Kolkata highway NH-33 to the WWII airstrip at Dhalbhumgarh. From there Chakulia airbase is 21km away and Kharagpur about 80km further via SH-5. Local trains from Tatanagar to Howrah ply on the route.
Where to Stay:
The ideal base is the rural tourism site Rusika Sangeko at Amadubi, 9km from Dhalbhumgarh railway station, run by Kalamandir of Jamshedpur.
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Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared on 19 May 2015 in Conde Nast Traveller online. Read the story on CNT at http://www.cntraveller.in/story/real-steel-jamshedpur-s-little-known-war-history