How to prevent the 1943 Bengal famine

Ad: This forum contains affiliate links to products on Amazon and eBay. More information in Terms and rules

Admiral Beez

Captain
8,707
9,842
Oct 21, 2019
Toronto, Canada
This article made me think of how Britain could have helped its Indian subjects in the Bengal famine of 1943.


Apparently Australia and Canada were offering to send their wheat surpluses to help, but Britain refused.


 
This article made me think of how Britain could have helped its Indian subjects in the Bengal famine of 1943.


Apparently Australia and Canada were offering to send their wheat surpluses to help, but Britain refused.


I`m not enough of a specialist on this topic to know the answer, but I DO know that the Guardian would print literally anything as long as it shows anything about British history to be awful and bad.

This doesnt mean they are wrong, since lots of awful things DID indeed happen, I`m just making clear to any non-brits on the forum what the "leanings" of the Guardian are. So I would try to find a take on this that isnt from the Guardian before declaring this reliable.
 
Like D Deleted member 68059 , I'm woefully under-informed on the topic. It's my understanding that much of the famine resulted from Japan's actions expanding its Co-prosperity Sphere. British India actually imported food from Burma and Malaya. When those countries fell to Japan in early 1942, those food supplies were cut off. Frankly, nobody expected that chain of events and so there was no contingency plan to address the situation. Even if there was, the loss of Singapore, Malaya and Burma meant that the northern Indian Ocean essentially became a Japanese boating lake, which would significantly hinder the transport of food into Bengal.

It seems that, in order to prevent the famine, Britain would have to foresee the loss of Malaya, Singapore, and Burma, and then divert shipping and food from other locations via some mechanism that remains TBD.
 
Last edited:
It seems that, in order to prevent the famine, Britain would have to foresee the loss of Malaya, Singapore, and Burma, and then divert shipping and food from other locations via some mechanism that remains TBD.
From what I understand by 1943 the Australians were offering to send food to Bengal. General Wavell was desperately asking Churchill to release food shipments to India, but Churchill instead demanded that Australian and Canadian wheat be shipped to bolster already plentiful stores in Britain. By 1943-44 when the Bengal famine was at its worst, both Germany and Japan were clearly on the ropes offensively, Italy had surrendered. Where was the downside in diverting food aid to India?

Had Britain saved millions in India the independence movement might have been slowed. Perhaps not, but scorching India's fields and then allowing millions to die can't have helped enamor Britain's subjects in India to the Crown.
 
From what I understand by 1943 the Australians were offering to send food to Bengal. General Wavell was desperately asking Churchill to release food shipments to India, but Churchill instead demanded that Australian and Canadian wheat be shipped to bolster already plentiful stores in Britain. By 1943-44 when the Bengal famine was at its worst, both Germany and Japan were clearly on the ropes offensively, Italy had surrendered. Where was the downside in diverting food aid to India?

Had Britain saved millions in India the independence movement might have been slowed. Perhaps not, but scorching India's fields and then allowing millions to die can't have helped enamor Britain's subjects in India to the Crown.

Well, it's easy to make a hard divide of 1943-44 but, in reality, the situation was a spiralling crisis that started in mid-1942. There were multiple factors that contributed to the famine, to include an exodus from Calcutta in early 1943 leading to closure of regional commodities markets and exacerbating problems in rural areas where the famine had the biggest impacts. There's no point shipping food to a major port like Calcutta if the infrastructure isn't there to distribute it to the rural areas where people are suffering most.

Please understand I'm not seeking to remove blame from Churchill's Cabinet (and it was the Cabinet that made these decisions, not Churchill himself). However, the retrospectroscope often highlights things that should have been done that may not have been visible at the time, or the utility of which may have been constrained by other factors.
 
Well, it's easy to make a hard divide of 1943-44 but, in reality, the situation was a spiralling crisis that started in mid-1942.
It's a fair point, and a perhaps fairer, albeit Churchillian-friendly perspective is found at:



The Facts

We asked author Herman to elaborate. He writes: "The idea that Churchill was in any way 'responsible' or 'caused' the Bengal famine is of course absurd. The real cause was the fall of Burma to the Japanese, which cut off India's main supply of rice imports when domestic sources fell short, which they did in Eastern Bengal after a devastating cyclone in mid-October 1942. It is true that Churchill opposed diverting food supplies and transports from other theaters to India to cover the shortfall: this was wartime. Some of his angry remarks to Amery don't read very nicely in retrospect. However, anyone who has been through the relevant documents reprinted in The [India] Transfer of Power volumes knows the facts:

"Churchill was concerned about the humanitarian catastrophe taking place there, and he pushed for whatever famine relief efforts India itself could provide; they simply weren't adequate. Something like three million people died in Bengal and other parts of southern India as a result. We might even say that Churchill indirectly broke the Bengal famine by appointing as Viceroy Field Marshal Wavell, who mobilized the military to transport food and aid to the stricken regions (something that hadn't occurred to anyone, apparently)."


The salient facts are that despite his initial expressions about Gandhi, Churchill did attempt to alleviate the famine. As William Manchester wrote, Churchill "always had second and third thoughts, and they usually improved as he went along. It was part of his pattern of response to any political issue that while his early reactions were often emotional, and even unworthy of him, they were usually succeeded by reason and generosity." (The Last Lion, Boston: 1982, I: 843-44).

So, what could have been done? Perhaps grain ships from Australia could have been diverted?
 
When the British took control of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, typhus was raging and the inmates were starving. They found that feeding them only hastened their death so what to do? A British doctor remembered that there had been a special diet for starving people which had been developed during an Indian famine. He researched it and this diet worked to restore most of those who were not too far gone. There is a small museum at the present site of the camp that documents this.
 

Attachments

  • DSC00758.JPG
    DSC00758.JPG
    1.9 MB · Views: 24
The Bengal famine was a tragedy that has many facets as to its cause. Part of the problem was the elected Muslim coalition
government of Bengal and it's uneasy relations with the mostly Hindu grain merchants who were well known for hoarding to keep
prices up. Not a lot of cooperation going on.

Local provinces around Bengal also had more independence and control at that stage and as a result much of the supply and
distribution system had been allowed to run down to the point where it was mismanaged. The lack of river transport brought about
by war constraints didn't help either.

Churchill replaced Lord Linlithgow who was viceroy at the beginning of the famine as he had been reluctant to intervene and slow to
make any meaningful decisions. The replacement was Field Marshall Wavell, an excellent choice as he was well versed in Indian affairs
whilst also being very efficient in logistical tasks. The appointment of Wavell was the most telling move when it came to solving the problems
of the famine and food distribution itself as Wavell knew which military units could be used to help with distribution.

Churchill not allowing Australian wheat shipments to be diverted to Bengal is ludicrous at best. In 1943 Japanese submarines patrolled the coastal
areas of India and merchant ships attempting get to Calcutta would be committing suicide. Not to mention Japanese bombers which had already
bombed Calcutta and were able to cover a lot of the region anyway.

As it was shipments from Iraq of barley and Australian wheat were sent as soon as possible with some Canadian wheat as well. Further shipments
were sent giving a total by the end of 1944 of over 1 million tons. By then the famine was over but it went ahead to ensure nothing further went
wrong.

In all that time it must be remembered that Italy had been invaded and was badly in need of grain as well. Also the so called surplus in Britain was
being stored to feed the massive requirements of the upcoming invasion of France.

Most of this stuff comes from conspiracy books, particularly one written around 2010 called Churchills Secret War which has all sorts of claims
with the aim of making Churchill look as bad as Adolf.

How someone still striving to win a war on several fronts who is 5000 miles away from a famine can wave a magic wand and fix it I don't know but
the facts of what happened at the time show that the British war cabinet and Churchill did all they could to fix the problem as quickly as possible.
 
What was done was done as soon as practically possible. Churchill even put in a request to Roosevelt for spare shipping to send
more grain from Australia but there wasn't any available.

Churchills direction to Wavell when appointing him viceroy ;

"Peace, order and a high condition of war-time well-being among the masses of the people constitute the essential foundation of the forward thrust against the enemy ... The hard pressures of world-war have for the first time for many years brought conditions of scarcity, verging in some localities into actual famine, upon India. Every effort must be made, even by the diversion of shipping urgently needed for war purposes, to deal with local shortages….Every effort should be made by you to assuage the strife between the Hindus and Moslems and to induce them to work together for the common good."

The goal as stated ;

"the best possible standard of living for the largest number of people."
 
The Bengal famine is in the class of large scale catastrophes where everyone and no one is responsible, that is everyone contributed by their actions and decisions, but no one was trying to create the famine.

The reaction to the cutting off of the Burma rice supply, things like banning of food movements between Indian states, the destruction of rice stocks and boats in Bengal in case the Japanese arrived, all in 1942. The Quit India movement. The poor winter harvest in 1942, the cyclone damage. Priority given to the war, including food and medical resources. Once the first deaths were being reported in May 1943 the hoarding began to pick up, corruption and favouritism also. Add government incompetence or at least being overwhelmed, there had been no famine since the 19th century. Requests for food would be made, altered, withdrawn and remade, at times requiring more than the Indian Ocean cross trade shipping. 600,000 tons of wheat in 4 months required 250,000 tons of ships to bring the wheat from Australia or around 750,000 tons from North America.

The mechanisms the British put in place to shore up food supplies in the Middle East could not be applied to the more decentralised power system in India.

There was probably enough food in India to avoid the famine but to collect and move it required a level of trust between and within the Indian establishment and the British Raj that was not there. Reinforced by early attempts to control food supplies. Bengal had a shortage of rice, shipping wheat to it required people to change their diet.

The British official history
Author: Behrens, C. B. A. (Catherine Betty Abigail)
Title: Merchant shipping and the demands of war / by C.B.A. Behrens.
Publisher: London : H.M.S.O. and Longmans Green, 1955.
Description: ix, 494 p., [24] p. of plates (10 folded) :
See chapter XVI, "The shortage of shipping a stranglehold on essential civilian services" (March 1943).

The allied operations in North Africa had forced cuts in British imports and in turn flowed through to sailings to the Indian Ocean, so there were fewer ships available in the area. To ease war required coal shortages ships were sent in ballast to South Africa to speed the turn around, but the unshipped cargoes were fertilisers. South Africa needed its fertilisers, as did Australia, the shortages produced inflation and encouraged hoarding.

The chapter covers things like the way the Turks had been promised 150,000 tons of wheat by the allied leaders without them checking the shipping was available but the Egyptians would not sell grain unless they had guarantees of fertiliser deliveries so they would not experience a food shortage. The 8th army advance in 1942 upped the Egyptian railway's coal requirements from 14,000 tons per month to 30,000 tons, plus the fuel requirements of the supply ships.

In February 1943 in Ceylon the rubber workers were leaving the plantations in search of food, the island's requirements were 45,000 tons a month of flour and wheat from Australia, plus Egyptian and Indian rice. For Southern Rhodesia, Mauritius and Seychelles "famine, though not an immediate threat, might, it seems, easily become so."

In the second half of 1942 grain shipments to the Red Sea area were 22,000 tons per month, half of what was asked for and the level was considered sustainable for only a short time, in early 1943 shipments dropped to 13,000 tons per month. "Similar misfortunes were in store for the Persian Gulf countries but even in February [1943] famine was in sight there." In February Tehran would be short of bread unless 6,000 tons of wheat arrived immediately. The RAF food bombed what is now Yemen in 1944.

If Churchill wanted to keep control of India creating or extending famines was not the way to do it. Those with power in India and elsewhere, the disruption to normal trade arrangements, the losses of merchant ships, the allocation of merchant ships, the speed of allied military operations, the weather, human instinct, everyone and no one made it happen.
 
The Bengal famine could have been prevented if all the shipping used to supply the Soviet Union through Murmansk and Iran had been diverted to carry grain to India. The Pacific route to Siberia would have been sufficient to prevent the the Soviet Union from collapsing before Stalin could cut a deal with Hitler for a separate peace. Not only would millions of lives have been saved in India but WWII would have ended sooner. Nazi domination of Europe may have been a bit unpleasant but saving lives in India should have been the top priority.
 
The Bengal famine could have been prevented if all the shipping used to supply the Soviet Union through Murmansk and Iran had been diverted to carry grain to India. The Pacific route to Siberia would have been sufficient to prevent the the Soviet Union from collapsing before Stalin could cut a deal with Hitler for a separate peace. Not only would millions of lives have been saved in India but WWII would have ended sooner. Nazi domination of Europe may have been a bit unpleasant but saving lives in India should have been the top priority.
Your theory on logistics is interesting.

First of all, Hitler was bent on crushing the Soviet Union and eliminating the Slavic race (untermensch).

Secondly, the Pacific route was by air only - and only to the Soviet Union. The Japanese was a force to be reconed with the closer to Asia and the Indian Ocean one ventured.

This is one of the reasons releif wasn't an option from Australia - the Indian Ocean had Italian, German and Japanese naval elements patrolling, it was a dangerous place for shipping.
 
Your theory on logistics is interesting.

First of all, Hitler was bent on crushing the Soviet Union and eliminating the Slavic race (untermensch).

Secondly, the Pacific route was by air only - and only to the Soviet Union. The Japanese was a force to be reconed with the closer to Asia and the Indian Ocean one ventured.

This is one of the reasons releif wasn't an option from Australia - the Indian Ocean had Italian, German and Japanese naval elements patrolling, it was a dangerous place for shipping.
The routing of Lend Lease supplies to the USSR via the Pacific is little discussed and the ALSIB air route was only part of the equation. Here is a map showing the amounts of Lend Lease provided to the USSR by the various routes. Note almost 50% was shipped via the Pacific.


But note that (almost?) all of it was shipped in Soviet manned ships, albeit that by 1945 more than half the ships had also been supplied under Lend Lease (numbers supplied per year:- 1942-27, 1943-46, 1944-20, 1945- 35, total 128). But there were limitations on the types of equipment that could be supplied by ship on that route due to the Japanese presence controlling certain sea areas and the need to respect Japanese neutrality since the USSR and Japan were not at war until 9 Aug 1945. So in 1943/44 the Persian Gulf and Arctic routes could not entirely be dispensed with.

As for the Murmansk route, no convoys were run to Russia from Feb to Nov 1943 and then from early April to mid-Aug 1944. This was because many of the Home Fleet ships needed to escort them, were required for operations in the Med in 1943 and then for Operations Neptune and Dragoon in 1944.

And while there were threats to merchant shipping in the Indian Ocean in 1943/44 from both the Germans and the Japanese, they should not be overstated. The Indian Ocean is a huge body of water. The bulk of Allied shipping was moving in the western and northern parts, and enemy submarine activity was concentrated there. Shipping between Fremantle in Western Australia and India was able to move independently and unescorted, provided they routed out towards the central IO where they could benefit from air cover from various island bases. You can see the location of monthly shipping losses on maps over on U-boat.net.

The last German raider to operate there, Michel, claimed 3 victims in the IO between May and Aug 1943 but had moved back into the Pacific by Sept en route back to Japan and was sunk there in mid-Oct.

Early 1944 did however see a major scare when the bulk of the Japanese fleet moved to Singapore from late Jan. That triggered many warship and aircraft movements to and around the region just in case they ventured out into the IO. I'm not clear how that may have impacted merchant traffic between Australia & India however. As it turned out only 3 Japanese cruisers sortied into the IO for a couple of weeks in March and they succeeded in sinking a single ship, the SS Behar.

So I don't believe that a blanket statement that food supplies could not have been supplied from Australia is accurate, provided the shipping could have been made available. And therein lies the rub. Could it in fact have been made available given all the other competing interests at that time. Planned amphibious landing operations in the IO were being cancelled in late 1943/early 1944 for lack of shipping of all types.
 

Users who are viewing this thread

Back