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Tuesday, August 15, 2023

Indian Independence Day 2023 - remembering our martyrs - SS Fort Stikine

Today We are celebrating  the greatest day of the Nation – 77th Independence Day - the day the Nation was freed from its colonial rulers. Happy Independence Day.  Every citizen feels a sense of pride and happiness when our Hon’ble Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modiji hoists the National flag in the ramparts of Lal Qila (Red Fort)

The Imperial rule put the Nation to great hardships as the invaders looted the wealth and partitioned the country leading to death of millions – a tragedy unleashed nowhere else in the History of Nations.  The British rule was a failure by many counts, but we read in school books as ‘the merciful rulers did the Nation great favours’ – what a travesty of justice !!- ever read of the carnage of killing of more than 800 people, though it was adjudged to be an accident that raged on the afternoon of Apr 14, 1944.

Ever heard of - Field Marshal Sir Claude John Eyre Auchinleck ??- Indian involvement, rather the loss of lives of Indian in World war II was underplayed for the British.  WW2 lasted from 1939 to 1945. The vast majority of the world's countries, including all of the great powers, fought as part of two opposing military alliances: the Allies and the Axis. Many participants threw their economic, industrial, and scientific capabilities behind this total war, blurring the distinction between civilian and military resources.  .. .. India too was dragged into the war by its rulers, getting killed many Indian Army personnel and causing huge loss to Indian economy though the Nation gained nothing out of it. 

The Indian Army during World War II, a British force also referred to as the British Indian Army,began the war, in 1939, by the end had become the largest volunteer army in history, rising to over 2.5 million men in August 1945.Serving in divisions of infantry, armour and a fledgling airborne force, they fought on three continents in Africa, Europe and Asia.The army fought in Ethiopia against the Italian Army, in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Algeria against both the Italian and German armies, and, after the Italian surrender, against the German Army in Italy. However, the bulk of the Indian Army was committed to fighting the Japanese Army, first during the British defeats in Malaya and the retreat from Burma to the Indian border; later, after resting and refitting for the victorious advance back into Burma, as part of the largest British Empire army ever formed. These campaigns cost the lives of over 87,000 Indian servicemen, while 34,354 were wounded, and 67,340 became prisoners of war.Field Marshal Claude Auchinleck, Commander-in-Chief of the Indian Army from 1942, asserted that the British "couldn't have come through both wars (World War I and II) if they hadn't had the Indian Army” – but what was the price of those Indian killed and maimed in the war – for whom were they sacrificed.  Did the Congress ever voiced against this crime ?

Fort Stikine was a British Fort ship, built in Canada in 1942. Owned by the American War Shipping Administration, she was leased under charter to the Ministry of War Transport under the Lend-Lease scheme and operated under the management of the Port Line. Fort Stikine only had a short career, but before it went down it took alongside many more ships and lives.

Fort Stikine was 441 feet 5 inches (134.54 m) long, with a beam of 57 feet 2 inches (17.42 m). The ship was propelled by a 505 NHP triple expansion steam engine which was built by the Dominion Engineering Works, Montreal, Quebec, Canada. Fort Stikine arrived at Bombay in the early morning of 12 April 1944. Having taken on a pilot shortly before 10:00 she was docked at the Victoria Dock at midday. The practice of flying a red flag to signify dangerous cargo on board had been discontinued in wartime as doing so would identify such vessels in the event of an enemy air raid on a port. Also, the practice on unloading such vessels into lighters offshore had also been discontinued due to the war. These proved to be great recipe for disaster.

Unloading of Fort Stikine began with the lubricating oil, followed by the fish manure. An extra gang of stevedores were employed on this task, which continued through the night of 13–14 April. At midday on 13 April, lighters arrived for the explosives. At 12:30, the Chief Officer of Fort Crevier noticed smoke issuing from the ventilators of the № 2 hold of Fort Stikine. The alarm was not raised until 13:45. The fire pump in the ship's engine room was started and the firefighting operation began.It was April 14, 1944 –  Bombay, faced one of its biggest disasters. It came to be known as Bombay Dock Explosions – and now the week commencing April 14 is observed as the Fire Services Week nationally.


The first explosion occurred at 4.06 pm, followed by another big one at 4.41 pm. The  British ship, SS Fort Stikine, which was carrying deadly ammunition, was responsible for the blasts. The explosions were not only recorded at the Colaba observatory, but also by seismographs in other parts of the country.  The ship had sailed from England in Feb 24, 1944 with a convoy of around 20 ships. The over 7,000-tonne freighter was under the command of Capt. NJ Naismith and was to meet the war supplies to carry out a strike against Japan. Besides ammunition, spares for ships and aircraft, it also had gold bars on board, besides a fighter plane. The ship stopped en route in Karachi and cotton bales, cartons of oil, resin, scrap iron, and sulphur were loaded.

She carried just about everything that would either burn up or blow up.  The two explosions together split the ship in half and broke windows up to 12 kilometers away.The explosions the ship experienced were powerful enough to be recorded by a seismograph. It took 3 days to bring the fire under control. Once that was done, 8,000 people worked for 7 months to remove 500,000 tons of debris and get the docks back in working order. The official death toll in the incident was 740. Of those, 476 were military personnel. 1,800 people were injured and 27 ships were sunk.  It was estimated that besides deadly cargo, Stikine was also carrying  £890,000 of gold bullion in bars in 31 crates.

The tragedy would remain in the memories of residents for decades, and April 14 is still observed as Fire Brigade Day in the city.  Every now and then, dredging operations in Mumbai harbour still yield shells and gold bars.

Field Marshal Sir Claude John Eyre Auchinleck, was a British Indian Army commander who saw active service during the world wars. A career soldier who spent much of his military career in India, he rose to become commander-in-chief of the Indian Army by early 1941 during the Second World War.  He was relieved of the post but in June 1943,  was once again appointed Commander-in-Chief, India, where his support through the organisation of supply, maintenance and training for General William Slim's Fourteenth Army played an important role in its success. He served as Commander-in-Chief, India, until the Partition in 1947, when he assumed the role of Supreme Commander of all British forces in India and Pakistan until late 1948.

Auchinleck continued as Commander-in-Chief of the Indian Army after the end of the warhelpingto prepare the future Indian and Pakistani armies for the Partition of India: in November 1945 he was forced to commute the more serious judicial sentences awarded against officers of the Indian National Army in face of growing unease and unrest both within the Indian population, and the British Indian Army.  When partition was effected in August 1947, Auchinleck was appointed Supreme Commander of all British forces remaining in India and Pakistanand remained in this role until the winding up and closure of the Supreme H.Q. at the end of November 1947. He left India on 1 Dec 1947, and he died in Mar 1981. 

With regards – S. Sampathkumar
14th Aug 2023


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