My father’s reminiscences of the Second World War (1939 – 45)

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A couple of years ago, I had asked my father to put his memories about various things down in writing for me. Here is what he wrote for me about World War II.

Anbannan (Dr. G.C.Anbunathan)

I deem it a pleasure to put down on paper at least some of the things I heard, saw, and experienced during the period of the Second World War.  For two reasons, I feel am privileged to record them. Firstly I am an octogenarian and secondly because I am free, at least till now, from dementia which drastically affects the memory.  It is my conviction that every privilege that a believer receives is providential and therefore they should be utilized purely for the glory of God Almighty with deep gratitude to Him.

As the seventieth anniversary of this world war is fast approaching, it is natural for people all over the world to be curious to know, from the living remnant of survivors of this historical event, of their experience of this horrendous war.

This event covers my age between thirteen and sixteen.

I first came to know of the name of Adolf Hitler, the dictator and ruler of Germany in the year 1937.  He was introduced to the world as an attractive and outstanding political leader of Germany.  Germany had its own interesting history.  Germany had its glorious days before the First World War but was reduced to an insignificant country by the end the War (1918).  The emergence of Hitler was considered to be an effort on his part to repair the state of his country.  Hence whatever he did appeared to be an excellent contribution of this new leader.

In contrast, Great Britain was a super power at that time par excellence.  During this period, Neville Chamberlain was the Prime Minister of Great Britain.  Political cartoonists drew his pictures as a man with an umbrella in his hand.  He was a good-natured man.

[My mother, who had witnessed the First World War during the years between 1914 and 1918, used to say that the secret of the success of Great Britain was the godly queen Victoria, Empress of India.  I vividly remember my mother’s statement, and its corollary, I learnt later, that just before the fall of a country, it becomes godless. From time immemorial, this has been the case in the history of the world consistently as the history repeats itself.

The country Great Britain contained in it four countries namely, England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland.  It was a great country indeed with so many well-developed countries clubbed together.  It was one well United Kingdom and the first person who had the title of “Empress” was Queen Victoria.  Under her rule, there were many colonial countries, and India, Pakistan, Ceylon, and Burma were some of them.]

Let me begin my story with this great leader Adolf Hitler.  The symbol on his national flag was the swastika. He became more and more popular and the Press projected him to the world as an outstanding political leader with great courage and conviction.  At that point of time, no one had any notion that he would finally end up as one of the worst dictators of the world on a par with Nero and Caligula.

He frequently waged war with adjoining countries and annexed them to Germany.  Germany expanded to become a large European country.  Hitler’s actions were severely condemned by Great Britain, France and other countries, and even the League of Nations (which became the United Nations after World War II) warned him severely about his actions.  But Hitler justified it with one reason or the other, and other countries remained silent and helpless. Hitler started criticizing Great Britain, the greatest power at that time, to the utter irritation of Chamberlain.

The world started admiring Hitler’s personality, his courage and his style of administration.  Though politically, countries criticized Hitler’s policy of expanding his country by annexing the adjoining countries, people in general considered him as a great hero.  They thought that he was only trying to improve his country’s reputation.  The Press projected Hitler as one of the great leaders of the world.  Little children wrote poems in praise of him and they were published in newspapers.  There were also political articles praising him sky-high.

The moustache that Hitler sported became very popular.  It was named Hitler moustache and young men all over the world adopted the style. India was no exception. The first person in our own family who imitated his moustache was Rajamanick-Athan. We thought he looked very handsome with that style.  The second victim was my eldest brother Mathurannan.  Every two people out of five in India had the Hitler’s moustache. It was my style in those days to avoid anything that a majority of the people did, which was one of the reasons I didn’t attempt to learn how to smoke!  This was just the pride of my self-confidence and personality coming into play and so there is really nothing to boast about.  However, God used this natural leaning to help me to avoid certain bad practices like smoking. I am digressing!

In 1938, the world’s attention was heavily focused on this man, Adolf Hitler. By this time a number of European countries came under his control.  Every one felt amazed by the growth of Germany in expansion, military strength and his dictatorial way of dealing with things. In the middle of that period of time, his confrontations with other major powers especially Great Britain were incredibly provocative.  He went to the extent of warning and giving an ultimatum to Great Britain, the greatest power of the world at that time. This frightened us more than it evoked our curiosity about his audacity and foolhardiness. To me as a young boy it appeared to be somewhat like a lion and an elephant drawing towards one another in great ferocity.  You felt like closing your eyes with your palms fearing the worst.

Hitler at one stage flew a thousand war planes over London openly warning and intimidating Great Britain. This exceeded all limits of decency and diplomatic etiquette.  The countries world over wondered where from Hitler produced such a vast number of planes all of a sudden like a bolt from the blue.  There arose all kinds of rumours that Hitler had been secretly getting ready for warfare of an intensity beyond the imagination of any country of the world.  The ball was in the court of Chamberlain to respond to this fresh and intense provocation.

Chamberlain trembled and had his heart in his mouth, as it were.  But with advice from Parliament, Chamberlain gave an impression to Hitler that he cared two hoots for his threats and that Great Britain had far more planes at their disposal.  History revealed later on that Chamberlain had actually just a small fleet of planes at that time!  This announcement of Chamberlain gave Hitler a shock and made him withdraw since he needed time to review the situation.

Then Hitler announced that he had a secret weapon which would annihilate the entire world by the press of a button. That was the first time people started talking about nuclear fusion and things of that sort.  That was Hitler’s shock treatment to Chamberlain of equal magnitude.  It didn’t take long for Hitler to understand that Chamberlain did not have such a fleet of war planes.  So he started to intensify his threats and challenges towards Great Britain

We were watching this explosive situation with fear and trembling.  Adolf Hitler an emerging gigantic power getting ready to cross swords with the then greatest super power of the world namely Great Britain.  It was difficult for anyone to speculate the outcome of this explosive situation that was precipitating.  “What could be secret weapon that Hitler was frequently referring to?  “What would be the state of the world in case Hitler conquered Great Britain?  Such questions were the talk of the day at this time. There was an ominous silence for a short while.  It was obvious to everyone that at best it was nothing but a calm before the storm.

There were a few significant developments starting to take place in quick succession.  News was afloat that the emperor of Great Britain under the advice of the Prime Minister instructed the Viceroy of India to stop any confrontation whatsoever of Indian political leaders like Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, and the Muslim League leader Mohammed Ali Jinnah.  The Prime Minister summoned the Indian political leaders to meet him in London in an emergency session.  Close on the heels of the meeting of the Indian leaders with the British Prime Minister came an announcement from Jawaharlal Nehru, the leader of the Indian National Congress, that Congress agitations towards the British government should be stopped forthwith.  There was a sudden lull from the usual everyday noisy shouts, protests and agitations of congressmen under the leadership of the parties of the Indian National Congress and the Muslim League.  It was like the usual waves of the sea coming to a standstill all of a sudden unnaturally and abnormally.

When the first wave of rumours reached our ears that Great Britain had declared war against Germany, people already got reconciled to the inevitable and impending crisis of a global intensity.  Countries started taking sides in quick succession. Germany and Italy on one side (with Japan to be joined with Hitler’s side in a little while) and Great Britain, France and the US to unite on the other side.  The Soviet Union of Russia being a Communist country remained aloof. There were heavy bombardments in all adjoining countries of Europe since Hitler’s strategy was to first occupy the whole of Europe so that occupation of Great Britain later on may be a cakewalk.  Hence Great Britain’s narrowly escaped the destructive bomb blasts of Germany which I would personally consider providential.

That was about the time radios were introduced in India.  In the early nineteen forties, only affluent people could afford to have radios in their houses.  Most people listened to radios played in restaurants and wayside teashops.  People would flock around the teashops.  Fortunately for us, most of the teashops played the radios quite loudly, whether it was due to their benevolent attitude in allowing the public to hear the news or whether it was an advertisement strategy, we were benefited because that was the only source available for the public to hear up-to-date news about the war.

Speaking of radios, the first person who possessed a radio in our family was again Rajamanick-Athan, who had recently received a sum of money through the sale of an ancestral property in Dindigal. This was our eldest athan (brother-in-law). He then persuaded my eldest brother Mathurannan to buy a radio for himself, lending him money from the property sale; their relationship was so intimate. But this was all much later, almost towards the close of the war.  Hence we could not be benefited by the radio!  This was again providential.  If we had had a radio set in my house at that time I could have never progressed in my studies.

Newspapers were in great demand at this critical time.  People had to wait in queue to be sure of getting a copy.  By the by, the word ‘queue’ and the act of queuing originated at this period of time.  Earlier, with no idea of queuing, one had to wade through crowds of people to get anything.  Survival of the fittest was the only technique available then.  There were thugs available to help us if we paid them enough depending upon the size of the crowd and the degree of our urgency at that time. As to who introduced queuing, we will see in connection with certain other details connected with this topic.

Not being able to withstand the ferocious attack of Hitler, many countries in Europe surrendered. Practically, the entire Europe with the exception of Soviet Russia and Scandinavian countries (Norway, Sweden) had been annexed to Germany making it the greatest and the most powerful country in Europe.

There was great agitation in Great Britain against the inefficiencies of poor Chamberlain who had to relinquish his position making way for Winston Churchill who eventually became the man of the world war in the end.

At one stage, the world believed that what Alexander the Great and Napoleon desired but failed to achieve, Hitler was going to achieve.  As soon as Winston Churchill took the reins of the Prime-ministership of Great Britain in his hands, things took a dramatic turn. Not that Churchill could get any arms and ammunition superior to Hitler’s, but because of his extraordinary intelligence, keen gift in strategies, and oratorical gift, which made the British Parliament dance to his tune. Churchill’s parliamentary speeches were considered to be a work of literature.  If Samuel Johnson was the king of prose writing in English literature, Churchill was the king of oration exceeding even Edmund Burke and Benjamin Disraeli. Above all, there was the providence of God.  Many avoidable blunders committed by Hitler in the war strategy were instrumental in the success of Churchill.  Franklin D Roosevelt, President of the US at that time was another great personality who greatly contributed in the team of men who were instrumental in reversing the tide of victories enjoyed hitherto by Hitler.  That is war history.  But this write-up is confined to what I have, as a layman, understood in my personal capacity about this war.

Churchill, although he was the Prime Minister, spent most of his time with the Army, understanding their needs, granting them their requests then and there, and giving them all the encouragement and necessities they badly needed. This made their difficult work smoother. This made the army personnel work with great enthusiasm.

The need for queuing during an emergency situation like that was practically the invention of Churchill at least in India.  This greatly facilitated Army operations.  The victory salute created by Churchill boosted the morale of the Army to an unimaginably great degree. Churchill created another slogan which was ‘Keep the wagons moving’ meaning ‘Do not hinder in anyway the movements of military wagons’.  When a military wagon is noticed on the road, it was treated as one would treat a fire service wagon or medical emergency ambulance even without the siren. The size, shape and colour of the military wagons made the vehicle quite conspicuous.  Both pedestrians as well as civilian traffic cleared the way swiftly—at lightning speed— for their movement. Those scenes on the road are still vivid in my memory.  This discipline was enforced all over the world where the Allied Forces were in operation.  This facilitated in a very big way the loading and unloading of military goods from one place to another.

When the war was at its peak in the year 1942 or so, the civilians were given training as to how to conduct themselves if there were bombings. Air raid protection trenches were dug along important roads, and the people were trained to get into the trenches in an orderly fashion. There were Air Raid supervisors, like policemen, seen all over the streets supervising what was called air raid drills.  Alarm sirens were set up in various places and mock air raid sirens were sounded and there were a lot of officials to control, train and guide people so that no untoward incidence took place.

Actually, one real bomb from an enemy plane was dropped on the outskirts of Madras city. It created great panic among the masses. But before it caused any serious panic among the people, there was a public announcement to reveal that one stray enemy war plane was noticed and was chased away by aircraft guns, and it flew away dropping a single bomb.  People were assured that there would not be any more recurrence of this.

I would like to add here some details of the experience of our own family at this time.  The British Government offered many concessions for those who joined the military service. In our family circle, my brother Anbannan (Dr. G C A), who had just completed the M.B.B.S degree course; Dr. David Pillai, my sister Flora’s father-in-law, a leading physician in Tuticorin; one Mr. D. D. Anugraham;  Mr. A.D. Balraj, my future brother-in-law; Cousin Nallu Athachi’s husband, G. Devadoss; and two of Anbannan’s future brothers-in-law are the people to my knowledge who had joined the military. There was also one lady in our family who had joined the military before her marriage; after her discharge from the army, she was married to Mr. Thomas, brother of Barnes Athan another brother-in-law of mine. The first three persons listed above were given a special rank in the army called the King’s Commission and enjoyed many special privileges. The highest status held in the military at that time among the non-commissioned officers we knew was cousin, Nallu Athachi’s husband, G. Devadoss, who held the rank of Subedar Major.

Some of the arguments put forward in favour of joining the military service were, should the war escalate to India, the military people would be safer than the civilian population because they were more precious to the British government than the civilians and secondly a lot of concessions were given to military personnel; besides that their retiring benefits were attractive.

With respect to our own family, initially there was a lot of opposition to Anbannan (Dr. GCA) joining the military since he was the mentor for most of the members of our family, and to see him joining the military during a world war, and that too with the way Hitler was fighting, everyone felt heartbroken. Father himself was exceedingly sad.

Anbannan placed before us all the following reasons, justifying his intention to join the military:- He had been offered the position of a King’s Commissioned officer which was very prestigious in those days and which was salary and status-wise quite attractive.  He would be treated on a par with Englishmen. This rank was given only to medical doctors, engineers and those with high post-graduate qualifications if they were otherwise fit for military service.  Secondly, in a world war situation, there was very little chance for civilians in terms of employment.  Thirdly, our family was at a critical stage financially especially with another brother Asaph Annan’s business having met with severe financial loss and with the three youngest children, including me, yet to pursue their education.  His arguments were logical and very convincing to everyone though it caused every one of us great grief. Father agreed to Anbannan’s suggestions, very reluctantly though.

Among the non-commissioned officers, were some Englishmen.  When Englishmen of a lower military rank noticed Anbannan in uniform, they walked away into nearby lanes to avoid the shame of saluting to an Indian.  This was the time when India was a British colony, and the King of England was the Emperor of India.  As such the situation was very embarrassing to an Englishman of a lower military rank to salute an Indian.  But the military situation at the time demanded that senior officers be saluted.  You remember the famous story of how Mahatma Gandhi was pushed out of the first class compartment of a railway train in South Africa in those days; only Englishmen could travel that way.  It was an extremely difficult period of time in Indian history.  Anbannan would tell me of how he used to avoid causing embarrassment to English soldiers as far as possible.  If he complained that a lower rank man failed to salute him, it would be considered as a very serious offence.  But he understood the situation, and always made it a point to avoid such situations and pretended that he had not noticed when someone did not salute him.

To cut the story short, the time came for Anbannan to bid goodbye to us.  It was at the railway station of Pudukottai that we all assembled to see him off. We reached the railway station much ahead of time to avoid the last minute rush. I don’t remember exactly who all were there except Anbannan of course, Father, Mother, Flora, Justin, Sugana, and myself.  The other persons possibly might have been Madurannan, Parimala Athachi and Asaph Annan.  Anbannan was in the military uniform with tie and suit being a King’s Commissioned officer.  He did his best to dilute the mental agony of everyone, and we all wholeheartedly cooperated, cutting jokes in an artificial way but inside burning with sorrow. When the train conductor noticed Anbannan in military uniform, he understood that he was dealing with a King’s Commissioned Officer, and came to us every now and then to find out if we needed anything. If it were a bigger railway station, we would have waited in a hall called ‘Higher class passenger waiting room’.

The fact that he would be traveling in a First Class Railway coach gave us a little consolation. We had never traveled in such a luxury compartment in those pre-independence days.   In those days, there were four types of coaches: the ordinary class called Third Class, the Inter Class, which I saw only once when RajamanikAthan and my sister Ratnakka travelled in it just after their marriage.  Second class was meant for high government officials, wealthy businessmen and the like.  But no one used First Class except Europeans, governors and people of that standard.  This was the first time I saw one of our own people traveling in that coach.

We did not want the train to arrive at all!  But much against our wish it did arrive and a few minutes earlier at that.  Anbannan slowly, steadily, and in a dignified manner got into the first class compartment, with the railway conductor standing near him to attend to his needs if any. There was no good platform at Pudukotai railway station at that time and so he had to get into the train using several steps.  It was also not a station where the train would stop for any considerable length of time.  Only for his sake, the train resumed its journey with a slight delay.  The moment he got into the train, the whistle was blown for its departure.  Mother shouted to him saying, “Do not stand at the door!”  He could not have heard it over the noise. He smiled at us artificially and quickly disappeared into his cabin. I am not sure which year it was; probably it was 1944, when I was studying in the first intermediate class (equivalent to the present Plus one, or first P.U.C., or eleventh standard).  Never before had I endured such an agony.  God Himself must have granted us the strength to bear it.  We returned home not saying much.  Thereafter, I do not remember much of the details.  

In the beginning, Anbannan wrote to me frequently, but that frequency was not kept up.  I am sure those letters which I had preserved carefully are in the custody of my daughter.

At the peak of the war, we heard from Anbannan that he was stationed in Italy at the German border.  There was constant bombing with ear splitting sound because that was the time Hitler started retreating, facing defeat, and the Allied Forces were trying to penetrate into those areas.  Because of the noise of battle and the heavy pounding of bombs, for the rest of his life, Anbannan suffered a kind nervous shock whenever he heard any loud noise from explosives.  The temple city of Madurai, where he lived till his death after returning from the war, is known for loud fireworks especially during festivals.  But that can’t be helped anywhere in India.

When we flocked around the radio news broadcasts, our hearts would beat madly.  While Anbannan was stationed in Italy, near the German border, most of the people known to us were on the Burma front.  We heard of heavy casualty from that front also. Our neighbouring houses now and then would receive telegrams bearing the most dreaded news.  We were mentally on pins every day.  Our prayer life was intense in those days.

With this heavy loss of precious human beings, Hitler was finally defeated to the great relief of the entire world. But the war did not end. In fact at one stage, it appeared to us that there was no chance of this war ever coming to an end. Even though the defeat of Hitler was sealed, the war did not and could not come to an end because the country Japan, which was one the partners of Hitler, was leading the war from the far eastern side comprising Japan, Burma, Indonesia, Malaysia and also China.

Look at the irony of the situation.

Here was the Allied Forces, comprising Great Britain, the USA, France, Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, India, New Zealand and a few other countries.  With so many great countries clubbed together, it was the mightiest force that the world had ever witnessed. Hitler was completely subdued at great cost in terms of unprecedented losses of human lives and, destruction of properties. This meaningless war left millions and millions of people weeping inconsolably all over the world over the deaths of their beloved ones. All this because there arose one evil dictator who played with human beings.

But when all was over, like a terrible nightmare, here was an apparently tiny country, Japan, one of the allies of Hitler who started waging an unconquerable war; unconquerable not because of their might but because the battles were fought in a remote area and British and Allied soldiers found it very difficult to manage in that area because of the tropical climate, surrounded by marshy jungles, inundated as a result of frequent rain; it was an area prone to diseases.

Besides all this, there were two other formidable factors from their side. Firstly, the Japanese used guerilla warfare (that is, to attack suddenly and then disappear into the surrounding jungles) This was the kind of war that Vietnam also later on adapted and the USA could never subdue them. Secondly, another tactic used for the first time by Japanese fighters was called “fidayeen”, which involved suicide squads.  Suicide squads are still a very difficult war strategy to subdue.  What a difference from the Japan we know today as a peaceful and well-developed country!

America being one of the members of the Allied Forces assessed the situation intelligently and correctly.  Being a world war, the war could not be ended even if one isolate country continued the fighting adamantly.  The United States of America had an atomic bomb which they planned to use as a final resort had Hitler remained unsubdued.  Otherwise, they planned never to use it.

Thus the Hiroshima-Nagasaki tragedy took place. It was very tragic that such a large number of innocent men, women and children met with such a painful death.  Ironically, if the war had continued, more than hundred times more people would have died, not in a single place as in Hiroshima but spread out all over the world because it was a world war. While I do not thereby justify this tragedy, I do not know what alternative I or anyone else could have suggested either.  Only experts in war strategies can answer these things.  I am expressing this purely as a layman.  But for the Hiroshima tragedy, I would not be surprised if the war continued for more than 20 years more, leaving in the end neither victors nor the vanquished but deaths, diseases, and a total economic breakdown world over.

But when Japan continued the war adamantly, the USA issued several warnings to Japan to stop the war and not to force them to use this frightfully evil weapon. They knew that the remedy would be worse than the disease.  But there was absolutely no way of avoiding the disease (Japanese guerilla warfare coupled with the dreadful troops of fidayeens).  It had become an issue of to be or not to be, that is, to defeat the Japanese force with an unconventional nuclear weapon or to allow millions of human beings to be drawn into battle from all over the world to die.

I vividly remember the final warning that explained the dreadful consequences of a nuclear explosion to Japan and to the whole world.  Many countries appealed to Japan to end the conflict for the sake of human lives. At the very end, they were given two or three days’ notice to take the advice and stop the war or to face the consequence. But Japan would not relent. The avoidable tragedy took place because of the adamant ruler of Japan at that time.

Every story must have a conclusion.  The formal announcement was made that the world war was over on 11th November 1945 to the jubilation of everyone.  But the Hiroshima tragedy marred the full joy of the situation.

One fine morning, we received a letter while we were in Pudukottai from Anbannan with telegraph-style wording “Relieved from the Army – Cannot give details due to military rules – Will reach in ten days – Anbu” Like the song in the “Fiddler on the Roof” ‘If I were a rich man’. I felt like singing “If only I were a child I would like to dance with bells and laughter, but I am now a man with a moustache. What a pity! How am I to express my uncontrollable joy?” The passage of ten days was like one month to me.  After the tenth day, I almost spent the entire day waiting on the verandah of our house to see Anbannan.  Yes, the waiting was very painful but finally it happened.  My heart almost burst when I saw Anbannan alighting from a vehicle with a lot of bags and baggages.  There was unprecedented commotion in the home.  With great admiration, I noted that Anbannan looked so handsome in the military uniform.  There was unabated laughter, mirth, chit chatting and what not.

But I had a great grievance. In reality, I felt like falling down prostrate before God and shouting ”Praise the Lord, Praise the Lord,” but I knew it was not practical to expect everyone to feel that way. However, the least I expected was for someone to quickly arrange a thanksgiving worship especially when there was an organ available conspicuously in the hall and the greatest organist of our family, Father, was present too.  I waited and waited but nothing of that sort happened.  Not being able to put up with this apathy, I requested for a prayer meeting not being able to control my feelings.  Then they all started assembling for a prayer meeting.

Looking back, I am reminded of the following verse: “They have lyre and harp, tambourine and flute and wine at their feast, but they do not regard the deeds of the Lord or see the work of His hands” Isa 5:12. I never forgot the lesson I learnt on that day, to never ever forget the “work of His hands.”

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2 responses »

  1. Pingback: What I Read Online – 04/24/2012 (p.m.) | Emeth Aletheia

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