Saturday, April 14, 2018

14th April 1944: The day that WWII came to Bombay

At 3.50 pm on 14th April 1944 my grandfather Hirji Rustomji Dalal was seated in his Navy jeep next to his driver at the Dhobhi Talao junction casually smoking a cigarette on his way to Her Majesty's Docks at Lion Gate when the air quivered with a massive shockwave that blew apart the glass facade of the Metro theatre. The shockwave was followed by a tremendous noise. My grandfather looked at his driver and said, "To the docks now!". He reached a scene of utter and complete devastation. South Mumbai was overhung with clouds of black smoke.


Pic from Wikipedia (

The SS Fort Striknine had just blown up in Bombay Harbour, the shock-waves were felt in Simla(!) and windows blew out of their frames in a two kilometer radius from the docks. Shrapnel from exploding ships, buildings and other ordnance flew all over the city and along with it flew bars of gold which were a part of the cargo. One of these bars flew through the sky before crashing through the roof of the bathroom of a Parsi gentleman having a bath. The gold bar slammed into his bucket of water where it sizzled for some time. I still remember his son telling me how hard he laughed to see his naked, soap covered father running out of the bathroom. He said it was worth the subsequent spanking. They recovered the charred bar and it was recognised for what it was. He returned it to the athourities, for which he received an honourary title and was known as Khan Bahadur henceforth. Later almost all the gold was recovered by the British though a few bars keep turning up every few years during the dredging of Mumbai Harbour.

    Pic from the Mumbai Mirror 02/022011 (

My mother's grand uncle Mr Sohrabji Frenchman used to work in the docks, that fateful day he had finished his shift and was almost outside the gates when he remembered he had forgotten his tiffin, he went back in and was never seen again. The family searched amongst the dead bodies stacked like cordwood in the aftermath but to no avail. I can still see the look of horror on my maternal grandfather's face as he recounted this tale to me more than 30 years later.

For the next fortnight my grandfather only came home to bathe and change said my dad who had his own story to tell. A huge propeller fragment flew from the harbour over 2km away to fall in the compound of his school, St Xavier's High School, Fort. It is still there on the school campus and I I remember my dad showing it to me when i followed him to do my schooling there. I also proudly told my classmates about it and how my dad was in school when this huge chunk of iron landed there!

Pic from Wikipedia (

There were many tales of great courage shown that day and in the next few days most of which were never recorded. The people of the city hid in Victoria Gardens (now the Jijamata Udyan) at Byculla, many left the city forever. Many a family was traumatised and many lost loved ones. The death toll was pegged at 1300 of which over 500 were civilians and 66 were firefighters (memorialised forever after in a memorial which stands outside Mumbai Fire Brigade HQ at Byculla even today). 14th April has been celebrated as 'Fire Services Day' in India since that day.

Pic from Wikipedia (

One of the most interesting notes in the war office is one recording the amazing service of the Bhikha Behram Well near the Churchgate Station. For seven days and seven nights the docks burned and for seven days and seven nights fire tenders continuously pumped water from the well which miraculously didn't go dry.

Pic from ((

No one has still determined whether this event was an accident or sabotage. But it left an undeniable mark on Bombay for all time.