• Mirika Rayaprolu and Manasi Anyal

The Lost Explosion Of Bombay: The Bombay Dock Explosion of 1944

April 14th; devi, three reports of cloud

Hit rooms musical with gramophone rhymes: ‘44

Yellow triangles of butterfly, grey dragonflies blew

away with shock–a steamer explodes.

The sky bunched and sprouted like a scissored-paper tree, shook

Black peacock wood.

The red acrobat of my circus fell to the floor.

 

Mr. Jussawalla talked about Bombay in the city’s language. He reflected the city’s forgotten trauma and how we chose not to dwell on it, a city that moves on.


An eloquent voice opened the door to an arcadian space that radiated comfort; plants that had outgrown its pot, hardbound books and diaries with its spines still intact laid open. Mr. Adil laid before us a tray of biscuits and a trove of stories. We carefully chose the story of an Adil who had just turned 4 only a week before the explosion. His narration of the event takes us back to the day the sunset turned “dark red, ochre, brown”.



Photograph of Mr. Jussawalla by Oishee Nandy




Residing on the 3rd floor of Sonama House near Shalimar Hotel, almost six kilometers from the Victoria Docks, the visuals of April 14, 1944 have nested in his memory. Mr. Jussawalla was planted by a caretaker on the bed with a glass of warm milk, listening to the pulsing of Victoria Docks with rapture. Almost immediately, the tremors were felt in the flat.


“I remember my father rushed in from his clinic and said to us, ‘Come down, come down, we have to go down. There’s been an explosion and it may be a Japanese attack.’” A young Adil was rushed to the dock facing balcony where he saw two thick columns of smoke rising in the sky, one darker than the other.

The only thing a four year old could associate with the cloud of smoke was a tree made out of paper, cut in a zig-zag, haphazard manner; the way they were taught in school. Innocence took over a traumatic image, something that can still be seen in his art.


“The smoke rose like a scissored paper-tree”

Confusion clouded a child’s mind and he wasn't sure who to hold accountable for. The smoke cloud that hung in the sky that night, shattered windows of his house and his father’s clinic or a door latch that got twisted; was it the Japanese, the British Raj or simply an “accident waiting to happen”?

The sky was blue, then golden, then an ashy pink. “Mumbai jalata aahe” Mumbai is burning, the residents of Madh Island said as the ground beneath their feet shook and their eyes reflected pink. The afternoon of April 14 1944 shook the country as tremors were heard all the way up to Shimla. The very ground of Bombay spasmed and shuddered as bales of burning cotton and gold bricks rained all over Bombay.



Bombay, silhouetted against the blazing sky.


SS Fort Stikine, the majestic British vessel, was sailing from England to Karachi after finally docking at the maestoso Victoria Docks in Bombay. Having unloaded a large chunk of her cargo in Karachi, the empty space was soon filled with rice, resin, fish manure, turpentine, oil drums and timber. Thousands of bales of cotton lay neatly spread out, nestled cosily between ammunition and explosives, 31 crates of gold seemed to have found its way into a safe welded to the bulkhead of the ship and the ‘Floating Bomb’ waited with bated breath to unearth monsters of the sea on the residents of Bombay.

 

How It Began


When we decided to work on Bombay’s best kept secret, we thought we would see ourselves wading through hours and hours of archival footage and decades old, coffee-stained reports that flashed their glamorous what’s and why’s at us. We seemed content and comfortable at the Heras Library at St. Xavier’s College, that was the only place in Mumbai to possess a copy of The Great Bombay Explosion by John Ennis; the only elaborately written piece on what went wrong that day. We seemed comfortable until we didn’t.


Articles, papers, research, personal accounts of the explosion were barely found on the internet. The handful of newspapers that actually wrote about it seemed to have picked up the same 2 cents from other publications and reading them was like listening to a broken record. Words repeated like clockwork. The Great Bombay Explosion by John Ennis that came to us from a college library in Iowa, USA was a 1960 copy and looked almost brand new. The faint vanilla smell that came from its pages, the browned edges, the empty library card and the forgotten explosion seemed to be the only thing old about it.


The fire that raged throughout the city was forgotten. Or for a better word, lost. The Dock explosion being the largest one in the Asiatic continent until the Americans unloaded their weight on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, why were our Indian docks forgotten?


The English made sure that nothing of the explosion got out into the world and into the generations to come. The Japanese and Germans were laying low and keeping a close eye on the British in Mumbai. Mumbai, the city in all her glory, was a staging ground for the Allies and inadvertently became a battleground for the War as well. Thus, the English regulated what went out to Mumbai’s people and what didn’t.


The explosion rocked the city and with no explanation, no addressing and absolutely no regard for the residents of Mumbai, the English kept mum and that’s when the rumors flew like arrowheads into every nook and corner of Mumbai. Mumbai was convinced that the Japanese had invaded and the city was going to be gobbled up like every Allied ground in the world. CST and Churchgate station were overflowing with people who wanted to escape Bombay, people who didn’t wish to become a hostage in their own home.



CST Station amidst the explosion


The British were starting to visibly get flustered at how the residents of the city were reacting. What they did next was release a freshly put together news reels that, in steady orchestration, told people that things were under control.


(1944) Bombay docks explosion: The day it rained death and gold.

We know that Sudhish Ghatak, cousin of Ritwik Ghatak, filmed the aftermath of the explosion. We also know that military officers confiscated that footage but used part of that footage in the newsreel. They extracted the worst parts and stitched them into the news reel so what was worse than the worst that the English decided to shelf?


“Information was clamped down on because otherwise it would be of use to the enemy.” says Commander Mohan Narayan (Retd.), the longest serving curator of the Maritime History Museum, Mumbai. “1300 tonnes of ammunition was loaded from England and with all of that lost, anything that comes out is information to the enemy.”
 

Finding a Lost Man


Blowing off dust off the names of the fallen proved to be a tough affair. Censorship in India owing to the War was clamped on down hard, movements were restricted and putting up reg flags was avoided. Quite literally. Fort Stikine and her medley of cargo made the entire voyage from England to India a dangerous stint. According to the International Code, dangerous cargo was usually marked with a red flag flying atop but in this case, the idea was scrapped so as to not alert the enemy, the Japanese at the time.


Third Engineer Officer, John Walsh, was one such name that was enshrouded in thick layers of dirt and dust. Walsh operated on Fort Crevier alongside his Captain Emerys Jenkins. He was standing on the deck of the ship when the explosion from Stikine killed him with Walsh being the only one of 55 crew members to be killed. Captain Jenkins reached out to Mrs. Walsh.


And so we packed a couple of water bottles, took our college ID cards and trotted down from Sewri Railway station to the serene Sewri Christian Cemetery. The afternoon sun burned the nape of our necks and the Bombay humidity warmed up our water. We walked into the Cemetery and were greeted by the grave of Frederick William Stevens, the architect of the palace of grandeur, Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus. His grave stood out like a beacon, like the image of a man who promised to give Bombay a notable architectural delight to stare at. Rest assured, he did what he promised he would do.


The caretaker of the Cemetery was kind enough to take us to the section of the grounds that housed WW1 and WW2 veterans. The only condition was we drop our phones, bags and any other miniature secret devices we may potentially have sewn into our belongings into the office. The caretaker looked pleased with himself.


We strolled the perimeter of the grounds, taking in the air of release and feeling a sense of calm as we surrounded ourselves with the smell of trees, wet mud and a somber air of mukti.


Mr. Walsh was nowhere to be found.


A wave of dismal washed over us but we were convinced that the grounds had seen the body of John Walsh. The caretaker, aware of his dominance on our presence, gave us the opportunity to “have one last shot” in our search.


Chalo theek hai, office mai aa jao. Throwing that silent pity party for ourselves was probably a good idea.


We walked into his office and he whipped out humongous brown binders from a steel wardrobe that creaked in agony as he pried it open.


These registers contain all you need to know about this cemetery”, he said as he fluffed up his chest like a peacock. Sweet guy.


We went straight to 1944. Walcott, Walden, Waldwick.


Walsh. We found our old man.


John Walsh was buried in Sewri Christian Cemetery on April 18th, 1944, four days after the city shook.


Our eyes followed the other burials that week and we gasped as our eyes read it all from left to right. Name. Date of Death. Reason for Death.


Unknown 1. 14th April 1944. Explosion.

Unknown 2. 15th April 1944. Explosion.


As the caretaker shook his head dolefully at how we couldn’t take photographs of the records, we knew we had stumbled on the first written record of the explosion. The Great Bombay Explosion of 44 was no more a myth.


John Walsh’s Grave Registration Form

 

What Happened


Commander Mohan Narayan (Retd.) sat poised as he spoke about the conflict aboard about the seat of the fire. A neatly framed sketch of the harbor of Bombay hung from a wall behind him and the mystery of the fires were seen behind his eyes.


“14 April was a day nothing went right for Stikine. Even hope was forlorn.”, he said.

The patchy internet between the three of us did not obstruct the words from boring into our flesh. The fire to unravel the mystery seemed to grow.


Madam Stikine voyaged from Birkenhead, England via the English Channel to Karachi, Pakistan and then finally to Mumbai, India. Within her bosom lay a mixed cargo of 1300 tonnes of ammunition (category A, B and C), 8000 bales of cotton, fish manure, oil drums, 31 caskets of gold bullions and turpentine.



Diagram extracted from John Ennis’ ‘The Great Bombay Explosion’.


George Gregory, a seaman who was at the wheel when Stikine entered the waters of the Red Sea felt a waft of peaceful sea sir. “This reminds me of sailing on the lake in the park at home on Sunday afternoons.” Little did they know that this was the last of peace they were to encounter in a long time.


The captain SS Fort Stikine, Captain Alexander Naismith directed her as she remained silently docked in Karachi as her Spitfires and other cargo got unloaded from her belly. The holds now looked empty and ships being empty during the War wasn’t heard of owing to saving travel-time and money. The empty space was almost immediately filled with 8,700 bales of cotton, hundreds of drums of lubricating oil, scrap iron, timber, fish manure, resin and sulphur. The mixed cargo that were the ingredients to the infamous ‘floating bomb’.


Henderson Williams Douglas, the Chief Officer of the ship, with beads of perspiration appearing on his forehead spotted 750 drums of turpentine to be loaded in the coal bunkers. “Don’t bring one can of that stuff near this ship.” If the cotton got damp or came in contact with the oil, a chemical reaction could set within the cotton giving off hydrogen thus threatening the surrounding air with heat combustion.


The problem was identified. The solution was contravened. A contravention that almost cost an entire city.


“My father was a marine engineer working on SS Fort Indus in the dockyard. When the explosion happened, he was thrown out to quite a distance by the intensity of the blast and he landed on a pile of gunny bags or something similar and was thus, saved.” says Lakshmi Suryanarayan, daughter of C. S Sundaram, a junior marine engineer aboard Fort Indus.
“I remember Dad saying that he actually saw someone running, who was hit by a metal shrapnel flying around and decapitated on the spot, and that the momentum kept the poor man running a few more meters before falling down.” said Mrs. Suryanarayan with a sigh. Her eyes crouched. “Terrifying to even think about it.”
 

The First Fire


Trails of smoke rose into the sky with S.S Fort Crevier, docked at number 11 berth, watching it ascend into the heavens. Mohamed Taqi was one of the first on Fort Stikine to have raised verbal alarms about a fire on the ship. The stevedores and foremen tried to navigate the seat, the origin, the heart of the fire in the hold, but the smoke bellowed and thickened with every passing second and looking into the hold was impossible even with all that water going into it.


32 hose lines ran into hold no. 2. Norman Coombs, Chief of the Bombay City Fire Brigade raised eyebrows at where the water was actually hitting. Coombs soon felt an imbalance, an emotional one, sure, but also physically. The ship developed a tilt. Hold no. 2 had 3 million gallons of water and the palatial S.S Fort Stikine began to list and lean to one side.


“14th April was a day nothing went right for Stikine. Even hope was forlorn.”


Captain Naismith and Coombs were now tearing the hair off their heads and foremen collapsed on the starboard as they tried to evacuate hefty detonators from hold no. 1. The black smoke turned the skies gray. The men and women of Bombay walked around in thin linen sarees and loose pants around Crawford Market, vendors in Dana Bazaar quarreled with wives in gajras about the price of do kilo toor dal, the seas prophesied in silence.


Coombs and Captain Naismith heard crackling in hold no. 2 as small arms and ammunition began to explode beneath the burning bales of cotton. The seat of the fire was still unknown until Fireman H. V. Dayaram, driver of the trailer pump, felt a certain type of warmth that was not typical to the hot Bombay sun. He turned around to glance at a large patch of gray paint bubbling on the side of the ship. The bubbles of paint would burst and flakes drifted gently down to the floor, like orange coloured leaves in Autumn, like newspapers under creaking fans silently dancing next to a cup of cold chai.


The seat of the fire was now known.


A gas cutter was called in to cut the patch of the ship and tackle the fire that was raging beneath the patch of metal. The equipment grew largely unsound as it drowned in the water that was splashing beneath it. It sputtered in torment as it was revived but the matches were drenched, water droplets steadily dropping onto the foreman’s foot. Tip-tip-tip.


“14th April was a day nothing went right for Stikine. Even hope was forlorn.”


When a match was finally procured, the gas cutter stalled. Where it was supposed to produce a searing aggressive flame to cut through the ship, it birthed a cloud of thick, black smoke. The mixture of gas in the gas cutter was wrong.


Everything fell apart around them. Coombs’ chest heaved as his bloodshot eyes scanned the sky for answers. Naismith, timid yet firm as he was, brainstormed over the stowage plan with his head in his hands.


The flames from hold no. 2 garnered up speed and roared as high as the ship’s mast. The fire raged, reflecting in Naismith’s eyes when he gave the order. “Abandon ship.”


Fort Stikine exploded.

CREDITS - U.S. ARMY

 

The Second Fire


Hold no. 2 sprung up hot blazing fragments of hot, heavy metals that could mutilate anyone who came in its way. Cotton flew up in the air almost looking like burning asteroids that were to hit earth. Drums of leaking oil did a delicate ballet dance move in the air as they swung and turned. A low but loud rumble echoed through the sky.


The hands of the clock at Victoria Dock, Gadiyal Godi, stopped at the exact time the first explosion hurt the city, six minutes past four. The hands of the clock stayed that way for months, a grim reminder of the affliction that one of the greatest explosions in the world had caused the city of Bombay.


The day grew dark, dull and dreary and the black skies were only illuminated by the scraps of hot cargo that twinkled like fireflies. The day was not over yet. The docks hadn’t caught its breath yet when the fire God decided to roll his dice once again.


Hold no. 4 possessed far more volatile, more dangerous Category A explosives that were largely intact. The hatchway of the hold, however, was left open and what this open hatchway did was welcome unwelcomed pieces of scrap iron, burning cotton and other otherworldly elements that floated down into the no. 4. The hold had four times the ammunition as hold no. 2. What happened next shattered glass windows miles away, destroyed the warehouses at Bhendi Bazaar and turned the sea black with debris.


The ship exploded once again. A deafening roar got hold of Bombay, dust and blood all mixed in the air, the ground, the water to make a poisonous potion. The second explosion was more damaging than the first one.


And Captain Naismith and Chief Officer Henderson were never to be seen again.



A cloud of smoke arising into the sky after the second explosion.


Many jumped into the water to swim ashore since debris had blocked entrances and exits but while some made it to the other side, others drowned.



Position of the ships post the 2nd explosion


J. J Hospital seemed like a ‘slaughter-house’ to seaman George Gregory, the seaman who reminisced his Sunday afternoon sailings just days before. Mutilated bodies scattered the hallway, white walls turned red and the quiet din of the hospital corridors grew to a roar. Photographs of people running on the streets struck an uncanny resemblance with the ones with Hiroshima Nagasaki. Probably the war’s way of prophesying the untimely events of the world.



Fort Stikine’s log book obtained from The National Archives. The picture shows the Stikine’s last log. “Serious Fire in cargo of cotton which ignited explosives at Bombay 14/4. Feared to be a total loss. Vessel completely destroyed. The explosion set fire to the other vessel in Victoria Dock & Prince’s Dock Bombay. Definately (sic) a total loss.”


One of the biggest explosions before the world saw Hiroshima and Nagasaki, what more did we need to make our people recognize this?


A 4000 ton ship thrown across a wall

 

Kamathipura


People’s disassociation from April 14 1944 was something that haunted us like a child’s ghost as we dispersed to our respective platforms, waiting to board our crowded trains home. And so we found ourselves nestled at the foot of the original storytellers; our grandparents to talk about a larger, more tantalizing story to this, a core memory for thousands.


Propeller pieces, scrap iron and other flaming pieces of SS Fort Stikine paid a visit to the 14-laned neighborhood, Kamathipura. Having family currently residing in the neighborhood, a hurried phone call went to Jagdish Anyal, whom Kamathipura referred to as Nana. He was almost 3 at the time of the explosion. Even though he only recollects stories as narrated by his father, he remembers his father taking him to the terrace to see the smoke clouds. It looked like the monsoon sky in the middle of April, gray and gloomy. He spoke with a heavily accented Marathi, his voice cracking. “The explosion was so big that everything heated up and the pieces of the ship flew all across the city. Because a lot of the buildings around this area were wooden, they quickly caught on fire.”


“I heard that the area from our shop (in Nal Bazaar) to Masjid Bunder station road was completely devastated. A lot of pedhis (small shops) and their warehouses had wooden doors which burst open due to the impact of the explosion.” his voice started to drop as if a British servant was pressing his ears against the door of the room we were in. “There was a rumor that that whole area was shut down in search of gold bricks. None of the shop owners were allowed in and out of the place. Our mother did not allow us to step out of the house; there was fear and tension in every citizen’s heart.”


Kamathipura had suffered, we just couldn’t figure out how. There was no record access to the impact on the affected areas and the public suffering. The only existing, verbal lead from every Kamathipura resident was that one of the propeller pieces fell here and all the fingers pointed to the 5th lane of Kamathipura. Naturally our little investigation took a turn into these lanes.


Sheela Pupala presented herself to us as we sat in her dimly lit office, black and white photographs of her parents hung behind her chair and old, dog-eared books rested untouched on shelves in the corners of the room. Sheela Pupala was a walking encyclopedia of Kamathipura. From the residents to the smells, she knew everything about the area.


“The house that was destroyed due to a propeller was my second cousin’s house. They lived next door and they rented out that place to a family with a newborn kid. The propeller fell right through the roof, tearing down the house in seconds. The whole matter went to court, but it was soon suppressed by the British”


Sheela Pupala offered to show us the building. We walked up to a dainty, blue building, supported by a bamboo structure as it was to undergo redevelopment soon. “76” read the building number. It was almost dreamlike, to be in the vicinity of a historical building that itself has no memory of its history.



PHOTO OF 76 BUILDING. Photograph by Manasi Anyal


 

Aftermath


We got off our surprisingly empty train at Andheri Station and walked a short distance till we reached an eloquently laid out spread of buildings. Yasmine Mehervanjee, daughter of L S D Mehervanjee waited outside her gated door and welcomed us with a gentle kiss on our hands as we stepped out of the elevator. The fragrance combination of 3pm lunch going back into the fridge and a type of aroma that emanated from Jasmines welcomed us into her home.


“My father was a great man.” Mrs. Yasmine said as she handed us a binder with newspaper clippings, old black and white polaroids and honorary letters by senior ministers and the like. She proudly drew her gentle fingers across clippings, pointing to where her father was in photographs. “My father never missed visiting the memorial at the Fire Brigade’s headquarters in Byculla every year on the 14th of April to pay homage to the firemen who laid down their lives.” Mr. Mehervanjee, a young fire officer of not more than 19 years, was severely injured on the ill-fated Fort Stikine at the stroke of 4:06pm. He was rushed to JJ Hospital where he heard the loud bang and clang of the 2nd explosion. He remained at the hospital for months before he could venture into his life of daily service, the explosions reverberating in his ears for years to come.



Haunting imagery of bodies along the sides of a road


Stories of gold, propeller pieces and tremors loom around every other year in April, lost among elaborate discourses of fire safety. However, our forgotten heroes remain the reason why Bombay as we know it didn’t burn down. 66 firemen sacrificed their lives that unfortunate day so that Bombay could live. These unsung heroes built a firewall around the radius that the fire affected and if it weren’t for them, the city would have been gobbled up in flames.


It took 3 days to bring the fire under control. Fires would erupt all around the city because of the flammability of the elements that landed up in areas like Carnac Bunder and Wadi Bunder.



A building in the vicinity of Victoria Docks, reducing to rubble


Scrap iron and the oil soaked cotton being the worst of them all. It took almost 8 months to clear out 500,000 tons of debris and to rebuild the docks to functionality. A memorial now stands tall at the Mumbai Fire Brigade Headquarters in Byculla in memory of the firefighters who lost their lives in the fire of 1944.


Silhouettes of firemen among sites of destruction


The gold bars rained down on Bombay that evening either making families rich overnight or injuring house structures and caving into roofs. A retired Parsee Civil Engineer, Burjoji Cooverji Motiwala and his family watched the catastrophe unfold from the balcony of their third floor flat in Kukana house on Girgaum Road. After the second explosion illuminated the dark sky, he cajoled his family to move to the ground floor of the building for safety. Sounds of low growls and roars filled the air and soon he noticed that the second explosion damaged the masonry of his balcony.


“Another missile”, he thought as he went to navigate the deface. Mr. Motiwala, in all the strength that his 70 year old body could muster, walked up the stairs to his balcony. Sure enough, a lump of metal sat in the middle after bouncing off the floor of his drawing room. He took the 28 pounder gold bar in his hands and ran his eyes on the number stamped on it - Z13256 along with an etch of the Bank of England.


Motiwala trotted with the gold bar worth Rs. 90,000 to the police that kept threatening people to return the ingots if found. He was to be rewarded with a certain amount and promised that half of the money he received would go straight to a relief fund.


Soon, he received a peanut sized amount of Rs. 999, a little more than 1% of the price of the gold bar. Motiwala changed his mind and donated the entire amount to the fund.


These are the names of the firefighters who laid down their lives for our city, say their names.


Robert Thomson, Harold Palmer, Robert Chargers G. Andrews, Arthur D. Reynolds, Rustom Phirozshah Palamcoat, Rajaram Meghashyam Chavan, Samuel Thomson, Mirza Muzaffer Baig, Ferdinand Roberts, Aron Joseph Days, Jodah Salomon Mendrekar, Shekhar Bangera, Yekar Mahabal Shetty, Daniel Hamilton Thomas, Nana Sakharam Mulekar, Mahadeo Shripat Bhosle, Shivanand Gajanan Pansare, Annaji Balwant Tawre, Dattaram Balwant Mahadik, Kedar Allabux Inamdar, Atmaram Bhiwa Parab, Sakharam Tukaram Pawar, Madhusudan Sabaji Khot, Saskharam Pandurang Etkar, Sakharam Ramji Shirke, Damji Mahipat Chavan, Narayan Anant More, Mohammed Sidhik Alladata, Yeshwant Gopal Malusare, Keshav Purushottam Godbole, Dhondu Ramchandra Kalingan, Gora Rehmtullah, Pandurang Bapu Sawant, Shrikrishna Vishnu Apte, Bhagchand Balamsingh, Laxman Dhondu Shinde, Sitaram Dhondu Lad, Raoji Vasudeo Uraskar, Krishna Jagannath Desai, Shrirang Anant Chavan, Chandru Gunaji Chavan, Dinkar Vishram Shelar, Babaji Keshav Bhosle, Krishna Shankar.


With a handful of records explaining the catastrophe of April 14th 1944, we scavenged personal posts, comments and shares on Facebook. A group that went by Old Bombay was among the only communities in Mumbai to ardently and religiously talk about that day. Under posts of the explosion lay a treasure trove of men and women. Men and women whose grandmothers narrated stories of rains of gold bars while skinning away ripe aapus mangos.


This story is dedicated to the grandfathers and grandmother who lost their family homes in the fire, lost their friends, family, woke up disoriented amongst dust and grime and dried blood on their bodies. This story is dedicated to the men and women who revolted against the British to make this story heard, we hear you.