A widely publicized 2010 book alleged that Churchill refused to help India during the 1943-44 famine in Bengal. The charges were exploded years ago, but the accusation continues to surface. Churchill’s supposed dark secrets and fatal flaws are popular among those who refuse to read the full details on the matter.
In 2010 the late Sir Martin Gilbert, Churchill’s official biographer, told me he had looked carefully into contemporary 1943-44 documents. He said they entirely exonerate Churchill and the War Cabinet. He would publish this material in the appropriate volume of the official biography, Winston S. Churchill.
Hillsdale College is now publishing those documents. Daily we review Sir Martin’s “wodges,” virtual day-by-day records of Churchill’s life. In 2017 we published Document Volume 19, September 1943 – April 1944. True to his word, Sir Martin amassed many papers on the Bengal Famine. They prove that Churchill and the War Cabinet did everything they could, under wartime constraints, seeking help to alleviate the famine. The tragedy began with Japanese aggression in Burma (India’s chief grain supplier)… Then, certain Hindu merchants in Bengal started hoarding grain supplies, hoping for windfall profits.
Here is just one document from Sir Martin’s meticulous compilation. This one is late in the history of the famine. It does however recap the story. Its very date is significant. Despite urgent preparations for the invasion of France, the Cabinet was still attempting to relieve Bengal shortages. (Bold face is mine.) For more examples, dating to autumn 1943, click here.
Bengal: War Cabinet Meeting 55
24 April 1944: 10 Downing St.
The War Cabinet had before them a Memorandum by the Secretary of State for India (WP (44) 216). It reviewed the latest position as regards the Bengal food grain situation. The result was a net worsening of 550,000 tons. The Viceroy, in addition to the 200,000 tons already promised, now required 724,000 tons of wheat. This was the minimum needs of the civil population and the Army were to be met.
The Secretary of State for India said that the position had been worsened by unseasonable weather, and by the disaster at Bombay,* in which 45,000 tons of badly-needed foodstuffs and 11 ships had been lost. He was satisfied that everything possible had been done by the Authorities in India to meet the situation. Given the threat to operations which any breakdown in India’s economic life involved, he felt that we should now apprise the United States of the seriousness of the position. It must be for the War Cabinet to decide how far we should ask for their actual assistance.
* * *
Sir Firoz Khan Noon said that everything possible was being done in Bengal to control prices and movements of grain. The outstanding factor was a definite shortage of food grains in the country. The effect of the unseasonable rains this Spring had been very serious….Substantial imports from abroad were essential, not only to meet the shortages, but because of their reaction on public opinion and morale, and their deterrent effect on hoarders. While hoarding by merchants was under control, the peasant was still uneasy and was holding back supplies. India, which had never been a self-supporting country, had lost her Burma imports and, in addition, was carrying a heavy increase of population and substantial numbers of troops.
Malicious rumours were being spread by interested parties in India that the United States were willing to help with the grain but that His Majesty’s Government would not apply to them. If we now approached the United States and they were unable to help, it would at least dispel that allegation.
The Minister of War Transport pointed out that the existing programme of imports provided 35,000 tons of food grains per month for India from December last to the end of September next. He found no further shipping available, save at the expense of operations or of the United Kingdom import programme. The United States faced very serious shipping difficulties.
The Prime Minister said that it was clear that His Majesty’s Government could only provide further relief for the Indian situation at the cost of incurring grave difficulties in other directions. At the same time, there was a strong obligation on us to replace the grain which had perished in the Bombay explosion. He was sceptical as to any help being forthcoming from America, save at the cost of operations of the United Kingdom import programme. At the same time his sympathy was great for the sufferings of the people of India.
* * *
After further consideration the War Cabinet agreed as follows:
(1) The Prime Minister would represent to the President the situation which had arisen from the Bombay explosion, with such additional detail in regard to the generally threatening character of the Indian food situation and its possible effect on operations, as was thought desirable at this stage. He would urge them to assist us with shipping, on the understanding, however, that any help given would be additional to, and would not come out of, the shipping already allocated to us, and would not be made in such a way as to reduce the United Kingdom import programme.
(2) The replacement of the 45,000 tons of grain lost in the Bombay explosion should be regarded as an obligation which His Majesty’s Government must meet even if the American response was negative….
Appeal to FDR
Five days later Churchill wrote to President Roosevelt:
I am seriously concerned about the food situation in India and its possible reactions on our joint operations. Last year we had a grievous famine in Bengal through which at least 700,000 people died….By cutting down military shipments and other means, I have been able to arrange for 350,000 tons of wheat to be shipped to India from Australia during the first nine months of 1944. This is the shortest haul. I cannot see how to do more.
We have had much hesitation in asking you to add to the great assistance you are giving us with shipping but a satisfactory situation in India is of such vital importance to the success of our joint plans against the Japanese that I am impelled to ask you to consider a special allocation of ships to carry wheat to India from Australia…. have resisted for some time the Viceroy’s request that I should ask you for your help, but…I am no longer justified in not asking….
The editors at Hillsdale thoroughly indexed this and many other key documents. Together, they prove that, contrary to sneering allegations, out of context quotes, and charges of racism, Churchill did all he could. His efforts and the Cabinet’s did alleviate the shortage through numerous outside sources.
*On 14 April 1944, the cargo ship SS Fort Stikine caught fire and exploded in the Victoria Dock of Bombay. Deaths totaled 1,300 people, injuries more than 2,000.