History revisited

Remembering the day a 'floating bomb' brought death and destruction to Bombay

A series of grave omissions in 1944 led to the tragedy that is now called Bombay Dock Explosion.

Seventy-one years ago, on April 14, two explosions rocked Bombay Harbour, raining death and destruction on the docks and the area around it. An estimated 800 people were killed in those explosions, thousands were driven from their homes, and the city's waterfront was left in a shambles.

In a letter dated April 18, 1944, Indira Gandhi described the explosions to her father from the hill station of Matheran, over 80 km away. It was afternoon and she was reading a book when the building began shaking and the windows and doors rattling. The rumbling stopped for a few minutes before beginning again, leading her to assume it was an earthquake. She noted the time of the first explosion at a few minutes past 4 pm. The letter, included in the book Two Alone, Two Together, also tells us that there was no mail or newspaper the next day and she was certain that Nehru knew what had happened.

But, in fact, information was heavily curtailed at that time. The Second World War had entered its last decisive stage and the censors checked everything. It was later that Radio Saigon, a Japanese-controlled radio station, revealed what really happened. A ship called the Fort Stikine, loaded with explosives and cotton, was responsible for the event that is now called the Bombay Explosion.



The Fort Stikine was a huge Canadian-built steamship that sailed from England on February 24 loaded with Royal Air Force planes, ammunition, explosives and other stores. It also had many wooden crates, each containing four bars of gold. Each bar weighed 28 pounds and the gold, worth £2 million, was being sold by the Bank of England to the Indian Government to help stabilise the Indian rupee, since much of it had gone to finance the Indian colony’s war effort. The explosives contained in the ship weighed around 1,395 tonnes and included shells, torpedoes, mines, rockets and incendiary bombs.

The ship travelled in a convoy through the Mediterranean, the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Sea before docking at Karachi a month later. It was here that more than 8,000 bales of hessian-wrapped raw cotton, hundreds of drums of lubricating oil, scrap iron, timber, sulphur, rice, fish manure and resin were loaded onto it. The cotton was stored one level below the dynamite – cotton bales were prone to combustion but the ship’s officials seemed oblivious to this fact. As the Fort Stikine sailed onward to Bombay, it was already a “floating bomb”, a bomb with a fuse lit. The ship did not carry the danger flag though it was war time and this would have alerted the enemy.

When the Stikine finally reached the Victoria Docks on April 12, there were 11 other ships already berthed. The unloading work, especially of the cotton bales, was not commenced immediately. Other omissions that would prove lethal ranged from the incautious to the farcical.

The impact

A fire in the ship’s hold was first noticed at 12.30 pm. A fire officer realised that a blaze on a ship carrying explosives called for a distinct alarm, but the only telephone he found was damaged. More things went wrong. When he finally broke the glass of a fire alarm, the control room personnel read it as a normal call and deputed only two pumps. By then two hours had already elapsed. A way out was to scuttle or drown the ship, but the ship’s captain, its chief engineer and the manager in charge of the docks disagreed. The chief engineer indicated that the ship could not be sunk by flooding its holds as the valves were designed to let out water, and not to allow any water in.

The ship was destined to blow up. Sixty or more firefighters tried to put out the blaze with hoses throughout the afternoon. Nothing helped. The deck floor heated up under their feet but the water just wouldn’t reach into the ship’s hold. The firemen stood in burning water, refusing to give up the fight even when they were ordered off the ship.

Soon after the explosives caught fire and, at 4.07 pm, a massive explosion rocked the bay area. The blast flung out men on board, along with hot metal pieces large enough to slice anyone into pieces. Oil casks with fire shooting from all sides rose high into the air, as did cotton bales. This deadly cargo fell down on neighbouring ships, setting them afire, as well as the warehouses and other buildings on the docks. The Stikine was lifted up 3,000 feet. The first explosion resounded all across Bombay and beyond. The impact appeared on the seismographs located in faraway Shimla. The second explosion came half an hour later, when twice the number of explosives blew up, wreaking even more damage than the first.

The Aftermath

As it was wartime, censorship rules meant news reporters in British India could file their reports only in the second week of May 1944. Film of the explosions and its aftermath shot by Indian cinematographer Sudhish Ghatak, a cousin of Ritwik Ghatak, was confiscated by military officers. Parts of it were shown to the public as a newsreel only much later.

All 27 ships in the two docks, Victoria and Prince, were sunk, burnt out or badly damaged in the episode, and all dock buildings were reduced to rubble. Fires broke out all over the port, causing other small blasts. Fragments of blazing steel, sometimes weighing up to 100 tonnes, flew at incredible speed, bringing more death and destruction. Author Jerry Pinto writes of a horse being decapitated as it trotted down a street in panic. All hell broke loose in Bombay that day.

The official toll was 740 dead, including 476 military people, and around 1,800 people injured. Unofficial tallies were much higher. It is never known just how many people living in the nearby slums died. Many families lost all their belongings and thousands became destitute. It was estimated that around 6,000 firms were affected and several thousand lost their jobs. The government paid compensation to citizens who made a claim for loss or damage to property.

It took three days and more for military troops to fight the raging fires. Some buildings were demolished to stop it from spreading. The Gateway of India, it was said, could have crumbled too, like other buildings nearer the scene of the explosion. Photographs show a railroad yard littered with debris and shattered wagons. Over the next three months, many ships were salvaged. Later some 8,000 men worked for seven months to remove the thousands of tonnes of debris to make the docks operational again.

The many crates of gold either disintegrated, melted or just sank. Some gold bars, in stories that have become legend, flew high in the air, with oil kegs, cotton bales and even landed in people’s homes. A bar of gold came crashing through the wall in the Girgaum house of a retired Parsi gentleman. When he returned the bar to the police, he was rewarded a sum of Rs 999, which he donated to the Relief Fund. Normal dredging operations at the docks continued to yield intact gold bars periodically, even as late as February 2011. A 45-kilogram shell that had yet to detonate was found on October 2011.

Since the explosion was mysterious in some ways, especially in its immediacy, it gave rise to many myths. One of them came from the fact that the Stikine had exploded exactly 22 years to the day the Titanic had sunk. Another myth revolved around one of India’s most popular and enduring products: The contents of the Godrej safes storing deposits of many banks remained undamaged.

As Bombay Explosion occurred during the World War II, some initially claimed that the explosion was caused by Japanese sabotage. But subsequent inquiries would reveal it was a tragic accident, one caused by several unintentional omissions. At the city fire brigade’s headquarters in Byculla, a memorial honours the 66 fighters who perished fighting the blaze. Fire Safety Week is observed all over Maharashtra from April 14 to 21 in memory of those brave firemen.

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German expats talk about adapting to India, and the surprising similarities between the two cultures.

The cultural similarities between Germany and India are well known, especially with regards to the language. Linguists believe that Sanskrit and German share the same Indo-Germanic heritage of languages. A quick comparison indeed holds up theory - ratha in Sanskrit (chariot) is rad in German, aksha (axle) in Sanskrit is achse in German and so on. Germans have long held a fascination for Indology and Sanskrit. While Max Müller is still admired for his translation of ancient Indian scriptures, other German intellectuals such as Goethe, Herder and Schlegel were deeply influenced by Kalidasa. His poetry is said to have informed Goethe’s plays, and inspired Schlegel to eventually introduce formal Indology in Germany. Beyond the arts and academia, Indian influences even found their way into German fast food! Indians would recognise the famous German curry powder as a modification of the Indian masala mix. It’s most popular application is the currywurst - fried sausage covered in curried ketchup.

It is no wonder then that German travellers in India find a quite a lot in common between the two cultures, even today. Some, especially those who’ve settled here, even confess to Indian culture growing on them with time. Isabelle, like most travellers, first came to India to explore the country’s rich heritage. She returned the following year as an exchange student, and a couple of years later found herself working for an Indian consultancy firm. When asked what prompted her to stay on, Isabelle said, “I love the market dynamics here, working here is so much fun. Anywhere else would seem boring compared to India.” Having cofounded a company, she eventually realised her entrepreneurial dream here and now resides in Goa with her husband.

Isabelle says there are several aspects of life in India that remind her of home. “How we interact with our everyday life is similar in both Germany and India. Separate house slippers to wear at home, the celebration of food and festivals, the importance of friendship…” She feels Germany and India share the same spirit especially in terms of festivities. “We love food and we love celebrating food. There is an entire countdown to Christmas. Every day there is some dinner or get-together,” much like how Indians excitedly countdown to Navratri or Diwali. Franziska, who was born in India to German parents, adds that both the countries exhibit the same kind of passion for their favourite sport. “In India, they support cricket like anything while in Germany it would be football.”

Having lived in India for almost a decade, Isabelle has also noticed some broad similarities in the way children are brought up in the two countries. “We have a saying in South Germany ‘Schaffe Schaffe Hausle baue’ that loosely translates to ‘work, work, work and build a house’. I found that parents here have a similar outlook…to teach their children to work hard. They feel that they’ve fulfilled their duty only once the children have moved out or gotten married. Also, my mother never let me leave the house without a big breakfast. It’s the same here.” The importance given to the care of the family is one similarity that came up again and again in conversations with all German expats.

While most people wouldn’t draw parallels between German and Indian discipline (or lack thereof), Germans married to Indians have found a way to bridge the gap. Take for example, Ilka, who thinks that the famed differences of discipline between the two cultures actually works to her marital advantage. She sees the difference as Germans being highly planning-oriented; while Indians are more flexible in their approach. Ilka and her husband balance each other out in several ways. She says, like most Germans, she too tends to get stressed when her plans don’t work out, but her husband calms her down.

Consequently, Ilka feels India is “so full of life. The social life here is more happening; people smile at you, bond over food and are much more relaxed.” Isabelle, too, can attest to Indians’ friendliness. When asked about an Indian characteristic that makes her feel most at home, she quickly answers “humour.” “Whether it’s a taxi driver or someone I’m meeting professionally, I’ve learnt that it’s easy to lighten the mood here by just cracking a few jokes. Indians love to laugh,” she adds.

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Isabelle, meanwhile, feels some amount of Indianness has seeped into her because “whenever its raining, my body instantly craves chai and samosa”.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.