Dehradun in World War II

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Dehradun in World War II

Monday, 02 December 2019 | Roshen Dalal

Dehradun had a role in both the World Wars. The number of people from Dehradun and from Uttarakhand who fought in the First World War are commemorated in several plaques including one outside the Rajpur post office. During the Second World War Dehradun had a different kind of fame—it was known for two British internment camps for prisoners of war, located on what was then the outskirts of the city, in the Clement Town and Premnagar area.

The camps were not just for those captured in war, but for civilians of all kinds, who belonged to the countries fighting against the Allies. The Clement Town camp seems to have been mainly for Italians, whereas the Premnagar camp had predominantly Germans along with other nationalities.

The latter is  described in some books, including those by Henrich Harrer and Rolf Magener, both of whom spent years in one of the camps and  later escaped.  Henrich Harrer, an Austrian mountaineer, is well known from his book, Seven Years in Tibet, also made into a film.

In August 1939, he, with fellow mountaineer Peter Aufschnaiter and two others were in Karachi after climbing Nanga Parbat.

The ship they were waiting for did not arrive, and they were trying to go overland to Iran, when they were captured by the British. When war started, they were sent to a camp in Ahmadnagar and then to Dehradun.

Harrer wrote, “This time we were conveyed by rail to the greatest POW camp in India, a few miles outside the town of Dehra-Dun...Our camp consisted of seven great sections, each surrounded by a double fence of barbed wire.

The whole camp was enclosed by two more lines of wire entanglement, between which patrols were constantly on the move.” Rolf Magener, working in a German company in Bombay (Mumbai) was among others interned.

 In his book Our Chances were Zero, he described the camp: “The British had a camp for internees outside the town, where the jungle met the inhabited world, on a site which had once been a tea plantation and had partly gone back to jungle.

There were rows upon rows of reed thatched huts, with such low eaves that a murky gloom surrounded them.” There were some trees around, where vultures perched, looking for garbage, and near the huts were open drains and rows of latrines.

Magener adds, “No women or children were to be seen in this City of Despair, but the population showed great variety.” Germans were the most numerous, but there were also inhabitants from other countries, including Italians, Bulgarians, Hungarians, Rumanians and Finns. In the camp Magener met Hiens von Have, who had been a trader in Batavia when the war broke out.

He was interned by the Dutch, but when Japanese forces reached Java, he and other Germans in Indonesia were sent to India and later to the Dehradun camp.

 The camp was largely guarded by Gurkhas of the British-Indian army, and those caught trying to escape were shot. Magener reports that a major problem they faced was boredom and having nothing to do. Perhaps it was this that led some of them to plan an escape.

After much planning, seven people escaped on April 29, 1944: Harrer, Aufschnaiter, Bruno Treipel from Salzburg, Hans Kopp and Sattler from Berlin, Magener and Hiens von Have.

The month of April was chosen as it was spring, neither too hot nor too cold, and without the deluge of the monsoon. Going from Dehradun through Landour in Mussoorie, Harrer and Peter Aufschnaiter reached Tibet.

Sattler, Treipel and Kopp went along with them but gave up at different stages of the journey and were recaptured. Hans Kopp, later wrote about his escape in his book Himalaya Shuttlecock. Aufschnaiter too, began to write his memoirs, which were edited and published long after his death, titled Eight Years in Tibet.

Magener and Have were not mountaineers, and unlike Harrer and his companions they did not try to cross the mountains.

Instead, pretending to be British, as both spoke good English, and later posing as Swiss nationals, they made their way right across India, reaching Burma (Myanmar) and then Tokyo. All their accounts are fascinating, providing a picture of India and neighbouring countries in those days. There is more information on the camps and internees, for instance, the British Library has a two-volume alphabetical list of Italian POWs in India, some of whom must have been in Dehradun.

There may be some data available in the Indian Military Academy too, which existed as the Royal Military Academy from 1932.

The area of the Premnagar camp now evidently is in the IMA campus. People who were youngsters at the time also have their memories. A local resident informed me that some of the Italian military officers were lodged in a shed in the compound of a house on Old Survey Road, when they were on parole.

 It would seem that even others from both camps were allowed occasional visits to Astley Hall, along with escorts. An Italian still remembered in Dehradun is Nino La Civita, of Sulmona, Italy. 

As the Italians must have been Catholics, the parish priest of St Francis’ Church visited them, and noticing Nino’s talent, he asked him to paint frescoes in the church and Nino painted seven huge beautiful frescoes, high on the walls.

 A plaque outside the church States that these were painted in 1946, that is after the war, though stories narrate the paintings were executed while he was still a prisoner, and that he had special permission to leave the camp to make them.

After I posted a few photos of the frescoes, someone from Australia wrote to tell me that she was living in Dehradun at the time, and her elder brother used to wash Nino’s paint brushes and do odd jobs for him.

In 2004, Lorenzo Cassamenti, another Italian artist, restored the paintings, which remain a major attraction in this church. At the same time, many Indians who fought in the war in the British army were prisoners in Italy and Germany.

One of these army officers settled in Dehradun, while another lived here for several years after retirement. There were of course, many more in Dehradun who had participated in the war, but very few recorded their memories.

(A PhD in ancient Indian History, the writer lives in Dehradun and has authored more than ten books)

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