Pensioner’s Paradise or POW Camp ?

The Bangalore Rifle Volunteers Armoury

My earliest childhood memory of BRV is in the late 70’s when it was still a ” Thayter” ( as they say in Shivajinagar). I was taken to watch an old B&W film, Albela (1951), where Bhagwan Dada, in his famous ganji created a cacophony in the kitchen singing ” Shola Jo Bhadke” to a coy Gita Bali. Little did we know how ironic this was. `Shola ‘ did indeed `Bhadke”  at BRV. In many ways.

This beautiful building with its stone turrets was once an armoury for the Bangalore Rifle Volunteers,  the headquarters of the Bangalore Battalion (Auxilliary Force) at the turn of the century. It was a multi-purpose space with a Billiards Room, Reading Room, Ladies Room and a Bar on the ground floor and the Regimental Offices, Stores and other rooms on the first floor. It was electrified, had a stage as well as an orchestral pit and served as a glittering space for concerts, dances and finally, the movies.

BRV is on Cubbon Road, in the heart of the Bangalore Cantonment. From the War Memorial that once stood near the GPO, to Baird Barracks at the other end near East Parade, (named after Major General David Baird who defeated Tipu in 1799) the entire road is part of a colourful World War history that quietly draped itself in camouflage and melted into the backwoods of our minds.

But there was a time in the 1940’s when Bangalore was at the epicentre of hectic WW II activity. The skies were dotted with Hurricanes, Mosquitoes, Catalina’s and Spitfires that roared over Bellandur to HAL and Yelahanka, Kempegowda’s ancient domain. As they headed out on super secret missions, they would perhaps have also flown over convalescing soldiers recovering from war wounds in Hospital Town (as Jalahalli West was called back then).

A significant portion of Jalahalli had been acquired by the British Defence Forces during World War II and served as a sanctuary for military men who were wounded while fighting in the lush, tropical jungles of Burma and the searing sands of the Middle East. At first, it was a little cluster of hutments and then it grew into many buildings of modest proportions. The shanties were hand built by the Italian Prisoners of War, men who had probably been brought in from Africa following Italy’s surrender in Ethopia. There were a several thousand of them, at the POW Camps (Group 1) in Jakkur, Hebbal and Jalahalli. The contract for building the camps was given to the VST Group, a company establishedby V S Thiruvengadaswamy Mudaliar.

But evidently war or captivity could not dampen the irrepressible Italian spirit. Margaret Ledger, an English nurse, stationed at the Bangalore Military Hospital during the War says in her account  of wartime India ” They were very polite, but enjoyed hiding away from work. One day three of them had disappeared, and I went to search for them, because we were short of staff. They were sitting outside the Quartermaster’s Stores. I told them to come back to the ward. In a chorus of three voices, they replied “Madam, we do not make war, we make love!”

They also made a lot of pasta, built the beautiful Italian Garden at the Botanical Gardens in Ooty and played football matches against the barefoot Indian team from Austin Town.Once a month, the men would seat themselves at an open air theatre (a cloth stretched between two army trucks) where Ramalingam Mudaliar, a Bangalore based businessman and his son had a contract to screen films brought in from Europe.

If black outs and fears of air raids weren’t enough to send our traditional Bangalore residents scurrying back  to their ancestral villages, the antics of the American soldiers who rolled in on shiny Lorries (newly introduced into India by the British) would have definitely done the trick. One story says that their camp was in the civilian area where the SJ Polytechnic stands today on Seshadri Road. This unruly contingent apparently “enjoyed riding in buggies, drawn by zebras that had been brought in from Africa.” I am sure they would have left native Bangaloreans boggleyed !

Rollig across the sand dunes of Africa

Many  soldiers must have also dreamt of being the next  Rudolph Valentino as there were both Cavalry and Artillery Theatres in the Agram Barracks, an Infantry Theatre in Baird Barracks and a Royal Horse Artillery Theatre in Ulsoor. The men also played Polo at the Polo Grounds west of South Parade, golf at the Bangalore Golf Club ( 1876), attended the races at the Turf Club and spent time at the other Clubs that dotted the Cantonment.

But there was another side. “There was no running water or drainage or lighting.” said John Forster  about the OTS (Officer’s Training School) Bangalore.” One night a cadet from the next room went and sat down on the toilet, but leapt to his feet when he felt something bite him and discovered a rat hanging on to him ! ” There were also darker anecdotes such as the story of a Private in Camp just outside the Cantonment who ` was almost decapacitated by a thin wire which was drawn across the road at neck height by villagers in the hours of darkness, with the express purpose of injuring inebriated soldiers  returning to camp on their bicycles…’ (PB Norris, Follow my Bangalorey Man)

From a battlefield to the movie screen.Image credits: sproe.com

But while many a homesick soldier cooled his heels here, grim battles were fought and won around the world, with a special export from India – the famous Bangalore Torpedo. The BT’s were created in 1912 by Capt. Mc Clintock, a British officer in Bangalore and a Madras Sapper no less. They were specially designed to blow away barbed wire. Used intensively by almost all the Special Forces in Normandy, when the  powerful ‘Torpedo’ was detonated, the scrapple cleared a path of almost 3 meters!  To my surprise, they re-surfaced post the war, cradled in Tom Hank’s arms in `Saving Private Ryan’ . The Madras  Sappers had a close and significant relationship with Bangalore City and another noted Sapper, Lt.General Richard Hieram Sankey also designed and built civilian spaces such as Cubbon Park, Sankey Tank and the Attara Kacheri.

Many regiments were raised or left for battles in the Far East from Bangalore during that turbulent time. They boarded ships at Madras and sailed across the sea to an uncertain fate that awaited them. All that is left are traces -a War memorial here, a tombstone there, and plaques in many Churches across the Cantonment. A peaceful walk through the South and East Parade at 7 am on a cold, grey morning brings  it all back quite easily. Thanks to the defense forces, at least some parts of the city’s heritage has been protected successfully against land sharks, unplanned development and indifferent governmental policies.

The War took a lot from our  little town in South India – men, land, lives. But it also gave us our very own unique war time legacy; the unique Rava Idly. It was apparently invented in the 40’s (according to local legend ) by MTR when Bangalore was gripped by a severe rice shortage.Now sit down and digest that story.

Weekend must visit : HAL Heritage Centre & MuseumAir port- Varthur RoadBangalore 560017Ph : 91 80 25228341 ( may be subject to change)

Advertisements

20 comments

  1. Raksha · · Reply

    Amazed by the amount of information I get about Bangalore every time I visit the blog:)

    1. 🙂 enjoy finding out as well.

  2. I’ve lived here all my life, for 25 years now and I never knew this about BRV! Always thought it was an army canteen of some sorts. And loved the still from ‘Saving Private Ryan’! 🙂 Out of curiosity, how did you spot that/find it out?

    1. Oh, that’s in the movie no ? So quite easy to access. BRV was an armoury, its still etched into the stone on top. There are so many other stories as well, about the B-24 Liberators that were lying in the corner of a field in Jakkur, dying away slowly, till some folks from the Royal Air Force Museum apparently came in, restored and flew them out of here. Also the beautiful seafaring Catalina’s that would land in the Bellandur Lake and float down a canal from there to the brink of the HAL Airport that played an important part in WW II.

      1. wow! we had a Canal?….I can’t even begin to imagine all that.
        Great read by the way and I also absolutely enjoyed the post on Bangalore eat-outs. 🙂 Thank you!

  3. kasiviswanathan · · Reply

    Hi, thanks for those memorable photos.I lived in Plackpally from 1956 to 1971.What has happened to those bungalows with big open space and gardens. When i pass on these places tears roll down my cheeks. Its full of concrete buildings , no footpaths to stroll and insensitive people.

    1. You are most welcome 🙂 so much has changed, yes. So much has been lost.

  4. Rev g Alex Potts · · Reply

    I was born in Agram Military Hospital. My father Thomas Potts was in charge of the BRV during the war.
    I am an OB of both Bishop Cotton’s and Baldwins
    Rev g Alex Potts

    1. That is incredible! Could you please inbox me at the email id given below so we could come and meet you? Your memories would be invaluable.

  5. niranjan · · Reply

    A great read…. And fantastic research done

    1. Thank you, Niranjan.There’s a lot more to tell but not enough space 🙂

  6. My late father worked for VST. They had the contract to build the POW camps in Jalahalli (maybe others as well). He was a supervisor for the construction of the camps and also worked there when the POWs were housed. He had a lot of great stories about the Italian POWs. Looked like they enjoyed their time there. I remember him mentioning that they drank a lot of beer and would also secretly give it to the Indian workers!

    1. Hi Shekhar!This is amazing to hear!Would love to hear more stories, so will get in touch with you soon!Thanks so much for writing in.

  7. Great job of narrating the history of BRV!!! Grew up seeing Clint Eastwood movies there. Good sleuthing.
    Kishen (Old Baldwinian class of 1974)
    Enjoy reading your blog of my beloved hometown.

    1. Hi Kishen, thanks so much for reading 🙂

  8. Maria Gaudio Luzzi · · Reply

    What an interesting read and pictures! My father was an Italian POW in Bangalore. I just found out about this today, thanks to records kept by a UK web service. Although he passed away in 1968, all I knew was that he lived in Bangalore for 7 years before being set free in 1944. Thanks for letting me see a little more of his history and life that he never liked to talk about.

    1. Hello Maria and thank you for writing in. Unfortunately, the POW camps were temporary shelters/cabins and have not survived in their entirety.But the military areas in Bengaluru still contain strong memories of another time.

  9. Maria Gaudio Luzzi · · Reply

    Thank you so much for such a quick response! Any little bit of information that opens up a little window to his past is deeply appreciated. I was such a typical teenager when he died, and finding out his history was the last thing on my mind, even if he never wanted to speak of it. Plus, all of my friends’ fathers patriotically served for the United States, so I was very reserved on the topic. Who knows, maybe Bangalore will be a trip on my bucket list as I am now retired. Thank you again!

  10. You are most welcome. We do city tours and travel itinerary planning for Bangalore visits as well, so do keep us posted if you make the trip.We will be happy to take you on a tour of the city’s military history! Look forward to meeting you when you do. 🙂

    1. Maria Gaudio Luzzi · · Reply

      I will definitely red flag this message on my e-mail to keep in touch. Have a wonderful week!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: