by Alan Watkins
A notable anniversary which passed last night has strong links with Medway.
Midnight on August 14 1947 was the precise moment the Indian subcontinent was handed over to the locals to run themselves. It was called Freedom at Midnight. It was the end of the British Empire.
The country was split up in six weeks under instructions from Lord Louis Mountbatten.
It was bound to lead to mistakes, and the errors continue today. One million died in religious and territorial slaughter. More than 20 million were displaced as Hindus headed for India and Muslims made for the two parts of Pakistan. More died when Eastern Pakistan split away to become Bangladesh.
In the midst of it all the influence of Medway people was considerable and it has continued to be the centre of Indian interest to the present day.
Royal Engineers had been in India for about 100 years, exploring and mapping the continent. One – 20-year-old Lt (later Sir) Alexander Cunningham – is known as the Father of Indian Archaeology.
Another was Lt Horatio Hubert Kitchener – who became Secretary of War until he was killed in 1916.
There were many Medway people in India who played roles in the final days of the Raj. Frederick Pound, from Strood, was in the Royal Military Police at the time of partition. His daughter Sheila and her husband Malcolm Leith, of Maidstone Road, Rochester, found a photo album of his time in Rawalpindi and Murree after he died four years ago.
“He never talked of his time in service,” said Malcolm, “except once when he said he would have liked to stay in India – but had a wife back home in England.”
Tommy Whatrup, 87, of Lime Court, Wigmore, still has vivid memories of his service with the Queen’s Regiment at the end of the Raj.
“We trained to go to Germany, but weren’t needed so the next thing we were given jungle-wear and told we were going to Burma,” said the former corporal. Then nuclear bombs fell on Japan, ending the war. So they were redirected to India in a peacekeeping role.
They arrived in Bombay – where Tommy posed like so many others in front of the Gateway to India.
“I was very lucky,” said Tommy. “I missed the campaigns in Europe and Burma.”
He shipped back aboard a converted meat ship a few days before partition.
“Trouble had been brewing, but we saw none of it,” he said.
He had heard gunshots in Bombay, but it was his colonel firing two revolvers in the street to let the locals know their battalion was in Bombay.
“They responded by firing their rifles,” he said. The only other indication of trouble was the draining of petrol from army vehicles.
“They were making Molotov cocktails with our fuel,” he said.