Car-Battalion of Calcutta Police

Pradeep Gooptu

The last article ‘Chariots of War’ had mentioned about the Calcutta Presidency Battalion Auxiliary Force and since then many of our readers have come forward with details of the valuable work done by the armour car-based group’s cadets and officers.

The car battalion was compared to National Guard of the United States by all foreign newspapers of that time – a great honour indeed. Today, the only organisation that comes close to the Calcutta Presidency Battalion Auxiliary Force is the National Cadet Corps but it is neither motorized nor armed.

Service record
Using improvised armoured cars at first and then Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost armoured cars, the Calcutta Presidency Battalion Auxiliary Force assisted the police force in 1919 for over two months in curbing widespread disturbances in and around Calcutta including “communal riots”.

In 1921, in recognition of the services rendered, the government of the day, allowed the formation of self designed Light Motor Patrol groups armed with machine guns, first of Maxim make, and then with guns made by Vickers and Lewis companies and finally, the famous Bren guns.

Till this time, most vehicles used were entirely of local design, fabricated by local garages. The cars could be at best described as powerful and robust private cars with machine guns mounted on improvised stands. In 1926, the group was called out once again for another two months to assist in managing the law and order situation in the city following economic and political disturbances. Once again, in 1930, the battalion helped the civilian government for several months and operated in small detachments. In all, it served to establish law and order at 18 different locations.

One can get an idea about how important the car mounted force was  to Calcutta Police from the fact that the Prince of Wales of the British royal family formally visited the battalion (“inspected them” according to official lingo) in 1921 and 1928. But their days were drawing to a close, says automobile heritage expert Raja Mookerjee. More and more cars and arms were withdrawn and sent off to the North-West Frontier Province, now in Pakistan but then in united India. The battalion was left with only four cars – shown in the picture. The group was completely disbanded after Independence in 1947. The only surviving car is at Ahmedabad, as mentioned earlier.

Photographic evidence
The main photograph shows the four Rolls Royce (RR) Silver Ghost armoured cars parked outside the battalion garage. They were usually kept inside Fort William but there was a city garage, which was situated where the New Secretariat Building on Strand Road stands today. Needless to say, the garage has vanished.

The second picture shows a RR armoured car before it was sent to Calcutta, with a British trained professional usually attached to such vehicles. The major differences between the cars were as follows:

  • The Calcutta cars had solid wheel rims rather than the wire rims of the original car; the tyres might be solid rubber ones as well
  • Calcutta cars were fitted with head lamps and rear view mirrors to make them much more user friendly and capable of operating in the dark
  • The Calcutta cars also had redesigned front mudguards and side panels. The foreign car had a side mounted spare wheel missing from the Calcutta Rolls-Royces.

Other great leaders who loved the RR armoured cars that were used in Calcutta, included Lenin, the father of communist revolution in Russia, and the King of Afghanistan. Both had received such cars as gifts.

Rotary connection
Many officers of the Calcutta Presidency Battalion Auxiliary Force were eminent Rotarians. When WW2 broke out, the Rotary district governor was the head of the Calcutta Presidency Battalion Auxiliary Force. He and his group received huge praise in the foreign press on account of the service they rendered. It included, calling up 300-odd members and rushing them to posts so as to secure and guard the Calcutta docks, lock gates and canals. Arranging tents, mosquito nets, bedding, tarpaulin and mosquito repellant oil etc. within 24 hours of taking up positions; arranging food and toilet at all the locations, putting in place an independent fleet of cars and motorbikes for supplies and relay of information and developing a system for collection of information, photographs etc. from all the locations being served and relaying the updates to army headquarters and the government were some of the services rendered by the Calcutta Presidency Battalion Auxiliary Force.

Formation of Calcutta Presidency Battalion Auxiliary Force
The battalion emerged through the amalgamation and combination of several groups. The Presidency Battalion was formed in Calcutta  in the 1880s and it was the first auxiliary force set up by the British anywhere in the world. Soon after this, a Calcutta Battalion was formed to do similar duties but for operations limited to Calcutta alone, while the Presidency Battalion could be sent to any part of the Bengal Presidency. It appears that around 1926, these two were amalgamated and became the Calcutta and Presidency Battalion.

Around the 1900s, another group called the Calcutta Volunteer Rifles was constituted and this grew rapidly into two battalions and a cadet company with more than 2000 members. With the emergence of machine guns mounted on cars in World War I, a ‘Calcutta Volunteer Machine Guns’ unit was also set up. The Scotts, who had set up jute mills in Bengal, came up with Calcutta Scottish Volunteers which had its own group of armoured car mounted patrols to maintain peace and security from after 1914. This group began in 1911 but was unsuccessful till war actually broke out in 1914. It was only in August of 1914 that the Calcutta Scottish Volunteers were formed and this was as part of a government group called the Indian Volunteer Force. The Scotts served mainly as individual reinforcements according to reports but some officers gained a good reputation for their excellent work. As a result, several officers were promoted to serve British armies in east Africa

Newspaper reports mention that by 1918, the Calcutta Volunteer Machine Guns had been equipped with Maxim machine guns and similar arms may have been issued to the Calcutta Scottish Volunteers.

The British-American journalist John Barry, who worked in our city in 1939-40, and wrote a very popular column, read widely overseas, reported, “On Auckland Road, running parallel to Esplanade Row West, on the northern side, is the Bengal Legislative Council House, and the Headquarters of the Calcutta and Presidency Battalion Auxiliary Force. It is a commodious two-storeyed building, the foundation stone of which was laid by the Marquess of Lansdowne on 1st April 1889.”

He goes on to tell his overseas readers, “The Auxiliary Force came into existence under an act of 1920 with the object of assisting in home defence: It consists of all branches of the service. Service is purely local and training, which is adjusted to conform with these conditions, is graduated according to age, the younger members receiving the more extensive training. The Unit is under the control of the local military authorities, and in case of emergency may be called out for local service”.

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