Kolkata’s Chariots of War

Pradeep Gooptu

It was around 1910, that cars came to be used by security forces around the world. The USA took the lead, followed closely by France, with Great Britain lagging far behind. We are talking about the use of regular cars by army and not trucks and buses. India was part of the British Empire and few cars were in use. As mentioned earlier in these columns, the focus of the British Indian Civil Service was on the use of horses.

In 1914, World War I started in Europe. The French army won a major victory after it used the entire taxi fleet of Paris to rush in troops to the Battle of Marne. This gave Britain the wake-up call. Interestingly, the taxi drivers of Paris received full fare for the trips they did to deliver the army from the camps plus a five per cent tip for excellent service from the government! Soon after, Lawrence of Arabia started using Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost armoured cars with enormous success against the Turkish army. British India followed suit.

Kolkata connection
One of the most celebrated car based armies in the world was established in our very city. It was called the Calcutta Presidency Battalion Auxiliary Force and comprised the most renowned car used in conflict — the Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost armoured cars.

Fitted with an all-enclosing steel bodywork, solid tyres and a platform at the top for soldiers and sometimes a gun mount, these vehicles ideally carried a crew of four. The Silver Ghost had a six cylinder side valve engine with two spark plugs for each cylinder. This gave the car exceptional power and even when fully armoured it could travel up to 45 miles an hour (72 kmph). Specially strengthened wheel rims meant it could be driven hard over obstacles and the brakes were adequate.The tyres – the most vulnerable component – were protected by steel guards while the radiator was protected by steel doors which were closed when under attack so that bullets fired at the front could not cause any damage. However, the vehicle could overheat if the radiator doors were closed for long.

The fleet of vehicles stationed at Fort William proved to be hugely successful in deterring disturbances and all forms of conflict. They gained such a reputation that requests were received from every corner of the Indian Empire for such teams to be set up there or for their use on hire.

The entire Calcutta battalion was sent off to the North West Frontier Province (now in Pakistan) to tackle extreme disturbances in that area. This was not surprising – similar cars were used in 1942 in Libya during the Second World War.

Unusual demand
The effectiveness of the Calcutta Rolls-Royce (RR) battalion drove the wealthy in India into frenzy- they all wanted cars like that. This led to a booming market in our city and great business for garages.Why? This was because the British government was naturally most reluctant to let such armoured cars fall into the hands of Indian owners. All buyers had to immediately rebody their cars and fit non-army bodywork as far as possible.

Hyderabad’s Nizam reportedly acquired several cars through Kolkata while other princes in Punjab and around Delhi joined the list of buyers. Most of these cars appear to have vanished in Pakistan. Some cars survived in India and there is one RR Silver Ghost armoured car at the war museum in Ahmedabad. As RR armored cars were not allowed by the government, buyers had to make do with other armoured cars and most popular among them were the British Lanchesters and Daimlers. Lanchesters had fabulous cantilever suspensions which made them virtually unstoppable over most types of terrain but the engine was less powerful. They were bought by rich landowners in Bengal for use in the countryside and sometimes used for hunting.

The Daimlers chassis were very tough; with changed bodywork they were used as people carriers. The use of cars with bodies of the type used in combats faced strong objection from the imperial government and therefore most had to be rebodied immediately after purchase or were sold with bare frames.

As many as 100 British Crossley armoured and staff cars were imported into India and many came to our city. Crossleys were used by top generals in the British army worldwide and so owning them was considered to be very prestigious. Some ruling families (Bahawalpur in Pakistan and Cooch Behar) modified standard Crossleys into six wheelers with a third axle for use over very rough terrain.The ruling family of Faizabad bought some army surplus cars from Kolkata, converted them into six wheelers and fitted at least one with a caterpillar track at the rear to make it a half-track car.

The British Indian army fitted some cars with light cannons when it appeared that Japanese aircrafts could try to bomb Bengal. These were kept ready and rushed more than once to the outskirts of the city when enemy aircraft indeed came close to Kolkata in World War II. They were stripped of their bodywork and cannon and auctioned as bare chassis in 1946.

Buying army surplus cars with armoured bodywork were altogether a different experience in the past. Today, such cars are extremely rare and valuable; and yet at one time Rolls-Royce armoured cars used to patrol the streets of Calcutta on a regular basis!

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