The Royapuram Air Raid Shelter

It stands forlornly on the Ennore Expressway, near Kasimedu. To its rear is the belligerent sea, which has eaten away most of the land and in front is a particularly bad stretch of road on which heavy vehicles rumble along. It is easy to miss and when you do see it, is an ugly piece of striated concrete in a shockingly bad state. In fact, if it was not practically indestructible, it would have disintegrated long ago. It is the last surviving air raid patrol box constructed during the Second World War.

Another view of the shelter

Given that unlike earlier wars, WW II had a new element — attacks from the air — Air Raid Precaution patrols were formed. Concrete air-raid shelters were put up at various places to house the local citizenry in the event of an air attack. Air-raid sirens would wail and the local populace was to rush into the shelters and remain there till the all-clear signal was rendered. Several practice drills were held.This box must have been for troops to watch out for air raids.

But when it came to real action, the city chickened out. The presence of a vast troop base in Nandambakkam could not instil courage. When Vishakapatnam, Kakinada and Colombo were bombed on April 4-5, 1942, Madras panicked. There was a prolonged air-raid alert on April 7 and immediately, thereafter, began an exodus. It did not help that the Governor, Sir Arthur Hope, rather contrary to his name, lost hope and announced that the city was indefensible. All except the essential services were asked to leave and those who stayed were told that it was at their own risk.

The doorway to the shelter

By April 12, there was no evidence of life in the town except at the railway station where hundreds were leaving. It was the upper classes that largely fled. The poor, with nowhere to go, stayed on. Property prices crashed. The famed evacuation of Madras lasted three months. The Congress and commercial interests in the city ridiculed the government’s loss of nerve. The Viceroy, Lord Linlithgow, sent the home member of his executive council, Sir Reginald Maxwell, to administer a personal rebuke to the Governor. The city, rather red in the face, began filling up once again from August.

The air-raid shelter in Royapuram is square in shape and therefore referred to as the pillbox. It has around 350 sq. ft. of space inside, and on all its walls are narrow slits that afford ventilation and served as ‘spotters’ to watch enemy movement. The pillbox later became a residence for one of the families that lived in the seaside slum.

A window into the interior

Partitions were put up inside for dividing the space into rooms. Now it is abandoned. Judging by the stench and filth, its last function was perhaps that of a latrine. There are talks of its demolition, now that the road is to be widened. It ought to survive as a monument to how our city went into a flap when faced with a crisis.

This article appeared in The Hindu in the Hidden Histories Column