1940-1949 | Famine | India



Lord Cherwell (left) ignored the fact that food wasn’t being distributed to the starving.
IWM photograph H 10786 – crop of original – Wikimedia.

[ 4 April 1945 ]

At 5 pm on 4 April 1945, the Cabinet Committee on Food for India convened. It was not a long discussion. Field Marshall Archibald Wavell, the Viceroy of India, urged that ‘a substantial quantity of wheat’ was needed immediately to avert a resurgence of a famine, which by April 1945 had already resulted in the death of an estimated 1.5 million people in the previous eighteen months.1 The assembled officials were unsympathetic and cited documents presented earlier by Lord Cherwell, Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s scientific adviser, in an attempt to absolve Britain of any need to take measures to mitigate the crisis. Cherwell had claimed that there was no overall shortage of food. This was true in a strictly technical sense, but Cherwell’s report didn’t explain that the British authorities in India had failed to ensure that food stocks were distributed to those who were starving.2

As Wavell noted in his diary, Cherwell’s calcuations were ‘fatuous,’ adding that ‘we had in fact for some months past been getting only half of what we should have had, which again was only half of our requirements.’ It may have been this authoritative and persuasive argument by Wavell that prompted Lord Frederick Leathers, Minister of War Transport, to interrupt to insist that regardless of the actual food situation in India, he was ‘unable to find any shipping.’ Wavell recalled that he ‘seemed indifferent to the possibility of famine.’ It was, the Viceroy concluded, ‘an unsatisfactory meeting,’ but it did not prevent him from enjoying the remainder of the day. ‘Went straight on to see Gielgud’s Midsummer Night’s Dream. A fine performance.’3

[ For more on the Bengal Famine – see 05.01.1943 – Churchill slashes shipping space for India as it faces famine ]

‘A Boy and his dog,’ – The Bengal famine – Wikimedia.


  1. Penderel Moon ( editor ), Lord Wavell, The Viceroy’s Journal, Oxford University Press, London and Delhi, 1973 accessed online at url https://archive.org/stream/wavellviceroysjo00pend/wavellviceroysjo00pend_djvu.txt
  2. Peter Clarke, The Last Thousand Days of the British Empire, Penguin Books, London, 2008, p. 280.
  3. Penderel Moon, op. cit.

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