Chemical Warfare Establishment NE India WW2

Discussion in 'Burma & India' started by davidbfpo, Nov 17, 2018.

  1. davidbfpo

    davidbfpo Well-Known Member

    A friend is researching his late grandfather's wartime service (he may seek help later as several options still exist). In our exchange his grandfather was a regular soldier in the Devon & Cornwall Light Infantry (DCLI) 2nd Battalion and one aspect intrigues me.

    In 1944 was he was promoted to QRSM (Quartermaster Regimental Sergeant Major) and transferred into the Indian Army with a commission. He was posted to: 'the chemical warfare establishment (CWE), which I think was up in the North East - my dad said they’d moved up to the Himalayan foothills at some time.'

    Has anyone come across references to such a place in India in WW2. Looking around I cannot find anything that points to an Indian Army CWE, let alone one in North East India - which is often called Assam.

    I know CW trained Royal Engineers (RE) companies were in India during WW2 (a couple of threads here refer) and possibly this CWE was the logistic centre supporting those RE units.

    There is a post-WW2 pointer to a city in Assam, Rowriah, that was a logistic centre in WW2 and its airfield was a hub for the flights over "The Hump" to China. The pointer is that the city has a longstanding Indian civil scientific research centre that includes chemical research.
  2. CL1

    CL1 116th LAA and 92nd (Loyals) LAA,Royal Artillery Patron

    A reason here why they would have set one up in India

    General Joseph Stillwell in the China-Burma-India Theater confirmed that mustard and CN gases had been used and that there was evidence suggesting lewisite may have been deployed as well. In this incident, there were 1600 confirmed casualties, 600 of which were killed in action as the result of Japan’s use of poison gases
    No Retaliation in Kind: Japanese Chemical Warfare Policy in World War II
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  3. Rothy

    Rothy Well-Known Member


    The Indian Official History for the Indian Engineers refers to a Chemical Warfare Training Centre being established in May 1942. This was set up at Deolali, with the assistance of "Chemical Warfare Group, R.E."

    At this time, the Sappers and Miners Groups were raising chemical warfare units, such as: 361 (Bengal) Field Company being converted to a chemical warfare (mortar) company. It seems that seven C.W. (M) companies were formed, numbering 361-367. There were also raised Headquarters Chemical Warfare Groups of which I can find reference to two: H.Q. 52 C.W. Group, formed within the Madras Group in November 1942 by redesignation of 461 Lines of Communication Troops; and H.Q. 51 C.W. Group within the Bengal Group, formed in September 1942.

    The C.W. units had a short life and were disbanded in 1943. In the Bengal group only one of the four(??) C.W. companies, 361, remained for an operational role. The C.W. Group within the Bengal Group was disbanded in February 1943 and the companies became ordinary field companies.

    The Chemical Warfare Training Centre was disbanded in April 1943.

    The companies were:

    361 (Bengal)
    362 (Madras)
    363 (Bombay)
    364 (Madras)
    365 (Madras)
    366 (Bengal)
    367 (Bengal)

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  4. davidbfpo

    davidbfpo Well-Known Member


    I did consider the presumably known use of CW by Japan in China before 1939-1941 and whether the very limited British CW effort, mainly @ Porton Down and a few small places, would have a satellite CWE in India. Plus the indications that in WW2 some capability was deployed to theatre commands, notably being exposed by the Bari incident - even if kept secret at the time. You have made me think that the Indian CWE was there originally to monitor Japanese CW use in China, with inspection visits to China - made easier being close to an airfield involved in "The Hump".
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  5. Rothy

    Rothy Well-Known Member

    The National Archives holds what might be useful files:

    India: chemical warfare organisation
    Reference: WO 188/816
    Description: India: chemical warfare organisation
    Note: With maps and photographs
    Date: 1944 Jan 01 - 1945 Dec 31

    Re-organisation of chemical warfare in 11 Army Group and India Command
    Reference: WO 203/3706
    Re-organisation of chemical warfare in 11 Army Group and India Command
    Date: 1945 July

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  6. davidbfpo

    davidbfpo Well-Known Member

    Cited in part

    Thanks. Would it make sense though for a CWE to remain as the regional centre of expertise for contingencies and to monitor events in China? Even if the RE Field Companies had a different role.

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  7. Rothy

    Rothy Well-Known Member


    I've found some details in Joslen regarding R.E. C.W. Units in India.

    The 1st C.W. Group arrived from the U.K. on 11th June 1942 and went to Deolali. The Group appears to have consisted of 58, 62 and 67 (C.W.) Companies. 67 Coy went to Thana, near Bombay; 58 Coy went to Madras.

    In October 1942 the Group H.Q. moved to Poona. On 24th January 1943, the Group moved to the Arakan under the command of the 88th Indian Infantry Brigade. On 5th May 1943, the unit title changed to H.Q. XV Indian Corps Troops Engineers. The Coys under command seem to have operated as normal field companies before they too were redesigned in May 1943. 58 and 67 became Field Companies, 62 became a Field Squadron.

    I am thinking that the C.W.E. was something quite different from the Indian and R.E. field units. Maybe it was more of a research establishment, ready to test samples if chemicals used in the field; to hold stocks of any British weapons; to develop practice and procedures. Pure speculation on my part and in line with your thoughts in the post above.

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  8. RobG64

    RobG64 Well-Known Member

    Hi Steve, fancy bumping into you on a different medium!
    Great info about the Indian Chemical Warfare companies. I did have 361 Company down as Madras (I think from various sources) but upon checking the Indian Engineers download it does indeed say 361 (Bengal) Company was formed in March 1942 and came under command 1st Indian C.W. Group. So I need to go back and check my sources!!
    I am thinking that 1st Group was re-designated 51st (Madras) Group in November 1942 and that 361 Company after it retrained as a field company from May 1943 joined 43 Indian Beach Group in summer 1943

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  9. davidbfpo

    davidbfpo Well-Known Member

    I have asked a UK CW expert if they have any knowledge and a London-based Indian contact who is currently in India if thei contacts have any knowledge.

    Rob thanks; another jigsaw piece that supports the earlier information that CW-trained engineer companies were retrained for the field role.
  10. Rothy

    Rothy Well-Known Member

    Well hello Rob. Good to see you here and thanks for the information and source,

  11. RobG64

    RobG64 Well-Known Member

    Hi, following on from my previous note, please find details of the companies after they retrained in the field role

    361 (Bengal) Company - 43 Indian Beach Group
    362 (Madras) Company - Forward Airfield Construction Group in Assam June 1943. Under command G.R.E.F. on Tamu Road from October 1943
    363 (Bombay) Company - 457 Forward Airfield Engineer June 1943
    364 (Madras) Company - Southern Army Troops 1943, assigned to IV Corps in 1944
    365 (Madras) Company - Forward Airfield Construction Group in Assam June 1943. Under command G.R.E.F. on Tamu Road from October 1943
    366 (Bengal) Company - unknown (disbanded?)
    367 (Bengal) Company - to 39th Indian Division (Training) June 1943

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  12. davidbfpo

    davidbfpo Well-Known Member

    Had an opportunity to use Google today and finally found enough to satisfy my quest - plus the grandson of the soldier concerned.

    After WW1 a Chemical Defence Research Establishment (India) (CDRE) was created, it was till 1944 @ Rawalpindi, Punjab Province (now in Pakistan) and it was a sub-station of Porton Down, the main UK military facility (which exists still). The site aroused controversy when official records were examined - in 1997 - that tests using Mustard Gas and others had been conducted on British and Indian soldiers - of dubious legality, care and more. See: , Military scientists tested mustard gas on Indians and Rawalpindi experiments - Wikipedia

    In 2015 the book 'Secret Science: A Century of Poison Warfare and Human Experiments' by By Ulf Schmidt, has a pointer to Cannanore (now Kannur), on the south-west coast of India. Google does not display the relevant page (pg. 146). The book refers to Rawalpindi CDRE having a main station, two sub-stations and two field ranges (Pg. 143). Then in 1944 the Chiefs of Staff ordered CDRE be moved from Rawalpindi to Cannanore (Pg. 146).It appears that the move was related to the climate being similar to the jungle conditions the military would face, rather than the dryness of Rawalpindi.

    Elsewhere to confirm this I found in 1946 a British RAMC doctor published a short note and the byline shows CDRE @ Cannanore! See: His obituary refers to CW: OBITUARY

    There are 197 records in the National Archives for CDRE India, alas none appear to have Cannanore in the index text. So I have no idea what they contain and now there is no personal need to go further. See: Search results: CDRE India | The National Archives

    Then the Wonders of Google Images found an odd photo of a RAF bomber @ Cannanore from an October 2018 American blogger who adds much about CDRE, which has a mass of details on field trials of CW and is a good read: Cannanore Days - Maddy's Ramblings

    I now think the reference to being near the Himalayas in north-east India refers to a the soldier now an officer in a quartermaster post was when the need for CW declined - as indicated by others posts on redeployment as field companies.

    Finally I came across a suggestion that before Pearl Harbour, December 1941, that the USA had warned Japan against their use of CW in China and that this ended their use of CW. Not my area of interest so I cannot vouch for accuracy.
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  13. Jagan

    Jagan Junior Member

    Those comments are by Danny42c aka late Flt Lt J Dennis O'Leary who posed in the "Gaining a pilots brevet" thread in the PPRUNE forums. Dannys posts formed he basis of a ebook that is available via one of the members who worked with Danny on that thread - Geriaviator.

    That being said, the photo of he Vengeances is NOT of the aircraft at Cannanore but of some random Australian Vultee Vengeances.

    But you will find some photos of the flight and related aircraft at this link
  14. davidbfpo

    davidbfpo Well-Known Member


    Thank you for this, it acted as a catalyst to re-read Cannanore Days - Maddy's Ramblings and I found three helpful passages (below, with my bold) that support my original request that C.W. troops were deployed to N.E. India:

    Before and during the Sino-Japanese war, Japanese Imperial Forces had produced various chemical Weapons. Among the CW agents produced were phosgene, mustard, lewisite, hydrogen cyanide, and so on. The Japanese Unit 731 had notoriously used them against the Chinese and the allies feared that faced with reverses at multiple fronts, the Japanese could now use them against the Allied forces lined up on the NE front.

    The 67th Chemical warfare company which was at first trained for such warfare and equipped with rocket fired gas canisters, was based in Deolali. As the high temperature was causing the MG shells to sweat, they were soon moved to the eastern front.

    Danny’s flight-1340 related reports (March 1945 to VJ Day) can be located in the British archives and purchased for a substantial fee, by those interested. These tests and studies were instrumental in Allied CW plans and many M (ustard) Gas bottles of British and American manufacture were prepared and stored in the NE sectors for a potential conflict with the Japanese. The British military had thus done its best, faced with the possibility of chemical warfare.

    I have just updated my friend who asked for help. Thank you everyone!
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