I read this in a comment to a newspaper article:

By far the largest British empire human loss in the Second World War was the three million Bengalis who perished in a famine in 1943 that Churchill expressly refused to alleviate with food aid, after years of draining India of food and raw materials. "Winston seems content to let India starve while usi8ng it as amilitary base" remarked Alanbrooke, his chief military adviser. Churchill vetoed Us and Australian offers to send food

Is there any evidence to substantiate this?

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    Wikipedia article on a matter has references to several different estimates. If you want to ask for evidence regarding Churchill's reaction then I believe you can come up with better title. Something like: Did Winston Churchill vetoed food supply offers to Bengal? Anyway, aforementioned article references several sources for this one too. Commented Apr 18, 2013 at 7:22
  • Uncited source.
    – MCW
    Commented Oct 7, 2017 at 13:38
  • @Mark C. Wallace: What prompted you decide to look at this question posted four years ago? Commented Oct 7, 2017 at 16:08
  • 1
    Showed up in the queue.
    – MCW
    Commented Oct 7, 2017 at 17:42

4 Answers 4


In 1943, some 3 million indian subjects of the British Raj died due to bengal famine.

I think the most authentic and rich source for examining and finding evidences against Churchill in this incident is Madhusree Mukerjee's book, 'Churchill's Secret War', which reveals a side of Churchill's largely ignored in the West and considerably tarnishes his heroic sheen.

Mukerjee delves into official documents and oral accounts of survivors to paint a horrifying portrait of how Churchill, as part of the Western war effort, ordered the diversion of food from starving Indians to already well-supplied British soldiers and stockpiles in Britain and elsewhere in Europe, including Greece and Yugoslavia. And he did so with a churlishness that cannot be excused on grounds of policy: Churchill's only response to a telegram from the government in Delhi about people perishing in the famine was to ask why Gandhi hadn't died yet.

British imperialism had long justified itself with the pretense that it was conducted for the benefit of the governed. Churchill's conduct in the summer and fall of 1943 gave the lie to this myth. "I hate Indians," he told the Secretary of State for India, Leopold Amery. "They are a beastly people with a beastly religion." The famine was their own fault, he declared at a war-cabinet meeting, for "breeding like rabbits."

As Mukerjee's accounts demonstrate, some of India's grain was also exported to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) to meet needs there, even though the island wasn't experiencing the same hardship; Australian wheat sailed past Indian cities (where the bodies of those who had died of starvation littered the streets) to depots in the Mediterranean and the Balkans; and offers of American and Canadian food aid were turned down. India was not permitted to use its own sterling reserves, or indeed its own ships, to import food. And because the British government paid inflated prices in the open market to ensure supplies, grain became unaffordable for ordinary Indians.

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    +1. Welcome to the site. I have long admired Churchill, but your response to this question gave me food for thought. My father (a Chinese immigrant to America) said much the same thing, that "Churchill may have won World War II, but he didn't care much for us Asians."
    – Tom Au
    Commented Apr 21, 2013 at 22:29
  • If you read Churchill's autobiography of WWII, where he obviously would have been taking pains to portray himself positively, you still get the impression in several instances that the guy prioritized his nation's political and military position far more than he did the sensibilities of non-English subjects. There's even a passage where he makes a rearguard argument against Irish independence(!), based on the military position it put them in when WWII started.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Oct 30, 2017 at 23:40
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    ...that being said, I'm a more than a little uncomfortable with basing an answer on a single book with (by its own accounting) a radically different view of the man than any other work.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Oct 30, 2017 at 23:51
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    @T.E.D. Many of the claims put forward in Madhusree Mukerjee's book are actually contradicted by the declassified War Cabinet Papers which anyone can now download and read for themselves from the UK National Archives website. What's the old saying about a lie travelling halfway around the world before the truth can get its boots on ...? Commented Oct 31, 2017 at 13:42

The answers @bhau and @coleopterist gave are good and marshal a lot of important evidence, but there are complementary points of view someone ought to mention - so I guess it falls to me to do this.

  1. Madhusree Mukerjee's findings have been disputed by the eminent Indian economist Amartya Sen. I haven't read both books yet but perusal of the wiki entry about Sen and of this review at the NYRB indicates that Mukerjee's contention is that the famine was caused by inadequate supply (for which the British would be very much culpable), whereas Sen

[...]presents data that there was an adequate food supply in Bengal at the time, but particular groups of people including rural landless labourers and urban service providers like haircutters did not have the monetary means to acquire food as its price rose rapidly due to factors that include British military acquisition, panic buying, hoarding, and price gouging, all connected to the war in the region. In Poverty and Famines, Sen revealed that in many cases of famine, food supplies were not significantly reduced. In Bengal, for example, food production, while down on the previous year, was higher than in previous non-famine years. Thus, Sen points to a number of social and economic factors, such as declining wages, unemployment, rising food prices, and poor food-distribution systems. These issues led to starvation among certain groups in society. (quote from here)

If Sen's analysis is correct, then - as far as I can tell - the British are guilty of a sin of omission rather than comission. (I have no wish to do apologetics but there is a difference).

  1. Churchill's comments, as quoted before, are crass and certainly do tarnish his great reputation. However, I think they need to be placed in some sort of context as well. Churchill was hell-bent on winning the war, and winning it in Europe first. Therefore, he focused his attention on this, and actually bothered very little with Indian issues (or Australian issues , for that matter - Australia had committed most of its army to the British war effort in the Mediterranean, on the standard imperial assurance that the RN would protect it from the Japanese, only to find out that this did not quite work out as promised). A hugely telling quote is from Leo Amery's (the Secretary of State for India) diary for November 1944:

It is terrible to think that in nearly five years, apart from incidental talk about appointments etc he has never once discussed either the Indian situation generally or this sterling balance question with me, but has indulged in wild and indeed hardly sane tirades in Cabinet.

(Quote taken from p.88 in The last thousand days of the British Empire by Peter Clarke).

To me this indicates that (A) Churchill's shamefully cavalier attitude to the famine in Bengal sprung not from a special animus towards the Indians, but rather from his dogged pursuit of a single objective (VE) on the one hand and from his slapdash working habits on the other. (B) His "tirades" on the subject were not really the same thing as actual British policy and must be read more as rhetorical exercises.

All this, of course, should not obscure two simple points:

  1. There was a terrible famine.

  2. The British, as India's rulers at the time, bear some sort of responsibility for this humanitarian disaster.

P.S. For a nuanced and comprehensive study of Churchill's attitudes to Empire, as they evolved over time, I recommend the book Churchill's Empire by Richard Toye.

  • I disagree with you on Churchill's animus towards the Indians. Even before the war had begun, Churchill had opposed Gandhi's meeting with the British king, calling him a "half-naked fakir". He called the Indian National Congress, India's premier nationalist party (and India's current ruling party), a gathering of Bramhins (India's upper caste). These comments were made by him much before the war had begun. If anything, his attitude seems to have mellowed after the war (perhaps out of pragmatism).
    – Arani
    Commented Jun 11, 2013 at 9:35
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    However, I agree with you that his tirades on India were not actual British policy. But that is because the British cabinet was actually a coalition of three parties, and Churchill's animus towards India was not shared by the other members of the cabinet.
    – Arani
    Commented Jun 11, 2013 at 9:37
  • New evidence has been presented that the policies of "declining wages, unemployment, rising food prices, and poor food-distribution systems" were actually engineered by Churchill and Keynes: newcoldwar.org/…
    – Avery
    Commented Feb 21, 2019 at 1:28


Was the loss of life in the Bengal famine of 1943 the largest British empire human loss in the Second World War?

Yes, without doubt.

Did Churchill expressly refuse to alleviate the famine with food aid, or veto US and Australian offers to send food?

Absolutely not. The evidence shows that statement is completely untrue, although it might be argued that he might have done more to alleviate the situation, had he been blessed with the gift of 20/20 hindsight (like his modern critics).

Indeed, as the historian Arthur Herman wrote:

“We might even say that Churchill indirectly broke the Bengal famine by appointing as Viceroy Field Marshal Wavell, who mobilised the military to transport food and aid to the stricken regions (something that hadn’t occurred to anyone, apparently).”

  • [Quoted in Langworth, 2017, p150]

Origins of the claim

The claim that Churchill was responsible for the 1943 Bengal famine stems from the book Churchill's Secret War, By Madhusree Mukerjee.

The problem is that the evidence doesn't actually support that conclusion. On the contrary, it actually appears that Churchill did everything he could in the midst of a world war to save the Bengalis, and that without his actions the famine might have been worse.

What is more, the surviving documents show that Churchill explicitly requested assistance from Australia and from the United States.

Background to the Famine

There were undoubtedly a number of factors that came together to cause the 1943 Bengall famine. Many of these are covered in some detail in the Wikipedia article on the subject. It is also extremely difficult, if not impossible, to assign a definitive starting date to the actual onset of the famine. This is particularly true since different districts in Bengal suffered the effects at different times and to varying degrees. The Government of India dated the onset of full-scale famine to May 1943.

However, there is some uncertainty about quite how much was known in London, and when, about the severity of the famine. In his 1990 book, Bengal Tiger and British Lion: An Account of the Bengal Famine of 1943, Richard Stevenson laid a great deal of the blame at the door of the then Viceroy, Victor Hope, 2nd Marquess of Linlithgow.

Certainly, the lack of reliable statistics does appear to have been a significant factor in the government's apparent reluctance to act earlier.

The Response of Churchill and the War Cabinet

What we do know is that in a report to the War Cabinet on 4 August 1943, the Secretary of State for India, Leo Amery, noted the spread of famine in Bengal. In his briefing, he specifically stressed the effect upon Calcutta and the potential effect on the morale of European troops stationed in India. At this stage, the cabinet offered only a relatively small amount of additional food shipments. Indeed, they explicitly referred to it as "a token shipment".

Three weeks later, The Statesman newspaper published graphic images of starving famine victims in Calcutta, bringing the situation to the attention of the world. It was probably several weeks before copies of the newspaper reached London.

Churchill appointed Field Marshal, Lord Wavell as Viceroy and Governor of India on 1 October 1943. In briefing the cabinet on Wavell's appointment, Churchill stated that Wavell's duty was to:

"... make sure that India was a safe base for the great operations against Japan which were now pending, and that the war was pressed to a successful conclusion, and that famine and food difficulties were dealt with.”

  • [War Cabinet, 7 October 1943, (Cabinet papers, CAB 65/36/4)]

He then wrote to Wavell:

"Peace, order and a high condition of war-time well-being among the masses of the people constitute the essential foundation of the forward thrust against the enemy ... The hard pressures of world-war have for the first time for many years brought conditions of scarcity, verging in some localities into actual famine, upon India. Every effort must be made, even by the diversion of shipping urgently needed for war purposes, to deal with local shortages….Every effort should be made by you to assuage the strife between the Hindus and Moslems and to induce them to work together for the common good."

He stated that the goal was to be:

“the best possible standard of living for the largest number of people.”

  • [Winston S. Churchill to Members of the War Cabinet, 8 October 1943. (Churchill papers, CHAR 23/11)]

In terms of famine relief, Churchill initially urged Australia to provide assistance. In response, Australia promised to supply 350,000 tons of wheat.

The Canadian Prime Minister, MacKenzie King, also offered to provide aid, but Churchill replied that:

“Wheat from Canada would take at least two months to reach India whereas it could be carried from Australia in 3 to 4 weeks.”

Winston S. Churchill to William Lyon Mackenzie King, 4 November 1943.

  • [Prime Minister’s Personal Telegram T.1842/3 (Churchill papers, CHAR 20/123/52)].

In India, Viceroy Field Marshal Lord Wavell, then mobilised the military to transport food and other aid to the stricken areas.

When in 1944, the Secretary of State for India, Leo Amery, requested a further one million tons of grain to ease the ongoing famine, Churchill stated that:

“for the four years ending 1941/42 the average consumption was 52,331,000 tons, i.e., 2½ million tons less than the figure cited by the Secretary of State. This difference would, of course, more than make good the 1½ million tons calculated deficit.”

Furthermore, he noted that diverting a further million tons of grain at that time would not be practicable:

“given the effect of its diversion alike on operations and on our imports of food into this country, which could be further reduced only at the cost of much suffering.”

  • [War Cabinet, 7 February (Cabinet papers, CAB 65/41)].

One piece of evidence that is missing from most of the modern claims that Churchill was responsible for the famine, is the observation made by the War Cabinet report that the shortages in Bengal had been:

“partly political in character, caused by Marwari supporters of Congress [Gandhi’s party] in an effort to embarrass the existing Muslim Government of Bengal.”

Another cause, they added, was corrupt local officials:

“The Government of India were unduly tender with speculators and hoarders.”

  • [Ibid]

The speculation mentioned had arisen after the Japanese invasion of Burma in 1942 had cut off India’s main supply of rice imports.

Nonetheless, the records show that Churchill and the War Cabinet continued to do their best to divert available resources to provide assistance to India. Shipping remained one of the key problems, and the cabinet recommended that:

(a) A further diversion to India of the shipments of food grains destined for the Balkan stockpile in the Middle East. This might amount to 50,000 tons, but would need War Cabinet approval, while United States reactions would also have to be ascertained;

(b) There would be advantage if ships carrying military or civil cargo from the United States or Australia to India could also take a quantity of bagged wheat.

  • [War Cabinet, 21 February 1944 (Cabinet papers, CAB 65/41)].

In April 1944, we know that Wavel was reporting that the situation in India was still dire. At this point, Churchill even wrote to President Roosevelt to ask for assistance:

I am seriously concerned about the food situation in India ... Last year we had a grievous famine in Bengal through which at least 700,000 people died. This year there is a good crop of rice, but we are faced with an acute shortage of wheat, aggravated by unprecedented storms ... By cutting down military shipments and other means, I have been able to arrange for 350,000 tons of wheat to be shipped to India from Australia during the first nine months of 1944. This is the shortest haul. I cannot see how to do more.

I have had much hesitation in asking you to add to the great assistance you are giving us with shipping but a satisfactory situation in India is of such vital importance to the success of our joint plans against the Japanese that I am impelled to ask you to consider a special allocation of ships to carry wheat to India from Australia ... We have the wheat (in Australia) but we lack the ships. I have resisted for some time the Viceroy’s request that I should ask you for your help, but ... I am no longer justified in not asking for your help.

Winston S. Churchill to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, 29 April 1944.

  • [Prime Minister’s Personal Telegram T.996/4 (Churchill papers, CHAR 20/163/106-107)].

Roosevelt replied to Churchill saying that while he had his “utmost sympathy”, his Joint Chiefs had said they were:

“... unable on military grounds to consent to the diversion of shipping ... Needless to say, I regret exceedingly the necessity of giving you this unfavorable reply.”

Roosevelt to Churchill, 1 June 1944.

  • [Prime Minister’s Personal Telegram T.1176/4 (Churchill papers, CHAR 20/165/82)].

Of course, it must be remembered that this was in the context of America's war against Japan in the Pacific and the build-up to D-Day in the European theatre.




Copies of many of the (now declassified) War Cabinet papers are available for (free) download as scanned pdf files from the UK National Archives (link above).

Summaries of the papers in the Churchill collection are available on the link above. Access to copies of the documents themselves is only available from libraries with a subscription to the collection.


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    By far the best researched and referenced of any of the answers so far.
    – user18963
    Commented Oct 31, 2017 at 12:18
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    "unduly tender with speculators and hoarders.” - the British have always been the masters of understatement. Commented Nov 1, 2017 at 8:25

Mark Tauger's 2003 analysis of the Bengal famine, which has been used by Madhushree Mukerjee in her book on the famine, in fact does actually bring to doubt the contention of Amartya Sen in his 1981 work that there was sufficient food supply before the Bengal famine, or was at least comparable to what was available in 1941, a non-famine year. Sen has stuck to his position, expressing a certain annoyance and causticity in his responses to both Mukerjee and Tauger, stating the musings of an 'unnamed plant biologist' to be the source of the data who actually turns out to have been S. Y. Padmanabhan who later headed the Central Rice Research Institute, and had worked in Bengal during the famine. Amartya Sen also seems to imply doubts on the the data from "two rice research stations" at Bankura and Chinsurah quoted by Padmanabhan and Tauger, as if a rice research station would not be a reliable source of data at all. The data cited in Tauger's paper actually seems pretty convincing, detailing the differential effect of the fungus on the yields of 21 varieties of rice in 1941 and 1942 at these two stations.

The simple fact, however, is that the damage from a natural disaster like a a fungal crop infestation would follow a distribution pattern with peaks at one or more places - the simplest distribution that could be fitted to it would be a Normal or Gaussian distribution. Even two points on the map being off the projected yields by a large amount would significantly alter the analysis, since we are dealing with a distribution here, and not just one or two blimps on the map.

Here is how Amartya Sen responded to Madhusree Mukerjee on The New York Review of Books.

"Madhusree Mukerjee seems satisfied with little information. Mark Tauger’s data come from exactly two “rice research stations” from two districts in undivided Bengal, which had twenty-seven districts. Since weather variations have regionally diverse effects, it would require more than this to “seriously challenge” the analysis I made, using data from all districts, which indicated that food availability in 1943 (the famine year) was significantly higher than in 1941 (when there was no famine)."

However, when we are dealing with a distribution, the data of yields of rice varieties in 1941 and 1942 cited by Tauger (given by S. Y. Padmanabhan in his 1971 paper on the famine) from Bankura and Chinsurah, separated by around 150 kms, would, in my opinion, be sufficient to prove that Sen's analysis would be significantly off the mark, since these two widely separated stations cannot just be two exceptional points or blimps on the map. They are a part of a distribution spread over a large area. Of course the data from only two points cannot map out a whole distribution, and at that time it seems that there were only two such rice research stations recording data. It could still be argued that the distribution would have complex local variations and that it cannot be mapped with data from two points. Sure there would be local variations, but not to the extent of reducing these two stations to just two stand-alone peaks on the map. The probability that these two widely separate points are exceptional points in the distribution of a fungal infestation over a large area would really be very very minuscule.

Tauger at the start of his paper summarizes the two views on the causes of famine as follows

"Thus,admittedly with some oversimplification, the theories of famine divide into two categories, On the one hand, one view maintains that famines result from an overall decline in food availability in a region or country, a shortage, usually because of a natural disaster that destroys crops, and in a context of overall low food production. On the other hand, several other approaches argue that famines result from a variety of economic, social and political factors and contexts that reduce or deny access to food for certain people and groups in the country under consideration."

Amartya Sen's thesis is that it was not insufficient supply, but other factors - hoarding, high food prices, the cutting of supplies by the Japanese, the requisitioning of ships and boats by the British, British imperial policy of confusion and callousness, among other things that caused the Bengal famine and the deaths. Sen's analysis, of course, does not exculpate the British administration, on the contrary as he points out in his reply to Mukerjee on The New York Review of Books, it does precisely the opposite.

The actual cause would of course be a combination of all factors including the shortage, the callous indifference or even outright hostility of Churchill and members of his government, and including all the factors stated by Amartya Sen. However, whatever the causes, that timely intervention - entirely within the powers of the colonial administration, could have prevented the death of millions is beyond any dispute. That Winston Churchill and his government played a major role in preventing this intervention has also been established beyond doubt by Ms Mukerjee. Whether his actions were motivated by a racist or imperialist attitude and a hostility and contempt for Indians that found frequent expression in his remarks or by his overwhelming single minded dedication to the war effort can be a matter of debate. The truth probably is that it was both.

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