October 16, 2009

Robbery on the Kalka Simla Line (1942)

Here's a fascinating account of a train robbery on the Kalka Simla Railway, contributed by Shri B. M. S. Bisht, former General Manager, North East Frontier Railway.
-------------------------------------
IT HAPPENED AT 10.03 a.m. on Saturday, 20 June 1942. Suddenly the rail motor car (No 14) making 4 Down from Kalka to Simla came to a stop hitting some boulders on the track which the driver had seen at a short distance but could not avoid because of a curve. From side almost simultaneously came a shower of bullets from the surrounding hills. The railway driver Wahiuddin and three passengers slumped dead in their seats while killing two others and injuring another two of the occupants.

The killers reached the rail motor, opening its door threatening with their rifles, shouted at the remaining passengers to hand over their money and valuables. Sam Wheeler, an Assistant Mechanical Engineer of North Western Railway (present Northern Railway), one of the twelve passengers of the car later described the incident in graphic details thus:

“At first an instantaneous thought was the car had derailed and but fortunately had not gone the khud on the left side of the track. Thoughts come and go in a flash! For the stopping of the car was followed in a spilt second by sharp cracks of the rifle fire .One passenger with presence of mind shouted ‘Down on the floor!’ A large proportion of those on the right side seats were hit before the advice could be followed and I found myself in rapidly spreading pools of blood from my less fortunate fellow travellers. Some one in the rear of the coach shouted to the driver to turn out the lights. The lack of response was ominous. How long the murderers continued to fire into the coach it is impossible to estimate. It must have been a short time; but lying on the floor consumed with the burning rage at my helplessness. The firing came from the right-hand side of the coach and when it did stop, the left-hand front door opened and one of the murderous gang, a rifle in his hand and a cloth on the lower half of his face, ordered the passengers to disembark and hand over the money. The first to disembark was a colleague from the North Western, Lieutenant Getley. A providential escape he had for the scoundrel shot him, the bullet passing through the back of his neck. I think Getley was shot because he did not hold up his hands, which we were then ordered to do. ‘Hands up’ were the only words spoken in English by the man who opened the door. He would have been easy to shoot had any of the passengers been armed, but none of the Army officers there had a pistol.

“When we were eventually been able to get back to the rail motor we returned to a scene which makes it my sincere wish that those responsible are caught and are given their true deserts. Great trouble can give out the best in man and it certainly did in the unfortunate wounded whose fortitude was a thing at which to marvel.”

News of the outrage reached Kalka station at 10.37 p.m. with Getley and two other passengers Wing Commander McGregor and Mrs Lewis reaching there. A relief motor car carrying armed police, mechanics, and a spare driver was immediately dispatched and the ill-fated car No. 14 was brought down to Kalka station by 11.48 p.m. The injured were given first aid by a railway doctor and then sent immediately by the first train to the British Military Hospital at Ambala. The dead were buried in a cemetery in Simla where the funeral was attended among others by H.E. the Governor of Punjab. The involved motor car was most modern one having a seating capacity for fifteen. Its only damage was breaking of five window panes; besides there were eight bullet holes on the right hand side and one on the left.

An immediate result was that the running of rail motor cars on the KSR was suspended during night and armed police was put up on all trains in the area travelling through night. The Punjab Government announced a reward of Rs 10,000 and five squares of land to any one giving information leading to the arrest of the criminals.

Only clues with the police were the non-standard size bullets as even their cartridges could not be found at the site. The case was thus difficult to work out and that is why for next eighteen months nothing happened. Then when the police were investigating a case in Bhatinda they came across bullets similar to those used in Kalka carnage. In the Bhatinda case out of three men assaulted for a robbery one was killed, while the other two feigning death escaped and reported the matter to the police. The police traced the killer to a home in the railway colony where, when challenged by the police, he opened the door and shot dead the sub-inspector of the raiding party. After an exchange of fire the police then forced an entry and found that the robber had committed suicide using the last bullet on himself. His wife lay injured but their son of eight years was found unharmed. He became the police informer. This man, found dead, was Abdul Karim, a Pathan from Bannu (North West Frontier Province now in Pakistan). In Kalka shed he was employed as a leading fitter-in-charge working on the Caprioti valve gear on ZF locomotives. He was reputed to be an excellent craftsman. In their search at Kalka the police found a .13 chamber revolver and a tommy gun made by this fitter. The weapons were most ingenious and the chambers were so cunningly contrived that the cartridge cases were not ejected with the bullets. That explained why the police did not find any cartridge at the site of mayhem at the rail motor. He was actually found to be a gang leader of the robbers in the armed hold-up of Kalka and had escaped with a booty of three hundred rupees.

The police, finding the similarity between the bullets at Bhatinda and at Kalka and now knowing that Abdul Karim had been working at Kalka Shed, searched several railway quarters where he had stayed in Kalka. There they found a .5 chamber revolver, a spearhead that fitted the screw hole in a bamboo stick found at the site of robbery, a tin of black powder and other articles used in the making of fire-arms and ammunition.

Suspecting that Abdul Karim would certainly have an accomplice, most probably a near relative or a friend, the police zeroed on Abdul Rahim, his brother. A search of his home beyond river Indus in far-off Dera Ismail Khan (North West Frontier Province, now in Pakistan), they found that he was also a very crafty gunsmith. Bullets made in moulds in his home there were identical with the bullets recovered from the rail motor car at Kalka. Another clinching find in his home was the small blue, gold-tipped Ever Sharp pencil which had been robbed by the culprits from the handbag of Mrs Lewis at Kalka. It may be recalled, that she was one of the affected passengers.

Further abundant reliable evidence had also been gathered that the suspect Abdul Rahim had been to Kalka on the fateful night of the robbery, the day preceding and the day after too. Abdul Rahim was arrested and he confessed that he was party to making of illegal arms and ammunition and had also participated in the crime at Kalka. He said he and Abdul Karim had fired upon the rail motor from the hill side above at the right side of the car. His brother had gone to rob the passengers and he himself had carried a .14 chamber weapon. Their sole motive had been to rob the passengers to pay off some of their pending debts.

With the conviction in this case after many months of a very painstaking and intelligent investigation by the police, the Kalka-Simla Railway, the prestigious and glamorous Viceregal line of North Western Railway, had its calm and prestige restored.

Source : “COUPLINGS TO THE KHYBER - The Story of North Western Railway” by P. S. A. Berridge, M.B.E., F.I.C.E., Ex Bridge Engineer, NWR (1926-1946), New York, 1969.

B.M.S.Bisht
October, 2009