The 1940’s were certainly turbulent if you look into the history of mankind. Half of the world’s population were striving to gain independence from imperialist powers and deliverance from famine while the other half fought for all of six years over a multitude of issues. Turbulence in Ethiopia, Spain, China and other parts of Europe led to the declarations of this global war in which many fought and died. What earthly importance did the hilly and difficult terrains of Afghanistan and its warring tribes have in this war? One only needs to look into any Asian map to see the Afghans sandwiched between India and Russia and notice a great strategic importance.
For the British, the Jewel in the Crown India was under threat. They always feared that the Russians would find ways of wresting control from them and presumably the Russians did have some ideas of that sort. The first Afghan ruler who signed a treaty of friendship with Russia was Amanullah in 1921. But he was soon gone, by 1928. Nadir shah who ruled between 1929 to 1933 was wooed by both the Soviets and the British. But when the 2nd world war started, the nature of the game changed as a third party who was present in Kabul, gained some importance. That was Germany, and some 120 of its citizens working in Afghanistan. Let’s go to Kabul of the 1940’s to see what was going on. You will find all kinds of interesting people playing their cards in this game, Subhash Bose, Hitler, Canaris, Churchill, Peter Fleming and so on…
But to get to the details, you have to first of all know about the Abwehr, the intelligence agency which was part of the well-oiled German war machine in those days. Abwehr was the German war agency which dealt exclusively with raw human intelligence, obtained from field agents and other sources. In 1939 Canaris, the head of Abwehr was tasked with planning a Russo-German invasion of India, perhaps to be strategized only on paper to counter the British when needed, as a threat. Hatched in Istanbul by Eppler Gafer, it was initially unraveled in Masuleh - Afghanistan, with a fellow conspirator Ghulam Barakatullah who had connections to the influential Mirza Ali, the Fakir of Ipi. That operation was known by the code name Operation Tiger and to get some perspective it is probably a better idea to start with a previous article of mine detailing the adventurous flight of Subhash Bose from India to Germany. Bose had planned to seek support from Hitler in his fight against Britain and that was what took him to Berlin in 1941, where ACN Nambiar had already set up stage. The Germans were not too receptive to the Indian guest, to start with. Why so?
Hitler had neither the plans to invade India nor to help the Indian legion make a charge into British held India, as Bose desired. His intention was to take control of the Soviet Union and wait on the wings of India to use the situation for further negotiation with the Allies in dividing up the world. Hitler had always been clear that Indians needed to be ruled by a superior white British government and also agreed that the Brits were doing a good job at it (For him, the Indian freedom movement was just a rebellion of an inferior Indian race (Asiatic jugglers) against the superior English Nordic race! And that the Nordic race had all the rights to rule the world.). For Hitler, the Indian congress were a waste of time and he recommended as follows to Lord Irwin in Nov 1937 “Shoot Gandhi, and if this doesn't suffice to reduce them to submission, shoot a dozen leading members of Congress and if that doesn't suffice, shoot 200 and so on until order is established. You will see how quickly they will collapse as soon you make it clear that you mean business”. Goering supporting Hitler, quickly labelled Gandhi an anti-British Bolshevik agent in India. But these were not clear to Bose (though he had complained about Hitler’s remarks in Mein Kempf) and if he had really understood all this he would never had wasted time in Berlin, The Nazi’s had no intention of helping Bose (in reality Hitler considered hobnobbing with people like the Agha Khan) and that was the reason why the disillusioned Bose eventually drifted away to Japan.
But let’s get back to the Northwest frontier where Germany had already established their place as a third power after the British and the Russians. By 1924 the Germans were running a popular school called the Nedjat German School in Kabul. Later, the Germans were able to sign an agreement with the Afghans in 1937 (Todt agreement) to supervise road construction all over Afghanistan. In 1937 a Lufthansa line was established to Kabul, a Telefunken radio link was set up and Siemens put up a 20kW broadcasting station. The few Germans were well respected in Kabul and they were seen as more lenient towards Islam in general.
All this was fine, but the Pathans of the NWFP were restless, their rights to raid the fertile lands and people of the plains had been disallowed by the British in return for some money, insufficient as it always was (essentially economic and their implementation of their moral codes (Pukhtunwali), which imply retaliation and blood feud (Badal) in settling old disputes). Here is where you get to hear of the Fakir of Ipi or the Waziri warlord Mirza Ali Khan who rose to fame in the notorious Islam Bibi case. With his leadership Waziristan became the most notorious area of tribal unrest in the British Empire on the eve of the Second World War. Mirza Ali also provided support for Abdul Gaffer Khan’s leadership to the red shirts. They were also allied with Gandhi and Indian congress. The fakir was difficult to catch for he played a cat and mouse game, forever on the move as the scarlet pimpernel of Afghanistan.
Back in Germany, the Abwehr decided to increase their presence in Kabul. I am sure you all remember TEL or TE Lawrence, a.k.a Lawrence of Arabia. Well, to a certain extent it was his strategy and success that was followed and mimicked by Hauptmann Theodor von Hippel who once worked under
him Canaris, in the formation of the Branderberger commando unit. Hippel planned
to insert élite units, meticulously trained in sabotage and well versed in
specific foreign languages, operating behind enemy lines and wreaking havoc on
the enemy's ‘command, communication and logistical’ units.
Abdul Majid, the Afghan economy minister who had traveled to Berlin, in the meantime suggested a pact with the Germans stating that they would support Germans against the British so that the suffering Afghans could be liberated and in return economic support and access to the sea. Agha khan also tried his hand at winning Hitler’s support, but failed. Anyway after a number of subtle but failed overtures, the Abwher decided to place their agents in Kabul. The frontline attachment 200 was to be led by Oberleutenat Dieter Witzel Kirn (Code name Pathan) with his team of specially recruited men aimed to establish camp near the Indian border, establish a transmitter and start radio transmissions. He was also supposed to create a good rapport with the Fakir of Ipi and get the people to back the Axis powers.
That was the beginning of Operation Tiger. The time period being the summer of 1941 and a time when Operation Barbarossa was being executed with the German all-out attack on the Soviet borders. Some 4 million soldiers were on the move, to capture the USSR and complete Hitler’s ‘Generalplan Ost’. Operation Barbarossa was the largest military operation in world history in both manpower and casualties and was to become a major failure when it faltered at the gates of Leningrad.
The German legation in Kabul comprised their commercial attaché Carl Rasmuss, Dieter Witzel or The Pathan and two radio operators Doh and Zugenbuhler. They were the people who oversaw Operation Tiger and Operation Fuerfresser (Fire eater). The intention behind Operation tiger was to foment a full scale uprising on the frontier and was initially scheduled for Sept 1941. Two more agents, Prof Manfred Oberdorffer (code name Keil) and Fred Brandt (code name Arma) were also deputed under cover of their professions namely tropical medicine and entomology, with both purportedly working on finding a cure for leprosy. They were tasked with establishing contact with the fakir of Ipi. Further they had to train the locals in explosives and so on, and this was the sub operation code named Fuerfresser. In addition to training the locals, the so called Bose organization from Germany was to be inserted into the borders to join the masses streaming in revolt into India against the British. That was the full grand plan of the operation Tiger, the Grobiensatz. The Germans had an Indian contact who would help them, that was none other than Ram Bhagat Talwar of the Kirti Kisan party, whom I introduced in the article detailing Bose’s flight.
Talwar was certainly a devious man and very clever one at that, he was perhaps the most difficult to follow and a master of his trade, that being deception and agent extraordinary. Who were his masters? British? Soviet? German? Short, lean, handsome, fit, intelligent, able, quick witted, cool headed and self-assured, this young fella born in the NWFP knew his territory better than anybody. As we get into our story, this staunch communist was all of 32 years old and known as the guide who would frequently lead his communist friends from India to freedom, through Afghanistan. He had just completed the task of getting Orlando Mazotta, NSC Bose through enemy hands and sent him off to Berlin and his brother had been hanged (for assassinating the British Punjab governor in 1930) by the British testifying his hatred for the English. The Germans trusted him implicitly and he became their link man in Kabul. The Abwher would pay him what he asked in return for guidance.
The Russian NKVD was a law enforcement agency of the Soviet Union closely associated with the Soviet secret police and was known for its political repression during the era of Joseph Stalin. It is best known for the activities of the Gulag and the Main Directorate for State Security (GUGB), the predecessor of the KGB. Talwar signed up with the Russian NKVD sometime after Bose left for Berlin, perhaps in June 1941. Though the Russians were a little leery, they finally agreed to his recruitment as agent (Code name Rom) and explained to him that they would carefully edit and redo any document Talwar passed on to the Abwehr agents.
In Kabul, a radio station run by Iqbal Shedai called Radio Himalaya also broadcast daily, which Bose did not quite like as they had different ideologies. Bose wanted a Free India radio, to rule the airs. But soon the British learned of Bose’s presence in Berlin and made a splash stating Boses’ fascist leaning, prompting a number of issues which hastened his eventual departure. Bose in the meantime was appraised of the Abwehr operation in Kabul and he was in agreement with the general idea. Bose also wanted an airstrip to be established in tribal territory there so that the commandos and Indian legion forces to be deployed in large numbers, since the FW Kondor transport plane needed a long runway to land. The border unrest was in continuous foment by the Fakir of Ipi and the British spent a lot of time fighting the Waziris. In India, C. F. Andrews made an eloquent plea decrying the situation: "We cannot stand out boldly for disarmament in Europe while carrying on war in Asia."
The German attack on Russia was in full swing and the Middle East and India were forgotten for a moment, and the Afghans were relieved to see their hated enemy being attacked up north in Operation Barbarossa. But the hated Soviets were soon to become members of the allies and more strongly allied with the British. And the Afghans were in deeper trouble as they could no longer play one against the other. As the war progressed and the invincible German forces faltered at Leningrad, the Afghans felt cornered.
The German station Chief Hans Pilger was by now considered too passive by Berlin and was ordered to be replaced by the outspoken Otto von Hentig. The British would have none of it, they reacted by demanding expulsion of all 120 or so Germans from Kabul. They also informed the Afghans that Hentig was the man behind the earlier Shami pir folly and that Hentig should be thrown out. The Afghans refused and the British retaliated with economic sanctions of some sort by stopping petrol Lorries (US GM make) from plying to Kabul.While the Hentig appointment was being hotly debated, two of our german agents in disguise (keil and arma) and scouting for leprosy cures were caught with ammunition and money meant for the fakir of Ipi. In the ensuing firefight ‘keil’ Oberdorffer was killed and brandt escaped. As the story of German covert involvement became overt, Hentig remained at home and those at Kabul were ordered to lie low and not antagonize the British. Things normalized and the Lorries with petrol crossed the borders once again.
The situation swung in a different direction after the German decline in Stalingrad. The Germans had gone silent in Kabul and the British ratcheted their strength a notch.The British applied pressure on Kabul asking them to decide who they were aligned with if they needed British support. They asked for all Germans to be expelled from Afghanistan.
The orders for German expulsion resulted in the departure of 204 Germans and Italians by Oct 1941. Only four of the original team remained, Witzel, Doh, Zugenbuhler and Rasmuss. Around that time another operation (somewhat lukewarm as it turned out) code named Elephant was launched, to place agents in Bangkok to liaise with Bengal. Nevertheless, Operation Tiger was still on the anvil, but yet to get executed.
Back at the Russian borders, a number of Muslim Red Army prisoners had been taken and it was an Uzbek then living in Germany (he fled communist USSR in 1922 and moved to Berlin) named Veli Kayum Khan, heading the operations of Operation Tiger B who was given the responsibility of recruiting willing soldiers from the prisoners of war. The intent was to create a Muslim regiment to fight at the Eastern front. The grand mufti of Jerusalem Hajj Amin Al Hussayni, a friend of Hitler and Himmler, provided the jihad endorsement (His own story is fascinating, for he was the only person close to the Nazi warlords who was allowed to escape as Berlin fell and was never tried for war crimes since the British (Arthur Giles) wanted him to become a leader to unite the Palestinians. The plan to fly the FW200 Kondor aircraft with personnel was becoming problematic and soon the plan was changed to drop them in Turkmenistan.
Witzel continued his work diligently and the Operation B personnel had by then been deputed to Afghanistan. Witzel reported that over 5,500 supporters of Bose had lined up in Afghanistan and 2,000 of them were armed British military deserters. These people were training local guerilla leaders and getting ready to fight the British. Bose in the meantime created a number of cells operating all over India who were reporting British movements (recall my article on the Ehrenfels?) sabotaging the railway and jute factories in Calcutta, to name a few. But was Witzel providing correct information to berlin?
At Kabul, Bhagat Ram Talwar, (axis code name RK) was keeping Berlin informed of various developments. The Italians in Kabul provided some amount of training to the Indians who had gathered, like Talwar, Sodhi and Ganguly and who sent their own reports to Berlin and Bose. In the meantime RK obtained more and more money from the Nazis while providing them faked reports purportedly from Bose’s organization in Bengal. The reversals in Russia and other events resulted in Operation Tiger being postponed several times. Bose had in the meantime moved to Japan and Singapore had fallen. The Japanese march through Assam into India was now a definite possibility.
Rassmuss gave Talwar all the money and wireless equipment demanded, but he would faithfully turn them over to the NKVD. The complete details of Axis activity gleaned by Talwar was thus passed on to the Russians. The NKVD also tested Talwar often to see if he could handle a double agent stress. Well, as we will soon find out, he was not just a double agent, but a quintuple agent (remember that he had a number of dealings with the Italians as well) .The NKVD asked Talwar to shed off his communist leanings
Uttam Chand was the shop owner in Kabul who provided housing to the Indians. He was soon picked up by the Afghans when his British passport expired and expelled to India where he was promptly arrested by the English. Harminder Singh Sodhi had in the meantime become an agent for the Soviets providing whatever he knew to the Russians and focused on heading the communist Kirti party’s work in India based on Soviet instructions rather than Bose’s or axis. He was also arrested by the British soon after. So as we see, Talwar, alias Rahmat Khan alias Ram was soon all alone.
In Jan 1942, the Abwehr airdropped 100 trained Indians from the Indian legion into an area deep in East Iran. Their mission was to reach India via Baluchistan and carry Sabotage acts and eventually prepare a national uprising. This was code named operation Bajedere. In March 42, Witzel asked Berlin for permission to commence preparations for Operation Tiger by visiting the borders and starting training of tribesmen. He got it only in June, but it resulted in nothing under watchful eyes of the Afghan police. Meanwhile the fakir of ipi was having his own tussles with the British and kept on demanding money from the Talwar in return for his support. Talwar in the meantime gave the Nazis fanciful accounts that preparations for a major revolt in the tribal areas was well underway. He also made a request for sabotage material (while at the same time ditching dynamite supplied by the Italians) and half a million Duetsche marks to bribe the Fakir of Ipi. Ribbentrop from Berlin approved a million! Things were coming to a head.
In June 1942, the NKVD’s Ovakimyan met with SOE’s George hill to discuss mutual cooperation and to work jointly against the Germans, perhaps fearing that Uttam chand and Sodhi would talk and reveal Bhagat Ram talwar’s role in Kabul. For the first time in history two secret agencies agreed to share Talwar, the double agent. The NKVD in return wanted information on Japans moves against China.
We mentioned that Talwar was a multiple agent. We know already that he worked for the Italians, the
Silver and Fleming got to work, the ensuing reports fed to the Germans claimed that Bose’s organization in India was massively supported and leady to leap in support of the Germans! Fictitious organizations like the All India national revolutionary committee and the Provisional central committee were mentioned.
RK or Talwar was already a quad agent, but the reason why the Abwher used his dispatches so implicitly needs a little diverse thought. Interestingly, Witzel and Rasmuss did not pass this on to Berlin and focused on sabotage and other similar efforts. However Silver’s demand for 5,000 pounds to start a wireless link between Delhi and Berlin was quickly complied with. Many more similar monetary demands resulted in Silver collecting a considerable fortune. Why did the Germans not pass on all the information? Perhaps they had their own suspicions about the facts and were using his dispatches only to cling on further their own careers.
Soon after all this, the British arrested all the German agents (perhaps with Talwar’s help) and activities ceased. In 1943, Witzel and Doh were released under a British guarantee of safe conduct. Rassmuss fled (after the NKVD tried to recruit Rassmuss) through India. Pietro Quaroni the Italian later exposed the full Axis network in Kabul to the British, in his testimony. The soviets in the meantime also told Rassmuss about Silver being a multiple agent. But Talwar continued his trips to Kabul and kept in touch with Witzel who was back in Berlin. We do not know for sure if Rassmuss worked for the British while in India following his flight from Kabul, but he certainly did not tell Berlin about Silver.
Nothing more was done with respect to the originally planned NWFP operation. And with that came an end to Operation Tiger or the German plan to invade India through the NWFP.
The winter of 42 was when Emile Schenkl delivered Bose’s daughter. Things were turbulent in India, his people were starving and Bose was upset that in this critical juncture, he could not travel to India. So after handing over Azad Hind to ACN Nambiar, he left for Japan in the U boat 180.
Canaris fell afoul of Hitler for various reasons. The Abweher was abolished and Canaris was arrested on 23 July 1944, in the aftermath of the plot against Hitler and executed shortly before the end of the war, along with Oster, his deputy. As we all know, the Axis powers lost the war and all the surly characters met with just ends.
Peter Fleming returned to Britain and did other things, but whenever his feet touched the magnificent tiger skin which adorned his study floor, he remembered his grand times in Delhi. I do not know if he ever remembered Silver.
Silver’s complete story is not detailed here, for there is so much more, and can be a book by itself. In any case, what happened to him? As Mihir Bose explains in his article ‘Everyone’s man in Kabul’ - In 1976, when Bhagat Ram wrote his autobiography, aware that Bose was now a hero of India’s freedom struggle, Silver decided he could not tell the truth. He wrote of Quaroni and Rasmuss but there was no mention of the Russians, Fleming nor of his nickname, Silver. This most remarkable spy carried that secret to his grave
Bose it appears, sadly knew nothing about Silvers deception and vanished in 1945…
Dietrich Witzel, code name Pathan, was later involved in the UPA movement in Ukraine, leading the FAK 202 and was awarded an Iron Cross. Later known under the name Dietrich Kirn, he became a writer of some repute.
After the Germans were expelled from Kabul, a period of mutual cooperation continued between the USSR and UK against Nazi Germany until the end of the war in 1945.The Fakir of Ipi continued on, even though Quaroni himself admitted to his British interrogators that he had realized during the summer of 1941 that the Axis plans to use the Faqir of Ipi were a sheer waste of time and money. After Partition the Fakir turned into the most vehement tribal opponent to their Pakistan takeover. The Fakir made a series of overtures to Pandit Nehru, whom he allegedly addressed as 'King of India’ - but to no avail. In1954 his Commander-in-Chief, Mehar Dil, surrendered to Pakistan and this brought the Waziristan insurrection to an end. The Fakir of Ipi passed away in 1960.
Afghanistan continues to be a place where intrigues are wrought, wars are fought and death can be seen every day, even today. As Lord Curzon once said: 'I do not prophesy about the future. No man who has read a page of Indian history will ever prophesy about the Frontier……………….
India in Axis strategy – Milan Hauner
Dealing with the Devil: Donal O'Sullivan
The Deceivers: Allied Military Deception in the Second World War- Thaddeus Holt
Subash Chandra Bose in Nazi Germany – Romain Hayes
The Brandenburger Commandos: Germany's Elite Warrior Spies in World War II
Raj, Secrets, Revolution: A Life of Subhas Chandra Bose - Mihir Bose
The Jew is Not My Enemy: Tarek Fatah
- History will refer to two Operation Tiger’s annals, and there is another little known Operation Tiger from the WW II. It was a botched US rehearsal of the D Day landings at Normandy, carried out at Slapton Sands in the UK. Due to an error in transmitting frequencies, the Germans picked up the radio signals and US forces were attacked by German E boats who saw they had no escorts. Close to 800 sailors and soldiers were apparently killed and the story was hushed up.
- Shami Pir folly - A number of Wazirs cross the Afghan frontier with the object of looting and of stirring up a rising against the reigning Afghan house as a result of an agitation headed by Syed Mohammad Sadi or Shami Pir (Syrian imam), a priest from Damascus whose family was connected with the ex-king Amanullah. After collecting a British bribe, Pir went back to Europe.