Manjeri Rama Iyer – A Social worker and freedom fighter

And how Annie hall road got its name
Annie hall road – why was it called so? During my College days, Balan’s book lending library used to be situated on that road. My friend Venu used to go there often, me not so often, but I used to borrow books from Venu and read them at College. Most would have thought it was a name given to the road by the British and some of the older folk would have connected to Annie Besant. As I spent a while thinking about that memory flash from the past, I decided to delve deeper and check up on Annie Besant’s stay in Calicut. That was how I got sidetracked into studying Manjeri Rama Iyer, yet another doyen of yesteryears who was widely ignored in the annals of history barring a few mentions, mainly because he supported and promoted the aspirations of lower castes of Malabar. In fact there is not even a biography written about him to date while lesser mortals have voluminous books written detailing their smaller claims to fame. And then again, I also recalled my earlier promise to cover this illustrious person soon, so got on to the task in right earnest.

To meet him, you would have to go to the Calicut of the 1900-1950 time frame. I tried to recreate the feel and flavor for the place in my mind, from mentions my father and various relatives made, by reading sections of a poignant autobiography by an interesting soul named AR Subramaniam and from recalling Pottekat’s books. As they say in Hindi – who bhi ek zamana tha, or as shall we say, athum oru kalam ayirunnu. And as you will find, Ramaier was not just a freedom fighter fighting for Indian freedom from the British, but was above all one who helped large masses of people in Malabar and Kerala obtain freedom from the many social evils of that time.
Yes, in the 50’s, Crown Theater existed but was owned by Cherukandan Maistry who also owned a hospital on Annie Hall road. That was the time when rikshawas and jutkas plied the various streets and Kallai road which was broader and busier intersecting Annie hall road had shops and vegetarian hotels which many remember, punctuated by the strident horns of a rare car that passed by or the tinkle of a cycle bell pedaled by an industrious peddler. Sometimes you could see a koya with his striped lungi pass by dragging his filaria afflicted leg or an Ithatha with her head demurely covered, quickly flitting by with her wares. Nair’s with dhothis and an ever present towel over their shoulders, clerks with shirts on, and Menon’s with a turban could also be seen often. It was just another day in that town which once upon a time was the cynosure of the medieval world’s eyes, the capital of the spice industry and a bustling entrepot. After the multitude of wars which decimated its treasuries and hastened the decline of the Zamorin’s the town was just a sleepy and muggy place, where the British could no longer be seen, barring an odd sayip like Bolland or Thorne or Evans. Imagine, this was where it all started, the colonial sagas of the Portuguese and the English.

But in the 20’s, life was changing and people led by the leaders in the North were clamoring for home rule and self-governance. Local leaders were being talked about and one of them lived in the very location we are at, the Annie hall road. Days passed to months and years, they all fought their wars and private and personal demons, they all strived for change and in 1947 India finally became independent.
Fast forward to the 1950’s - Houses on Annie Hall road were mostly built on a higher elevation from the street, and if one were to look down, you will see what ARS Iyer saw and wrote about. He says ‘Annie Hall Road where our home Janaki Vilas stood was also home to a famous son of Calicut and his residence was less than 100 yards from our home. He was Manjeri Rama Iyer, lawyer, social worker and founder of the Theosophical Society in Calicut…… I have often watched the venerable old man walking on the Road clad in the skimpiest of clothes past our home picking up or pushing with his walking stick garbage on the road, a routine gesture of keeping the environment clean.’

Many of the landmarks of today existed, like the SM street, Radha theatre and Parsi temple, and people as we see even today, hung around at the Mananchira maidanam. What we miss are the news hawkers that Pottekat used to write about, the man shouting at the top of his voice that day’s important news - the one who was selling the Mathrubhoomi – those days the daily evening newspaper. The Anjaneya Vilas Brahmins and Modern Hindu Hotel are gone, but the public library existed in the corner and still does. Hawkers were selling and yelling about all kinds of things and well, like in London’s Hyde park, there were people also exhorting about religion and politics in that very corner where Pottekat’s statue now stands serenely looking on into the street which he so beautifully described in Oru theruvinte katha. That was also the time (this was earlier - Pre-40's) when there was no electricity distribution and one left the locale before it became too dark. There were lamp posts with kerosene lamps, and the fascinating chapter by ARS Iyer explains – “In those days the lanes and bye lanes were not lit well after dark and we normally make it home before it gets too dark. The lanes which we normally take as short cuts to reach home were dotted with lamp posts with only kerosene lamps encased in a glass container as electric street lights were a rarity in those days. A municipal worker carrying a tin of kerosene, a few wicks and a cleaning cloth and a ladder on his shoulders would stop at each of these posts to fill in kerosene in the lamps, change the wick if necessary and wipe clean the glass case of the lamp. He would lit the lamp by sun set every evening which would burn throughout the night giving light to people to walk safely. I have often watched these men at work fascinated by the clockwork regularity with which they provide the lights to the common man.”
You may wonder why I mention these things instead of talking about the person we set about to rediscover, Mr Manjeri Ramaier (that was how he spelled his name, not Rama Iyer). We will, worry not - but you see, to experience something properly, you have to be mentally there, you have to understand the ‘mahol’ and if it is Calicut - my dear little city, well I will use some extra literary license in describing it at least for my sake, if not for the uninterested. So now that was done, and also assuming that you have tried to follow the accounts of the Moplah revolt, the 1921 rebellions etc. which I talked about at length in ‘Historic alleys’, I will get to the topic, which is all I could gather about the erudite Manjeri Ramaier, lawyer, social worker and politician of Malabar. Much more than all that, he was simply a nice man, one I would have loved to know and meet.

He was born on July the 5th 1877 to Sundaram Iyer and Lakshmi Ammal, passed his matriculation and FA with distinction from Manjeri and went on to do his BA in Madras Christian College, passing in 1896 and later, his Bachelors in Law in 1898. So we see him as the century turned, back at Calicut, making a decent living as a well-known criminal advocate in Calicut living at Annie Hall road.
Manjeri Subin SundarRaj, his great grandson explains - It was from Kallingal Madathil Rarichan Moopan, an affluent landowner and chieftain of Kozhikode that Manjeri Rama Iyer bought the land where Annie Hall, the home that later became Besant Ashram and till recently the State Committee Office of Mujahid Centre is situated. The Kallingal Madathil family’s Kallingal Bhagavathi Temple, which later attained fame through K.N. Ramadas Vydiar and nalluveedu paramba which lay opposite and where Manjeri Rama Iyer’s house was situated, were all owned by Rarichan Moopan. There was a special room for Dr. Annie Besant atop Manjeri Rama Iyer’s house. Bishop C.W. Leadbeater, close friend, associate and member of the Theosophical Society too had stayed at Besant Ashram. It was during their stay at Besant Ashram that Dr. Annie Besant and Leadbeater authored the book ‘Invisible Helpers’.
M Rama Iyer

One thing the reader should understand that those early decades of the 20th century were not like today. There was no equality, the caste rigors were stringent and the Moplah unrest at its nadir. There was less amity and more enmity in Calicut, and Calicut in the past was always famed for its amity between cultures. In these depressing times, the principles of Theosophy started by Mme Blavatsky, the Russian émigré and propounded by Anne Besant from Madras were influencing the educated masses enmasse. While VK Krishna Menon embraced it at Tellichery and headed off to Madras leaving Malabar for good, people like Manjeri Ramaier and many other Malabar nationalists who were part of the Malabar Congress committee, took it up seriously. C Sankaran Nair, G Parameswaran Pillai and Dr TM Nair were also among those who took up the cudgels in addition to congress political activities and rose against the Brahmin and upper caste issues plaguing Malabar then. Exhorting people to think rationally and propounding Vivekannada’s teachings, Rama Iyer took on Buddhism and became a theosophist. In his efforts since 1911, he was joined by an equally famous character named Mithavadi C Krishnan. They started a struggle against child marriage, untouchability and many other social evils present then and even created the league of liberal Brahmins or the Bharat Samaj. But well, for eating and living with untouchables, he was soon out-casted from his community.

At Calicut, the Tilak brand of home rule did not find favor and after 1915, Rama Iyer was the fiercest proponent for the Besantine Home rule league. He championed it vigorously spearheading the local chapter of the 27,000 members working for fruition of Besant’s vision. Perhaps he too stood at the Town hall or Mananchira corners exhorting people to support self-rule. Ramaaier soon became the President of the Home rule league in Malabar while KP Keshava Menon its Secretary. Not only were self-rule aspects discussed, but also other issues such as sanitation, elementary education for all etc.
M Kumaran
Mitavadi (Murkoth Kumaran picked this name up from a speech of Gopalakrishna Gokhale) or ‘moderate advocates’, a weekly-handwritten pamphlet airing such matters was started in 1907 from Tellicherry by Murkoth Kumaran but was later shifted to Calicut (Kumaran resigned owing to a silly fight with Sivasankaran – an event which was a tragic loss to literature and an active press) to become first a magazine and later a daily, by Krishnan vakeel. The articles of C.V Kunhiraman, Manjeri Rama Iyer, Ramavarma Thampan, Mooliyil Kesavan and so on figured prominently on the pages of Mithavadi.

In the meantime, we see that Ramaier had adopted Buddhism and renamed himself Angarika Raman. His friend Mithavadi Krishnan vakeel did likewise by converting to Buddhism. Opposite the Connolly Park, there existed a well-stocked library and a Budha vihara with a Buddha statue brought from Ceylon by CC brothers. A couple of Bodhi trees and the Vihara were the handiwork of Ramaier and Krishnan vakeel (see the picture of the tree – courtesy Hindu May 26th, 2013). Govinda Menon, Ayyathan Gopalan, Appu Nedungadi (Kundalatha author and Nedungadi bank founder), Manorama Kunhikrishna Menon etc were all his friends or ‘team’ as we say in Calicut. Their next action was the well-publicized Tali temple entry. But first some background.
The biggest issue in those days was getting people to unite in the midst of caste inequalities. Then again, the nationalist movement in Malabar during the Pre-Gandhian era was led and maintained as an upper caste organization. The Tiyyas stayed away and something had to be done to break the impasse. The Tiyya reasoning was that the British had actually helped them obtain a better standing in society, so they did not want to go against them (as explained by Murkoth Kumaran- Ente jeevithakatha) and secondly they feared that upper caste dominated Congress might revive caste-ism if they won. The Tiyyas formed a 'Passive Resistance League' and decided to launch agitations against the social separatism promoted by the higher castes and demanded representation for Tiyyas in the elected bodies. This was also the period when certain roads and temples were closed for such polluting castes, and one of them was the road leading to the Tali temple. Another problem was education and so another demand was to open Zamorin’s college to all castes.

The Annie hall group however, in the true spirit of a theosophist participated in many activities designed to highlight such problems and bring warring factions together. They travelled in the company of polluting castes; attended their marriage ceremonies and convened ‘Mishrabhojanam’ of mass lunches at Annie hall. And thus we get into the Tali agitation incident.
C Krishnan Vakeel
A noticeboard was hoisted in the Tali samooham road to restrict the passage of the polluting castes and this provoked political activists of Malabar like K.P. Kesava Menon and Manjeri Rama Iyer enough to join hands with C. Krishnan in defying the order. The new Zamorin’s manager JC Thorne had earlier forwarded to the District Collector F.B Evans, a memorandum signed by more than a hundred upper caste persons requesting him to prevent the lower communities from using the Tali temple roads. Evans did not accept the petition and went on leave for two months, but coincidentally JC Thorne was appointed as acting collector. On 1st November 1917, with this authority, Thorne had two notice boards installed on the Tali road announcing ‘no passage of lower communities’. The notice said that ‘since the untouchables like Thiyyas, walking along the steps of this temple and along the roads around the temple pond is against civility, the above communities should not use those roads henceforward, and is hereby informed that those who breach the notice would be responsible for all the expenses incurred to the temple and would be punished as per law’.

Manjeri Ramayyar did not waste any time in breaching this law and so he and his Tiyya friend C.Krishnan travelled along the Tali road in a horse cart on the same day when the board appeared. After the act, he wrote a letter to Thorne, “…since your notice limits the rights of a major section of the subjects of His Majesty the Emperor, we have immediately utilized our right by walking along the Padinjare Samooham Road (Western Samooham Road), one among which has been mentioned in your notice. We would be thankful to you if you take immediate action in this case of violation of law.” Neither the Zamorin nor Thorne reacted strongly, they thanked Iyer for his letter and the matter was judiciously dropped while the Tiyyas celebrated their success, but the act did not result in any great change other than bringing larger awareness.
In between all this came up the issue with the Gibraltar confinement. At a meeting in Madurai during February 1918, George Joseph commented that for achieving Home Rule, people should agitate within India and recommended that representatives be sent to England to demand self-government for India. George Joseph was one of the three members of the first batch of Home Rule Deputation. B.V. Narasimha Iyer and Manjeri Rama Iyer were the other members accompanying George Joseph to London. This deputation set out for England in two batches on 10th March and 18th March 1918. Before reaching London, they had a halt at Gibraltar. At Gibralter, their passports were seized and cancelled by the British, so they had to turn back to India. Syud Hossain whom we talked about earlier was also a member of this unfortunate group.

The next case again involved Manjeri Ramaier and Dr K.V Choi, a Thiyya, who walked along the temple tank near Chalappuram in 1919. The temple authorities filed a criminal case against Choi in the Sub magistrate’s court, Calicut. The New India of 22nd February 1919 reported it as a sensational case of pollution and this was the first case of its kind in Malabar. C Krishnan recommended that Choi request his close friend Manjeri Ramaier’s help and Iyer defended Dr.Choi to win the case.
As we head towards the 20’s, we can see that a split was starting to come about those who supported the Montagu Chelmsford political reforms and those who did not. The former, the Besant-ites which included Ramaier were for home rule and the latter the Gandhiites were for full independence. The cracks were evident in 1919 when Besant was rebuffed in a meeting at Manjeri in spite of strident speeches by Ramaier and support from the Nilambur Raja. KPS Menon, Rangaswamy Iyengar and Raman Menon supported the Congress independence moves and a miffed Annie Besant walked out. Soon after, the Khilafat movement started and it was finally time for Ramaier to slowly leave the scene, which he reluctantly did, but all the while remaining a theosophist.

The situation became ominous by the 1920’s. This was when the Malabar Moplah riots destroyed the calm in the region and set many self-rule actions back. The British blamed the congress and the ‘fanatical Moplah’, while the affected general public laid all blame squarely on the Moplahs.  Manjeri Ramaier reacted strongly by stating that the sword that was used to cut human throats in Eranad was to be in fact directed against Mahatma Gandhi and Khilafat leader Shaukath Ali. Iyer was not just a supporter of the Hindu downtrodden, but also the affected Moplah. The Mappila Muslims, were subjected to extreme tortures under the British military expansions to Malabar in the early 1900’s. Manjeri Ramaier is quoted to have said as follows, “There were no provisions to win bail for a detained Mappila Muslim. No recommendations worked out in favour of him. None among the witnesses dared to give statements in favour of a Mappila Muslim, while they were trialed under riot charges by the British. When somebody came up to give statements in favour of the Mappila Muslim detained under trial, he too was made a culprit under similar charges. Once the Mappila Muslim gets detained under riot charges, he was obliged to prove his innocence on his own rather than the one’s making accusations proving him guilty”.

The Bodhi Tree
During 1928, the Simon commission was passed and a meeting was held in Malabar to boycott it. The Malabar conference was held at the Townhall Calicut, and Dr. Annie Besant organized it exhorting people to object and conduct a hartal as they arrived in Calicut. P.K. Kunhisankara Menon Manjeri Ramaier, K. MadhavanNair, P. Ramunni Menon, U. Gopala Menon, P.Achuthan and K. Madhava Menon did the required propaganda supporting public demonstrations. So on 3rd February 1928 as the Simon Commission landed in Bombay, a successful hartal was observed in Malabar, as in other parts of India. Students abstained from attending the class, lawyers did not turn up at the courts, shops were closed Black flags fluttered everywhere. At various public meetings resolutions were passed protesting against the Simon Commission‘s visit. It was stated to be a success.

Manjeri Ramaier then took up the initiative in promoting Khadi and the boycott of foreign clothes. On 9 November 1929 The Kerala Yuvak Sangh was organized at Calicut with Manjeri Rama Iyer as president. The sangh was to carry on active propaganda for donning Khadi, prohibition of liquor and starting again the traditional Kalari system. As expected, this organization was declared unlawful through a notification in the Fort St George Gazette in 1932.
Meanwhile, Ramaier continued on with his work to spread Besant’s ideology. The Mangalore theosophical society owes its success to Margaret Cousins and Manjeri Ramaier. But by 1930 Ramaier formally left Congress and in the Payyanur conference even opposed Nehru’s resolution of Purnaswaraj.

Returning back to Annie hall road and the fourth decade (I must apologize for not spending more words on Annie Besant and Leadbeater’s work in Malabar, which I promise to make good in a forthcoming article) Iyer took to journalism and law, having left politics. As Manjeri Subin Sundar Raj, his great grandson explains - Sir C.P. Ramaswami was brought to Kozhikode by Rama Iyer and at Besant Ashram he was entrusted with the vakalath to defend Annie Besant upon allegations propagated by renowned philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurthi’s father, that her people had kidnapped Jiddu’s brother Nityananda. It was the result of admiration and a sense of innate closeness with Dr. Besant that made Manjeri Rama Iyer named his house ‘Besant Ashram’ and the adjoining lodge ‘Annie Hall’. The Municipality widened the existing narrow lane and it was rechristened ‘Annie Hall Road’. He continues - At a point in history when inequality and abhorrent customs were rampant, Besant Ashram was the platform where strong voices were raised, revolutionary ideas were born and radical actions were taken against such oppression.
I still recall going to the Sreekandeswaram temple grounds to listen to an S Janaki concert and later another where my wife had sung. At that time, I did not know that this was the handiwork of stalwarts like Ramaier who wanted a temple for everybody, to be built in Calicut (Sree Narayana Guru had, I believe, come for the consecration event).

Manjeri Rama Iyer who was ostracized by his own community for his affinity towards the downtrodden and the lower castes, never looked back. He held the position of Diwan for the Nilambur raja after leaving congress and in 1937 for a while after which he became an ascetic. He sporadically continued with journalism, writing and editing for West coast spectator and Santhana Dharma and with Manjeri Ramakrishna Iyer (Secretary -Buddhist theosophical league) wrote the first guide book on Buddhism called Buddhadharmam. He continued with his social work until he died in 1958, aged 81.
His children, especially his daughter Kamalamma (Kamalambal) followed in his footsteps, working with Annie Besant (not to forget, Iyer’s wife was also very much involved in uplifting women’s inequality matters). She was the first president of the Malabar branch of the Women Indian Association. She passed away, just 9 years after her father. She merits an article on her times and interestingly, I started my own life in Calicut attending kindergarten in her personally managed school, the Balavrindavan, at Chalappuram. And look at it - here I am sitting and wondering how small this word is, as I see how our mundane lives crisscross at some point or other!

An example of his oratory and conviction can be seen in this simple utterance - Ramaier’s precondition for Home Rule was to break the shackles which bound us. He said in the 1917 Calcutta annual convention - "This resolution calls for social freedom by which we shall shatter the shackles that bind the lower classes. They are the foot of tile nation and if you and I would climb the hill of Home Rule, we must first shatter the shackles on our feet and then and then only will Home Rule come to us. You cannot be political democrats and at the same time social autocrats. Remember that a man, a social slave, cannot be politically a free man. We all have come here to see the vision of United India, not only politically united but united all along the line. Therefore, let those of us, who are Brahmins, who belong to the higher castes, go to our villages and shatter the shackles of the low castes, people who are struggling against our own men, the social Bureaucrats of our own land."
Sadly, people like Rama Iyer cannot be found anymore, perhaps our creator Brahma is on an extended vacation…………………

Manjeri Rama Iyer and Home Rule Agitation in Malabar - TP Sankarankutty Nair
Manorama Article – translation by Manjeri Subin Sundar Raj
ARS Iyers autobiography
Social and religious transformation of Kerala with special reference to Brahmananda Sivayogi – VN Sujaya
George Joseph and the national struggle for freedom – R Renjini
The Quest for Social Justice: Malabar, 1882-1947 – PM Ismael
Women In public Life in Malabar- 1900-1957 – V Vasanthi
Print and public sphere in Malabar: a study of early newspapers (1847-1930) - Stella Joseph
Neo Buddhism in Kerala: The Legacy of Mithavadi C Krishnan

I apologize for the length of this article, for it far exceeds the attention span of a lay blog reader. My hope is that this will interest somebody someday.

Pics – Ramaier (KFCS Souvenir 2013), Bodhi maram (Hindu), M Kumaran (wiki),

The Story of Ehrenfels at Goa

Operation Longshanks and the Calcutta Light Horse

The Second World War had gripped almost the whole world in its vise like grip. Some countries entered into the war arena with a good amount of confusion and trepidation, some were forced into it, some watched from the edges, affected though by the fall out. Indians as a whole were not too fearful about the whole thing except when the Japanese planned their incursions through the North East. Most of the Indian populace were more interested in wresting themselves away from the British yoke while some served the British forces in faraway lands, fighting somebody else’s war. Some supported the Germans and the INA’s activities in Japan. Of course there were some tremors when the axis ships passed by shore lines, though some stopped for some refueling, R&R or some such thing as Ruby recounted in her book on Cochin. Up in the North East, a lot was going on though that story is still not very well known to Indians, like this story. Some months ago I decided to work on uncovering the CBI Theater in the North East and one event that surfaced was the fascinating story of Ehrenfels. It was the fodder for a book called The Sea Wolves (Boarding Party) and an insipid movie by the same name, starring Gregory Peck, David Nivien, Roger Moore etc…

India on the whole was well under British control in those years, and in 1939, when the 2nd world war started, Europeans were in the thick of it and many a war theatre was played in those lands. The British bureaucracy in India were considering what their future would be after the war and some of them were planning their future in India or completing their travel back to Britain or other locales like Australia. The estate folks in Assam continued their laid back lives and visited Calcutta at times, meeting up and enjoying colonial life, and a few of them had some years back formed the Calcutta Light Horse in 1872, after the Anglo Boer war becoming a Cavalry Reserve in the British Indian Army. But before we get to these folks, let us see what triggered all these events.

There were a few places in the Indian mainland which were independent and beyond British Jurisdiction, examples were Goa, Mahe and Pondicherry. While the former was Portuguese territory, the latter were French. As the world war erupted, the Portuguese were considered neutral and as Decosta notes ‘from the British perspective, Portuguese non-belligerency was essential to keep Spain from entering the war on the side of the Axis’. As the war progressed, British sea channels were severely affected by an effective and aggressive Nazi U boat force. The cargo ships plying raw material and personnel between the distant theatres and supply centers in India were attacked incessantly by these U boats which Churchill considered alarming "The only thing that really frightened me during the war was the U-boat peril”. Anti-submarine tactics were still to become effective and it was a period German submariners considered “die glückliche Zeit" or "the happy time.

But just as the war clouds darkened, on 28th Aug 1939, a German vessel named ‘Ehrenfels’ which was heading out from Bhavnagar towards Bombay, instead, slipped hurriedly into the Marmugao port of Goa for its own security, as was stated. The next day another German ship ‘Drachenfels’ which had actually left Goa bound for Rotterdam returned to Marmugao port and docked there for good. Three days later, the ‘Braunfels’ headed to Calcutta from Djibouti also berthed at Goa. Roughly a year later, in June 1940, an Italian ship ‘Anfora’ docked in Goa. The story of these four ships and their crew is what this is all about and one which was kept secret by the British and Indian governments until 1978. Interesting, right? Well, that it certainly was and as we unfold events around this story, we will travel down from Assam to Calcutta, then to Cochin and finally north to Goa. We will meet many nationalities, Indians, Germans, Brits and what not. As events turned out, the previously introduced motely group called the Calcutta Light horse were to get connected to this somewhat important operation of the SOE in India.

As the German U boats became very successful, British politicians got more nervous, war leaders got unsettled and it was discovered that these U boats were being led to their prey, which were the well laden British cargo ships headed out of to India by somebody, a spy perhaps. Without precise coordinates of their prey the U boats would be lost in the vast ocean. How did they get information every day and with such precision? Through bursts of high frequency radio transmission at predetermined times when the U boats surfaced. Where did the transmission originate? From one of the ships docked at Marmugao - Goa. Who delivered the information? An nationalist Indian spy network which risked their lives to get the information regularly to the Nazi transmitter.

The Nazi admiral Karl Doenitz’s chess game in the oceans had just started and the first two groups operating out of France sunk a number of ships in the waters off Africa, some 166,000 tons of it. The next group was supported by an intermediate supply ship and were directed by the abovementioned Indian spy ring operating out of Bombay and Goa, with the help of the transmitter on one of the 4 docked ships. With just the loss of one U boat (U197) they destroyed 31 allied ships totaling to 168,000 tons.

How did the Germans get up-to-date information from around the world? Well, it is said that they had their sympathizers amongst the INA spearheaded by Bose, but it is also stated by Ralph Bergstresser in his book on Nikolai Tesla that many of these spies were equipped with a special wrist watch  based on tesla’s invention which could transmit to 900 miles (I am not sure about the veracity of this, as nobody else has mentioned it, but I do believe that Tesla was so far ahead of his time, and won’t be surprised that he had patented such an invention, the world transmitter!) and that he saw it with some German spies in India. Anyway the Indian (Bengali) sympathizer provided information on departures, speed, cargo and timings to the captain of U181 through the Ehrenfel’s secret transmitter by their radio officer named Pollard (who spoke 7 languages and was also an engineer and code decoder – it is also rumored that an Enigma coder was used) in code. In fact the Japanese had withdrawn to the Bengal seas and left the Arabian to the Nazi’s because they had better access to the Indian spies. The Indian spy network was run by Trompetta or Robert Koch from Goa.

Why could these ships in Goa not be taken? Because they were in Portuguese territory. If a publically visible preemptive strike was launched, who knew what could happen to the Portuguese alliance? It may even tip them and the Spaniards into the Axis lap headed by the Germans, so the situation was very dodgy. The British SOE were ordered to act. But note here that by now it was 1942 and three years had passed since the war started, so the determination that this was indeed the case took quite some sleuthing.

Going back to the 1939 time frame and Goa to retrace the steps of the crew of the four ships, we see that they were in a pitiable state indeed. Many of them deserted, some of them sought asylum in Goa until the war ended and they also complained to the International Red Cross that they were being ‘interned’ by the Goan authorities. They had no resources and little stomach for this kind of life. In fact one Mr JA Rikil of the IRC was even sent for an interview with some money by the Germans. Many passed time doing little with limited funds and whiled away time painting lizards that visited them and all kinds of other silly antics.

Well, in the meantime, the SOE, later known as Force 136 had set up shop in India. That by itself is a story and we will cover it in more detail separately. Its purpose supposedly, was to incite, organize and supply indigenous resistance forces in various enemy-occupied territories and sensitive areas. The Indian mission was set up in Meerut by a former businessman, Colin Mackenzie of J. and P. Coats (remember Coats thread?), a clothing manufacturer and the organization was called GSI(k). As it happens, the responsibility for covert action to take out the hidden transmitter aboard the Ehrenfels was given to one Col Pugh of the Indian Police (an SOE member), who was also a honorary member of the Calcutta Light horse, a group of mostly middle aged or even older men who mainly lounged around in the Club drinking gin tonic and talking about the fortunes of the allied forces. A meeting held in SOE’s offices in Meerut was overseen by Mackenzie, Stewart and Pugh. Initially he and Stewart hatched an ill-founded plan to first kidnap the spymaster, then bribe the commander of the ship. Stewart and Pugh made their way to Goa, posing as representatives of a trading company, secured Tromepta (Koch) the spymaster and his wife in Dec 1942, and placed them in protective custody in British India. Shortly afterwards the transmissions began again, so it became clear that a new conduit had been found to get the information to the ship. Then it was decided that an attempt must be made to meet Roeffer and bribe (this was presumably operation Creek) the German captain (with a sum of £20,000) of the Ehrenfels to desert. This attempt failed.

Eventually the SOE acted on its own, and18 men were chosen to move against the ships and its crew. These men of course had no idea about the objectives, but it remained on Col Pugh’s shoulders to get them weapons trained in time. They had no official backing, not even funds to mount the attack, but well, for many of those tea estate type retired guys, it was a heaven-sent opportunity for adventure and a fine way of showing their patriotism. They all agreed, even though it was made clear that they were on their own, and that no recognition, no medals or even a mention would be made of the event. In fact their mouths were also sealed, until 1978!! Each of them took leave from their jobs stating they were going for a training course in Goa and started getting ready for the mission, by now named Operation Longshanks.

Pugh set about finding a vessel which could be made available to transport them to Goa. In the end he managed to obtain the use of a hopper barge ‘Little Phoebe’ with a Bengali crew, a ramshackle tug which had been commissioned in 1912 and had a maximum speed of less than nine knots. In this smoky barge, Stewart, Pugh and a selected group from the Calcutta Light Horse led by Grice were taken to Goa after going to Cochin by train, with plans to split into three groups and board the Ehrenfels, one to take control of the bridge, another to destroy the anchor and the third to destroy the radio.

Their comments about Cochin are funny. Reaching Cochin from Madras by the mail, we read Leasor’s comment. “Our destination is Cochin. Cochin? That sleepy little hollow, a one horse town where even the horse left years ago”. Well they stayed at Hotel Malabar and the Harbor house. They lounged near the pool or went cycling around the town and they spent four uneasy days in Cochin, waiting to board Little Phoebe.

As this was going one, Jock Cartwright another Calcutta Light Horse member had been sent to Goa overland. His task was to lead away as many sailors and crew of the Ehrenfels and other ships. Cartwright bribed a brothel-keeper in Goa to offer free services that night to those seamen. He also managed to bribe a Goanese fidalgo to throw a party and invite the many port officials and ships officers. He finally made sure that as the party ended there were no taxis available to take the officers back to their ships.

March 9th 1943- The boarding party headed by Col EH Grice met with little opposition, and the Ehrenfels's radio transmitter, which was the principal target, was quickly put out of action, while the captain of the ship Roeffer and four seamen were killed in the light action which followed. But Roeffer who had foreseen that this would soon happen had already instructed their crews to prepare for a possible attack by the British, and plant charges in all ships which could be exploded quickly so as to scuttle their ships rather than allow them to be captured. As the boarding party from the Phoebe seized control of the Ehrenfels, it was assumed that this was the beginning of the British attack and the charges were quickly exploded. The ships were soon racked by the explosions and sank one by one. The people onshore aghast by these quick happenings were led to believe that the nervous crew fearing an attack and out of depression, drunkenness and despair had set fire their ships. Little Phoebe quietly slipped out of the harbor during the melee but also with a fear that one last transmission might have alerted the U boats which was probably on their tail. But nothing of that sort happened and all the British made safe return to their home bases. I will not go too much into the complete storyline and events and you are welcome to get that account from the book by Leasor.

Newspaper reports (Times of India) announced that the ships were scuttled by the drunken crew and though it had a good amount of truth, the fact that it was all started by Pugh and his men after they boarded the ship was never ever leaked out for 34 years following the incident. In fact even in 1978 it was assumed that the British were just trying to make a claim and that they had nothing to do with it.

But while all of this follows Leasor’s demi fictional writing, what was the real outcome of the boarding? Both the Cruickshank book and Dr Shirodkar’s study provide clues. You must recall that Capt Roeffer had already a good idea what was going to happen, in fact he had been told so by the SOE agents who had previously attempted to bribe him to sail the ship out of the harbor, and he knew they were coming. Also Koch had been kidnapped and so it was a matter of time. While the barge neared the Ehrenfels, it was never lit up as usual dark and was presumably awaiting the attack. The barge was apaprently hailed in English and before much could be done, the charges on the ship were starting to go off. Soon the other ships also caught fire and sank. It was by pure luck that the blame was laid on the ship’s crew for their scuttling and the SOE as well as the British escaped any recrimination from the Goan’s and the Portuguese and an international wartime scandal with severe recriminations was miraculously avoided.

The transmitter was of course destroyed and the shipping losses dropped drastically. But how much of it was due to the light horse men boarding the ship? That is a question which real historians have not satisfactorily answered though Leasor believed otherwise. The British SOE records roundly declared the Operation to be a disaster and McKenzie did get into trouble for clearing it (only the bribery plan had been approved, not the call for direct subversive action or any sort of violence). SOE’s chief Gubbins met up with Colin Mackenzie the one-legged SOE station chief of India, as the latter was recalled to London to account for his apparent disregard of orders over the operation in Goa. Gubbins was quite impressed by him, as it appears and did not accept his resignation but Mackenzie was severely reprimanded.

More of the public and the press had in the meantime accepted that the Germans had mutinied and scuttled their own ships and the SOE actions escaped detection. In fact the Goan court found the Germans guilty for disturbing the tranquility of the Goan port and sentenced. 111 seamen out of which 34 were Italian were detained. 12 Italians and 21 Germans were obviously onshore partaking in the festivities, so they escaped jail. I do not know when the detained seamen were released, but the matter was laid to rest though the affected parties continued to appeal and complain of a travesty to justice.

People may wonder why the operation was initially called Longshanks, well it was due to Stewart’s long legs. As for Lewis Pugh he was promoted to Major General with a CB, CBE and three DSOs. He retired from the Army to the family estate at Cymmerau in 1961, and lived in the house and developed its gardens, together with his wife until 1978, and thereafter at Wonastow House, before dying in 1981.Shipping losses reduced to single digits after the operation and life went on at the Calcutta club as before. The Light Horse Bar, located at the Saturday Club (Calcutta) in Wood Street Calcutta, named after the regiment did brisk business.

The waters and mud of the Goa harbor were not going to swallow the wrecks. Ehrenfels was salvaged in 1950 and scrapped later. Drachenfels was sold in December 1948 and scrapped in 1950. Braunfels disintegrated in the waters and Anfora was raised 1948 and scrapped in Bombay 1949. Some of the German men continued to reside in Goa after the war ended. Fritz Dimsak, one of them ran a watch repair shop near the Panjim. The others, Karl Tiegel and Karl Breitkopf set up some businesses in Vasco-da-Gama after marrying locally and raising families there.

The U181 or its ‘wolf pack’ did not get any more messages from Indian spies, and its commander Wolfgang Luth spent only a few more months captaining it. The U boat after a successful run, sinking 27 ships worth 138,000 tons and was transferred to the Japanese navy as I501. It was finally scuttled off the coast of Malacca after the war, in 1946.

An SOE report stated - Operation LONGSHANKS was an SOE effort to capture Axis shipping in the Portuguese colony of Goa. Although the mission was a failure, the Germans scuttling their vessels before they could be captured, three anti-Nazi German seamen took the opportunity to surrender to the British. These men served on SOE's strength in India they were repatriated to Germany and rewarded at the conclusion of the war in the Far East.

Who were the Indian German spies? One of them is stated to be named Ramdas Gupta, a friend of NSC Bose, however I have not been able to make much headway into his involvement. He was apparently part of a network of informers at the shipping offices in Bombay, and organized by the German spy master Koch a.k.a Trompeta resident in the neutral Portuguese territory in Goa. It is also rumored that as the barge reached Cochin before the mission, wild statements were bandied about that it would leave for the ocean to capture a submarine. One can perhaps assume that these rumors reached the Ehrenfels before the barge with the boarding did and that was why Roeffer was ready with the plan to scuttle the ships.

The members of the mission got back to Calcutta, rejoined their jobs. Interestingly, one of them, Jack Breene, an insurance partner discovered that it was his own company that had underwritten three of the ships which he helped scuttle. He did not utter a word, but of course.

And thus a movie was made with an impressive star cast, Gregory peck, Roger Moore, Davis Nivien, Mark Zuber and so on, but it was somewhat less explosive on screen than the story itself, though doing reasonably well at the box office.

The Sea wolves – James Leasor
Sea wolves - the movie
World War II in the Pacific: An Encyclopedia edited by Stanley Sandle
SOE in the Far East -Charles Greig Cruickshank
CLH Blizkrig in Mormugao harbor – Dr PP Shirodkar

Pictures - courtesy of Arnhemjim