Kurt Tank – The legendary test pilot and aircraft designer

 And the Marut HF 24 project at Bangalore

Prof. Dr. Dipl.-Ing. Kurt Waldemar Tank was not only a brilliant German engineer and designer of many successful aircraft that flew in the Second World War but was also a competent test pilot. Responsible for the designs of the Fw 190 fighter, the Ta 152 fighter interceptor, and the Fw 200 long-distance Condor, Kurt led the design department at Focke-Wulf which manufactured these aircraft. While the Fw 190 fighter (over 20,000 were produced) was considered one of the finest flying fighters of its time, Tank also pioneered nonstop transatlantic air travel with his Condor aircraft. After the war, he moved to Argentina, building their first fighter jet, the Pulqui II.

Following the fall of Peron, Tank took up an offer to lead a design team at the fledgling Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) Bangalore, working on an ambitious project developing a Mach 2 fighter – the Marut HF-24. Kurt Tank, who focused on trying to get things going under incredibly difficult circumstances, and supported by a primitive industrial infrastructure, maintained a low profile and talked little. Perhaps he had his demons to face. This is his story.

Though there is plenty of material out there on the German planes he helped design, and quite a bit on the Marut HF 24, much of the HF-24 information out there comes from one or two templates which are somewhat incomplete and at times erroneous, with most of them disregarding the geopolitical pressures faced by not only the developers at HAL but also the politicians at Delhi, walking a tight rope in a cold war era, pressured by the Russians on one side and a combination of America, France and Britain on the other.

The initial part of Tank’s life, until the conclusion of WW-II is well documented, so I will quickly gloss over them. Born in Bromberg, Germany in Feb 1898 to Willi and Anna, Tank was keen to join the air services, but his father, an army grenadier forced him to join the cavalry, and Tank dropped out of school and volunteered for the army aged 17, did well, earning several medals, eventually de-mobbing as a Captain. Picking up his education Tank graduated in Electrical Engineering from the Technische Hochschule Berlin, in 1923 (he was a regular listener to Einstein’s lectures at Berlin on Relativity!), meanwhile qualifying as a pilot as well (flying solo after just three tutored flights) and formed a gliding club. It was his professor Moritz Weber who suggested he look at aircraft design as a future career when he saw Tank was considering Siemens. With his professor’s recommendation, he soon joined the design team designing flying boats at Rohrbach Metall-Flugzeugbau, and later a stint at supplying planes to Turkey and meeting Ataturk. This was followed by a troubling year with Willi Messerschmitt as director of the Projects Department at Bayerische Flugzeugwerke, eventually moving on to work for a small aircraft manufacturer, Focke-Wulf at Bremen, as the manager of tests and design in 1931. Tank’s involvement in engineering and aircraft designs led them to fame, and he rose to become its technical director. In Sept 1924, he got married to Charlotte Teufel, his first wife.

It was at FW that he designed the long-distance Fw-200 Condor and the feared Fw-190 fighter. Most importantly, he was not just a designer, but also an able test pilot and eventually rose to become its managing director. As a test pilot, he did have his share of mishaps, but it was his flying skill that added to his drawing board knowledge of designing planes. Tank’s Focke-Wulf Fw 190, according to Robert Grinsell was “considered by many aviation experts and enthusiasts to be the most beautifully proportioned and aerodynamically designed aircraft of World War II”. Interestingly, he was always known as Professor Kurt Tank (per some accounts - awarded by the Braunschweig Technical School), though he became a teacher only much later, while in India.

Fw 190A-3
Though he was a Nazi pilot and worked for Nazi-controlled factories employing Jewish slaves, it is apparent from various biographies that he was not too involved with or interested in the politics of his country (Nevertheless, Goering had appointed him as one of his military economy leaders, sworn to be faithful to the Nazi regime) but was driven by aviation and engineering. There are interesting accounts of Tank’s arguments about the production and design of new fighter bombers with Goering and how Tank stood his ground. We also see that he had four meetings with Hitler. Tank became quite famous by now and was allowed to use the Ta monogram for his planes. The last of his designs, the Ta 183 was the forerunner to the Russian Mig-15, for the Russians obtained all the aircraft design and research files following the war. The Russians also obtained two prototypes, which they used to jump-start their MIG project. Still, Tank had also secreted the blueprints of the Ta 183 swept-wing fighter plane, which was in his possession.

After the war ended, and the British control of Focke-Wulf, interrogations were completed, Tank, like many other German engineers were looking out for work and living the life of a refugee, in 1946. During this period, Tank lived in an ancient castle situated in the Weser hills and had to forage for food and subsistence! While there is a brief mention of Tank consulting for General Electric on aero engines much later in life circa 1952, there is nothing on record about any discussions with the Americans, immediately after the war. However, the Soviets, the British, China, France, Sweden, Mexico, and Brazil all investigated the possibility of Tank emigrating to help develop their aircraft industries. Tank commenced further discussions with the British for a job with Handley Page, which never reached fruition. The discussions with China were interesting, and they almost reached a contract stage, but Mao Tse-Tung’s revolution and nationalist China’s decline put paid to that.

Fw 200C 
Pushed by the Soviets, Tank slipped out to Berlin and was interviewed by the Russians who proposed that he move to the Eastern zone, and work for them, but the eventual Russian offer was too vague. A trip to Russia to meet Stalin did not work out when Tank caught the flu and was sent back home. Tank had realized that he would never be a free man in Russia, and his fears were confirmed when a few years later the go between Col Tokaev defected to Britain. Another report mentions that Tank took 10,000 Marks, after agreeing to go to Russia with 8-10 followers, but that he failed to appear. Tank continued work on the Ta 183 and a futuristic long-distance plane, the Ta 500.

A rumor that he would be tried under the war trials and a physical summons to travel to Britain late in 1947, got Tank searching for an escape route to where hundreds of thousands of Germans, mostly Nazis had fled, namely Juan Peron’s Argentina. Their exit route was through Denmark, which had not closed its borders. The go-between, an Argentine SS officer Fultner was involved in the secreting out of Kurt Tank to Argentina. SS officer Karl Nicolussi-Leck, the escape agent of the chimeral ODESSA organization, was perhaps the person who delivered Kurt Tank and later his engineering team to Fultner who then took over and spirited them across to Argentine. Tank had a hair-raising transit through Britain and managed the escape to the Southern Hemisphere with his papers and the microfilms bulging in his pocket, under a false Argentinian passport, bearing the name Pedro Matties.

Argentina was very rich at this point, the 7th largest economy, and had the funds to get the people they wanted and the money to further Juan Peron’s dreams. Several of Tank’s former colleagues, around 62 of them, joined him in Cordoba and together they created something like a Focke-Wulf Lite unit.  Soon after he arrived in Argentina, Tank’s wife Charlotte passed away and Tank later got married to a girl 30 years his junior, a girl he knew from her childhood, Sigrid Güldennage. Meanwhile, his two daughters and a son from his first wife were growing up.

These engineers and their families lived on the mountain slopes near Cordoba. The intent was to use the Ta183 designs and make a new fighter for the Argentine Air Force. They took over the Pulqui project which until then had been managed not too well by the French Nazi designer Emile Dewoitine. The Institutio Aerotechnico was formed and by 1950, the advanced IAe-33 Pulqui II had been modelled using the basic TA 183 airframe, and a glider version had been tested. Interestingly it had no hydraulic controls. In 1951, a test flight was conducted by Tank in front of Peron. But it all went south, thereafter.

One of the reasons for Tank’s fall from Peron’s grace, was the failure of the man behind the ill-fated nuclear fusion project, the infamous Ronald Richter, whom Tank had recommended to Peron. Tank had been fascinated by Richter’s ideas, especially the one concerning a lightweight fusion engine for a futuristic aircraft that Tank had envisioned. But Richter turned out to be a dud (the word is divided, some call him a crackpot, some even say his work on nuclear fusion, the Huemul project was sabotaged), following which Tank also fell from grace. It is also said that the Pulqui II touted to become the foremost fighter jet in the world, turned out to be a pipe dream, with its airframe weight and many aerodynamic problems due to manufacturing difficulties (the frames had to be hand fabricated). Three prototypes were constructed by 1953 and finally, the fourth one passed tests, but at a much-reduced speed, and with no reliable large-scale manufacturing program, export buyers backed out.


Meanwhile, the Argentine economy had nosedived and in 1955, Tank’s contract expired. Rumors swirled around of Tank’s request to double his salary which infuriated Peron, of his being arrested for possessing a forged passport (strange since he used to travel to Europe with his German passport). In a coup that followed, Peron was kicked out of Argentina and Kurt Tank was soon in limbo. Strangely the only Pulqui II ever manufactured was used against Peron, in its sole engagement, during the coup!! The new regime could only offer basic jobs and previous contracts were not honored. According to the Kurt Tank biographer – Heinz Conradis, Tank returned to Germany in 1954, faced with a difficult future with no aircraft industry in post-war Germany to work for, and still in contract with Argentina.

That was when Kurt Tank was approached by the Indian government through Dr. Taupisch, the German trade attaché in Delhi. Tank met Mahavir Tyagi the defense minister (1953-57) in Bonn, at the behest of Air Marshal S Mukerji, and was later flown around various facilities in India including the HAL. While most of his team went to the American firm's Republic Aviation and Glen Martin, Tank evaluated the Indian offer and negotiated at length, after which he met Krause, the new minister for Aviation in Argentina, and obtained a release.

As always, he insisted on his team to accompany him and so in Feb 1956, Tank arrived in India with a smaller team of eighteen German engineers and technicians, which number later dwindled to thirteen (most of the others went back to Germany, remained in Argentina, or moved to the USA). The HAL team which worked on the new aircraft was led by the Project manager Ludwig Mittelhuber, three Indian senior design engineers, and about 22 other Indian engineers with some design experience. Tank was paid a princely sum of Rs 6,000 per month (in today’s terms this is many lakhs of Rs in buying power) but faced a tall demand of designing a Mach 2 fighter with a 500-mile range and flying at 60,000 feet, using an organization which had thus far built simpler trainer planes from kits and serviced US and British WWII planes. It is not clear if he had program management responsibility, i.e., production, supply chain, etc. Perhaps not, but people saw him as the head and tail of the project.

Sadly, the complete details of Tank’s stay in Bangalore, especially personal details, are not available anywhere, only the HF-24 development work at HAL is known to some extent. All we know are a few details of his meetings with Nehru and VK Krishna Menon, and the fact that he lived in a nice house with a terrace, nestling among the scarlet blossoms of the cassias. It had a covered gallery with a balustrade, leading to a timber outhouse which was perhaps his office, with 49 pillars supporting a roof! Now I cannot fathom where in Bangalore such a house existed, perhaps somewhere in the Indira Nagar area, and anybody who can dispel this mystery may comment. It is also not clear if Sigrid and Tank’s four children (His fourth child Diana must have been 4-5 years old then) stayed in Bangalore or studied there, for he lived there for close to a decade.

Marut HF 24

To cut the long story short, he and his team, which had swelled to some 100 plus Indian engineers, designed, and built the HF-24 Marut, a sleek and sharp high-nosed, twin-engine jet, perhaps the aerodynamically cleanest fighter airframe of its time. One of the first glider prototype test pilots, incidentally, was a Malayali - Oyitti Manakkadan Kunhiraman, flying together with Kapil Bhargava. The Marut was intended to be capable of Mach 2(~ 1,500 miles per hour), but the British Bristol Olympus afterburning engines around which it was designed never materialized, so other engines had to be tried.

The engine fiasco resulted from the need for a Bristol BOr.12 SR Orpheus after-burning turbojet that could produce 8,150 pounds of thrust. Unfortunately, India did not have or were unwilling (and lots of geopolitics) to invest 13 million pounds for Bristol to develop the engine after NATO dropped its need, so the HAL team spent years shopping for an alternative in the Soviet Union, Europe, and the United States, only for shifting political winds to nix the deal at every turn. In the end, HAL was forced to make do with non-afterburning Orpheus 703 turbojets used by the Folland Gnat, which generated just 4,850 pounds of thrust. As a result, what was intended to be a Mach 2 fighter could barely attain Mach 1, that too at higher altitudes.

The first powered prototype of the HF-24 powered by two Orpheus 703 engines made its successful flight in June 1961 and the second prototype in October 1962. An initial batch of these aircraft was handed over to the Indian Air Force in 1964. Only 147 HF-24s were procured, (including eighteen two-seat trainers), all inducted by 1968 and these formed the IAF No. 10 Flying Dagger, No. 31 Lions, and No. 220 Desert Tigers squadrons. By then, it had cost more to produce the Marut in India with very many imported parts, than it did to fully import more advanced & capable fighters from other countries.

Various other engines were then looked at, the Russian RD-9F and VK-7, and afterburning Orpheus, the Egyptian Brandner E-300, the RR RB.153, the P&W J52, and the GE1/JO-1 but they did not quite work out. There is some talk of the DRDO/GTRE attempts in 1966 for a reheat system to make an HF 24 Mk II, but Tank does not seem to have supported the idea for design reasons. Later audit reports on the project mention large cost overruns, tooling issues, and lack of a production engineering department at HAL, that the new reheat version performed worse than the original, and that the base drag was considerable. Eventually, IAF did not support the reheat system idea, and HF 24 manufacture ended in 1977.

Wagner’s book on Tank, edited and verified by Tank, explains that Menon had to intervene to get the RD-9F engines from Russia and the HAL team found the bench tests were quite satisfactory. However, the Russians suddenly became disinterested in the project and did not want to proceed further.  Tank realized that the HF24 + RD-9F combination would perform better than the MIG21 and would therefore jeopardize the larger ongoing MIG21 deal between India and Russia. Russia then informed the Indian team that the RD-9F would have a service life of just 50 hours compared to international standards between 500-2000 hours. All said, India finally decided not to buy these Russian engines. America stepped in and offered the RB 153 engines, but on condition that India abandon the MIG 21 deal, which was not possible since the MIG contract had been signed. These aspects never found their way into any media reports thus far!!

The Egyptian collaboration - Nasser’s aircraft program to develop the HA 300 had started with Messerschmitt’s guidance. A new engine was designed by the Germans using a French Mirage model in 1961 and this was the Brandner E 300, and still a prototype, but then the HA 300 airframe was not ready. Tank knew of all this after his visit to Helwan in 1963. Remember that these were the Nehru-Nasser-Tito days, and well, fortuitously India had a perfect airframe but no engine. So, a plan was floated to gift an HF 24 to Egypt and test it with an E 300 engine in flight and if it worked, both the involved countries would buy the missing parts from one another. A test flight was conducted in 1966, with Tank present. While Indian media stated that the Egyptians only needed the HF 24 airframe for testing, Wagner writes that the Egyptians informed India that they could not supply any E 300 engines. Whether it was because of Egypt’s loss in the 6-day war or due to the political turbulence in Egypt, is not clear.

Grp Captain Kapil Bhargava who was Marut’s chief test pilot since 1957, opines (Marut fans blog) that Tank was quite rigid and a bit old-fashioned when it came to the Marut design - While Prof. KW Tank was a very good designer, he did not know much about production technology to minimize manufacturing time, costs and time or to ensure maintainability. Kurt Tank belonged to the old school, suspicious of new technology such as powered controls. Rather reluctantly he decided to power the controls but only with a single hydraulic system, including the services such as wheel brakes, undercarriage, flaps, and airbrakes. Tank’s well-advertised boast was that his aircraft would be so strong that if the wing hit a tree, the tree would get sliced off with the aircraft capable of flying back home. There is also a funny mention of how the cockpit was designed for a much larger man. Bhargava found the seat too big for his small bottom (Tank was a large man) and the controls too far, and thus a redesign was needed for the Indian. There are also interesting mentions of the Tank’s chat with Nehru and the test flight with Krishna Menon as a witness.

Perhaps age had caught up, but it is quite clear that after the engine issues, the HAL production team had many changes to grapple with and difficulties with large-scale production planning, all of which were not in Tank’s hands. Perhaps it was the bureaucracy, squabbles with the IAF, and the lack of advanced facilities. However, all said, many disagree that the HF 24 was a failure, for this aircraft did enter a production stage, served in the IAF for over two decades, and proved itself in a war. Moreover, its accident rate was very low—just one accident and around three aircraft lost in combat. From a lofty performance goal, which it tried to meet, and a cost overrun, the HF 24 was indeed a failure, but that was all because it could not get the engine it was designed for, and the nonexistent large-scale manufacturing and production engineering facilities, which were not factored for during budgeting.

As the MIG 21 local assembly project was finding difficulties getting off the ground, Tank completed his HF 24 project with the OR 703 engines, though not meeting the original lofty Mach 2 speed objective, and was ready with deliveries to the IAF. He finished his contract with the Indian government in April 1967 and decided to hang up his boots, for good.

During the 1971 India-Pakistan war, the Marut acquired a sterling record for rugged reliability as a low-altitude fighter bomber. This was one of the planes that saved the day in the 1971 Longewala battle – remember the famous scene pictured in the film Border, where Jackie Shroff and his planes finally take off at dawn and blow away the bogged-down Pakistani tank unit with a small Indian contingent led by Brigadier Kuldip Singh Chandpuri desperately trying to hold on? If the Pakistanis broke through, Jaisalmer would fall. The planes could not operate during that sleepless night, since they were not equipped for night fighting, but they took off at the break of dawn, with the Maruts and Hunters decimating the Pakistani tank unit. As a Marut pilot recorded - the Marut remained in the thick of the action throughout the thirteen-day war, strafing airfields, bombing ammunition dumps, hitting tanks and artillery on the frontlines, flying over two hundred sorties, and suffering three losses to ground fire. Nonetheless, the HF-24s boasted a high serviceability rate and proved quite tough, with several of the jets managing to return to base on just one engine after the other was shot up.

Back to Kurt Tank - there is this mention that he taught initially at the Madras Institute of Technology MIT at Madras.  After Tank arrived in India, funding approval by the Indian government proved to be very slow, so Tank was parked at the Madras Institute of Technology for a while, moving to HAL only later in 1956. There is little detail of his time at MIT, but we can see a mention by the late Indian President APJ Abdul Kalam in his book that he had been Prof Kurt Tank’s student. Kurt Tank worked under Austrian Prof Walter Repenthein who headed the aeronautical department at MIT. Who knows if Tank taught Kalam Bernoulli’s principle, the foundation for all aeronautical engineers and aviators! Kalam as you all know grew up to become the nation’s foremost rocket and missile engineer, and eventually the head of the armed forces and the President of India. I am sure Kurt Tank would have been proud to hear that, but it all happened after Tank’s demise!

He was indeed an interesting man with clear ideas- for example, he believed that one could if required, communicate with extra-terrestrials through geometry, simply because, to design a spaceship, one had to know the Pythagoras theorem! According to a senior airman, he had this dictum - "A plane should not be a racehorse, that can turn in a wonderful performance on the track only at certain times and in just the right conditions: a plane should be a cavalry horse, that can run and fight in all conditions, good or bad, and that does not need to be pampered or spoilt – a plane should be like a Dienstpferd, a cavalry horse." This was the Tank Dienstpferd design policy.

Tank spent the rest of his life in Munich and briefly consulted for MBB. He did not forget India, In 1967, he tried to convince the West German government to manufacture the HF 24 under license in Germany, but after Nehru died in 1964, there were no takers in India. He suggested in 1972 that HAL cooperate with MBB when a new spec for the ASA design came up, that the new HF 73 design could potentially use the RB.199 34R engine, and beat the MIG 25 performance, but the project was dropped again due to non-availability of the engine. Kurt Tank fell seriously ill and passed away in Munich, on June 5, 1983, aged 85. Air Marshal LM Kartre visited Munich to pay his condolences to Tank’s bereaved wife Sigrid and upon her request, donated an HF 24 to the Deutsches Museum, where it is displayed proudly, to this day.

The MIG 21, French Mirage, the MIG 29, The British Jaguar, etc. were inducted afterwards, so also the locally built Tejas (with US-GE engines), and India is now talking about buying even more advanced planes such as the Rafale. As usual, the world spends billions on deterrence, be it traditional armaments or nuclear technology, with the increase in threat perceptions and the resulting cost of defense and deterrence.

Strange, that the modern world continues to move ahead on a road built upon mistrust. If we went ahead however on a road built upon trust, all this money could have been used for better purposes, but that everybody is going to tell me, is impractical and utopian thinking.

Design for Flight: The Kurt Tank Story - Heinz Conradis
Designer-Pilot Kurt Tank - by Stephan Wilkinson (history-net)
Self-reliance and Self-sufficiency: Experience of the Indian aircraft industry, Thesis 1983 - Ravindra Tomar
A man with a wide horizon Nicolussi Leck - Gerald Steinacher (A Nazi Past: Recasting German Identity in Postwar Europe - edited by David A. Messenger, Katrin Paehler)
Why India is not a great power yet – Bharat Karnad
Operation Damocles – Roger Howard
Hunting Evil – Guy Walters
Kurt Tank: Konstrukteur und Testpilot bei Focke - Wulf– Wagner W, English, Trans 1998: Don Cox
Conversations With: Reimar Horten - David Myhra
A Technological History of Cold-War India, 1947–⁠1969 - William A.T. Logan


Note: I admire Kurt Tank as an engineer, also due to my interest in flight, and Tank’s work for India. This does not mean I condone his previous relations with the Nazi regime or the Fw use of slave labor, I abhor those actions, emphatically.  


HAPPY ONAM to all readers


Col. Manakampat Kesavan Unni Nayar (1911-50)

A Revered War Correspondent

This young daredevil from Parli, near Ottapalam, charmed men and women alike, hobnobbed with royalty, prime ministers, presidents, Nobel prize winners, and generals, was articulate and not only spoke well, but was also a popular writer, a journalist, and a news reporter before ending up with the Indian army. A dapper and handsome, young man, he was liked by everybody he came across. Courting death, he was present in every war zone, be it in Africa, Europe, Kashmir, Burma, Indonesia, China, or Korea, reporting fearlessly. He was none other than the Col Unni Nayar, Unni to many, Baby to his friends, Kesavan to some, and Nayar to others. He was the lone Indian who lost his life during the Korean War of 1950 when his luck ran out.

During those British Raj days, many of the educated lads from Ottapalam and nearby towns such as Parli (where Unni hailed from) were well positioned at all important offices, not only in Delhi and Bombay but also in Madras. Some traveled farther, to Malaya, Singapore, and of course Rangoon. M Sivaram the eminent journalist once said – People from Kerala were dominant among Burma’s white-collar workers, governmental and commercial. It was a common joke that every other man in this category came from Ottapalam!! So many from that era, personalities such as VP Menon, KPS Menon, the Chetturs, Shivshankar Menon, MGK Menon, Lt Gen Candeth, etc., just to mention a few, hailed from this little town near Palghat.

Unni’s life was incredibly busy, and left him little time to write a diary, though he did publish a few accounts and short stories early on, revolving around his younger days in Malabar. It was in his mind to pen a slightly more detailed account of his village, their customs, and times, but he finished only four chapters published in a small book titled ‘My Malabar’, which I perused. The book was completed posthumously, together with some of his short stories, and is quite a charming read. His hurried life was to take him for studies to Madras and propel him into a journalism career at Madras, Calcutta, and Delhi. Joining the army, he became a war reporter during WW II, present at Malaya, Singapore, Burma, Indonesia, Egypt, North Africa, Germany, and Italy. Later he was a roving journalist and the Armed Forces information officer in Delhi and troubled Kashmir, working hand in hand with VP Menon, Mountbatten, and Nehru during the partition months, and later across the Atlantic as the Public relations officer at the Indian Embassy in Washington DC with Vijayalakshmi Pandit, before taking a final challenge as the UN delegate and observer at the Korean war front. As it was destined, he met his end there. That was his life in a nutshell, for those who have no time to read this sketch. But for those who want to go on, let me try to paint the story of this man in flesh and blood, who as I learned from my aunt just last week, came from a family connected to ours, like most Nair families, through marriage.

Unni’s ‘Manakampat Tharavad’ was originally at Ponnani, it branched off (a very colorful and filmi story by itself) and relocated to their 1920s home some 2 miles from Parli RS. His father’s (an affluent Appan Namboothiri (Unni says they had elephants at home)) abode was a three-story house at Tadukasseri, near Mankara. Unni’s book provides a fascinating study of life in the 20s, his experiences during the 1921 Moplah rebellion, and ends well before he goes to college. All reminiscent of other Tharavad stories which Malayalees are used to, is narrated in a style of writing similar to that of his contemporary SK Chettur.

KS Thampan, the headmaster of the Ottapalam school where Unni studied remembers the day Kochunni Nayar, Unni’s uncle brought him to join the school, in 1921. Not outstanding in any way, the boy was self-confident and outgoing, and after six years of schooling, moved on to the Madras Christian College, to major in English Honors. Dr. AJ Boyd, the MCC principal recalls him as the skinny fella with a long tongue, a mischievous gleam in his eyes, and a gruff voice, who eagerly participated in the University training corps and was called ‘Corporal’. He noticed at the outset that Unni had two likes – reading and writing on the one hand, and soldiering, on the other. Five years later in 1934, after graduation, he launched himself into a journalistic career, continuing to hobnob with his college mates at the Parrys’ corner college house, cheroot dangling from his lips and sipping a drink, talking sense and nonsense, as Boyd recalls. It was in the college magazine that Unni started writing little articles covering his day-to-day life.

Though he worked with the Merry Magazine for a while, the Madras Mail (highly rated in those days) was the newspaper he chose to start his career (Rs 50/- per month). Before long, his counterparts, many of them native Englishmen, noticed his fluency and skill with English, world history, as well as English literature. His days at the Mail where he became an exemplary reporter are brought to life in R (Mail) Parthasarathy’s memoirs. RP mentions that it was Unni a family friend and the Mail’s sub-editor who asked him to apply for an apprentice’s post, in 1936. RS mentions him as an outgoing, westernized man with a soldierly attitude and bearing, who was frequently sent out on special assignments, a favor typically reserved for white men! PJ Joseph, of the Malaya tribune, his MMC classmate, was his colleague at the Mail.

Interestingly, Unni was to write one of the first film reviews for the then-fledgling Tamil film industry, and the story itself is quite amusing, for the film was bad and the costumes and makeup preposterous compared to Western standards. Unni ridiculed the film and many film producers teaming up took umbrage and refused to advertise in the newspaper. The newspaper then decided to stop reviewing films and stopped giving just the brief particulars of the films, from then on!! His sports reports were well-read, and soon he headed the newsroom as the senior sub-editor. In 1938, he moved on to the Statesman in Calcutta, and Parthasarathy took his place as the Sub in the Madras Mail. 

His days at Calcutta do not seem to be quite detailed anywhere, but we know that he joined the Indian army reserve officers when chance presented itself, in 1940. In 1941, Capt Unni Nayar was sent to Malaya, to report on the defenses and the troops, with WWII around the corner. Another matter was foremost in his mind, and that was his courtship with the lovely Dr. Vimala Nayar from Thekkekurupath. I would assume here that it was all arranged by the family, and his colleagues mention his numerous letters to the lady. As destined, they would get married only after the war, in Jan 1947.

In Dec 1941, the Japanese took Burma, and Unni was off to Burma, to cover the British Army’s abject trek back to India. He was seen to take care of the sick and dying, and not afraid of providing armed cover to the retreating columns. His acts of bravery, courage, and risk-taking, his brilliant reports, and meticulous report filing were noted by so many officers and reporters, and soon, he was known as a fearless war correspondent. Eve Curie (daughter of Nobel Prize-winning scientists Marie and Pierre Curie and the sister of another, Irene Joliot-Curie) and Maurice Ford, mention him in their reports.

When the Duke of Gloucester toured India in 1942, Unni was asked to cover the tour and drafted many speeches for the Duke. Pretty soon, he was commissioned to the Mahratta light infantry, then moved to Delhi and was quickly posted to Singapore as an observer. Here he had an interesting task, to interview and clear his old friend PJ Joseph of collusion with the Japanese.

His travels with the army to the Middle East and Europe are legendary, though not too well known to India. Replacing another gallant officer Motilal Katju, Sarojini Naidu’s nephew, and well-respected for his reporting skills, was Unni Nayar. Capt Nair did not want to warm the chair in Cairo, but wanted to go to El- Alamein where the action was, a region where Rommel and his panzers were wreaking havoc. For a while, he had nothing much to report on, and he spent his time living with the Indian troops, namely the 4/16 Punjab Regiment, and the 4/6th Rajputana Rifles. He accompanied them to Tunisia when the action started, bucketing happily across in his jeep. His reports were precise, terse, colorful, and always truthful. Pretty soon, Nayar was hit, a close brush with death, when a round passed through his mouth! Red as a pumpkin, with a hole in his cheek, and a monstrously swollen head (as reported by his boss Lt Col Stevens), Unni refused evacuation to Cairo and pleaded with his boss to let him get back to the battlefront. As the Indians arrived at Djebel Garci, Nayar was with them, with a bandaged head. Unni’s African reports were considered brilliant, especially his report on the breakthrough at Medjez el Bab.

His next stop was Italy, with the 8th Indian - If I were to say that the saving of some of the finest paintings and artwork in Italy included Unni’s efforts, you will be astounded. When it was decided to move the Uffizi paintings so that they could be hidden at the Montegufoni castle, Unni Nayar arranged extra personnel from the army for their guard, recalling Vimala’s love for paintings. He proved to be incredibly popular with the troops, who considered him their biggest morale booster and it was here that he escaped from death once again, when his jeep received a direct hit and had to be written off. The unhurt Unni had no difficulty in securing a replacement when the supply corps heard it was for ‘The Unni Nayar.’

Stevens says that Unni was a special type, for he only wanted to be at the front lines and anything else was undignified. As I mentioned before, his actions had been noticed by many and recorded, for some months later after the fact, Field Marshal Auchinleck chanced upon Stevens who had by then completed a book on Wavell with Unni’s support (on the last chapter), and asked ‘what has become of that fine little chap Nayar?’ Unni Nayar received an MBE for his Middle East war efforts.

Promoted to Major and later to Lt Col, Unni Nayar was now back in Burma, in the thick of the battle, sporting a red beret jauntily and wearing his khakis (while others wore the jungle greens). Can you believe it, he decided to undertake two parachute jumps with hardly any training and did them with aplomb at Burma and Rangoon, to earn the para badge (he later said the jumps were heavenly!)! As a correspondent, he made notes on the run, listened carefully to the chatter in the mess, and was always on the move, dodging mortars, bullets, and mines. It was, as another observer thought, he possessed a charmed life. Cheerful, adventurous, and unassuming, he went about his business.

Sadly, it was in Burma that the illustrious correspondent Katju met his death. 29th April 1943 - Captain Motilal Katju volunteered to venture into a native village to look for boats. For several days he had a premonition that he would not get out alive and had asked Major Jefferies to carry his diary, which contained a day-by-day account of the campaign. He did not return, killed by the Japanese. Unfortunately, only a small part of his diary survived the war, a huge loss!

When the war was over, Unni was much sought after by various newspapers, but he rejoined the Statesman who sent him to New Delhi as a special representative. Stevens advised him that he should position himself well, as India would soon be independent. Reporting on political affairs was however, a different cup of tea, but it is said that he took to it seriously and was very popular in the political circuit, especially among foreign correspondents.

The disturbing days of 1946-1947 were tough. When the army created a public relations office, Unni rejoined the army as an armed forces information officer. Handling refugee news, troops used to quell disturbances, Hindu-Muslim riots, etc. daily must have disturbed him a lot. A poignant story is that of Tayyeb Hussain and his family, Muslim friends of Morris-Jones, who were forced to flee their home on Lodi Road, how they took refuge at their friend Unni’s house. In 1946, we see a mention of his visiting his old alma mater at Ottapalam and presiding over the school day functions.

In Jan 1947, he got married to Dr. Vimala Nayar but was back in action soon, when fighting flared up in Kashmir. Though disallowed from joining the front line with the first wave of soldiers, Unni went in later and reported reality to the world (many had believed India to be the aggressor, until then). It was at this juncture that we see his participation in trying to quell the mobs, wielding a megaphone riding his jeep, exhorting peace, and doing the very work others should have done (Some writers even mention that Unni did what Sheikh Abdullah should have done).

All this was being noticed by the bigwigs. Nehru who came across him many a time, makes it clear – The very first time I met him, he produced a vivid impression in my mind., That impression deepened as I saw more of him. He was a type, rather uncommon in the present-day world, bubbling over with enthusiasm and vitality, always showing an eagerness for the work at hand., able and generally bringing in a breath of fresh air wherever he went. To all those qualities he added real courage to the point of daring, which is also not very common. It is not surprising that he was liked by all who knew him….

As the situation became unbearable in the post-partition period, Unni, Campbell Johnson, and BL Sharma, as agreed with Mountbatten, manned the ‘Public Relations Committee ‘to provide daily reports, bulletin boards, and press conferences, though it was all in no way sufficient. VP Menon, his compatriot from Ottapalam, felt that Unni had the potential to go to any height he desired, knowing him well from the cabinet deliberation days, and confesses that he had far more affection for Kesavan than many of his near relatives. Interestingly, Unni and VP were in regular touch through letters, for Unni wanted to write an article about VP, but could not as VP had not provided him with the requested background information. 

Before long, in May 1948, he was deputed to the Indian embassy in Washington DC as its Attaché – more formally, the press and public relations officer. Within no time, he had established a large circle of friends, as many Americans were to later mention, and became a lynchpin for Indian news, which in America until that time, was not too flattering for India. Unni tried his best to get the right tilt, but geopolitics and the Cold War made it quite difficult. For many Americans in the DC press and diplomatic circuit, Unni was India and as the PRO for the Indian delegation at the UN, Unni proved to be a great asset.

Even in the middle of all this, Unni had yet another brush with death, narrowly escaping a shootout at Sunset Boulevard in Los Angles, he had taken an Indian dignitary to show him a bit of the Hollywood nightlife.

A big event to work on was Nehru’s visit to the US, which Nehru himself has written about, in the form of a book. Unni arranged the trip, took him around, and was present with Nehru during most events. He also arranged for Nehru to meet Albert Einstein, and the picture of the event though mentioning him, has him fully covered by Nehru & the great scientist! A mention in Nehru’s memoirs tells us that Unni used to write directly to him, and when someone in the external affairs ministry tried to suppress those letters from the PM, much to Nehru’s annoyance, Nehru forbade it.

It was a heady period in the US, all of five years, Unni and Vimala became proud parents to their daughter Parvathy – Ammu, but as one can imagine from all the words read so far, Unni was itching for action. It came in the form of the Korean War, a matter we had covered in past articles. Vijayalakshmi Pandit the Ambassador, who was quite close to Nayar family, eventually permitted him to go as an alternate UN delegate to Korea. While many sources mention that Unni volunteered for the post, it becomes clear from the reminiscences of Y D Gundevia that it was due to the latter’s inability to travel that Unni was chosen as the ‘alternate’ delegate.

July 1950 - Unni took leave, after eating a lunch of his favorite Rice and Sambar at Gopala Menon’s house and left for Seoul. Something was not right this time though, for Unni called Menon’s wife from the airport and asked her to keep an eye on and look after his wife Vimala since she would be lonely in Washington and call her often.

Col Unni Nayar’s three weeks in Taegu Korea again show him as a charmer, be it giving away his accommodation to another military dignitary, with an offer to sleep on the floor, or his diplomatic skills and the handling of Korean prisoners. At Taegu, he had a routine, visiting the press billets, 8th Army HQ, Korean ministry, and the battlefront during the afternoon. By August the battles were raging. MacArthur was around and some Americans wanted to know when India would send its vaunted Gurkhas. On 5th August, Unni mentioned to his friend Kondapi that he was itching to end the tour and get back to Delhi to join his wife in N Delhi on the 25th.

Watch a video of Unni Nayar in action in Korea  

12th August 1950 - Unni woke up late, quite uncharacteristic for him. At breakfast, he heard about the execution of some Korean political prisoners and was furious. Later that day, Unni’s friends Ian Morrison and Christopher Buckley were to accompany him later to the Waegwan front. His friend Sivaram had flown to Japan for R&R. Coming back, he slipped into his white dhoti, had a curry rice lunch, and took a quick siesta. As it was time to get to the Nakdong river front, he rushed out but came tearing back as he had forgotten his camera, picked it up, and ran out again to his jeep.

Unni was accompanied by his journalist friends and a South Korean lieutenant, and they headed to the North of Waegwan, 9 miles from the front. The jeep had to edge through six separate swathes of land mines and cleared five, only to hit a landmine on the sixth. Morrison (37) and Unni Nayar were killed instantly. Buckley (45) survived for a few more hours in the American field hospital before succumbing to his injuries.

Three young and brilliant journalists and revered war correspondents had met their death doing what they liked. Unni was just 39 years old, the only Indian causality in the Korean War. His body never came back home, and his remains were cremated at the Juil Valley. The governor of Kyung Buk collected funds and erected a monument in his honor in Dec 1950. The Unni Nayar memorial pillar and monument is today, a S Korean National monument.

Vijayalakshmi Pandit took a personal interest in caring for the young widow during the next few days. Nehru spared no efforts in ensuring that all support and a pension was provided to Vimala. Vimala Nayar returned to India to continue her neglected profession and became a well-known gynecologist & obstetrician. Their daughter Dr. Parvathy Mohan and her children continue the lineage as doctors in America. Vimala on her death aged 94 in 2011, had desired to be reunited with her late husband and so her ashes were taken to the memorial in Taegu and scattered around the memorial, the two of them thus finally resting together, for eternity.

Han Suyin’s acclaimed Cold War novel ‘The Mountain is Young’ published in 1958 has the protagonist Unni Menon cast in the mold of Unni Nayar (Han and Ian Morrison were together those days) and covers the tale of a writer Anne Ford falling in love with an Unni Menon, a charismatic engineer in Calcutta.

A portrait of Unni by Maree Beck hangs in the library of the Indian embassy in Australia. The US national press club established a memorial fund in his name to bring Indian journalists to the US for training and study.

Many of his Indian contemporaries mention the short shrift they received from the white Anglo-Saxon, be it European, British, or American. But studying the life of Unni Nayar, I could not come across a single adverse comment about him from any officer or soldier, bureaucrat, or journalist who came across or worked with him. Likewise, there is not a single mention of prejudice from Unni. The sheer number of accolades tells me how popular he was, and how quickly he made a name for himself. It makes it clear that Unni transcended any discrimination, with his simple demeanor, his professional go-get open attitude, his devotion, his smiling face, and his desire to learn and keep himself well informed. He needed only 12 years, to make an everlasting name for himself.

Unni has this to say to all of us, in his little book, ‘My Malabar’. Though a little dated, his words are something every Indian must note and is a dictum I have always followed, in my own life, thus far – The India to which I belong, I know, has her problems, but they matter less to me than the people. To Europeans and Americans, we are Orientals or inhabitants of a country mysterious, romantic, or filthy and diseased (according to temperament). Our way of living is different in externals; but having had some acquaintance with both Europe and America, I cannot see how an Indian is vastly different in essentials from a European or an American.

From being constantly derided, many Indians have gone on the defensive, and become almost apologetic about Indian institutions or thought. The type of British poseur who has curtly dismissed the Hindu way of living as semi-barbarous or has lampooned it for the diversion of shallow-minded bright youths is legend in India; the species wandered through Government houses to Residency and Yacht Clubs as late as the forties. We Indians would be foolish if we cared for their stings.

Talking to another writer, Eric Linklater, Unni added – Make fun of us, but write of the people, not the problems. Several articles in international newspapers these days are written by Indians working at back offices in India. I hope this little advice from a man long gone, will be read, and heeded to by these young journalists and writers.

Unni Nayar, leading by example, proved in just 12 years that he could be a good Indian, a great newsman, and a fearless soldier, second to none.


Colonel Unni Nayar Commemoration volume Aug 12, 1951

My Malabar – Col Unni Nayar

Memories of a news editor – R Parthasarathy

Visit to America – Jawaharlal Nehru

Various other accounts & Newspaper clips


Pics – Courtesy UN, Nehru book, Youtube video, Korean War Memorials in Pictures – acknowledged with thanks.


M Sivaram – The Consummate Journalist

SE Asia’s roving newshound

News used to be reported from the source with engaging text by journalists, and the challenges they faced and the risks they took are fodder for so many thrilling tales. These days, however, distant back offices help complete news bits with little personal involvement, and pretty soon we will see AI engines churn them out instead. Perhaps it is time to take you back 80 years and get to know a journalist who lived through two world wars and delivered news articles from many locations under duress. This interesting gent who evoked envy and grudging admiration among his peers and juniors, and delivered many a scoop in the 40s and 50s, was none other than Madhavan Sivaram, the intrepid journalist and author of many seminal works from his time.

Old-timers may recall this softspoken gentleman at work, hobnobbing with army brass and the colonial gentry, royalty as well as the peasants, the INA or INC bigwigs, all with ease. Some of his coworkers on the other hand, would remember a hunched man sitting at his table, sleeves rolled up, a cigarette dangling from his lips with its smoke curling lazily away into the rafters, a mug of beer or a glass of gin at arm’s length, as his forefingers pecked away furiously on his typewriter. That was the picture Sivaram presented to a curious observer. Don’t you think you want to know a bit more about him and the 65 years of his heady life? Thottapally Madhavan Sivarama Pillay’s relentless urge to shine and see the world would take him all over Southeast Asia, as he delivered scores of news articles, reporting on the loosening colonial grip on those nations, and many days of war which followed.

Sivaram was born in Nov 1907 in Travancore’s Kuttanad region (South of Alleppey), hailing from the Konnavath tharavad. It would be incredibly difficult for a lay reader to fathom how a boy who never completed college, who worked briefly as a schoolteacher and married young, decided one fine day to simply leave his home and wife Janamma, to chase his dreams and make something of himself in 1929. Fortuitously, or not, after hours of self-study, he had mastered English, and this was to stand in good stead as he prepared to seek a job in the busy metropolis.

Sivaram as we can understand, landed up at the doors of the Associated Press of India (API) offices, in Bombay. Life in Bombay was certainly not fun, post WW 1, as press censorship was rife, newsprint was scarce, working conditions were tough, and the salary was meager. Sivarama Pillay had by then become M Sivaram. When a more affluent life beckoned in Rangoon, much like Dubai and the Gulf these days, Sivaram boarded a ship to Burma, and armed with the short experience at API, took up a job with a Rangoon newspaper as a proofreader. After a short stint in Rangoon, he moved on to take up an Asst Editor’s post in the fledgling newspaper “Nation” in Bangkok. Pretty soon, his skills became apparent to the news fraternity, and he snagged an even better offer as chief editor at the ‘Bangkok Chronicle’.

Bangkok became his home for the next 10 years. His wife Janamma joined him, and his three children were born there. Sivaram’s newspaper career thrived and as Siam was growing from a small kingdom to a lively republic, Sivaram formed a great relationship with the King and many other luminaries in Bangkok. His first book; The New Siam in the Making - A Survey of the Political Transition in Siam, 1932-1936’ was written during this period. A close friend of the King of Thailand and the Prime Minister Field Marshal — Song-Khram, he was the recipient of the Thai ‘Medal for Home Defense’ (equivalent to the Iron Cross – which saved him from being shot at least twice), and was highly respected in Siam. It is said that the king awarded him together with the medal, a grant of 40 acres of land in central Bangkok, which the journalist politely refused. A second work followed – ‘Mekong Clash and Far East Crisis: A Survey of the Thailand-Indochina Conflict and the Japanese Mediation and Their General Repercussions on the Far Eastern Situation 1941’. Those happy days in Siam are narrated in his book - Road to Delhi. A profile entry mentions that he also did some stints in Singapore & Hong Kong (Hong Kong Courier).

In India, the freedom struggle was heating up, and but naturally, expatriates in SE Asia took notice and formed associations and groups, in solidarity. Speeches by Gandhi, Nehru, and other INC leaders were eagerly followed, and local procession meetings, as well as protest gatherings, increased. Sleepy estates with large numbers of Tamil and Telugu laborers joined processions supporting the freedom movement. We had previously studied the IIL activities, formation, and development while discussing TP Kumaran Nair, N Raghavan, and AM Nair. Sivaram too was drawn into the Indian Independence League activities which had originally been concentrated to just Singapore.

To recap the IIL moves – Rash Behari Bose, who had fled India to seek refuge in Japan, had cemented his relationship with the Japanese and established himself in Tokyo, forming an Indian association in 1926. In 1937, the IIL Japan branch had been set up. The Indian Independence League IIL was a political organization, formed to fight for Indian Independence, but also carrying out local social service. Soon the organization boasted branches in every city which had a sizeable Indian community. Sivaram got involved in Bangkok’s IIL activities, as well. Another character whom we have talked about previously and central to the INA organization, namely SA Iyer had also arrived in Bangkok and was working as the Reuters correspondent for SE Asia.

Meanwhile in 1939, war had spread in Europe. Japan was at the war front too but fighting the Koreans and the Chinese. AM Nair, Bose’s deputy in Japan, was the ‘Ronin in Manchuria’, a story which I had recounted some years ago. Indians fighting for freedom now saw a new opportunity to press their case. While Germany was annihilating opposition on the European front, the Japanese, convinced by Rash Behari Bose and AM Nair, decided to support the Indians, albeit to ease their own way into the Indian border through Burma. The Indians in SE Asia had a problem though, the INC supported China, which was at war with Japan, so all influential Indians were anti-Japan. The astute journalist sensed the looming war clouds and potential war movements in SE Asia, left for India on a cargo ship going to Nagapattinam in Nov 1941, to drop his wife and family at Travancore, and quickly returned to Bangkok. For the next 5 years, Sivaram was to operate alone, flitting between Malaya, Singapore, Rangoon and Bangkok.

In Dec 1941, Japan attacked America at Pearl Harbor and joined the Axis powers. The war in Europe had become a world war. The Japanese war machine defeated the British at Singapore, sped through Malaya, and stopped at Burma to recoup and restock. The Indian frontier at Assam was next, and while they waited at Rangoon, the defeated British Indian army soldiers were contacted by the IIL leaders and reconstitute themselves for Indian liberation, marching side by side with the Japanese. Indians in SE Asia rallied to the calls of the IIL and saw in the Japanese a friendly ally. The Thailand government concluded an alliance with Japan after a 5-hour resistance and Sivaram decided to stay and brave it out in Bangkok, concentrating on IIL’s activities.

The formal incorporation of the IIL was announced in Bangkok in June 1942 and as you can imagine, AM Nair and Rash Behari Bose leading those efforts, were supported by Sivaram and Iyer who were residents there. Nair convinced Bose that the IIL management should include Sivaram. As Nair explains - Rash Behari at once agreed and decided to nominate him as the League’s spokesman and publicity officer. Sivaram, captivated by Rash Behari’s charming personality and persuasive manner, discarded all other activity, and joined the League heart and soul, to handle its publicity portfolio. With the help of M. Sivaram and the support of S.A. Iyer, we organized a good publicity campaign in Bangkok, both in the newspaper media and over the radio.

Sivaram wanted Iyer (in the lurch since Reuters London had no instructions for him) to join him but was not able to convince him initially, as he considered working for the Japanese quite dangerous. Aiyer adds- Sivaram coaxed, cajoled, and literally dragged me to Rash Behari much against my will. Not even a hundred Sivarams could have dragged me away from Rash Behari after that first meeting. Rash Behari had a specially warm corner in his heart for Sivaram because, unlike me, Sivaram threw himself heart and soul into the movement from the moment Rash Behari reached Bangkok. And the old man being very human first and last, responded to this gallant gesture of Sivaram with a love and affection which would bring out tears even in the eyes of brutes. And Sivaram, for his part, today carries the sacred memory of his Sensai (teacher) in the warmest corner of his heart, and sustains himself with it night and day, wherever he may be.

The IIL team moved to Japan controlled Singapore to set up the publicity department at their new headquarters. Sivaram, Iyer, and Nair stayed together, Sivaram would listen to all the important radio broadcasts from overseas stations and prepare texts of newscasts to be put out from the League’s Radio station and he then fed the required inputs to a large fleet of translators, announcers, typists, etc. Nair explains - In addition to radio publicity, we undertook the publication of a newspaper in four different languages: English, Hindi, Tamil, and Malayalam. The paper was printed under our own arrangements and widely distributed to the large Indian population throughout Malaya. Our radio broadcasts which on an average lasted about six hours daily, covered about 15 Indian languages, besides English. They would often go on until late in the evening. Sivaram worked like a Trojan, with a very small staff. I used to wonder how, with his frail constitution, he managed to produce so much of work. He was a very thin man, and what was worse, a vegetarian. I think he derived all his nourishment from the beer (which he explained later was very difficult to source in war-torn Singapore) which he would keep sipping whenever he was under heavy stress. He was a popular figure wherever he went.

Rash Behari was however a very ill man, suffering from TB, and so the freshly constituted INA required new blood. The charismatic Subhas Bose who arrived from Japan after Berlin, was introduced to the IIL unit in Singapore, arriving there in 1943. Bose, Nair, Iyer, and others such as KP Keshava Menon, N Raghavan, etc. teamed up to create the new INA, with Subhas Bose in command. Needless to state that the situation became a bit turbulent as Subhas Bose who tended to be quite authoritative at times, sidelined the popular KP Kesava Menon who muttered about Bose’s fascist dictatorial stance, and had him jailed. It is all a long story and suffice to mention that the overriding desire to obtain Indian freedom became foremost in everybody’s mind. They maintained strict discipline and secrecy – Iyer mentions - My friend and colleague, Sivaram, also did not send even a single message (home to family in India), although we two, discharged, among others, the duties of the Director and Deputy Director respectively of the Singapore Radio Station of the Azad Hind Government.

Sivaram with Subhas Bose
Nair remarks - Subhas knew our view very well. Sivaram and I had on several occasions tried to persuade him to re-orient his ideas, but his nature, sincere though it was, had such an inflexibility and obduracy about it that he would not correct himself even if there were very good reasons why he should. We were reminded of a Malayalam proverb describing a man who insisted that ‘the horse he had caught had two horns’, even if no one could see even one on it. Subhas always kept a distance between himself and his co-workers: he seemed to entertain a sort of ‘Master-Servant’ complex. Moreover, it was unfortunate that he exhibited a vague kind of suspicion towards those who had been in close association with Rash Behari, the list included me and Sivaram. The Publicity Department which Sivaram and I had painstakingly organized into an efficient body, received a set-back. Through our widely distributed news bulletins in various languages, and through the radio network, we had implemented a systematic scheme of propaganda in support of the Indian National Congress. The position changed under Subhas. He did not seem to want to work according to any policy in respect of publicity. His approach was merely one of bellicosity, exhibited in fits and starts.

But eventually, a working relationship was established, egos were mostly forgotten, and the publicity group moved to Burma. On the professional front, even though working for the IIL and the INA, Sivaram was working for Reuters as well as their regional manager and chief correspondent. He is one of the rare writers who recalled the tragic recruitment and virtual enslavement of the many thousand Tamils who were put to work on the Thai Burma death railway and of the thousands who perished.

AM Nair continues - A little earlier, around October 1943, Sivaram and a small publicity staff under him had proceeded to Rangoon under Subhas’ instruction, to reorganize the propaganda work there. Initially, Lt. Colonel Kitabe, the head of the Hikari Kikan in Burma, was unhelpful, but Sivaram soon won him over with his tact and managed to set up an effective publicity organization for conducting programs from Radio Rangoon. It was a risky assignment since the whole area was exposed to British bombing. Sivaram’s house was hit during one of the raids. It was a miracle that he survived. The Azad Hind, selling at 5 cents a copy and boasting English and Tamil editions, was a leading example of Sivaram’s work. It was structured along the lines of the Singapore newspaper. He had as many as 300 young men training under him for this work.

In 1944, Bose, who believed that Gandhi, Jinnah, and Nehru would never fight against the British, moved to Rangoon and spearheaded the ill-fated Arakan campaign which stuttered, stalled, and eventually collapsed at Imphal. After the Imphal debacle, Sivaram, who had been unhappy in Rangoon, though still holding Bose in high regard, resigned from the INA, and returned to Singapore to continue with INA publicity work. However, were not going well there either, and it was decided to send Nair and Sivaram back to Japan. Sivaram was to go there to study Japanese diplomatic practices and procedures, which could be useful in the new India under Bose. Together with his ten publicity assistants, Sivaram joined Nair in Tokyo during the second week of Oct 1944.

Living in Tokyo was incredibly dangerous, Tokyo and other cities in Japan were under heavy American bombardment, and the situation was worsening every day. Sivaram and Nair did whatever was possible, to keep up the broadcasts from Radio Tokyo, covering many events, but they knew that the end was near. As the situation became dire, Nair arranged for Sivaram’s departure back to Singapore with a military escort, and the latter managed to get out, just before Rash Behari passed away in Jan 1945 (Another source however mentions that Sivaram went to South Siam). Aiyer corroborates - M. Sivaram, the spokesman of the Provisional Government of Free India, took them to Tokyo, put them in the way (running the radio station even after others had stopped) and returned to Singapore after a few months.

The British were moving in to retake Burma and as the Japanese situation became untenable, the Azad Hind government withdrew from Rangoon to Singapore, along with the remnants of the 1st Division and the Rani of Jhansi Regiment. Bose planned to go to the Soviet Union via Manchuria and according to reports, died from third-degree burns received when his overloaded plane crashed in Japanese Taiwan on August 18, 1945.

Whatever happened to Ayer and Sivaram? Ayer was taken to Delhi to give evidence and became a key defense witness in the first INA trial. Janamma was informed by Ayer that Sivaram was presumed dead, but refused to believe the news. That was the first announcement of Sivaram’s death, which was soon voided by Aiyer who later confirmed that he was alive and healthy. Sivaram got back to Mavelikkara, after selling his typewriter for passage, and it is understood that he was interrogated by the British later.

Sivaram went back to Bangkok and continued as a roving correspondent for PTI and Reuters as their foreign editor. Alexander, his old Travancore friend at Bangkok, was still around and running his brass, silver, and jewelry business, the popular Alex & Co, at Oriental Ave.

Sivaram recorded the biggest scoop in his journalism career reporting the gunning down of Burma’s first Prime Minister Aung Sang with his ministers. Sivaram recounts (Brave New Burma – Democratic world 1981) – I happened to be in Rangoon those days, as a correspondent for Reuters. By some queer luck, I was standing at the telegraph office, opposite the secretariat when the gunmen drove in, in two Jeeps, shooting right and left. I ran after the gunmen who drove out in less than two minutes, shooting in all directions. I peeped into the cabinet room, which was left open by the gunmen, to find Aung San and his colleagues in a pool of blood, and the walls of the room plastered with bullets. I ran back to the telegraph office and managed to send a brief urgent cable, which got out before the Government clamped down a twenty-four-hour censorship of all news from Burma. That little story, of the grim tragedy in Rangoon, was one of the three major world scoops of 1947. Later U Saw was tried and hanged for the mass murder of ministers.

Oct 1950 – The Chinese accession of Tibet, and the statement from Chinese officials that the action was carried out to forestall an Anglo-American plot against China, with Indian support, was reported by Sivaram.

After these dispatches, Sivaram was treated with great suspicion by the Chinese, since PTI was now being considered imperialist due to the Reuters connection. Sivaram decided to leave China and managed to do so eventually. He continued his Reuters reporting from Hong Kong and his expose of Chinese plans & preparations to enter the Korean War, was suppressed by the Indian government. His report was not appreciated by the Indian foreign ministry and his PTI report was blocked (It started thus – “Communist China has completed preparations to throw half a million crack troops into the battle for Korea ' even at the risk of a major war”), it is believed at the behest of Nehru and NG Ayyangar (Nehru later fumed in parliament that Sivaram’s reports were indiscreet, exaggerated, and unhelpful), since India supported China in those days. Reuters abided by this suppression, and the only reporting was in Australian newspapers. As it transpired, Sivaram's report was perhaps the most brilliant one sent by any correspondent during the entire Korean War, forecasting with accuracy, the political and military developments.

Korean War 1950-53 – I had written about the Korean War and the role of VKKM, Thimayya, Kaul, etc., but did not cover Sivaram who was also there as the PTI correspondent. After failed attempts at negotiations on unification, the North Korean military (KPA) crossed the border and drove into South Korea on 25 June 1950. Later in October 1950, Mao’s PRC committed approximately 260,000 troops to combat. Chinese troops attacked and surprised the UN forces, inflicting heavy losses while driving them down the peninsula in disarray. The Chinese continued with more brutal offensives between October 1950 and April 1951 but failed to impose a communist government on a unified Korea.  

Sivaram’s report - Inside Soviet China, 1951, and his articles Behind the silken curtain - China people's Democracy is a Fraud, dated May 1951, Mao-ism - Red China's New National Culture in the Malaya Tribune, 18 January 1951 are quite interesting reads. Later, parts of his China diary were serialized in the ‘Democratic World’ journal. Considered a SE Asian expert, he could speak Burmese, Malay, Thai, Indonesian, and a smattering of Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, and Korean. Of course, you should add English, Tamil, Malayalam, and Hindustani to the polyglots list. Let’s now pause and check what happened at Korea.

Sivaram holds the honor of being the first non-communist correspondent to cover the war in Korea from both sides of the parallel. Interestingly it was at this juncture that Col MK Unni Nayar of Palghat was killed in a mine accident, together with two other journalists. Usually, Unni was accompanied by his friend and countryman Sivaram, but Sivaram had flown to Japan the previous day for R&R, and the press, assuming that Sivaram was one of the journalists killed, reported his death, wrongly, for a second time.

The next scoop was from Cairo – On 23 July 1952 at about 1 am, Free Officers launched the revolution with a coup d'état to depose Farouk. It was Sivaram who reported exclusively from Cairo on the ouster of Prince Faroukh of Egypt in 1952 and the army takeover by Gen Naguib.

Journalist Kamath continues the story, in his memoir - Sivaram had fallen foul of Jawaharlal Nehru in his coverage of the Korean War for the Press Trust of India and had retired from PTI, when we took him. And that was how Sivaram ended up joining the Free Press Journal after Sadanand passed away. SA Aiyer (who was at that time the director of Information in the Bombay govt) had recommended him and he was appointed as FPJ’s Acting Editor, with AB Nair as his mentor.  However, he did not get along well there, as an anti-communist, editing a left-leaning newspaper.  Sarat Chandran Nair and others have left accounts of Sivaram’s days at FPJ and how Janamma used to treat all his Malayali friends with home-cooked food etc. Interestingly, Kamat remarks that he had edited Aiyer’s ‘Unto him my witness’, but Aiyer states in the book that Sivaram edited his book in 1951.

He moved on to the AIR in 1953 as its Director of News service, though after a couple of years, he was back to journalism as the Editor of the India news service (He did give an AIR talk on Rash Behari in Jan 1959). Five years later he went back to SE Asia – as the editor-in-chief of Malayan Times in 1962 but returned to India after legal issues with the paper’s owner who owed him $16,000 in back wages.

He then took up roles at the Indian Express, first as a Consultant at the International press institute in 1962, then in 1964 as Indian Express Bureau chief, and again as Consultant International press institute in 1965 (It was during this period that he wrote about Vietnam and its people. The Vietnam war, why? Which was published in 1966). His last assignment was with the SE Asia Press Institute on behalf of the IPI Zurich at KL and Jakarta – 1966-67, this was when the ‘Malaysia’ book was penned. As an IPI consultant, he took classes for budding journalists in Korea & Singapore – on how to write a lead and edit a copy, where to look for a story, what investigative reporting was all about, the basic principles of good writing, clean makeup and creating a smart headline. I wish I had a chance to attend something like that!! It proved very popular, and Sivaram had to split the eager participants into multiple groups.

One of his last official acts was to interview Swami Chinmayanada (who had once been a journalist as well, for the National Herald!) in April 1968, as well as deliver a talk on the Azad Hind in Oct 1968, for the AIR. In addition to reporting for Reuters London, he did a stint at the UN in New York and contributed to The Sunday Times and The Guardian. He also gave evidence to the Khosla Commission in the 70s.

Fatigue must have been gnawing at his bones, he finally retired and moved to his new home ‘Newshouse’ at Kowdiar in Trivandrum, nevertheless, continuing to file some reports for Nava Bharat Times. He then helped set up the Trivandrum press club and became its president, and started the Institute of Journalism in 1968, training young journalists and regaling them with many of his experiences.

Sivaram passed away after a heart attack on Nov 20th, 1972. The pen that drafted many a thousand words would write no more and the typewriter that delivered many a finished article, was to remain silent – its clickety-clack silenced forever.  

Today he is remembered through the M Sivaram Award for News Stories and Features.


Road to Delhi – M Sivaram

Mahacharithamala Vol 65 - R Radhakrishnan, Suresh Vellimangalam

Unto him a Witness - SA Aiyer

An Indian Freedom Fighter in Japan: Memoirs of A.M. Nair

The Dismantling of India – in 35 portraits – TJS George

Ottayan, Ghoshayatra – TJS George

Democratic word – Sivaram’s diary extracts

Photos – Courtesy Ananda Sivaram, Mahacharithamala

Many thanks to Anitha Devi Pillai at Singapore, for helping me establish contact with Ananda Sivaram, M Sivaram’s eldest son, and my gratitude to Ananda for talking to me and providing me with inputs, news clippings, and magazine extracts.

Related articles – Maddy’s Ramblings

AM Nair Ronin-extraordinaire 

Swaraj Institute Part 1, Part 2 

Nedyam Raghavan 

Peace at the 38th - Korea war 

Cyril Stracey 

Propaganda wars - Azad Hind

Azad Hind Bank 


Conceição – Our new book

 The Sad Story of the Conceição – Published by the Chagos Conservation Trust (CCT)

Sometimes I wonder at the surprising turns that life takes. I was researching for material to add meat to the article that I was preparing on Deigo Garcia and chanced upon a site related to the Chagos Archipelago, where I found an old copy of ‘Chagos News’. In there, I did not find much on Diego Garcia as such, but I chanced on an article by Nigel Wenban-Smith, on the sinking of an India-bound Portuguese Nau called Conceição (Conception) in 1555. Intrigued, I read it up and when I saw that it was about a shipwreck among those islands, I became very interested, desiring to get to the bottom of the story. This was in my wheelhouse, so to say, and melded with the many Portuguese studies I had made, while at the same time being on the fringes of the Diego Garcia research. I obtained a copy of the survivor Rangel’s account of the shipwreck in Portuguese, but an online translation did not prove to be very helpful.

As I had worked on a couple of shipwreck stories before this, I had a vague idea of the sailing routines and how complex it was in those days. Remember there was no GPS, no good maps (it was just 7 years after Vasco Da Gama had made it to Malabar), or dependable sailing instructions to Cochin. Sailing was still done using celestial navigation, with astrolabes, and assisted by clues provided by mother nature (color of water, flight of birds, etc.). I decided to contact the author of the article in the Chagos News and was pleasantly surprised to receive a detailed and quick reply from him, stating that his research into the wreck was incomplete and wondering if we could make something out of it, together. Preying on his mind was a question - did the ship get wrecked in the Chagos or further North?

Without hesitation, I agreed, and this was amid the Pandemic years, July 2021, to be precise. The subsequent long-distance collaboration across the Atlantic, over 120 emails, resulted in our ending up as coauthors of the newly published book – The Sad Story of The Conceição.

A bit about Nigel my coauthor - Nigel Wenban-Smith’s career in the British Diplomatic Service (Ireland, Belgium, Canada, East Africa, Malawi) included a spell as Commissioner for the British Indian Ocean Territory in the early 1980s. This sparked his interest in the conservation of the Chagos Archipelago, which led to his involvement, after retirement, in the Friends of the Chagos (now the Chagos Conservation Trust), including six years as its chairman. Over the past decade, he has turned his attention increasingly to the archipelago's little-known history.

While Nigel concentrated on a proper translation of Rangel’s account and the arrangement of the book itself, I provided the background to the voyage, the portions connected to the Portuguese trade with Calicut & Cochin, the India run, the establishment of Estado da India, etc. Careful checking of the account of Rangel and the maps of that period, to zoom in on potential locations where the ship was wrecked, became our final task.

The Chagos News (Feb 2023) introduced the upcoming book thus - The earlier Chagos: A History, explained: “Unfortunately, Jesuit records shed no light whatsoever on where exactly the Conceição went aground, how the survivors found their way to India, or how many perished”. The new book brings new clarity to those far-off events. And the survivor Manoel Rangel’s hardships and courage in tackling them provide a fascinating read in their own right – his account also offers clues as to the wreck site…

However, as in all good detective stories, his clues point in different directions, while learned commentators disagree with one another on practically every point. To thicken the plot, modern experts, deeply familiar with the seas concerned, pounce on each solution the authors propose. As if this were not enough, Rangel’s numbers challenge Manmadhan and Wenban-Smith’s attempt to provide an accurate body count.

I am sure readers will share our excitement as we follow the course of the ill-fated ship and the travails of its hapless passengers.

The book will soon be available for purchase in the UK, please visit the Chagos Conservation Trust website below. Presumably, it will be available in India and the US, sometime in the future. Check for ordering at – Link and Link

We hope you enjoy reading it as much as we enjoyed writing it. 

A note about the Chagos Archipelago - Chagos, about 315 miles south of Maldives, was forgotten for a while, after the Cold War. But its importance is growing due to changing geopolitical balances, while at the same time, the actions of the British in the past are being questioned, especially the fate of the native Chagossians who were expelled and relocated to Mauritius. Britain was gradually dismantling its empire in the 60s and during discussions over the independence of Mauritius, they acquired 58 remote islands comprising the Chagos Archipelago from Mauritius. This then came to be known as the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT). Between 1968 and 1973 the island population was expelled, and the area was leased to the US. The Chagos Islands were a strategic spot from which they maintained a strategic presence in the Indian Ocean. Diego Garcia, the largest, is now an American military base. While the UK represents the territory internationally, Mauritius is emphatic over their claims on the islands as well as compensation for the expelled Chagossians. These matters continue to be discussed, disputed, and contested.