World War II Had Many Spies, But None That Matched This Pathan

World War II Had Many Spies, But None That Matched This Pathan

by Book Excerpts - Apr 10, 2017 05:58 PM +05:30 IST

World War II Had Many Spies, But None That Matched This Pathan Left: Silver dressed like an Afghan while in Kabul during the war. Right:Silver in tribal dress—as he moved between India and Afghanistan.

He helped Bose who was seeking help from Germany and Japan to free India escape from the country via Kabul, and that was all even Bose knew of this man, who in reality was betraying Bose to the British.

Bhagat Ram Talwar, the only quintuple spy of World War II, whose spymaster Peter Fleming gave him the code name Silver, was spying for Britain, Italy, Germany, Japan and the USSR, all at the same time without any of them having a whiff of it. While the best of spies with all their skill stayed put in one city, this deceptive Pathan shuttled between Kabul and India, 24 times, that too on foot.

Mihir Bose’s The Indian Spy, the true story of the most remarkable secret agents of the World War II, recounts all of the life of this mastermind, who managed to deceive almost everybody, yet remain unscathed.

Some of the characters one comes across in the excerpt below which talks of how Talwar took the Nazi’s for a ride are, Uttam Chand , Talwars’ former jail mate in Peshawar who had moved to and set up a shop in Kabul and helped him hide Bose by hosting him in his own house, and Carl Rudolf Rasmuss, a member of the German Diplomatic Club and former German Trade Commissioner in Calcutta.

Here is an excerpt:

During Silver’s absence from Kabul, Uttam Chand had become more involved with the foreign powers there. Rasmuss had asked his help in getting hold of gold sovereigns—Shankar Das, the Indian merchant helping the Italians, could not obtain enough—to pay bribes to Afghan officials and also the tribal leaders, and soon Uttam Chand was buying some 2,000 gold sovereigns 1 as well as Indian currency for the Germans from various brokers in Kabul. He also took to visiting the Russian Minister telling him more about Bose and Silver, passing on various titbits of information about how the Japanese were trying to bribe Afghan officials, and how the Kirti party was not happy about Silver maintaining relations with the Axis powers.

As Uttam Chand recounted to me when I asked him if Silver and he were playing a double game:

In reality we—I myself—were anti-Germans. I had knowledge that if Hitler wins he will rule for 5,000 years. I had developed connections with the Russians through Sodhi. When Bhagat Ram [Silver] came I met the Assistant Ambassador in Kabul. I met him many times. We used to spend one night with the Russians and one night with the Germans. We were favouring Russia so that they should win the war. We were telling the Russians information about Germany.

Like Silver Uttam Chand became adept at fooling the Germans. Rasmuss had given him four sticks of dynamite:

I stored them in my house in a room and told the Germans that I had sent them to India. At that the time there was a big movement of Hurs in Sind. Bridges were blown up and we said ‘there your dynamites are working’. They were happy.

Uttam Chand and Silver were undeniably very close and the shopkeeper was always Silver’s first port of call in Kabul. However, on his next visit in

September 1941, when he went to visit the Russians alone, Uttam Chand for the first time began to doubt his veracity.

Silver’s appearance at Uttam Chand’s shop on 14 September was soon followed by an NKVD agent eager to talk to him. The next day another Russian agent appeared, asking Silver to start at the beginning and relate everything that had happened since his very first visit to Kabul. This endless questioning revealed that, in contrast to the Italians and the Germans, who had instantly accepted Silver, the NKVD, reflecting the greater paranoia of Stalin and his security chief Beria, wanted to make sure his story stood up. Just as he had with the Axis powers, however, Silver proved persuasive—indeed, so pleased was the Russian agent by what he heard that Silver was asked to come back to the Embassy with him. So finally, on 15 September 1941, seven months after he had first started watching the Embassy hoping to catch the attention of a Russian in a Kabul street, the gates of the Embassy were opened for Silver, and he was ushered into to see Zaman.

Zaman heard how Rasmuss had asked Silver to collect industrial and military information for the Germans, and where members of Silver’s party were working in India, Silver making it clear to the Russian that the Kirti party had decided that Moscow must decide whether he should continue to keep these Axis connections. Zaman, as Silver later told the British, had one question for him:

… was [he] prepared to face the risks involved? Silver said he was, and that his party in India also wanted him to do so. The Russian told him there was always the danger of his being found out but the work he was doing was of great value, and that he should try to convince Rasmuss as much as possible of his value to the Axis and should also shed all Communist appearances.

Russian sources say Silver in his response to Zaman was more fulsome in his protestations:

I support the revolution in India and its liberation, and the Soviet Union. I know that Indian liberty depends on your victory and that Hitlerite Germany and her Allies are your and our enemies.

Zaman reported all this back to the head of the NKVD foreign intelligence, Pavel Mikhailovich Fitin, a native of Siberia who had qualified as an agricultural engineer. Described as a man of ‘high intellect and outstanding organisational ability’ Fitin achieved rapid promotion in the NKVD, taking up his job in May 1939. This had come about as a result of Stalinist purges, leading to the execution of his predecessors and creating gaps in the NKVD hierarchy. In 1941 with Stalin, convinced his intelligence services were giving him false information, Fitin seemed destined for the same fate. But then came Hitler’s invasion and, as one Russian historian puts it, ‘Only the outbreak of war saved P. M. Fitin from the firing squad.’ Now, ignoring Comintern warnings, he approved Silver. The Russians gave Silver a code name, Rom, clearly a variation of Ram, and his operation Marauders. Given how Silver would go on to fleece the Nazis this proved a very appropriate name.

Book Cover of The Indian Spy: The True Story of the Most Remarkable Secret Agent of World War II
Book Cover of The Indian Spy: The True Story of the Most Remarkable Secret Agent of World War II

Excerpted from the book The Indian Spy: The True Story of the Most Remarkable Secret Agent of World War II by Mihir Bose, Aleph Book Company with the permission of the publisher.

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