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History Today (Volume 60: Issue 4)

Mihir Bose tells the little-known story of the Indian secret agent codenamed ‘Silver’ who served both the Axis and the Allied forces during the Second World War.

Bhagat ram Talwar, known as Silver, in Afghan dress in the streets of Kabul during the 1940s. On the morning of March 12th, 1943 in Bletchley, Buckinghamshire, the wartime centre of British intelligence, officials of the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), MI5 and IPI (the Indian Political Intelligence) met to discuss an issue which had important consequences for a remarkable spy.

No documents regarding this meeting have ever been released by the British, but Soviet archives have a top secret summary of the meeting. Entitled ‘Report of the Soviet Agent to the Governing Body of British Intelligence’, it reads:

The most serious fact in our situation is that Bose is on the way to Japan in the German submarine. They suppose if he gets to Japan he’ll be able to contact his own Indian party, Forward BLOC, and first of all he’ll find out that the colossal organisation of Bhagat Ram doesn’t exist, the whole thing is a pure blackmail. The Admiralty wants to withdraw him when the Japanese boat takes him from the submarine. It’s a very good plan, especially if it comes into being because Bhagat Ram’s organisation will be safe and the Germans will be able to boss the latter without Bose.

The Bose referred to was Subhas Chandra Bose, the Indian nationalist who had fled to Germany in 1941 and was now on his way back east. Much has been written about him. But very little has been written about the other character mentioned, Bhagat Ram Talwar (his full name), not helped by the fact, that when Bhagat Ram wrote his autobiography in the 1970s, he continued his wartime habit of disguising the truth. But, now that secret documents on him are available, it is becoming apparent that he was one of the most extraordinary spies of the Second World War.

Nicknamed ‘Silver’ by the British, he started working for the Italians, switched to the Germans, the Russians and finally the British. The Nazis had been so impressed they awarded him the Iron Cross, Germany’s highest military decoration. Yet from late 1942 he was controlled from Delhi by Peter Fleming, the brother of James Bond creator Ian Fleming and head of D Division, responsible for covert actions. He was impressed by Silver’s ruthlessness. Once, with Fleming in Delhi, Silver was seen by an Afghan he had met in Kabul. Fleming, worried the Afghan would unmask his agent, suggested Silver should not return to Kabul. But Silver would not hear of it. For five months nothing was heard from him. Then suddenly Silver returned and told Fleming of a dinner he had had with the Afghan. Silver took with him chopped-up tiger’s whiskers, which are extremely poisonous. During the course of the evening, he slipped them into the curry, ensuring that only he lived to tell the tale.

Fleming operated a small network of secret agents, many of them double agents originally hired by the Japanese or the Germans and still paid by them but who, at Fleming’s behest, were feeding these countries false information. Silver was the best of them.

Also known as Rehmat Khan, suggesting he was a Muslim, Silver was in fact a Hindu from the North-West Frontier Province. Like many Indians of his generation, he wanted a free India and had particular reason to hate the British as they had hanged his brother for anti-British activities. But he was also a member of the region’s Communist party, the Kirti Kisan.

Silver became a spy by accident when, in the winter of 1940, his party bosses asked him to help Subhas Bose escape from India via Afghanistan. When Bose left for the Soviet Union on an Italian passport, he asked Silver to act as his agent with the Italians.

Silver’s first spymaster was the Italian diplomat in Kabul, Pietro Quaroni, who gave him money and asked him to bring back colleagues to be trained in sabotage against the British in India. Silver and his fellow Communists in Lahore, capital of the Punjab, debated whether they should work with Bose who, having failed to get Stalin’s assistance, had ended up in Berlin. There he was funded by the Special India Department of the German Foreign Office, working with the anti-Nazi Adam von Trott, who was later hanged following the Stauffenberg bomb plot of July 1944. But Silver’s Communist colleagues liked the Italian money and, with the Nazi-Soviet Pact still in existence, they decided Silver should carry on being Bose’s man.

Silver returned to Kabul in May 1941 and Quaroni taught one of Silver’s friends, a follower of Bose called Santimoy Ganguly, how to apply dynamite sticks with a fuse for blowing up bridges, railway stations and buildings, in particular the great Attock Bridge, which spanned the Indus and guarded the frontier to British India. The Italians housed them in a private home and gave Silver 20,000 Afghan rupees (£1,000).

By this time the Germans had sent Carl Rudolf Rasmuss, a former German trade commissioner in Calcutta, to Kabul. Rasmuss gave Silver 5,000 Afghan rupees. Silver arrived in Lahore from Kabul on June 21st, the day Germany invaded the Soviet Union. For Communists this meant an imperialist war had become a people’s war. Silver should have ditched Bose now but he and his colleagues again saw a chance to make money and so decided to feed false information to the Axis powers.

Silver got the novelist Gurcharan Singh Sainsra to help him concoct a fictitious yarn about an All-India Revolutionary Committee organising strikes and antiwar activities, even among the British Indian troops. When Silver returned to Kabul in August 1941 he enthralled Quaroni with his tales and demanded 80,000 Indian rupees (£5,000). The sum was too much for the Italians but they donated an unknown amount of money and a box of detonators. Silver soon ditched the detonators but kept the cash which also included $5,500 from Rasmuss.

This visit marked the transfer of Silver from Italian to German control. The Germans felt the situation was too delicate and expensive for the Italians and they were also worried about Quaroni’s Russian wife. To Silver’s great delight he also managed to make contact with the Russians. They told him he must drop all signs of being a Communist and never do anything to interfere with the British war effort.

What we have here is a first glimpse of Silver’s emergence as a double agent. The next time Silver was in Kabul with another fictitious report, he met the Russians and told them all he was going to tell Rasmuss. Every time he left Kabul, he briefed the Russians about German plans.

Silver had so beguiled Rasmuss that the Germans wanted him trained on portable wireless sets. Rasmuss wanted to send a small set to the tribes in the North-West Frontier of British India where the Pashtun tribal leader, the Faqir of Ipi, operated, who was in the pay of the Germans. Another, larger, wireless was to be kept in a house in Kabul. The moment he left Rasmuss, Silver handed both sets to the Russians. The smaller one was never seen again, although the Germans did recover the larger wireless.

Silver returned to India in November 1941 with 800 gold sovereigns and £14,625 (equivalent to more than £600,000 today) in mixed English pound notes. Through much of 1942 he travelled between Lahore and Kabul, delighting Rasmuss and Dieter Witzel, a German military intelligence officer, with his stories and returning to India with Nazi money. In April 1942 Rasmuss gave him 500 gold sovereigns and 100,000 Afghani rupees (£5,000).

Silver was so trusted by the Germans that during a visit to Kabul in August 1942 he stayed in their embassy for three days while they cross-examined him on his report. It was then sent by wireless to Berlin and, as the Germans waited for a reply, they sent Silver to stay on the outskirts of Kabul.

The Germans wanted Silver to prepare a landing place in the tribal areas where a small number of parachutists could be dropped by night. They also wanted military information about British strength in India, an intensified year-round programme of sabotaging railway lines and other communications and to know of India’s reaction to Rommel’s expected capture of Egypt. As Berlin asked the questions, Silver passed them over to the Russians, always on the same day. It was an extraordinary situation. Through the late summer of 1942, while the battle for Stalingrad raged, in Kabul Silver trotted back and forth between the Germans, whose money he took, and the Russians, whose Communist beliefs inspired him.

It was also on this trip that plans to create the British part of Silver’s spy ring were finalised. Both the British and the Russians wanted to contact each other for different reasons. The British had learnt that Bose was planning to come back east to be part of the Japanese push into India and wanted to make sure that, should he travel via Moscow posing, perhaps, as a Japanese diplomat, the Russians would detain him. But before they could approach the Russians, Moscow contacted London. The Russians, according to an IPI note of August 29th, 1942, ‘have themselves come forward asking us to collaborate in “running” various Indian sources of information in Kabul which apparently they had been doing for some time until they found that we had either arrested them or otherwise put them out of action’.

At this stage the British did not know of Silver but the arrests had made them aware of the ‘Bose conspiracy’, that is of Nazis paying vast sums of money for fictitious intelligence. In an IPI note to the head of the ISI department, whose real name, ironically, was Silver, an official commented:

The world at large, perhaps more than the Nazis themselves, should be interested to know that large sums of Nazi money had been paid to further the grandiose schemes of Subhas Bose, which turned out to be nothing more than paper schemes drafted by Indian communists with their tongues in their cheeks who saw an easy way to make money.

By August 1942, IPI estimated the Axis had paid Silver a total of £8,700.

As it happened, Silver himself wanted British help. In the summer of 1942 he told the Russians that he needed assistance in concocting the military information the Germans wanted: precise details of the location and strength of troops. Neither he nor his writer Sainsra could provide that. Would the Russians, he asked, get in touch with the British and provide him with the required information?

But the Russians wanted Silver to be controlled by them from Moscow. He would brief the Russians in Kabul and then the Russians would brief the British in Moscow. This was unusual but the British agreed and by October 1942 the arrangements were in place. The Russians told Silver that, if arrested, he must demand to be taken to a British officer and not reveal anything to his fellow Indians working for the British. He should also insist that his arrest be kept secret.

On November 29th he and Sainsra were concocting another of their reports when the Indian CID raided Sainsra’s house and arrested Silver. He followed the script of the Russians to the letter. The arrests were made by the Raj’s Indian policemen. Silver refused to tell them anything and demanded he be taken to the British officer in overall charge. He was taken to Lahore Fort where he made a detailed statement, revealed the two German codes he carried and the money the Germans had paid him. He told the British he was prepared to carry on what he was doing. He also denounced Bose ‘as a traitor to his cause’ and assured the British that he was ‘absolutely confident the Axis in Kabul have no other Indian agent working for them in India and no independent means from Kabul of checking up on his completely non-existent contacts with “Bose’s organisation” in India’.

On his return to Kabul, Silver did tell Rasmuss about his arrest but even the IPI was to describe this disclosure as an ‘unreal version’. This time the fictitious report he gave Rasmuss came from Fleming’s D Division, which also monitored the radio traffic that went out from Kabul to Berlin and Tokyo and thus could check how much of their own material was reaching enemy headquarters. Fleming was so successful in making Silver plausible that the Germans gave the spy a powerful radio set to transmit directly to the headquarters of the Abwehr (German military intelligence) in Berlin.

It was while Silver was in his pomp that through Ultra – the machine which had broken the German codes – the British learnt of Bose’s travel plans in a German submarine. In the end they decided not to pick him up, probably because they did not want to jeopardise American plans to assassinate Admiral Yamamoto, the Japanese naval commander who had masterminded Pearl Harbor. Through Magic, the American equivalent of Ultra, the Americans knew where Yamamoto was flying to. Roosevelt had personally approved the assassination and seizing Bose might have revealed the secret of Ultra or Magic, or both, to the Axis. In terms of winning the Pacific war, Yamamoto was a much higher priority than Bose.

Bose’s arrival in the East did not unmask Silver, who carried on spying until the end of the war. In 1976, when he wrote his autobiography, aware Bose was now a hero of India’s freedom struggle, Silver decided he could not tell the truth. He wrote of Quaroni and Rasmuss but there was no mention of the Russians, Fleming nor of his nickname, Silver. This most remarkable spy carried that secret to his grave.

Mihir Bose is the author of Raj, Secrets, Revolution: A Life of Subhas Chandra Bose (Quartet, 1987). He is working on a study of Silver.

Further reading

* Bhagat Ram Talwar, The Talwars of Pathan Land and Subhas Chandra’s Great Escape (People’s Publishing House, 1976)

* Sarat and Subhas Chandra Bose, Brothers Against the Raj: A Biography of Indian Nationalists (Columbia University Press, 1990)

* Duff Hart-Davis, Peter Fleming: A Biography (Oxford University Press, 1987)

* Milan Hauner, India Axis Strategy: Germany, Japan and Indian Nationalists (Klett-Cotta, 1981)

* For further articles on this subject, visit: www.historytoday.com/india

      

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