In 1943, Peter Fleming, brother of Bond creator Ian, recruited a promising-looking Indian intelligence officer and code-named him Silver. His new recruit was a master of deception who worked for all the Axis powers as well as for the Soviets and the British – and fooled them all. Meet the only quintuple agent of the Second World War.
On the afternoon of February 22, 1941, a small, clean-shaven man walked down an alleyway in Kabul, knocked on the back door of the Italian embassy and told the guards he was a cook sent to work for the ambassador.
The guards, gathered around the back entrance smoking, had little reason to doubt he was a local – he was certainly dressed like one, in his traditional fur cap, long shirt and flowing trousers. They showed him into a high-ceilinged room where the ambassador was sitting behind a large desk framed by the Italian flag and a picture of Prime Minister Benito Mussolini.
The ambassador was not pleased to see him. At the time, the Second World War was being fought far away from the borders of neutral Afghanistan – neither Russia nor America was involved yet, and only the British Empire and Commonwealth countries stood against the Nazis and their Italian allies.
Like all foreign diplomats in Kabul, the Italian ambassador dreaded unannounced visits from local Afghans, suspicious they could be spies sent by the government or other embassies. So when the man told him he had been sent by Herr Thomas, the man who headed the German engineering company Siemens in the Afghan capital, the ambassador roared, ‘What for?’ Instead of cowering, the man was firm and determined. ‘I don’t know. I have just been asked to see you.’
Something in his voice made the ambassador think this was no ordinary Afghan. He had a good look at him: small but with a strong, wiry frame. He rang Thomas and, being half German, spoke in German. Then he asked his Afghan assistants to leave, courteously offered a seat to his visitor, and said, ‘My name is Pietro Quaroni and I am the ambassador of the Italian legation in Kabul.’
The man told Quaroni that his name was Rahmat Khan and he was neither a cook nor an Afghan, but an Indian escorting the charismatic Indian revolutionary Subhas Bose to Kabul in order to seek help to free his country from British rule. The British saw Bose as their implacable foe, in some ways more dangerous than Mahatma Gandhi, as he believed in the violent overthrow of the Raj.
Bose had, with Khan’s help, escaped from India, where he was about to be arrested by the British. After almost a month living secretly in a roadside inn populated by transient lorry drivers and mule herders, unable to get the help they had banked on from the Russian or German embassies, Bose was frantic that the Afghans would discover him and send him back to the British.
Khan therefore turned to the Italians. Fortunately for them both, Pietro Quaroni ensured Bose’s safe passage out of Afghanistan to Germany. But what he did for Bose’s companion was more remarkable.
The birth of a spy
Khan’s real name was, in fact, Bhagat Ram Talwar (he had given himself a Muslim pseudonym while escorting Bose through territory ruled by hostile Islamic tribes), a Hindu from the North-West Frontier province of India.
Born to a wealthy landowner, he had been close to his older brother who was executed by the British after killing a policeman during an assassination attempt on the governor of Punjab. While he rejected terrorism, he was politically active and joined the Communist Party. It was through this that he was asked to escort Bose to Afghanistan.
Silver served him a curry mixed with tiger’s whiskers, whose sharp bristles can cause internal bleeding. That was the last meal the Afghan ever ate
After his meeting with Quaroni, Talwar went on to become one of the most successful and expensive spies of the Second World War – and indeed its only quintuple agent. For by 1945 he had spied for Italy, Germany, Russia, Japan and Britain, though his true loyalties lay with his native India and its domestic Communist Party.
His handler in the British secret services was Peter Fleming, the spymaster and brother of James Bond creator Ian Fleming, who ran numerous double agents.
The British spymaster Peter Fleming, who ran Silver for the D (for Deception) Division in Delhi Credit: Courtesy of Mihir Bose
He was to give Talwar a nickname that would stick: Silver. (This was a Fleming joke, based on one Mr Silver, an official at the political intelligence wing of the India Office in London.)
Although Silver was only 17 months younger than Fleming, the two men could not have been more different.
Before the war, Fleming, an old Etonian and Oxford graduate, had worked as a journalist for The Times and explored the rivers of central Brazil, about which he wrote a bestselling book. Such was his aura that even British generals stood up when he walked into the room.
Meanwhile, Silver had left school with a rudimentary education and spoke what Fleming called ‘broken’ English. What united the pair was their shared love of deception. And even on that first difficult mission, escorting an unfit and overweight politician 200 miles on foot across the border over hazardous, mountainous terrain to Kabul, Silver showed not only bravery but masterful powers of espionage.
Dangerous passage to Afghanistan
He and Bose had just crossed the border into Afghanistan and were celebrating being outside British territory when they met a Pathan (an ethnic Afghan) who asked where they were from. Silver had never been to Afghanistan but had heard of a village called Lalpura, and nonchalantly replied that they were from there. ‘I come from Lalpura,’ thundered the Pathan. ‘I have never seen you there.’
Silver admitted the pair were from across the border, then spun another lie: Bose was his deaf and dumb uncle whom he was chaperoning to a shrine to seek the blessings of a Muslim saint.
Still unsatisfied, the Pathan demanded to examine Bose’s tongue as proof – and to Silver’s relief he declared that it was stiff, a sign that he was indeed unable to speak. Soon after they reached Kabul they encountered further problems.
Bose had assumed they would easily get inside the Russian embassy in Kabul through Silver’s communist connections but Silver knew nobody there and was reluctant to knock on the door, as it was likely to be watched by British spies. Twice he approached Russians he had seen leaving the building, intending to hand them a letter from Bose, but both times they refused it.
Even when he approached the Soviet ambassador in person, after chancing upon him when his car was stuck in a snowdrift, he refused to help, fearful that the British had allowed Bose to escape to create trouble between Russia and Afghanistan. Silver and Bose turned to the Germans, who promised to help Bose to Europe but kept delaying. In desperation Silver approached the Italians: Quaroni.
His response could not have been more different. He gave Bose a passport and helped get him to Berlin, then turned his attention to Silver. Quaroni, aware of India’s great contribution to the war effort in both materials and men, had concluded that the Axis powers must use Afghanistan, the Raj’s back door, to weaken, if not destroy, Britain’s hold on the jewel in its crown. Until Silver appeared, Quaroni’s only source of news from India came from reading the English-language Indian news-papers in Kabul.
Talwar became one of the most successful and expensive spies of the Second World War
He decided that Silver should journey back and forth from Peshawar to Kabul, bringing intelligence on India and returning with explosives, which could be used by anti-British Indians.
At first Silver obliged, but when he demanded more money, the Italians passed him to their better- off allies at the German embassy in Kabul, who held the equivalent of £20.3 million in today’s money in their safe.
Communists, fascists and a £2.5million fortune
Between 1941 and 1945, Silver made 12 trips on foot to and from Kabul, delivering domestic information. The Germans rented him a flat in Kabul and by the end of the war, Silver’s Axis haul was the modern equivalent of £2.5 million, some of which he gave to the cash-strapped Communist Party in India.
Yet as a communist Silver had no real desire to help the fascists in Germany or Italy, so he began supplying them with false information, confident they had no means of checking.
To fool them he sought out a fellow communist and fiction writer and together they invented an organisation called the All-India National Revolutionary Committee; and devised newspaper stories so skilfully that the Germans were convinced Silver’s fictitious outfit was fomenting trouble for the British.
His success was partly because the Axis powers in Kabul were dreadfully disorganised and often more intent on infighting than intelligence.
The main Abwehr (German intelligence) agent, Dietrich Witzel, code-named ‘Pathan’, was shunned by Kurt Brinckmann, a Nazi Party member who had a dental practice in Kabul and who treated the troublesome teeth of the Afghan prime minister on a regular basis.
Brinckmann felt he had greater access to the Afghan government than Witzel or any German agent in Kabul.
While they jostled for position they failed to notice they were being duped by Silver. However, when Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa, his invasion of the Soviet Union, on June 22, 1941, Silver faced a dilemma.
Helping fascist Germany when Soviet Russia was in alliance with her was one thing; but with the Nazis devastating the communist homeland, how could he continue to work for them? On September 15, 1941 – his fourth trip to Kabul – Silver visited the Russian Embassy and finally got inside.
After a night of heavy drinking and much questioning by Russian intelligence, he was accepted as a genuine communist who would never betray the Soviet Union. The Russians could not contain their delight that they had an agent trusted by the Nazis.
After a night of heavy drinking with the Russians, Silver was accepted as a genuine communist
A few months later he was made a joint agent of Russia and Britain – the only spy the Russians agreed to share – and from April 1943 he came under the control of Fleming, who ran D (Deception) Division in Delhi.
Soon after, Silver returned from Kabul with a transmitter Witzel had given him, which was intended to pick up secret information from the British. It was installed in the gardens of the Viceroy’s Palace in New Delhi and from the autumn of 1943 Fleming’s team broadcast fictitious military information three times a day to Berlin.
Death by tiger whiskers
However, Silver caused Fleming anxiety. Just before setting off for his ninth trip in August 1943, Silver bumped into an Afghan contact from Kabul when he was in Delhi with Fleming.
Worried the Afghan could blow Silver’s cover, Fleming pleaded with Silver not to make his next planned trip to Kabul but he was bitten by the spying bug and went anyway. For weeks Fleming heard nothing.
Then one day Silver reappeared, telling Fleming that he had met the Afghan in Kabul and invited him for a meal at his flat. There Silver served him a curry mixed with tiger’s whiskers, whose sharp bristles can cause internal bleeding. That was the last meal the Afghan ever ate.
Silver wrote a memoir claiming he had spied for the Axis powers and had been faithful to Bose throughout. Once again his lie was swallowed
Maybe this was another Silver lie but Fleming believed him. During this trip Silver had also persuaded the Germans to introduce him to Inouye, the Japanese attaché in Kabul. Like Quaroni and Witzel, he accepted Silver’s lies.
The Japanese, finalising their plans to invade India, saw Silver as a great source of information on British military strength. Silver extracted details of spies the Japanese were sending to India, helping Fleming convert them into double agents.
Struggle for independence
After the war, Silver disappeared for a spell. Indian independence was declared in 1947 – unseen by Bose, who died two years earlier in a plane crash – and what followed was one of the greatest migrations in history, as Muslims headed to the newly created state of Pakistan and Hindus to India following Partition.
Silver, aware he could not be a Hindu in Pakistan, left for India. Nothing was heard from him for three decades.
Then in the 1970s, with Bose’s followers honouring him as a great hero of Indian independence, Silver reappeared to spin his last great fiction: he wrote a memoir about his role in securing India’s freedom, claiming he had spied for the Axis powers and had been faithful to Bose throughout.
Once again his lie was swallowed and no one revealed his secret before he died in 1983, at 75.
Only now, 75 years after that first expedition, has the true story of the Second World War’s only quintuple spy finally been told.