The British Empire Library

Silver: The Spy Who Fooled the Nazis: The Most Remarkable Agent of the Second World War

by Mihir Bose

Book Review by kind permission of Chowkidar, the journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia
Mr Mihir Bose is an unusual polymath, publishing books on cricket and football and the world of business, as well as biographies. In that connection he has described the life of his namesake (to whom he is not related) Subhas Chandra Bose, who went to Germany (and later Japan) during the war to further Indian independence, and in the process founded the Indian National Army. Mihir Bose's researches of course covered the episode where Subhas Bose crossed India and Afghanistan to make his way to Germany. His guide was a young man called Bhagat Ram Talwar. The present book is the life and career of that young man, also known as a spy under the name of Silver. And a very remarkable story it is too.

Silver was an unusual Indian in that he was a Hindu born and brought up in the North West Frontier Province speaking Pashtu. This fluency in the local language was a major reason why this unknown young man came to be shepherding Bose across the unhospitable landscape. Silver had another qualification for his future career in addition to his quick wits and his ability through his knowledge of Pashtu to make himself inconspicuous in Afghanistan and the adjacent tribal territories. He was a member of a Communist cell called Kirti, mostly confined to the Punjab. This accounted for his strongly anti-British feeling. Bose as an affluent Bengali found the journey tough going and he also lacked the streetwise guile of his guide. But Silver went first to the Germans, who were not very helpful, and then to the Italians who were. As a result Silver got Bose safely on his way to the border with the Soviet Union (at this time still bound to Nazi Germany by the Non-Aggression Pact). From there Bose went onto Berlin, met Hitler and eventually went to Japan where he was killed in a plane crash.

This meeting with the Italians landed Silver the job of spying for them. This entailed gathering information about India, about any signs of disaffection or mutiny in the army, the strength of military units in India, etc. The Axis powers seem to have been astonishingly ill informed about India and Silver stepped into the breach to supply the information they needed. All this came naturally enough for a young Communist while the Non-Aggression pact was in force. But when Hitler invaded Russia and the Pact was at an end Silver through his Communist contacts was 'turned' to spy for the Soviet Union. This meant continuing his good relations with Italy and Germany but feeding them duff information in return for whatever he could get out of them to pass to his new friends in Russia.

An unexpected result of the end of the Pact was that whereas before Russia might have been expected to wish to foster Indian independence, after the end of the Pact, Russia and Britain were allies trying to defeat the Germans. So Silver also found himself spying for the British. In the latter stages of the war, his German contacts passed him on to Japan. So Silver ended up spying for Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia and Britain - for the last two as a double-agent. This must surely be an all-time record. It also gives an interesting and decidedly oblique view of some aspects of the progress to Indian independence. The volte-face by the Indian Communist party is a good example. The tissue of lies created by Silver is quite amazing and there are moments of rich humour. The story is well researched, well written and well constructed. The story goes with a swing. However there are two black marks for the publisher. The map on page 6 which shows the route taken on his various journeys into and out of Afghanistan is quite useless, even with a powerful magnifying glass. More serious is that a book with full scholarly apparatus and bibliography lacks an index. Apart from these blemishes, the book must be very strongly recommended.

British Empire Book
Mihir Bose
First Published
Fonthill Media
Review Originally Published
Autumn 2017 in Journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia


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