How a picturesque small town in Karnataka played a tiny part in the spy games of World War 2

11:24 AM Jun 26, 2020 | Harsha Rao |
Less than a year after the beginning of the Second World War, the British created the Special Operations Executive (SOE) - a secret organisation for the purpose of espionage, sabotage and reconnaissance against the Axis. As territories of the British Empire was spread across the planet, the SOE too had branches in almost all of them. The SOE tasks included hundreds of 'dirty' operations across the world. Some of them so horrific that even after 75 years of the end of the war, many files and documents of the organisations and its operations were burnt immediately after the war and those that remained are yet to be declassified. In India, the organisation's branch was called Force 136 (it started as India Mission and later GS I(k)). It started operations from Meerut, Uttar Pradesh and then shifted to Kandy, Sri Lanka in December 1944. Force 136 did everything it could to stop the Germans from advancing into India from the Caucasus through Iran and Afghanistan and the Japanese from Southeast Asia. In 1942, the SOE at Meerut intercepted encrypted messages sent to the German U-boats in the Indian Ocean stating in details the position of British ships leaving from Mumbai. In the following few weeks, 46 British ships were attacked and sunk by the Kriegsmarine (German Navy). Nazi German spying with India startled the British. Their shipping routes were now in the enemies field of vision. However, the SOE soon found out the spy responsible for causing the terror at sea: Robert Koch. Koch, a German, was living and operating from Portuguese-ruled Goa. He and his wife, Grete Koch, were living with cover identities in Panaji. Portugal, even though it had its Nazi-inspired regime in place, was neutral in the war. There was less chance of them aiding the German couple in supplying the information on British shipping in the Indian Ocean. It was known to the SOE that many anti-British Indian independence activists were helping the Germans. But it would not be easy for the Germans to possibly transfer the information out of India to the Germans submarines. Soon, however, things would clear. A German shipping company, DDG Hansa, had three of its ships - the Ehrenfels, the Braunfels and the Drachenfels - anchored at the Mormugao port in Goa. They had sought refuge there as a precaution against seizure by the British after the start of the war. The British knew of the ships' presence in Goa but considered them not a threat as they were merchant ships without any combat capabilities in neutral waters. Meanwhile, the SOE set to task immediately after learning of the Kochs. They dispatched two agents to capture them and interrogate them - Lieutenant Colonel Lewis Pugh and Colonel Stewart. The Koch could not be abducted and pressed for information in Goa for fear of the agents blowing up their cover and being detected by Portuguese authorities or the spies receiving help from other Germans. So it was decided to bring them to British Indian territory for the interrogation. A village on the border with Goa was selected for the purpose. The operation to capture, move and interrogate the Kochs was named 'Operation Hotspur.' The village selected for the final stretch of the operation was Castle Rock in the present Uttara Kannada district of Karnataka. Castle Rock was the last station on the British Indian side of a railway line going from British India into Portuguese Goa. Operation Hotspur went as per plan. The Kochs revealed what the British had already suspected: the Ehrenfels had a secret radio transmitter used for disseminating the information on British ships to the Germans. What happened with the Kochs after is unclear. They are alleged to have been tortured and murdered. Asking the Portuguese to raid the ship was not rational as the Portuguese would not want to antagonise Germany and also lose its neutral status with both the Allies and the Axis. Therefore, an assault operation was planned: 'Operation Creek.' Two reserve regiments - Calcutta Light Horse and Calcutta Scottish - centred at Kolkatta was chosen for the operation. 18 officers were chosen for the operation. All ageing veterans but the least likely to be suspected to execute a daring and suicidal mission. The assault team reached Mormugao harbour, after sailing on a barge around the east and half of the west coast of India, on the night of March 9-10, 1943. An officer of the Light Horse who was already in Mormugao threw a grand party with drinks and prostitutes for all the sailors of merchants ships anchored in the harbour. Most of the crew of the German merchant ships were at the party leaving only a few aboard the ships. The 18 boarded the Ehrenfels, their machine guns blazing, killing five crew members of the ship including the captain and capturing the transmitter. The crew had opened the sea valves sinking the ship. Hearing the gunfight and seeing the sinking ship, the crew of the other four ships too did the same. The result of the raid was that in the same month attacks on British drastically reduced. A movie based on Operation Creek was released in 1980 - "The Sea Wolves." One of the actors portraying an assault team officer in the movie also played the role of James Bond.  

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