In some of Great Britain’s Asian colonies, especially in the part of British India that would become Pakistan, the outbreak of the Second World War was received with enthusiasm. As in many other colonial possessions, the local population hoped for liberation from the colonial yoke. The most warlike mountaineers waged permanent guerrilla warfare, attacking military convoys and isolated posts. Until 1939, many tribes living in the highlands did not actually obey the British administration and pursued an independent policy. The centre of the resistance was Waziristan, a mountainous region on the border with Afghanistan. There, Pashtun tribes, headed by their leader the Fakir, controlled a large area.
On 5 May 1940 at the airport near Vienna a group of people began to arrive, among whom stood out about twenty people with black beards, dressed in identical light suits and very similar to Persians or Arabs. They quickly loaded their suitcases, bags and baggage into the Ju 52 from Aufkl.Gr.Ob.d.L. The pilot of the aircraft, which had Swiss marking was Unteroffizier Kranz.
This was the beginning of Dr Oberdorfer’s ‘expedition’. It had been organized by the Abwehr and was on its way to Kabul. In addition to Oberdorfer (an experienced Abwehr agent), it consisted of the Indian expert Leutnant Dr Freytag, Feldwebel Geretenacker, Gefreiter Mohr and twenty commandos from the Afghan company of the ‘Brandenburg’ regiment. The mission of the expedition was to establish links with the leader of the rebel tribes, after landing south-west of the Afghan capital.
The ‘Swiss’ Ju 52 flew on a long route with intermediate landings in Sofia, Ankara and Tehran. The arrival and departure of the aircraft was facilitated by the Abwehr-II officers in those cities. They took off from Tehran on the last stage of their flight. But the ‘expedition’s’ luck ran out. Ten hours later, over territory of Afghanistan one of the engines started to have problems and then stalled completely. The machine began to lose altitude quickly. Kranz immediately ordered the passengers to bail out. The side door was immediately opened, through which the rapidly approaching mountains could be seen. One by one, the members of the ‘expedition’ left the Ju 52, which continued to lose height and eventually crashed. But the saboteurs’ troubles didn’t end there. Dr Oberdorfer hit a rock on landing and was killed, and therefore the command of the group passed to Leutnant Freytag, who had received only minor injuries.
After this emergency landing, the agents somehow got to Kabul and asked for help from the Italian Consulate. But at that time Italy had not yet entered the war, and therefore the Italians, fearing diplomatic complications, refused. As a result, the group had to get to the Khyber Pass ‘in stages’. Part of the way they rode camels, and then they hitched rides in passing cars. Only on 16 May did the ‘expedition’ manage to reach the Fakir. The rebel leader was interested in the German proposals, but demanded financial assistance and supplies of weapons.
On 18 May, in the midst of negotiations near the Khyber Pass, an operational group of British Intelligence led by the chief of the Afghan branch, Major Spenser, appeared. A gun battle ensued, during which some of the German saboteurs were killed. The rest joined the rebel groups and disappeared into the mountains. In the future, they served as military consultants in the commission of sabotage and terrorist attacks.
After the attack on the USSR, the Wehrmacht had a real opportunity to reach Afghanistan and India and strike at the British Empire. If the Germans managed to raise a large-scale uprising in the North-West of India, it could facilitate their access to the Indian Ocean. Since the 1920s, Germany had had a well-developed intelligence network in Afghanistan and was aware of the events taking place there. The occupation of Iran by Soviet and British troops forced the Germans to hurry.
At the end of the summer of 1941, the Abwehr began to prepare the landing of saboteurs and the delivery of weapons to Waziristan. On 30 August, the German embassy in Kabul received a coded message from Berlin with instructions to find suitable landing sites for Fw 200 aircraft. They should be located in an area bordering British India controlled by rebel tribes under the leadership of the Fakir. It turned out that one such makeshift airfield had already been found. The next day, the German resident Rasmus reported to Berlin that the potential ‘airfield’ was located near the Afghan town of Gomal, at 32° 58’ North and 69° 31’ East longitude.
The Abwehr‘s plans became known to British intelligence, but it could not prevent them. A punitive expedition by British troops against the Fakir could lead to a general uprising in the region. As a result, the British had to ask for help from the Soviet Union in the hope that its air force would intercept the German planes en route. But this was an impossibility given the state of Soviet air defences at that time.
At this time, the preparation of the landing operation was in full swing. German agents began work on establishing a reliable radio link between Waziristan and Germany. But in October 1941 the British managed to find a realistic way out. They exerted strong diplomatic pressure on the Afghan government, effectively forcing it to expel the majority of German citizens. This dealt a major blow to the local agents of the Abwehr, and the landing was postponed. Technical equipment and weapons destined for this operation were transferred to another group of agents who soon arrived in the Soviet Republic of Turkmenistan.
But the German intelligence network in Afghanistan could not be completely eliminated. At the end of the year, as the Wehrmacht approached the Caucasus, Abwehr agents in Kabul began training sabotage units to disrupt the rear of the British troops.
In January 1942, Luftwaffe aircraft delivered a landing force of about 100 men to eastern Iran. It was probably the furthest-reaching mission since the beginning of the war. The distance from the nearest air base to the drop zone was about 2,700km! After several acts of sabotage, the agents were to make their way to the Pashtun tribes in Pakistan. There the saboteurs were to blow up a railway tunnel in the area of Mount Raskoh to cut off the delivery of goods from the port of Karachi to Iran. But the operation ended in complete failure, nearly all the paratroopers being captured by the British and failing to carry out any sabotage.
However, the Abwehr did not give up. On 11 March, the new resident in Afghanistan, Witzel, sent a telegram to Berlin requesting permission to travel to the Indo-Afghan border. The purpose of his trip was to search for a site for aircraft to land and set up a radio station. In April, the German embassy in Kabul was able to establish direct contact with the leader of the Pashtun tribes, the Fakir. Having received from the Third Reich only moral support, the rebels nonetheless resumed fighting against the British, surrounding several of their strongholds and forts. The Pashtuns operated successfully, but they lacked modern weapons and ammunition. Therefore, the Abwehr again began to plan secret missions to Afghanistan. At the same time and for the same purpose of delivering weapons to the Pashtuns, Japanese also prepared to carry out flights. Thus, German and Japanese aircraft could meet in the sky over Asia!
In the summer of 1942, the situation on the border of India and Afghanistan reached boiling point. In anticipation of the German invasion of Iran, the leaders of numerous tribes were ready to immediately raise a general uprising against the British. Moreover, the volatile government of Afghanistan was inclined to support the rebels. The preparation for the uprising took place in the centre of Europe. By this time, a 3,000-man ‘Free India Legion’ had been formed in Germany, made up of Indians who had been captured in North Africa and defected to the Axis. The vanguard consisted of special forces trained at the intelligence school in Frankfurt am Oder. The Japanese had similar plans and soon set up five intelligence schools in Penang for the urgent training of 400 agents recruited from among Indian Muslims.
On 10 September, after German tanks reached the Caucasus, the leadership of Abwehr ordered Witzel to urgently find landing sites for the arrival of the Legion. But it was impossible to deliver such a large force with weapons and ammunition in a few four-engined aircraft. It required a lot of Ju 52s, but they couldn’t cover the distance from Crimea to Afghanistan and come back. Therefore, the Abwehr and Luftwaffe had to postpone the commencement of the operation until the Wehrmacht reached Baku and the southern border of the USSR.
After the capture of several passes in the Greater Caucasus range, the Germans immediately installed a special radio transmitter in the mountains, sending a narrow signal in the direction of Waziristan. Then the first Fw 200 flights on this route were carried out, which had positive results. Along the way, containers with weapons for the rebels were dropped by parachute. After receiving them, the Fakir stepped up military operations against the British. In the battle for Fort Datta Khel, the British quickly appreciated the advantage of German arms, losing seven tanks and three aircraft.
In September 1942, still ahead of their allies, the Japanese landed a group of twenty agents from a submarine on the coast of what was to become Pakistan. Meanwhile, German agents who were among the Pashtuns were ordered to prepare landing strips, stockpile aviation fuel, choose hiding places for arms and ammunition and designate persons responsible for receiving Luftwaffe aircraft. The scale of the planned delivery is shown by the fact that even artillery was going to be shipped to Afghanistan …
But the defeat of the Wehrmacht at Stalingrad and the subsequent withdrawal from the Caucasus forced the Germans to abandon these ambitious plans. In the spring of 1943 another joint German-Japanese delivery of troops to the North-West Frontier was planned, but subsequent events made it irrelevant.
Operation ‘Sheikh Mahmoud’
Despite the defeat of the pro-German forces in Iraq, anti-British sentiment persisted and there was quite extensive opposition. The most active were the Kurdish nationalists in the north, whose leader was Sheikh Mahmoud. They wanted the unification of all the territories where the Kurds lived in a single state of Kurdistan. And of course, the Abwehr sought to take advantage of this dream of the Kurds.
In 1942, an Abwehr agent, Leutnant Muller, who had links with the leaders of the Kurds, was ordered to develop a plan for a special operation in Iraq. It provided for the creation in the territory controlled by the Kurds of a small base for future secret missions against the British. The Germans planned to sabotage the oil fields near the cities of Kirkuk and Sulaymaniyah and organize their subsequent capture. In addition, in order to support the offensive of Army Group ‘A’ in the Caucasus, it was planned to destroy communication lines, and attack warehouses, roads and airfields. The Abwehr assigned this operation the code name ‘Sheikh Mahmoud’.
At the end of the year, the Wehrmacht’s advance in the south-east was halted by the Red Army. But Abwehr continued its preparations. Several changes were made to the plan without fundamentally altering its purpose. For example, the Kurds were now supposed to disrupt the southern Lend-Lease route to the Soviet Union.
Operation ‘Sheik Mahmoud’ started on 15 June 1943, when an Fw 200C took off from Rangsdorf airfield, 20km south of Berlin. The plane belonged to KG 40, but the crew, commanded by Hauptmann Limann, was from 2./Versuchsverband Ob.d.L. It was the first mission in which Abwehr used this newly formed Staffel (squadron) for its special operations in the East. The Fw 200 headed south-east and a few hours later landed at the airport at Simferopol, where the ‘Toska’ branch was based.
After refuelling and a rest for the crew, the plane took off again the next day. It crossed the Black Sea, flew over the eastern part of neutral Turkey and reached the designated area in Northern Iraq. The first group of saboteurs probably consisted of soldiers from the ‘Brandenburg’ regiment. Containers of weapons, equipment and medical supplies were also dropped. Interestingly, among the cargo were 500 sovereigns for Sheikh Mahmoud personally. After the drop the Condor turned back and returned safely to Simferopol.
Following this, the head of the operation himself, Leutnant Müller, was to arrive in Iraq. According to the plan, his special unit was to include a headquarters, a commando unit to conduct guerrilla operations against British troops, a medical unit and an aviation unit to communicate with the Wehrmacht on the southern flank of the Eastern Front.
However, ‘Sheik Mahmoud’ was cut short only a month after it began. On 23 July 1943, the British air force attaché in Turkey protested to the local authorities that German planes were flying through Turkish airspace towards Iraq. At the same time the attaché told the Turks that one of them had been intercepted and shoot down. As a result, three German officers were captured: Muller, Hoffmann and Konichni. All three refused to cooperate with British intelligence and were executed as spies.