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Kenneth de Burgh Codrington   – The Third Man (or the third Appledore spy)

Kenneth de Burgh Codrington  – Keeper of the Indian section of the V&A and then Professor of Indian Archaeology at London University

Born Murree 5th June 1899 – Died Appledore 1st Jan 1986   aged 86.

K de B had been Indian army as a cavalry officer during the tail end of the First War, a lecturer for RAF at Cranwell College and Lt Cdr in the Naval Reserve, his speciality codes and ciphers. All three services. What is less well known is that he was an secret agent in Kabul in Afghanistan 1940/41 running his own small intelligence unit with his Pathan ‘milk brother’ and bodyguard Mir Ahmad, his ‘eyes and ears’ in the bazaar.   

K de B was observing the activities of the Afghan Government/ Royal family first hand and came to know their proclivities and external political leanings. Even sounding them out discreetly on the notion of Indian Independence. He also kept a very wary eye on the multitude of foreign agents running loose in Kabul. There were Nazi agents as well as Italian Fascists, Free French, Vichy French, Czech, Japanese, Red Russians, White Russian, Iraqis and Persians. As K de B once said  ‘Kabul in 1940 made Casablanca seem like a tea party’.

In 1940 Afghanistan was neutral though there were many Afghans who were leaning towards Germany when it looked as if Germany would rule the roost and rule the world. The main job through propaganda and judicious behind the scenes diplomacy and contacts, was to stop Afghanistan being a platform for German interference in the North West Frontier and meddling in Indian affairs. Several German anthropological, agricultural and even mountaineering expeditions had been evaluating re-supply routes from the air and high altitude radio networks viz Nuristan and Nanga Parbat, even with the aid of the RAF! Just in case the Germans wanted to come over into India via the backdoor.

By a miracle Afghanistan stayed neutral in the First War despite the prolonged activities of German agents waving bags of gold and trying to ferment revolt on the North West Frontier to tie down even more British and Indian troops to prevent them fighting in Mesopotamia and the Middle East. Less well known is that the Afghan King –  Amir Habibullah Khan was a Freemason who had been introduced to the Calcutta Lodge in 1906 by none other than Lord Kitchener. ( K de B’s uncle, Captain Edward Vaughan was involved at the Simla end.) Amir Habibullah liked the British and gave his word that he would not cause them any trouble. He kept his word but was assassinated on the instigation of a pro-German relative on a hunting trip in 1919. His successor Amanullah Khan started the Third Afghan war. K de B was based at Risalpur with his regiment alongside the RAF airfield. He may well have been a liaison officer.

But things were much more unstable in 1940. K de B’s 2-3,000 word reports  were written in the early hours of Saturday mornings often by candle light in the middle of winter without notes and then smuggled down the Khyber to Major JA Robinson OBE in Peshawar. North West Frontier Province Intelligence. Robinsion’s  knowledge of the NW frontier was considered unique, both sides of the Durand line. And the best expert available on Central Asian intelligence. He worked directly for DIB the Director of the Intelligence Bureau.

Reports were then flown up to Simla and relayed to IPI. Indian Political Intelligence as well as MI – Military Intelligence. K de B was on good terms with  Sir Denys Pilditch – Superintendent, Indian Police and Director, Intelligence Bureau, India and Major General George Molesworth – Director of Military Operations & Intelligence, Army Headquarters India. Once or twice K de B was flown up to Simla himself.

So he was well connected to the Intelligence world in India.

What is perfectly possible is that K de B was actually recruited back in 1918 in Quetta whilst recovering from a bullet wound to his knee sustained whilst charging Turkish lines in Mesopotamia, brandishing a sabre. After the Russian revolution IPI, or IPIO as it was when originally set up in 1909 by John Wallinger and changed to IPI in 1921. K de B refers to IPIO several times which makes me thing he was recruited before 1921. The India Office in London as well as Delhi were very wary of the underlying Communist threat abroad and the simultaneous rise of Indian nationalism. From 1916 – 1919 Wallinger, who had lost a foot at Le Cateau, was in India working for Intelligence recruiting young officers like K de B. He went to France and then returned in 1920 working for the Indian Police. One of his agents in Switzerland was Somerset Maughan.

K de B would have been an ideal candidate. Indian army was in his blood. He was born in Murree, during an early and very tempestuous monsoon. Murree was a well known hill station with its own brewery, near Rawalpindi on the old road to Kashmir. His father Lt Col Harry de Burgh Codrington was S&T Supply and Commissariat. Over the hills and far away with the Malakand Field force under Col JG ‘Chitral’ Kelly.

Life was never dull on the North West Frontier. K de B’s family had been Indian army for at least four generations and were involved to the hilt in countless squabbles up and down the frontier as well as the odd war in Afghanistan. His grandfather Col Edward Codrington had been in the 1st Sikh Irregular cavalry, a very wild bunch by all accounts, later known as Wale’s Horse, Probyn’s Horse and 11th Bengal Lancers. Col Edward helped found the 5th Gurkhas and was its first adjutant. He took part in the Black Mountains Campaign, the Umbeyla campaign of 1863 and the Battle of Peiwar Kotal in 1878 during the 2nd Afghan war.     

K de B’s great grandfather, Captain Christopher Codrington had also been in Afghanistan but sadly died of wounds sustained in the First Afghan War. He was defending a mud bricked fort at Charikar north of Kabul in Nov 1841 with the Political Officer Eldred Pottinger of Hrtat fame, when they were surrounded by 20,000 wild Afghans. Previously Codrington had been chasing Afghan bandits right up to Bamian. A whole regiment of irregular Gurkhas also disappeared at Charikar almost without trace. Two badly wounded officers and three Gurkhas survived. They all left harrowing accounts of the siege. So NW Frontier history was deeply embedded in K de B’s family: in his subconscious.

There was also some Indian blood from the Calcutta days in the 1820s. But there was another connection peculiar to the Hill tribes. K de B was also  ‘milk brothers’ to Pathan tribesmen and landowners many of whom had served in Lumsden’s Guides, the pre-eminent regiment for intelligence gathering founded by Harry Lumsden well known to Col Edward. They had fought together when ambushed at Palosin when ambushed. The 5th Gurkhas saved the Guides bacon on a dawn attack. It was a small world. The Codrington family also knew James Abbot who founded Abbottabad where they lived for twenty years.

So K de B’s NW frontier credentials were impeccable. He went to school in India in Simla until he was twelve. This was run by Irish catholic nuns who were brilliant classicists. So K de B had many Indian school friends of all castes and religions. There were Pathan, Afghan, Bengali, Punjabi children, and Railway children. Buddhist, Moslem, Hindu, Sikh. Christian all in the same classroom. One Parsee girl ended up as a barrister in Bombay. K de B, when he darkened his face and wore  Indian clothes could also pass as an Indian boy in the lower bazaar. He always saw India from the inside. India was home and at his birth it was the beautiful Jemadar’s wife called Mariam who saved his life and suckled him many times and thus made him milk brothers’ to her three sons. Mir Ahamad was the youngest. Their family had all served in the Guides as did K de B’s uncle Hubert Codrington who had been at Malakand. His brave actions in saving Indian soldiers under intense fire was commented on by one young war reporter called Winston Churchill. Hubert later commanded the Guides Infantry.

Having been shipped back to dreary old England after the Delhi Durbar in Dec 1911.  K de B was sent to Sherborne in Dorset. Uncle Edward was supposed to choose Shrewsbury but Sherborne did just as well. Sounded a bit similar. But the First War not only took its toll on the school when so  many officers were killed, but also on K de B’s own family.

K de B’s mother Helen Maud Vaughan was also from an Indian Army family. Her father was Bengal Artillery and from Bath and Tipperary. But in Dec 1915 the SS Persia was torpedoed off Crete – around lunchtime. Very unsporting. Helen Maud had joined the ship at Marseilles with K de B’s older sister Ann. Both visiting husbands on the western front and on their way back to Quetta. Helen Maud went below looking for Ann and drowned. She had managed to get off in time and survived 36 hours in an open life boat. She was six months pregnant made in safely back and gave birth in Quetta. Ann Codrington later became an actress as did her daughter, Patricia Hilliard, none the worse for wear. K de B was not fond of U Boats.

So in 1916 K de B ran away from Sherborne, jumped on board a ship and returned to India. As a boy he had been taught to ride down in Ambala by a Risaldar Major of Hodson’s horse. So after training in the Nilgri Hills he joined a cavalry regiment. 33rd Queen Victoria’s Own (QVO) Light Horse which had served in Mesopotamia. In 1918 K de B was wounded in the knee in a cavalry charge by a Turkish bullet whilst charging Turkish lines and brandishing a sabre. A very brave thing to do. He was eventually invalided back to Quetta.

After the Third Afghan War K de B had another riding accident when a wild young horse he was riding, a ‘waler’ from New South Wales, went the wrong way round a racecourse, threw him off and he crushed his leg against a jump. Added to that his regiment the 33rd QVO merged with the Poona horse. So he was invalided out and his short career as a cavalry officer ended. But other doors mysteriously opened.

K de B returned to England, a land he hardly knew, and went up to Corpus Christi College Cambridge BA and Wadham College Oxford MA. In between he got a job lecturing at Cranwell, the fledgling RAF College. He then joined the V&A where he quickly mastered the arts in the Indian Section. In those days this was housed in the Imperial Institute, later demolished in thje 1950s to make way for Imperial College. K de B put on many important exhibitions of Indian sculpture and wrote a book on Indian art with a foreword by Sir William Rothenstein. The aim was to get Indian and early Buddhist art and sculpture accepted as a world class.

 Not one to hang back K de B also joined the Naval Reserve c 1924 based at HMS President in the Thames where over the next fifteen years on secondment to various warships, he learnt all about naval codes and ciphers to a high level. He was also a professor at Cincinnati for a year and subsequently handled US Indian propaganda in the press. MOI?

 When the 2nd War started in 1939, K de B, who spoke fluent Hindi,  French and German, and several dead Indian languages, stepped into a job at the Admiralty with Naval Intelligence. What this was we do not know except for two things. He was in the Admiralty building along with Churchill when the Graf Spee was badly mauled and later scuttled off Montevideo. All to do with naval signals and codes. The second thing was to do with lipstick and the WRENS who worked in Admiralty building. They were not allowed to wear lipstick and as he was responsible for their discipline he was always having WRENS brought before him for wearing lipstick on duty as well as other more serious matters. He decided that WRNS should be allowed to wear lipstick and so it remained for the rest of the war. At least in the Admiralty, A morale booster if ever there was one. The WRENS often acted as secretaries to senior naval officers and helped with decoding and passing on important German and Italian messages. So the Lipstick wars were won by K de B and the judicious use of common sense. 

 But in April 1940 he got itchy feet and managed to get himself sent to Kabul under the auspices of the Board of Education as a lecturer and archaeologist. His boss was Nigel Bosworth Smith, whose father had taught Churchill history at Harrow. His visit came with the blessing of the V&A which was now in moth balls for the duration.

Very significantly K de B was invited out to Kabul by the eminent French archaeologist Joseph Hackin from the Musee Guimet in Paris, who was head of DAFA –  La Délégation archéologique française en Afghanistan who were excavating the ancient Kushan city Kapisa at Begram close to Charikar. K de B also had the approval of Professor Alfred Foucher a leading French historian and orientalist not unfamiliar with the workings of Lumsden’s Guides, and the Greek connection with the origin of Indian Buddhist art of Gandhara. K de B also knew Rudyard Kipling, TS Eliot and Imre Schwaiger, the Hungarian jeweller and antiquarian who worked for Cartiers in Delhi. Shades of Alexander Malcolm Jacob, the Simla jeweller upon whom Lurgan Sahib was based, 

K de B’s visit to Kabul in 1940 was approved by  Lt Col Sir William Kerr Fraser-Tytler British Envoy in Afghanistan (1935-1941) as well as the Afghan government. The Afghan Embassy in London was opposite the Royal Geographical Society and only a stones’ throw away from the India Museum in Exhibition road. They all went to the same functions. Many high ranking Afghans spoke fluent French and had studied in France. The King, Zahir Shah had studied at French schools in Kabul as well as the military academy, the Pasteur Institute and Montpelier University. No wonder the French got the monopoly on archaeology. K de B was on very good terms with Joseph Hackin. He was in effect his oppo in Paris and they met whenever they could to share information.

K de B also had grants from the Royal Society who were interested in certain scientific aspects of his proposed activities connected with wheat breeding. His application was handled by R. T. Peel, secretary, Public and Judicial Department at the India Office. All above board. His cover was now complete.

He arrived in Kabul in early May 1940 having done a spot of mahseer fishing at Tangrot downin the Punjab. He joined Joseph Hackin and his wife Ria and the architect Jean Carl in Kabul and then on site at Begram where he could observe their excavations which had yielded so many extraordinary treasure over the previous seasons. Only problem was that Germany invaded France and upset the apple cart.

Joseph Hackin was involved with French intelligence and had been in Afghanistan on and off since 1922, even during the 1928/29 Bandit uprising when the British Legation was besieged and the King of Afghanistan fled for his life.  K de B and Hackin shared notes on Afghan politics and likely spies running around Kabul. In the autumn of 1940 the Hackins returned to London to join General de Gaulle as the French legation in Kabul was pro Vichy.  De gaulle listened as an equal to Hackin who helped de Gaulle form his propaganda strategy. They had both been at Verdun. Hackin badly wounded, de Gaulle captured.

Joseph Hackin was sent back to India as the Free French coordinator for S E Asia but tragically the ship they were travelling on, SS Jonathan Holt,  was torpedoed off the Faeroes in Feb 1941. Nearly all on board were drowned, including many other secret agents including Robert Byron who had written Road to Oxiana. Also known to K de B, who may have even recruited him, as Byron was by then working for the Times as a journalist but destined for Meshed to keep an eye on the Russian involvement in Persia. There were six other agents: one destined for Albania, one for Cairo and two Austrian jews destined for the Viennese underground disguised as Welsh timber merchants. All perished and so there was no link up or work with K de B in Afghanistan as planned.  1941 was dark days. K de B not only looked after Hackin’s affairs and safeguarding his finds, but he also  inherited the Hackin’s dog, an Alsatian  crossed with Khirgiz wolf. Tommi had yellow eyes.

 K de B then went to live in Paghman just outside Kabul encourged by his friend Shah Mahmood, the Afghan War Minister. And that is where he wrote his intelligence reports often in the middle of the night by candlelight. 2-3,000 words once a week. He had to be very careful as his room was searched regularly.

Sadly it seems that the British  Legation did their utmost to discredit K de B behind his back, but he did have the full backing of an important Political officer seconded to Kabul on special duties: Major Peter Hailey, whose uncle, Lord Hailey had been Governor of the Punjab. Lord Hailey had also been at Corpus Christi. They had both watched as Subash Chandra Bose slipped through the net but could not touch him. K de B was also in contact several times with ‘Silver.’  Silver was an agent working for the British, the Germans, the Italians the Japanese and the Russians. Mihir Bose has written book about ‘Silver’. Great stuff.

After the death of Joseph and Ria Hackin  K de B busied himself in Kabul with help of Mir Ahmad. At one point Kde B was openly accused of being a spy by the Japanese, which he had to play down. His main ‘enemies’ however were not the Germans or Italians under Pietro Quaroni, ‘a very clever man’, or the Afghans with whom he had excellent relations, but his own Legation who did not believe what he had found out and was telling them. Viz  They wanted to keep the lid on things and behaved as if in Purdah within their 26 acre walled compound out on a limb, relying for information on their Oriental Secretary who had been too long in post and paid for his infomation. A dodgy wicket in Kabul. And talking of cricket K de B did once keep wicket for England when they were playing another scratch team in the Legation’s ample grounds. Then there was tennis and the swimming pool. Life of O’Reilly…

But to quote K de B from one of his own reports there were problems within the Legation from the top down :

“Late in the Spring of 1941, Major Fletcher, the Second Secretary, frankly asked me my our position in Afghanistan. I told him what I knew of the Axis organisation and methods. He told me that the Minister, supported by Colonel Lancaster, the military attaché and the Oriental Secretary, did not accept these views. Their policy was pacific; as Lancaster continually said: “We must keep the Afghans quiet!”

“I suggested that proof was available, in so much as that the interpreter of the Italian Legation was a British citizen by birth, in spite of a false Afghan passport, and that since his parents were still alive in Quetta, he could be trapped and made to talk. This was done in July, and the breadth and depth of Axis propaganda was proved beyond a doubt.”

 “At the same time, the Afghans themselves took action. It had been known for some time that German agents in disguise were operating on the Frontier, and that money was being sent to the Fakir of Ipi. As a result of a quarrel among themselves, information as to their movements in the Logar Valley was given to Shah Mahmud, who forced Hashim ( The Afghan Prime Minister) to act.”

The Germans in question were in fact Brandenburgers, Wehrmacht special forces under the overall command of Admiral Canaris. Trained like the SAS but nothing like as competent and politically naïve. One, Professor Manfred Oberdörffer was posing as butterfly collector and the other Dr Fred Brandt was apparently doing research into leprosy even though there was very little leprosy in Afghanistan.  Shah Mahmood’s men set up an ambush in Logar province. They set off in Afghan clothes. Oberdoffer was killed, Dr Fred Brandt was badly wounded and accompanying tribesmen captured. Gold, arms and documents linking the plot to the Faqir of Ipi were captured. The Germans had been rumbled and subsequently all Axis agents were kicked out of Afghanistan, thus rendering the NW Frontier relatively safe for the duration of the war. All quiet on the NW Frontier.

“The story was never published in the Indian press, but it marks a turning point. From July 1941, Axis propaganda activities became an urgent problem for the Government of India and Afghan Government.”

Piqued at their own inaction, lack of initiative and passive ineptitude, the British Legation did what they could to discredit K de B behind his back in reports and comments and even took some credit for tipping the Afghans off. Shame on them.  K de B then spent another year in NWF Province in Peshawar, Mardan, Chitral, Parachinar, Delhi and Simla. He also wrote long report on Afghanistan which was later circulated by Chatham House. The minister in Kabul was not amused.

There is however an interesting letter from June 1945 to K de B from Col Percy Etherton ( another spy) who had been in the 39th Garwhal Rifles and Consul General in Kashgar keeping eyes on the Bolsheviks. At the end of the letter Churchill gives K de B his ‘very best wishes.’

At the end of the war K de B was offered a knighthood for his services  but said ” You can’t feed you family with a knighthood”. And so he was given the chair of Indian archaeology at UCL Institute of Archaeology based in Gordon Square. The first such Professorship in the country.

In 1947 K de B also put on a major exhibition of Indian Art at the Royal Academy. Earlier in the year he stayed in Viceregal Lodge, Delhi arranging for certain Indian sculptures to be sent to London. Mountbatten offered to ship them in a naval destroyer, an offer which K de B willingly took up. All the sculptures were then safely returned in 1948 and formed the basis of the Indian Archaeological Museum in New Delhi.

Professor Codrington moved to Appledore with his wife Philippa ( nee Fleming) in 1961 and they lived there for the next 25 years at Rose Cottage. The roses were Damask roses from cuttings he made whilst in Persian Khorassan in 1950. That year near Bamian he also surveyed the fortress of Shahr-e Zuhak, the Red City, sacked by Genghis Khan.

K de B was friends not only with the two other Appledore spies, Charles de Salis and Kenneth Benton but with Idries Shah the Afghan Sufi writer who grew up in Simla but then also lived in Kent. In his book The Sufis, Idries Shah commented on Professor Codrington’s translation of Gulistan by Sheikh Saadi and says that he alone of all western commentators understood the deeper meanings of Sufi poetry.  Voilà…

James Crowden

Read more about the Appledore spy Charles de Salis and the second Appledore spy Kenneth Benton