Excerpt from Appalachia, Summer/Fall 2008
Three Allied officers traverse the Lowari Pass to Chitral
in 1943: The Southern Route to Tirish Mir and the
Hindu Kush Mountains
Gordon Enders may have proposed the trip. Or perhaps it was “Benjy” Bromhead’s idea. Or maybe “Wild Bill” Donovan of the O.S.S. suggested it. Forty years earlier, Rudyard Kipling would have written about it, and in 1943 the Viceroy of India wanted to hear about it in person.
We now can see that this trip in November and December 1943—kept secret at the time and eventually forgotten—was when the United States entered the Great Game in Central Asia. The trip was an audacious journey by three Allied military officers along virtually the entire length of The Border—Kipling’s term for the so-called Durand Line that separated Afghanistan from India—from Chitral in the north to Quetta in the south. The three officers traveled by jeep, on horseback, and on foot at the height of World War II, with snow, ice, mud, and dust as their constant companions. With armed escorts, the officers dodged bombs and howitzer shells, and land mines and tank traps. Miraculously, they fell into no harm as they traveled through the notorious tribal areas and the principalities of Kipling’s rebellious “Five Kings,” and peered into Afghanistan from a mountaintop near the Khyber Pass. They also met some very interesting people along the way. This paper is based on the recently discovered collection of photographs, notes and reports that were prepared by one of the travelers—Lieutenant A.W. Zimmermann.
In October 1943, the Allied Inteligence Bureau (AIB) in Quetta, Baluchistan,1 approved adding a U.S. Naval officer to the proposed mission that was being sent to Chitral. AIB Quetta asked the Central Intelligence Office in Karachi to act quickly, knowing that snow would soon close the 10,250-foot Lowari Pass into Chitral until spring. Located northeast of Peshawar, Chitral state (now district) was the most remote area on the south side of the Hindu Kush Mountains—the westernmost range of the great mountains of central Asia that are often referred to generically as the Himalaya. Chitral was the most northern principality in what was once known as the North-West Frontier Province of India (now one of the four provinces of Pakistan). Chitral was ruled by a hereditary chief, known as the mehtar (a Persian word meaning mighty).2 Chitral town is less than 30 miles south of the Wakhan—the narrow strip of Afghanistan that was created to separate Russia from India—just north of the massif of Tirish Mir. By 1943, Russia had become the USSR; today, Tajikistan is across the northern border of the Wakhan. The Afghan border is only ten miles west of Chitral town, and the only year-round route from Chitral to Peshawar is via Jalalabad, Afghanistan, and back into Pakistan via the Khyber Pass.
Although Chitral is very remote, it has great strategic importance: The valley of Chitral has been an invasion route from the north into India for more than 4,000 years, and the blue-eyed Kalash-Kafir people—“Wearers of the Black Robe”—who live in this valley are said to be descendants of five soldiers of Alexander the Great. More than 20 armies have marched through Chitral into India, including the Moguls, whose legacy includes the Taj Mahal. The British had long believed that Russia was slowly but steadily moving south with intent to conquer India, in a grand plan that was devised by Peter the Great (who died in 1725). The struggle between the British and the Russians for hegemony in Central Asia was called the Great Game by players on both sides, and the British expected that the Soviet Union would continue the thrust to the south that had been successfully conducted by the Tsars for nearly 200 years. This contest involved many individuals from both nations who entered the Great Game for adventure and personal reward, as well as for service to their respective states. Medals, honors, promotions, fame, and financial success awaited individual winners in this game. On the other hand, losers often just disappeared—starved, or died of exposure—or were subjected to horrific tortures, slavery, and beheading.
At the beginning of the 20th century, the viceroy of India, Lord Curzon, established a policy of pacification and support for the tribal leaders along the south side of the Afghan border. This policy included provision of a substantial annual payment—known as a tribute—to the tribal leaders and other rulers along the border. By coincidence, in the summer and fall of 1943, a new mehtar, Muzaffar-ul-Mulk, was installed as the ruler of Chitral, and a new British political officer—Major Benjamin Bromhead—arrived in Peshawar. It was important for Bromhead to meet the new mehtar, and to assure him that the traditional British policy would continue. Bromhead could also show the mehtar and the other rulers along the border that the British now had an important new ally in the Great Game—the United States of America. But time was of the essence: Winter was approaching, and the northernmost point on the trip had to be reached as soon as possible.
The three American and British officers who traveled along the Afghan-Indian border in the fall of 1943 were Albert W. Zimmermann, Gordon Bandy Enders, and Sir Benjamin Bromhead. They were well qualified for this mission.
Zimmermann was a U.S. Naval Intelligence Officer who was stationed at the Naval Liaison Office in Karachi. He was born in 1902, and he was the youngest of the three travelers. He was a mechanical engineer by training, a wool broker by profession, and an expert photographer. He was also a competent silversmith, a gifted baritone, an ace golfer, and a good horseback rider. Zimmermann had studied French and Urdu as an intelligence officer and was learning to speak Arabic, and he had traveled as an intelligence officer on R.A.F. flights to Ceylon and on camelback along the coast of the Indian Ocean. Zimmermann would soon become the commanding officer of the U.S. Navy Liaison Office in Karachi, and he was later promoted to lieutenant commander.
Enders was the U.S. Army military attaché in Kabul, Afghanistan. He was born in Iowa in about 1895, but he had grown up in the Himalayas as the son of a Presbyterian missionary who was stationed on the border between India and Tibet. Enders had traveled extensively in Tibet, where he was an adviser to the Panchen Lama, and in China, where he had been on the staff of Chiang Kai-shek. He had served as an ambulance driver in World War I and he was an expert pilot. He was also a well-known lecturer and the author of two books. Enders called himself “an American Kim,” and he believed that he was already a participant in the Great Game. Since 1942, Enders had been the military attaché in Kabul; he was apparently the first American diplomat appointed to serve in Afghanistan.
Bromhead was born in 1900. He was a graduate of the British military academy at Sandhurst, and in November 1943, he was the assistant public relations officer in Peshawar. He was the fifth baronet Bromhead of Thurlby Hall, Lincolnshire, having acceded to the title of baronet in 1935 on the death of his grandfather, the fourth baronet. Bromhead had fought in Iraq, and he was wounded in Waziristan in the 1920s; he had been mentioned in dispatches for heroism in 1930 and 1937. He had commanded the Zhob Militia in Baluchistan since 1940 and would soon become the Political Agent for North Waziristan. Bromhead came from a family that was distinguished by both military honors and scholarship. The first and third baronets Bromhead were lieutenant-generals who fought at Saratoga and Waterloo, respectively, while the second baronet was a fellow of the Royal Society. His grandfather and another great uncle were Companions of the Bath (CB), and a first cousin—Brigadier David Bromhead, CBE—was a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society. Benjy Bromhead, as he was called, was well acquainted with the Great Game. He was in the third generation of his family to serve as an officer in the Indian Army. His great uncle, Lieutenant-Colonel Gonville Bromhead, VC, was buried at Allahabad, India.
George and Helene Hill are members of the Four Thousand Footer Club of the Appalachian Mountain Club.