Every now and again while doing research for Scandalous Women I come across a story that is truly inspiring. I’ve wanted to write the story of Noor Inayat Khan for some time but work and other fascinating women have come along and Noor has been put on the back burner. Khan’s story is truly inspirational. She was a wartime British secret agent who was the first female radio operator sent into Nazi-occupied France by the Special Operations Executive (SOE). Unfortunately, she was arrested and eventually executed by the Gestapo.
Noor un-Nisa Inayat Khan was born on New Year's Day 1914 in Moscow. She was the first child of Hazrat Inayat Khan and his American wife, Ora Ray Baker (Ameena Begum). She was of royal descent from Tipu Sultan, the last Muslim ruler of the Kingdom of Mysore. He refused to submit to British rule and was killed in battle in 1799. Khan's father was a musician and the founder of the Sufi Order of the West and a teacher of Universal Sufism. He moved his family first to London just before the outbreak of World War I and then to Paris in 1920, where Khan was educated and learnt fluent French. As a child, Noor was considered sensitive, dreamy and shy but in 1927, her father died suddenly. At the age of 13, Noor became the head of the household, taking care of her younger siblings, her mother too stricken with grief to cope. After studying psychology at the Sorbonne and harp and piano at the Paris Conservatory under Nadia Boulanger, Noor turned to writing as a profession. She wrote stories for Radio Paris and Le Figaro and published a collection called Twenty Jataka Tales, adapted from ancient Buddhist stories for children, which appeared in 1939. She had plans to create an illustrated children’s newspaper called Bel Age but the war turned her life upside down.
When war broke out in 1939, Noor fled the country just before the fall of France escaping by boat to England with her mother and sister. Noor had been raised by her Sufi father to be tolerant of other religions and as a pacifist but she was outraged by the depredations of the Nazis. "I wish some Indians would win high military distinction in this war. If one or two could do something in the Allied service which was very brave and which everybody admired it would help to make a bridge between the English people and the Indians.” She felt called to take part in the work of liberating Europe, but was dismayed by the paradox of killing to prevent violence.
In England, she joined the WAAF (Women's Auxiliary Air Force) as a wireless operator and soon caught the attention of the Special Operations Executive. SOE's French Section was in dire need of new wireless operators. Finding people with the combination of fluent French and technical skills was rare. Their job was one of the most vulnerable an agent could take on: using radio direction-finding equipment the Gestapo could quickly pinpoint their location, and many were captured within just a few weeks of arriving in France. There was also the constant threat of being betrayed by a Nazi sympathizer or collaborator for money. Despite her own pacifist leanings, Noor was anxious to do something more for the war effort. She wrote back later the same day to accept.
But there were some who were unsure about her suitability (one SOE training report described her as ‘not over-burdened with brains’ and ‘unsuited to work in her field.’) She failed her fake Gestapo interrogation and there were worries that she wouldn’t be able to withstand the real thing. Despite these misgivings, in June 1943 she was flown to France to become the radio operator for the 'Prosper' resistance network in Paris, with the codename 'Madeleine'. Soon after she arrived in Paris, many members of the network were arrested. The Gestapo soon had all the names and addresses of current French Resistance members who were then rounded up and arrested. The SOE planned to get Noor out of France but she chose to remain, at least until they could someone to replace her. She spent the summer moving from place to place, trying to send messages back to London while avoiding capture. Between July and October, Noor sent and received messages that helped 30 Allied airmen escape, arranged for 4 agents to obtain false identity papers, and helped obtain weapons and money for members of the Resistance.
By the fall of 1943, Noor was the last radio operator active in France. The Gestapo, who had her description and knew her code name, made massive efforts to find her and sever the last link between the resistance and London but for months Noor eluded them. They failed to find her because Noor was extremely fast and she had a sixth sense about whom she could trust and who she could not.
But in October of 1943, Noor's luck finally ran out. She was betrayed by a Frenchwoman for 100,000 francs and arrested by the Gestapo. Noor fought like her captors like a tigress. Unfortunately she had kept copies of all her secret signals and the Germans were able to use her radio to trick London into sending new agents - straight into the hands of the waiting Gestapo. Khan escaped from prison twice, once by climbing out the window but was recaptured each time a few hours later. In November 1943, she was sent to Pforzheim prison in Germany where she was kept in chains and in solitary confinement. Noor soon proved those who had doubted she had the strength to withstand torture and interrogation wrong. Despite repeated torture, starvation, beatings and humiliation for nearly a year, Noor refused to reveal any information. She meditated and thought of her father to help keep her spirits up. Her courage and strength led her captors to brand her "highly dangerous.” After refusing to sign a paper stating that she would stop trying to escape, Noor and three other female SOE agents were transferred to Dachau where on 13 September 1944 they were shot and their bodies consigned to the crematorium. Her last word uttered as the German firing squad raised their weapons was a simple “Liberté.” Days later, Dachau was in the hands of the Allied forces, too late to save Noor and the others.
For her courage, Noor Khan was posthumously awarded the George Cross in 1949, one of only three women to be given the award for bravery. The citation read: ‘She refused to abandon what had become the principal and most dangerous post in France, although both given the opportunity to return to England, because she did not wish to leave her French comrades without communications.’ In France she was honoured with the Croix de Guerre, where she is still revered today as “Madeleine of the Resistance.”
On November 7, 2012, The Princess Royal unveiled a sculpture of Noor, in London's Gordon Square Gardens, near the house where she lived and from where she left on her last mission. The statue, which commemorates Britain’s only female Muslim war heroine, is the first stand-alone memorial to an Asian woman in the UK. Campaigners spent years raising £60,000 for the statue from public donations. Princess Anne stated that she hoped the statue will ‘remind people to ask: Who was she? Why is she here? And what can we achieve in her memory.’ Noor deeply affected the hearts of all those she encountered, from her childhood meeting with her father's disciples, to the Nazi interrogators who destroyed her body, but could not break her spirit
Recently, producers Zafar Hai and Tabrez Noorani obtained the film rights to Shrabani Basi’s biography Spy Princess, which they hope to premiere next year in time for Noor’s centenary introducing Noor’s story to an international audience.
Further reading:Kathryn J. Atwood – Women Heroes of World War II: 26 Stories of Sabotage, Resistance, and Rescue, Chicago Review Press, 2011
Shrabani Basi – Spy Princess: The Life of Noor Inayat Khan, Sutton Publishing, 2006
Marcus Binney – The Women Who Lived for Danger: The Women Agents of SOE in the Second World War, Coronet Books, 2003Rita Kramer – Flames in the Field: The Story of Four SOE Agents in Occupied France, Michael Joseph, 1995