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Archive for January 15, 2011

The Princess who became a spy

”Liberte”! That was the last word spoken by the heroine of Churchill’s spy network of sabotage force, the Special Operations Executive (SOE), before she was executed by the Gestapo. Noor Inayat Khan’s life ended on September 13, 1944 at the age of 30. Although being tortured and imprisoned for 10 months under horrible conditions, the British agent with code name “Madeline” never revealed anything to her interrogators. Noor-Un Nisa Inayat Khan was the daughter of Hazrat Inayat Khan who came from a princely Indian Muslim family (he was the great-grandson of Tipu Sultan, the famous 18th century ruler of the Kingdom of Mysore who died in the struggle against the British). He lived in Europe as a musician and teacher of Sufism. Her mother, Ora Meena Ray Baker, was an American woman from Albuquerque, New Mexico.


Noor Inayat Khan was born in the Soviet Union on 1st January 1914, but shortly after her birth and right before the outbreak of 1st world war, the family left to London and lived in Bloomsbury. From there, they moved to France in 1920 and settled in Suresnes near Paris. After the death of her father in 1927, Noor had to take the responsibility for her grief stricken mother and younger siblings. In the mean time, she also studied child psychology at the Sorbonne and music (harp) at the Paris conservatory. She started her career writing poetry for children’s stories and became a regular contributor to children’s magazines and French radio. After the outbreak of World War 2, France was overrun by German troops and the family had to flee from Paris to Bordeaux and then to England. They settled down in Falmouth, Cornwall in June 1940.


Even though Noor had been deeply influenced by her father’s pacifist teachings, she and her brother Vilayet decided to participate in defeating the Nazi tyranny in 1939. On November 19th, 1940, Noor joined the women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAT) and trained as a wireless operator. Later, she was recruited to join F (France) section of the special operations Executive and in early February 1943, she was posted to the Air Ministry, Directorate of Air Intelligence. Here she joined First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY) and sent to Surrey. During her trainings, Noor took the name Nora Baker. While working at Royal Air Force bomber station, her ability to speak French fluently brought her to the attention of the special operations Executive (SOE). After being interviewed at the war office, she agreed to become a British special agent. Her superiors held at first mixed opinions about her suitability for secret warfare and espionage, and her training was incomplete. But because of her ability to speak French fluently and the competency she had in wireless operation at a time of shortage of experienced agents, made her a desirable candidate for service in France. In November 1942, Noor had become a secret agent. Selwyn Jepoon, the novelist who turned into a spy first interviewed her for SOE. He later on described her being small with still features, dark quit eyes, soft voice and the fire spirit glowing in her.

Between 16 and 17 June 1943, Noor was flown to Northern France under the code name Madeleine and Nurse. From there she traveled to Paris in the company of two other agents (Diana Rowden, code name Paulette/Chaplan and Cecily Lefort, code named Alice/Teacher) and accessed the physician network led by Francis Suttil, code name prosper. Unfortunately, over the next months, all other physician network radio operators were arrested by the SD as they were infiltrated by a German spy. Knowing that she was in danger, Noor firmly rejected to return to Britain and continued to transmit as the last important link between London and Paris. She was intelligent and managed to escape arrest by moving from place to place while she maintained wireless communication with London.


With F section in disarray, Noor was betrayed in October most probably by Renée Garry, sister of her first contact in Paris or Henri Dericourt (code name Gilbert who used to be an SOE officer and former French Air Force pilot who was suspected of working as a double agent for the Germans. Gestapo arrested her and took her to the Gestapo headquarter in Paris where she was interrogated. On her arrest, Noor fought so fiercely that the SD officers were afraid of her and ranked her as extremely dangerous prisoner. Despite being held in custody, Noor managed to escape twice. Hans Kieffer, the former head of Gestapo in Paris, testified after the war that she didn’t give the Gestapo a single piece of information but instead constantly lied to them. After refusing to sign a declaration renouncing future escape attempts. Noor Inayat Khan was taken to Germany on 27 November 1943 for “safe custody” and imprisoned in secrecy for 10 months. Here she was classified as “highly dangerous” and shackled in chains most of the time. As she was forced by the Germans to keep up a radio transmission (the radio game that inflicted on captured agents), Noor sent the agreed 18 letter signal to alert SOE about her capture but it was ignores by the SOE blunders. She was interrogated and tortured but managed to stay silent. Unfortunately, the Nazi’s discovered a book that had been in her possession where she had recorded all the messages she had sent and received to Britain. Gestapo then broke her codes and sent false information to the SEO in London capturing three more secret agents that had landed in France.

On 11th September 1944, Noor Inayat Khan and three other SOE agents, Yolanda Beekman, Eliane Plewman and Madeleine D. were moved to the Dachau Concentration camp and in the early hours of the morning in 12th September 1944, the four women were executed by the Shutz Staffeinel (SS) with a gunshot to the head. Then their bodies were burnt in the crematorium. An anonymous Dutch prisoner who emerged in 1958, told that Noor Inayat Khan was cruelly beaten by a high ranking SS officer by the name Wilhelm Ruppert before being shot. Her last word was “Liberte”.

The story of the young Indian Muslim woman who joined a secret organization dedicated to acts of sabotage across Europe didn’t end here. Noor Inayat Khan was posthumously awarded a British Mention in Dispatches and a French Croix de Guerre with Gold Star making her one of the three World War II  FANY members to be awarded the George Cross, Britain’s highest award for gallantry not on the battle field. Then at the beginning of 2011, a campaign was launched to raise £100,000 for a bronze bust of her in central London close to her former home making her the first Muslim/Asian woman for giving her life on active service. At a memorial service in Paris, general de Gaulle’s niece summed up her achievements; “Nothing, neither her nationality, nor the traditions of her family, none of this obliged her to take her position in the war. However she chose it. It is our fight that she chose, that she pursued with an admirable, an invincible courage and when she died with freedom on her lips”.

Noor Inayat Khan worked with passion and audacity to damage and disrupt the forces of law and order. When she was captured, she proved to be impenitent and uncontrollable. She died a horrible death, the daughter of an Indian Sufi but she will always be remembered as the “dreamy sensitive child” who became a brave tigress. Her officers were impressed by her fearlessness and boldness but they later told that she was the most remarkable person they had met. History will always remember Noor Inayat Khan for her braveness and struggle for freedom.

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