Noor Inayat Khan
- Born: Moscow, Russia, 1914.
- SOE Rank: Assistant Section Officer.
- AKA: ‘Nora Baker’, ‘Madeleine’, ‘Nurse’, ‘Jeanne-Marie Renier’.
- Died: Dachau Concentration Camp, Bavaria, 1944.
Continuing Leadballoony’s fabulous Fembruary challenge, Number 4 in my SOE spy series is Noor Inayat Khan. With this Bad Squiddo Games figure, we have a lady trying to get somewhere in a hurry with a suspiciously heavy-looking briefcase…
Noor Inayat Khan’s musician father was a teacher of Sufism and came from a family of Indian Muslims with hereditary nobility (his great-great-grandfather was Tipu Sultan, ruler of Mysore). Her mother, Ora Ray Baker, was an American. Noor studied music at the Paris Conservatory but went on to became a writer being a regular contributor to children’s magazines and to French radio. In 1939, her book, Twenty Jataka Tales was published, inspired by traditional Buddhist tales. At the outbreak of war, Noor escaped from Paris and on arriving in the UK joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) as a wireless operator. Seeking a greater challenge she secured a commission and was later recruited to the Special Operations Executive in 1943.
Some of those who trained her had doubts about her suitability for what was undoubtedly a very dangerous task ahead. Her finishing training report read:
“Not overburdened with brains but has worked hard and shown keenness, apart from some dislike of the security side of the course. She has an unstable and temperamental personality and it is very doubtful whether she is really suited to work in the field.” Next to this comment, Maurice Buckmaster, the head of F Section, had written in the margin “Nonsense” and that “We don’t want them overburdened with brains.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Noor_Inayat_Khan
It’s a little difficult over 70 years on not to wonder whether a degree of scorn for her gender, if not her race (“physically unsuited… she would not easily disappear into a crowd”), may have influenced some of that opinion. That Noor was a trained harpist who studied at the Paris conservatory, was a published writer and won a commission as an officer seems to contradict the ‘no brains’ assessment. There was another aspect may have also compromised her assessor’s faith in her ability to do the job. Noor’s upbringing made her committed to non-violence and she was apparently distinctly uncomfortable with weapon training (“Pretty scared of weapons but tries hard to get over it.”).
Her brother Vilayat recalled attempting to stop his sister going on this hazardous mission:
“You see, Nora and I had been brought up with the policy of Gandhi’s nonviolence, and at the outbreak of war we discussed what we would do”, said Vilayat, who had followed his father and become a Sufi mystic. “She said, ‘Well, I must do something, but I don’t want to kill anyone.’ So I said, ‘Well, if we are going to join the war, we have to involve ourselves in the most dangerous positions, which would mean no killing.’ Then, when we eventually go to England, I volunteered for minesweeping and she volunteered for SOE, and so I have always had a feeling of guilt because of what I said that day.“
Questioned closely by a sceptical SOE as to whether she had the confidence to go ahead with this incredibly dangerous assignment, Noor was apparently shocked that there was any doubt and insisted adamantly that she wanted to go, being fully competent for the work.
In June 1943, Noor (working under the codename of ‘Madeleine’) was flown to France to become the first female radio operator for a resistance network in Paris called ‘Prosper’. Members of the network were arrested shortly after she arrived but she insisted on staying on to remain in France and spent the summer moving from place to place, trying to send messages back to London while avoiding capture. In 1943, an operator’s life expectancy was six weeks. She had to move location very frequently to avoid detection and would have carried her bulky transmitter in a suitcase, as we can see with Bad Squiddo’s figure here.
Noor was betrayed to the Germans by the sister of another French agent and arrested by the Gestapo. Interrogated at their HQ in Paris, she attempted escape twice with other agents but was recaptured in the vicinity. After refusing to sign a declaration renouncing future escape attempts, she was taken to Germany. Hans Kieffer, the former head of the SS in Paris, testified after the war that she did not give the Gestapo a single piece of information, but lied consistently. She was held at the same location for ten months, classified as “highly dangerous” and kept in appalling circumstances (shackled in chains most of the time) until she was transferred to Dachau concentration camp with three other captured female agents. There they were all executed.
Noor Inayat Khan was posthumously awarded the George Cross and by the French with a Croix de Guerre with silver star. Noor is the first woman of South Asian descent to have a blue plaque honouring her in London. The plaque was unveiled at a virtual ceremony on the 28th August 2020.
Noor Inayat Khan might not have had the bravado of Nancy Wake, or the recklessness of Krystyna Skarbek, but in my opinion she was nonetheless possessed of a rare implacable bravery that led her to ultimately sacrifice herself in the most lonely and terrifying circumstances for a cause she believed in.
One more SOE lady to go in this FEMbruary series which I’ll hopefully share soon.