March is both Women’s History Month and International Women’s Month, which includes the marking of International Women’s Day on March 8th. In particular, as a history graduate and a feminist the former appeals to me greatly, and I decided to dig out a blog post I wrote way back in May 2007 (on the subject of one of my historical heroines) in honour of the occasion. Almost three years on, it naturally needed a little dusting off, a little editing and a few slight re-writes in places (and it’s also a little long) – but I hope you are as fascinated by the story of Noor Inayat Khan as I am.
“Nothing, neither her nationality, nor the traditions of her family, none of these 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” – Madame de Gaulle-Anthonioz at the memorial service for Noor Inayat Khan.
The memory of Noor Inayat Khan is, in the main, ignored in this country; unlike in France, where she is justly considered a heroine – ‘Madeleine dans la Resistance‘. But who was this girl with the pretty, exotic name, who is so revered by the French? And why should we care about her today?
We should care because this woman did something amazing, something most modern women (and men) would probably find almost impossible – considering our pampered 21st century lives.
Noor-un-nisa (‘flower of womanhood’) Inayat Khan was born on New Years’ Day 1914 in Moscow, the daughter of an American woman and an Indian Sufi preacher. She spent most of her childhood and teenage years in France, studying in Paris and eventually becoming a journalist and writer of children’s books. A creative and dreamy yet determined young woman, anyone meeting her in pre-war Paris would have been surprised by what she went on to do.
When World War II broke out in 1939, Noor faced a difficult decision. Brought up in the Sufi tradition of non-violence, but also believing in religious tolerance and having seen the behaviour of the Nazis as they invaded France, she felt that she could not just stand by and watch as the Germans attempted to impose their revolting system on the whole of Europe.
In June 1940, Noor and her family fled Paris ahead of the Nazi advance towards the city, eventually escaping to England. She joined up with the WAAF in order to play her part in the war effort and trained as a wireless operator, something she turned out to have a talent for. By 1942, she had been head-hunted by the Special Operations Executive (SOE), and this is where her story really begins.
The SOE had come into existence during the Battle of Britain in the summer of 1940, when Prime Minister Winston Churchill demanded that resistance against the Nazi threat should “set Europe ablaze”.
This new secret organisation aimed to sabotage the enemy war effort and be of aid to resistance fighters in the Nazi-occupied territories. It recruited secretly, using a network of recommendations, contacts or simply asking the services for people with language skills – SOE candidates came from a variety of backgrounds and were both male and female.
Noor, with her wireless skills and fluent French, may have seemed an obvious candidate – but for what she did not know when she received the letter inviting her for interview. Despite disagreement among her instructors as to whether she would make the grade and last out as an agent in the field, she was sent to France in June 1943 without fully finishing her training.
SOE had already lost many radio operators by that point – the Germans were able to trace their radio signals quickly and the equipment was very cumbersome and impossible to disguise as anything else: it was the most dangerous of all the SOE jobs – and were thus desperate enough to send the inexperienced Noor, who was a controversial choice anyway.
She was incompletely trained, a liability (according to some of her instructors), far too beautiful and noticable (according to others), and, incidentally, also the first female radio operator to be dropped in occupied France.
Unfortunately, Noor and her fellow agents were doomed from the start; all four of the agents parachuted into France that June full moon would eventually die at the hands of the Germans.
Noor herself was to become the radio operator of the Cinema circuit, which operated out of the Paris area. However, Cinema was closely connected to the already hopelessly compromised (and later notorious) Prosper circuit, which contained at least one double agent.
Under her codename ‘Madeleine’, Noor was transmitting almost immediately – but within a week of her arrival, the Prosper circuit began to collapse, taking much of Cinema with it in the process.
As agents and resistance workers were arrested around her, and with the Gestapo on her trail, Noor somehow managed to continue her transmissions back to London and to evade the Germans until the October of 1943 when she, too, was finally arrested.
Initially, she was taken to the most feared address in occupied Paris: 84 Avenue Foch – the headquarters of the Gestapo. After several documented escape attempts (one of which was within hours of her arrival there), she was sent as a ‘highly dangerous prisoner’ to Pforzheim prison in Germany.
She was kept chained and in appalling conditions there; and all the time the Germans were playing her radio back to SOE in London, who, despite the existence of safety codes for such a contingency, still hadn’t twigged that Noor, and most of the agents in Paris had been arrested.
These arrests had included not only Noor, but a number of particularly unlucky agents who were picked up literally as they set foot on French soil by German welcoming committees at the drop sites.
It wasn’t until March of 1944 that SOE finally realised this, and that the wireless messages they were getting weren’t coming from Noor. But by that point she was already a prisoner in Germany.
In September 1944, Noor and three other female agents – Madeleine Damerment, Eliane Plewman and Yolande Beekman – were taken to the concentration camp at Dachau, just outside Munich.
The three other agents were shot by the Germans on the day they arrived, but Noor was singled out to be beaten, tortured and possibly raped for hours before she was finally shot by an SS officer.
As he placed the gun to her head and despite her tortured, weakened state, at least one source states that she summoned up the energy and courage to call out one final word before she died: ‘libertié‘.
Although the Germans tried everything up to and including torture to get Noor to reveal what she knew, she never said a word. After the war, the Germans admitted that no arrests had ever resulted from information provided by ‘Madeleine’ because she’d never given them any information to begin with – they didn’t even know her real name.
This scrupulously honest young woman who was raised to believe that lying was the worst sin one could commit, this young Muslim girl with the blood of Indian princes and a belief in non-violence, ended up evading capture under near-impossible circumstances for almost four months and never cracked under torture. She was 30, only four years younger than I am, when she was executed.
I don’t think I could have done what she did. And I honestly don’t think there are many people today, of any age or any gender, who could carry on to the end like she did, despite the evil surrounding her and inflicted on her, with such dignity and self-respect and infinite courage. Her bravery and resourcefulness in appalling circumstances are what make her a heroine to me.
However, Noor is even more remarkable in my eyes because when she chose to get involved in the war effort it was not her fight she was getting entangled in, as Madame de Gaulle pointed out.
Her ancestry (she was very interested in the growing Indian independence movement, eventually fulfilled after her death) and her ethics did not oblige her to do what she did in France, let alone join the WAAF in the first place, but she consciously chose to fight for freedom.
After the war’s end, the SOE’s Vera Atkins (a remarkable woman in her own right) trekked across the conflict-ravaged Continent in order to scrupulously piece together the stories and the ultimate fates of her female agents, many of whom, like Noor, had not returned from their missions in occupied Europe. Atkins returned to London with files full of sad stories like that of Noor Inayat Khan.
Four years after the conflict ended, Noor, along with fellow agents Odette Samson (who survived the war) and Violette Szabo (who was also killed by the Germans) were all awarded the George Cross, the highest civilian award for bravery in Britain.
Noor also received a posthumous Croix de Guerre with Gold Star from the French; again the highest civilian award possible. The French have long celebrated the life of ‘Madeleine dans la Resistance‘, which takes on an added poignancy when it is remembered that the story of this brave and talented woman has received comparatively little attention outside historical circles in the foreign land she so determinedly fought for and died for.
For more on Noor and the female agents of the SOE, read:
Spy Princess – The Life of Noor Inayat Khan by Shrabani Basu (Sutton Publishing, 2006)
A Life in Secrets – The Story of Vera Atkins and the Lost Agents of SOE by Sarah Helm (Abacus, 2006)
Note: The above books (and some more general and academic history texts) were the main sources for the original version of this blog post. I have since added links to a few online sources in order to add further historical context to Noor’s story for those who are interested.