Muslim SOE Operative, pacifist, musician and poet, who dropped into occupied France in 1943.
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… it would help to make a bridge between the English people and the Indians.Noor Inayat Khan
On the night of June 16th 1943, a wireless operator codenamed Madeleine/Nurse climbed aboard a Lysander aircraft and flew to a landing ground in Northern France. Alongside two other female agents codenamed Paulette/Chaplain and Alice/Teacher*, she travelled under no illusions as to the risk she was undertaking – SOE operatives held a life expectancy of six weeks in German occupied France.
Born in Moscow to Hazrat Inayat Khan, a famous Indian Sufi mystic and musician and an American mother, Pirani Ameena Begum, Noor Inayat-Khan was the eldest of 4 siblings. At the outbreak of war her family had been living near Paris, where Noor studied child psychology and music, published poetry and children’s stories and contributed to magazines and French radio. As the German’s advanced through France, the family fled across the channel to England after a difficult journey from Bordeaux.
Despite being an ardent pacifist and promoter of Indian Independence, Noor and her brother Vilayet nonetheless decided, in the face of Nazi aggression, that non-violence was not enough. They agreed they would work “to thwart the aggression of the tyrant”. On arrival, Noor volunteered for the Women’s Auxiliary Airforce (WAAF) and was soon recruited as an agent for SOE.
As a pacifist raised under Sufism – a mystical form of Islam – her ‘gentle manner’ and ‘lack of ruse’ had worried her instructors during SOE training and she had responded badly to mock interrogations, becoming so terrified and overwhelmed that she nearly lost her voice. Noor was reported as having descended into gloom and being particularly troubled at what she was about to undertake, and such were the concerns over her suitability for the mission that a number of fellow agents wrote to their handler Vera Atkins expressing their concern. Summoned to London, Atkins offered her agent a way out – a transfer to another branch with no embarrassment or judgement. Noor could continue playing a vital role in the war effort. “For us there is only one crime: to go out there and let your comrades down.”**
Noor was adamant that she was fit for duty; the cause of her behaviour, as Atkins had suspected, was concern for her family. She had found saying goodbye to her mother extraordinarily painful, particularly the deception it had involved; naturally she had been unable to tell her mother anything about her mission. Atkins agreed to keep information away from Noor’s mother unless it was beyond any doubt that she was dead. Assured in this way, Noor seemed content and enthusiastic once more.
Upon landing in near Angers on the night of June 16th, Noor made her way to Paris where she linked up with her network to begin work as a wireless operator, probably the most dangerous work for agents in the field. Her job was to maintain a link between the network in the field and London, but as the operator Noor was extremely open to detection. After finding a location from which to send a message, operators would often wait hours for a confirmation their message had been received. However, the longer they stayed on the air transmitting, the more likely it was that their signal would be picked up and detection vans would trace the source of the signals. The transmitter itself was very bulky and difficult to disguise; if stopped and searched, there was little chance of explaining the device.
Noor’s position became even more hazardous 10 days into her mission when her network was exposed and the Gestapo began arresting members. 3 months later, Noor was betrayed to the Germans and arrested in Paris. Details of her betrayal and arrest are unclear, but by the time of her capture in October, Noor had been single-handedly carrying out the work of six radio operators, dying her hair blonde and evading capture long after the rest of her network had been arrested.
In captivity she revealed nothing through months of brutal interrogation, torture and imprisonment, and made a number of escape attempts, briefly succeeding on one occasion. She declined to sign a declaration renouncing future escape attempts and was classified as highly dangerous and uncooperative, meaning she was kept shackled in chains by her hands and feet for much of her captivity. After eight months imprisonment at Pforzheim prison in solitary confinement, suffering regular beatings and interrogations while on the lowest rations, Noor was moved to Dachau along with 4 other agents – Yolande Beekman, with whom she had completed training in Britain, Eliane Plewman and Madeleine Damerment. Before leaving, Noor etched a note detailing her mother’s address in London and passed it to another prisoner. Noor had not wanted her mother to be notified unless she had been killed; evidently she had some foreboding as to what would happen next.
Within days of the women’s arrival in Dachau, they had all been killed, however their death’s remain shrouded in mystery. A discredited Gestapo account reported that the women had been made to kneel in pairs before being executed. However an eyewitness interview gathered by Canadian intelligence tells a different story. It described how all four prisoners were ‘handled very roughly’ before three were taken away to be shot. Noor, perhaps because of her reputation as a difficult prisoner or on account of her race, was kept aside to be chained, kicked and almost beaten to death by an SS officer overnight, before being shot separately the next day. Killed at the age of 30, her last word was reported as being ‘Liberté’.✝︎
Noor Inayat Khan was awarded the George Cross in 1949, which ranks as Britain’s highest non-military award for Gallantry, and a French Croix de Guerre with Silver Star. She is commemorated in Paris with a plaque outside her home, where each year on Bastille day a band gathers to play in her memory. In 2012 a memorial bust of Noor was unveiled in Gordon Square by the Noor Inayat Khan Memorial Trust. It sits near the house where she lived and from which she left on her mission to France, in the square where she enjoyed sitting and reading on her days off. It reminds us that Noor, who displayed such bravery and held fast in unbearable conditions, was at heart a peaceful, thoughtful woman, a poet and musician, who sacrificed everything for the causes of peace and tolerance.
✝︎ Detailing these horrific accounts is not intended to be gratuitous, rather, we include them to ensure what Noor and these individuals endured is not forgotten. It is also intended as a testament to their immense courage. They left their homes under no illusions as to the dangers they faced, knowing full well what awaited them should they be captured, yet still boarded a plane at the dead of night to be dropped into a country where they were expected to survive no more than six weeks.
** Helm, Sarah (2005). A Life in Secrets: Vera Atkins and the Missing Agents of WWII.