Noor Inayat Khan: the daring life of the British WW2 ‘spy princess’
The first female wireless operator to be sent behind enemy lines during the Second World War, Noor Inayat Khan's tale is one of courage and tragedy. Rhiannon Davies explores her story
Who was Noor Inayat Khan?
Noor Inayat Khan made history as the first female wireless operator to be sent behind enemy lines in France during the Second World War. Working for Britain’s clandestine Special Operations Executive (SOE), she was sent to Paris in the summer of 1943 to support the Parisian resistance network, Prosper.
However, the Gestapo had already infiltrated Prosper, and not long after Noor’s arrival the network collapsed. Despite London urging her to return home, Khan remained in enemy territory, determined to keep communicating with Britain – but the Gestapo were closing in. The Nazis finally captured her in October 1943, and managed to impersonate her to trick SOE into sending further waves of agents into their traps.
After her arrest, Noor was imprisoned for almost a year in increasingly squalid conditions, until she was sent to Dachau concentration camp in September 1944 and executed.
Was Noor Inayat Khan a princess?
Khan was born on 1 January 1914 in Moscow, and was descended from Indian royalty.
Her father – a Sufi teacher called Hazrat Inayat Khan – was related to Tipu Sultan, the famed 17th-century ruler of Mysore in southern India.
Khan’s mother, Ora Ray Baker (who changed her name to Amina Begum after marriage), was an American poet.
“Khan had a pretty idyllic childhood,” says historian Kate Vigurs, who was speaking to us about Noor Inayat Khan for our Life of the Week podcast series. “She had a very loving family, and was surrounded by philosophy, music and religious teachings”.
During Khan’s formative years the family lived in London, but then they relocated to France in 1920.
“I believe things were a little difficult to Khan at first, because she and her family only spoke English, but she was a very intelligent child and quickly picked up the language,” says Vigurs.
However, Khan’s idyllic childhood was fractured in 1927 when her father tragically died.
“A few months after his death, she went to visit the family home in India – this is the only time we’re aware of that she travelled there – and she became very taken with the place.”
Khan also sought solace in writing. She was a talented author, first penning poems and later publishing children’s stories. But when the Second World War broke out, her life was upturned once again.
Noor Inayat Khan and pacifism
When France fell to the Nazis in 1940, Khan and her family decided to flee to Britain.
But as war engulfed Europe, Khan was desperate to help those suffering, and she and her sister started training as Red Cross nurses.
According to Vigurs, this decision was typical of Khan: “She always wanted to help people. She always wanted to do the best that she could.”
However, rather than continue with her nursing, Khan changed course and followed her brother into the armed forces.
He initially wanted to enlist in the RAF, but poor eyesight meant he could not, so he joined the navy Khan signed up with the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force instead and trained as a wireless operator, learning to quickly send and receive messages in Morse code.
This new direction deeper into warfare was directly at odds with Khan’s deeply held principles of pacifism. “She was a pacifist, having been brought up in a very peaceful and caring environment,” says Vigurs. “There must have been some conflict in her head about what she was going to do during the war, to be able to contribute.”
Vigurs reasons: “Being a wireless operator wasn’t an active role – she wasn’t bearing arms, and was instead acting in a support capacity. Perhaps she felt like she wanted to contribute in a way that was a little more practical .”
How did Noor Inayat Khan become a secret agent?
Khan’s skill as a wireless operator eventually brought her to the attention of SOE.
This intelligence organisation was founded in 1940, and existed to “assist and coordinate local clandestine activity against the occupying Nazis”.
To help support resistance groups across Europe and beyond, the SOE needed to recruit men and women with a range of skills, from wireless operators to weapons experts.
Khan was recruited after just one interview, and then began her training so she would be able to survive while on assignment.
As well as honing her Morse code skills, she was also taught how to handle weapons, survival skills and security measures for keeping codes secret.
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But some of Khan’s tutors – and even her fellow students – worried that she wasn’t up to the job.
Vigurs explains: “Her training reports were extremely poor. They described her as ‘dreamy’ and said she’s ‘not overburdened with brains’” – assessments that the head of SOE France, Maurice Buckmaster, vehemently disagreed with.
“But it was even worse than that. Some of her fellow trainees wrote a letter to Buckmaster saying that they didn’t think she was suitable for work in the field. Her wireless skills were superb, but her personality and the lack of security demonstrated on the training course were a real cause for concern.”
Despite these objections, Khan remained committed to being an SOE agent – and the Parisian SOE networks desperately needed a wireless operator of her calibre to help them. Against the advice of some instructors and trainee agents, she was sent into the field in the summer of 1943.
Was Noor Inayat Khan a WW2 spy?
On the night of 16 June 1943, Noor boarded a Lysander (a small landing aircraft) heading for France. In the early hours of the morning she arrived in the Loire Valley and made her way to Paris, clasping a suitcase with her wireless set hidden inside, and with a cover identity as a nurse that would hopefully save her from the Nazis.
She started working for the Prosper network almost immediately. Her job was to communicate with SOE back in Britain, to coordinate the arrival of agents and weaponry to aid the Resistance.
“A lot of people refer to these wireless operators as spies,” says Vigurs. “They weren’t strictly intelligence gatherers, although they did dabble, so I prefer to use the term ‘secret agent’.”
Khan’s job was an incredibly dangerous one.
“Being a wireless operator was the most dangerous job for any SOE agent,” Vigurs explains. “To start with, the wireless sets were hidden inside suitcases, so you would be literally carrying the tools of your trade that would give you away in an instant.
“Operators were given a life expectancy of six weeks, and a survival rate of 50-50.”
How did Noor Inayat Khan get caught?
Shortly after Khan arrived in Paris, the Prosper network began to collapse. The Gestapo had managed to infiltrate the group, and “once one arrest happened, it was like a house of cards”.
Although Prosper had essentially disbanded, with its agents either arrested or in hiding, Khan was determined to stay and help.
“She maintained wireless contact, and this was the most important thing”, says Vigurs. It is noted that she was the sole wireless contact out of Paris at this incredibly important time. “She’s held up for her bravery, for staying in Paris when nobody else was there.”
The Gestapo were desperate to catch her. Khan managed to evade them throughout the summer, though there were several near misses.
For instance, Vigurs shares that “she dyed her hair blonde, which sent goosebumps down everybody’s spine as it made her really recognisable.”
Although Khan quickly dyed it brown again to be less conspicuous, Vigurs says one error in this period proved insurmountable: “The most critical thing she did was keep a record of all her messages. She kept them in code, and she kept them in clear [as the decoded messages were known]. She used to carry them in her bag, and when her friend urged her to stop, she left them on the kitchen table instead – she never got rid of those messages. She should have burnt them.”
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Was Noor Inayat Khan betrayed?
On 13 October 1943, the Gestapo finally caught up with her. Vigurs believes that Khan was betrayed by a Frenchwoman, who was worried that a man she had feelings for was interested in Khan.
“There were 100,000 francs on Noor’s head, and she was betrayed for just 10,000. So, whoever betrayed her really wanted to get rid of her.
“I want to caveat this about her arrest,” says Vigurs. “It's something I've been giving a lot of thought to recently. She was betrayed. She wasn't caught because of lack of security.
“Now would she have been caught later? Would something else have happened? Obviously, it's not something we can answer, but I think people are very quick to say it was her lack of security that got her into the position she was in, but it was betrayal that caused her arrest at the end of the day.”
However, her lack of security did prove crucial. On the day of her arrest, it wasn’t only Khan that the Gestapo captured – they also seized her collection of notebooks, containing both her coded and clear messages.
What happened after Noor Inayat Khan’s arrest?
After her arrest, Noor Inayat Khan was taken to 84 Avenue Foch, the Gestapo’s headquarters in Paris.
Using her wits, she managed to escape almost immediately, shimmying out of a bathroom window and flying across the rooftops. However, she was swiftly recaptured and brought in for interrogation.
“We often think of 84 Avenue Foch as a torture house, where the most horrific things were carried out, says Vigurs.
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“But they didn't need to do this to Khan – although her interrogations were still brutal – because they had everything they needed. They had her notebooks with the codes, and they'd already caught the rest of the Prosper circuit.”
With Khan’s notebooks, the Gestapo were able to impersonate her over the radio and communicate with SOE themselves. It’s estimated that they lured 167 agents to Paris with this technique, with many being arrested and executed.
What were Noor Inayat Khan’s last words?
After a second failed escape attempt, Khan’s treatment in captivity declined dramatically.
“Her treatment changed overnight. She was put into manacles and registered as a ‘dangerous prisoner’, and was sent to Pforzheim prison, where she was kept in dreadful conditions. She was wearing a basic sack cloth, and couldn’t raise her hands to her own mouth to feed herself.”
After spending almost a year at Pforzheim, Khan and a small group of other female prisoners were transferred to Dachau concentration camp to be executed. According to Vigurs, it seems Khan was viciously assaulted by prison guards upon her arrival: “When she was taken out to be shot on the morning of 13 September 1944, she was a bloody mess. She had been absolutely brutalised.”
“She was taken out to a mound behind the crematorium, which was where prisoners were shot at Dachau. She was killed with a single shot to the back of the neck, and her final word was ‘Liberte’.”
She was just 30 years old.
Life of the Week: Noor Inayat KhanMember exclusive | Explore the lives of some of history’s most intriguing figures. In this episode, historian Kate Vigurs shares the daring story of Noor Inayat Khan.
A former BBC History Magazine section editor, Rhiannon has long been fascinated by history and continues to write for HistoryExtra.com. She has appeared on the award-winning HistoryExtra podcast, interviewing experts on a variety of subjects, from Lucy Worsley discussing Agatha Christie to Sir Ranulph Fiennes on the perils of polar exploration