Noor Inayat Khan: why was the British spy such an unlikely war hero?
The first female radio operator to be sent underground in occupied Paris to aid the French Resistance during World War II was also the most unlikely person for job, writes Pat Kinsella. But who was Noor Inayat Khan, and how did she end up in this perilous position?
Once behind enemy lines in Nazi-occupied Europe during World War II, a covert radio operator’s life expectancy was measured in days. Weeks if they were really lucky. And that was if they had a face that easily blended in.
Noor Inayat Khan – a half-Indian, Russian-born Muslim, and the first woman dropped into France to perform this perilous duty – did not have such a visage. Nor, it seemed, did she possess many of the attributes or life experience most would consider necessary to participate in this most ruthless of roles, where deceit was demanded daily and the prospect of discovery and death was ever present.
On her father’s side, Khan hailed from Indian royalty. She was a descendant of Tipu Sultan, the Tiger of Mysore, who famously put up a ferocious fight against the rapacious British Raj in the late 18th century. She was a strong believer in Indian independence, yet ended up fighting alongside the British against a common foe. Perhaps the bigger conflict was the one inside her soul.
This nervous, small-framed woman – a writer and author prior to the outbreak of war – was a devout pacifist in a world that had descended into a maelstrom of violence.
Some of those in the Special Operations Executive (SOE) who trained Noor expressed reservations about her suitability for such service. Yet once dropped into France she evaded capture for several months – even while the networks around her collapsed – sending valuable reports back to Britain. And after she was betrayed, and during all the horror that followed, she exhibited incredible loyalty and an extraordinary inner strength, which held resolute right until the awful end.
But what was she doing there in the first place? The backstory of Britain’s most unlikely war hero is every bit as bizarre as the conclusion is tragic.
Who is Noor Inayat Khan?
Born in Moscow on 1 January 1914, Noor-un-nisa Inayat Khan was the eldest of four children. Her Indian father, Inayat, was a musician and spiritual teacher; her mother an American from Albuquerque in New Mexico, who changed her name from Ora Ray Baker to Amina Begum after marriage. Shortly after Noor’s birth, the family left Russia and relocated to London. In 1920 they moved again, this time to France, settling just outside Paris in Suresnes.
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Inayat died suddenly during a visit to India in 1927, leaving Amina grief stricken, and 13-year-old Noor took on responsibility for her sister and two brothers. She continued her education, studying child psychology at the Sorbonne and music at the École Normale de Musique, playing the piano and harp. She began writing children’s stories, had a book published, and worked as a journalist for magazines including Le Figaro.
When World War II erupted, the family fled back to Britain, travelling via Bordeaux to Falmouth in Cornwall. Heavily influenced by the teachings of her father (who brought Sufism to the West) and Gandhi’s policies of nonviolence, Noor was a committed pacifist. But – in a pact with her brother Vilayat – the siblings swore to fight Nazi oppression however they could, without directly killing anyone. He volunteered for minesweeping, while she would ultimately perform arguably the most dangerous of all wartime roles: a covert radio operator.
How did Noor Inayat Khan become a spy?
In November 1940, Noor joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) and undertook one month’s training as a wireless operator in Harrogate, followed by a six-month stint in Edinburgh learning to be a wireless telegraphist and a seven-week Advanced Signals and Wireless course in Wiltshire.
Not one to lie about her beliefs, during her first interview for active commission, in August 1942, Noor stunned the board with the frankness with which she set out her political views. A passionate supporter of Indian independence, Noor stated that, while the war with Germany lasted, she would be loyal to the British Government and Crown, but once it had ended, she would likely reconsider her position and add her support to the fight for Indian independence.
Noor seemed frightened of weapons, went to pieces while being questioned in a mock interrogation, and – despite her willingness to volunteer – appeared completely ill-prepared for what might follow
Although her application was rejected, Noor’s fluency in French, technical ability as a wireless operator and willingness to take a more active role in secret work was noted, and she was duly recommended to the SOE’s F (French) Section. Its head of recruitment was the novelist Selwyn Jepson, who considered Noor perfect for ‘special employment’. Noor accepted the invitation immediately, donned the uniform of the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (the SOE operative’s standard disguise) and began her training in February 1943.
Noor went through an intensive three-week crash course in crucial skills, including armed and unarmed combat, and cross-country navigation. Her fitness, aptitude for dangerous underground work and ability to withhold important information under duress were all assessed.
Initial reports weren’t encouraging. Noor seemed frightened of weapons, went to pieces while being questioned in a mock interrogation, and – despite her willingness to volunteer – appeared completely ill-prepared for what might follow. The head of the school commented that Noor hadn’t “the foggiest idea what the training was going to be about”, but did note that she developed a certain amount of confidence “from a shaky start”. Her mental agility was called into question.
Noor was determined, though, and put in extracurricular efforts. Still, she failed to qualify for parachute training, and instead attended SOE’s radio school at Thame Park in Oxfordshire, before learning how to operate underground at the SOE’s ‘agent finishing school’ at Beaulieu in Hampshire.
Doubts persisted, and several people – including one of her fellow trainees at Wanborough – vocalised their opposition to Noor’s involvement in delicate operations where multiple lives would be put at risk by an under-performing agent. But Maurice Buckmaster, head of F Section, brushed aside such concerns. Noor had the language and technical skills required. And besides, they were desperate. Under a disparaging comment about her intelligence in a written report, Buckmaster noted: “We don’t want them overburdened with brains.”
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Late on 16 June 1943, two Lysander aircraft took off from RAF Tangmere in West Sussex. Aboard one was a very nervous Noor Inayat Khan. She and a number of other fresh recruits were met at a secret landing spot near Angers in northwest France by Henri Déricourt, a Frenchman working for SOE. Déricourt was later revealed as a double agent who leaked information to the Sicherheitsdienst (SD), the intelligence agency of the SS.
Using the nom de guerre ‘Madeleine’ and posing as a governess from Blois called Jeanne Marie Renier, Noor made her way to Paris alone. There she made contact with Emile Garry, head of the F-Section ‘network’ in Le Mans – networks, also known as circuits, being small cells of operatives charged with gathering information. She was subsequently introduced to Francis Suttill, who ran the larger PROSPER network, the tentacles of which spread across northern France, his wireless operator Gilbert Norman, and France Antelme, leader of the Paris-based BRICKLAYER network. From Norman’s radio hideout in Grignon, Noor transmitted her first message back to Britain, communicating her safe arrival.
But she wouldn’t be safe for long. On 24 June, Suttill, Norman and their courier Andrée Borrel were all arrested, and the SD began working its way through the ranks of the PROSPER network. As agents scattered and scurried to new safe houses, Noor tried and failed to rescue Norman’s wireless set from Grignon and was almost caught. She did, however, manage to arrange transport to London for Antelme in a Lysander. She refused to join him on the flight, choosing instead to stay and keep transmitting intelligence to her receivers. Noor quickly became isolated as other agents and wireless operators were arrested, left the city for the relative safety of the south, or disappeared altogether.
What did Noor Inayat Khan do in France?
Noor was now F-Section’s only eyes in Paris. Adding to the chaos, the Germans began transmitting fake messages from Norman’s captured wireless. Buckmaster sent one of his senior officers, Nicholas Bodington, to Paris to investigate, and when his own wireless operator was caught, Noor became even more important. She had to keep moving constantly, carrying her heavy wireless set in a suitcase around the city, dyeing her hair, wearing disguises, staying with pre-war friends (at great risk to all) and living by her wits.
Despite this, Noor wrote a letter to Buckmaster enthusing about her mission, which went back to Britain with Bodington when he was airlifted out of France in mid-August 1943 on a flight arranged by Déricourt. But her handlers knew she was exhausted, and Buckmaster was apparently making arrangements to extract Noor from Paris in mid-October. Sadly, her luck wouldn’t last that long. Déricourt had already photographed her letter to Buckmaster, along with other important communications, and had passed them on to the Germans. The net was quickly closing. Yet the sting, when it was finally felt, came from an unexpected source.
After evading arrest for four months, Noor’s capture was seemingly the result of a betrayal by Emile Garry’s sister, Renée, who was apparently motivated by petty jealousy (plus a reward of 100,000 francs). The source of the tip-off has never been proved (Renée was acquitted when accused of betrayal after the war), but two SD officers stated it had come from a French woman. Dates and details are muddied, but Noor was apprehended at a safe house on Rue de la Faisanderie, and taken to the SD’s headquarters at 84 Avenue Foch. Buckmaster learned of her arrest on 2 October, via a coded telegram sent by SOE agent Jacques Weil, who communicated that Madeleine had “had a serious accident” and was now “in hospital”.
She had to keep moving constantly, carrying her heavy wireless set in a suitcase around the city, dyeing her hair, wearing disguises, staying with pre-war friends (at great risk to all) and living by her wits
After she attempted to escape through a bathroom window, the SD wasted no time in grilling Noor. Despite her poor performances during the mock questioning in her training, when it came to the real deal, Noor’s resistance was remarkable – even by the SD’s own admission – and Ernst Vogt, her interrogator, wasn’t able to extract any information at all. SD commandant Hans Kieffer later said that they “could never rely on anything she said”, and his wireless expert Josef Goetz confirmed that “Madeleine refused to give us any assistance whatsoever”.
Unfortunately, the SD had Noor’s wireless set and, much worse, the codebook in which she’d annotated previous messages. Carrying a written account of her communications has been described as extremely naive and irresponsible (although it has been speculated that Noor misinterpreted an instruction about being careful with filing messages as a command to keep a record of them). Either way, it gave Goetz access to valid code words and his wireless operators the ability to mimic Noor’s ‘fist’ (tapping style) so they could send false messages from her set. This campaign, codenamed DIANA, fooled Buckmaster into maintaining his operations. Seven agents, including Antelme, were subsequently caught and executed after being sent into traps set by the SD.
Radio games and double agents
Noor Inayat Khan has been criticised for keeping a written record of her communications, which was discovered after her arrest (along with her wireless set) and used by SD wireless expert Josef Goetz to wage a deadly war of misinformation. Goetz had his operators mimic Khan’s style and use secret code words to send messages back to Maurice Buckmaster, head of the Special Operations Executive’s (SOE) F Section, who thought they were coming from her. More agents were subsequently sent into France, where they were snared by the Gestapo.
Blame for this calamity does not rest with one person. Buckmaster and his intelligence officer, Vera Atkins, missed multiple clues that messages were not as they appeared. The biggest faultline in the whole SOE operation was the complex game being played by double (and possibly triple) agent Henri Déricourt, who was liaising with the SOE, MI6 and the SD all at the same time.
Déricourt was cleared of collusion during a 1948 trial, when evidence provided by senior SOE figure Nicholas Bodington suggested that Déricourt was taking orders from MI6 to mislead the Germans into thinking he was double-crossing SOE, thereby distracting them from the plans that were afoot for D-Day. While this got Déricourt off the hook, it does imply that some SOE agents were regarded as dispensable by elements of British intelligence, some of whom were working against one another (either by fault or design), and questions remain over this whole episode.
How did Noor Inayat Khan die?
In November 1943, Noor attempted escape again, together with SOE agent John Starr and Léon Faye, a prominent member of MI6’s ALLIANCE intelligence network, who were being held in neighbouring cells. Having managed to procure a screwdriver, they each loosened the bars on their skylights and got out onto the roof. Unfortunately, the escape coincided with an RAF air raid, causing the guards to check the cells and discover the breakout. An incandescent Kieffer demanded their word that there would be no further attempts at escape; Starr agreed but Noor and Faye’s refusal saw them both deported to Germany.
Put on a train within hours, Noor was taken to the prison in Pforzheim. She was placed in solitary confinement, with chains on her hands and feet, and fed meagre rations of potato peel or cabbage soup. Yolande Lagrave, a member of Faye’s intelligence network, was in a nearby cell, and later recounted overhearing Noor being regularly beaten. They managed to communicate by scratching on their mess tins; Noor gave her name as Nora Baker – a name she had used during training. This torture continued for ten months, during which Noor refused to talk. Eventually she was moved to Karlsruhe by train, with three other female agents: her old training partner Yolande Beekman, Eliane Plewman and Madeleine Damerment. The latter was a victim of the radio game Goetz had been playing with Noor’s wireless set and codes.
The women were taken to Dachau concentration camp, and shortly after their arrival, all four were taken to the crematorium and executed by SS officer Friedrich Wilhelm Ruppert. An anonymous witness later told a Canadian intelligence officer that Noor had been singled out for ‘special treatment’ by Ruppert, who administered a near-fatal beating before shooting her with a pistol. She was just 30 years old.
In recognition of her bravery, Britain posthumously awarded Noor Inayat Khan the George Cross, while France honoured her with the Croix de Guerre. A statue commemorating this courageous woman now stands in Gordon Square, London, close to where she once lived – the first memorial in Britain dedicated to an Asian woman. It records the last word Noor is said to have uttered before her life was brought to an abrupt end: “Liberté!”
Pat Kinsella is a writer and editor specialising in history
This content first appeared in the August 2019 issue of BBC History Revealed