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Sisters in History: Noor Inayat Khan

Shahida Rahman shares a biographical account of the astonishing life of Noor Inayat Khan.

“I wish some Indians would win high military distinction in this war. It would help to build a bridge between English and the Indians.” The prophetic words of Noor Inayat Khan came true, but little did she know that she would be the one winning high honours in relation to her work during World War II. Inayat Khan was not only a British special agent and spy but also the very first female wireless radio operator to be sent into France during the German occupation.



In Moscow on New Year’s Day 1914, the world received the birth of Noor Inayat Khan, the daughter of Indian royalty Hazrat Inayat Khan and American Ora Meena Ray Baker. Her father was actually a descendent of Tipu Sultan, a ruler of Mysore in the 18th century, so references to her as Princess Noor are not too far off. Inayat Khan was the oldest of four children.



Shortly before World War I, the Khan family left Russia and relocated to London for a few years. In 1920, the family then moved to France. Seven years later, her father died leaving Noor with an increased devotion to and responsibility for her mother and siblings. It was in France that Inayat Khan began her career writing children’s stories and poetry; her book Twenty Jakata Tales was published in 1939.



The family remained in France until 1940. When the country became inundated with Nazi troops, the Inayat Khan family fled to London by sea. In that same year, despite her deep pacifist beliefs, Noor decided to join the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) to help defeat the Nazi regime. Because she was an Aircraftwoman 2nd Class she was trained as a wireless operator.



Inayat Khan was originally posted to a bomber training school where she found her work boring and unfulfilling and thus applied for a commission in June of 1941. Eventually she was recruited to the F Section of the Special Operations Executive. Shortly thereafter, in February of 1943, Inayat Khan was assigned to the Air Ministry, Directorate of Air Intelligence and the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY). She was also relocated to Wanborough Manor among several other training schools. During this period of training, Noor Inayat Khan adopted the cover name of Nora Baker.

Despite her incomplete training and mixed thoughts on her preparedness for secret warfare, Inayat Khan was flown to a part of Northern France known as “Indigestion” as an assistant special agent on 16th June 1943. It was likely her competent wireless operation and fluency in French that solidified the decision for her superiors. Noor was given the cryptonym Madeleine/W/T operator Nurse and the cover identity of Jeanne-Marie Regnier.



Henri Dericourt, who is thought to have been a double agent for the Nazis, met Inayat Khan in France upon her arrival. She travelled with two other women, Cecily Lefort (her cover was a teacher named Alice) and Diana Rowden (her cover was as a chaplain named Paulette). All three women joined the Physician Network which was led by Francis Suttill under the code name Prosper.



Over the first month and a half that Inayat Khan was in France, all other Physician Network radio operators were arrested by the SD (Sicherheitsdienst). Noor then became the last functional and essential link between London and Paris. It is historically unclear as to whether Inayat Khan was instructed to return to Britain. There is speculation that she was given the option to return home given the danger but she refused while other theories claim that she was never instructed to leave her post. Regardless, she evaded capture several times.



However, Inayat Khan was eventually captured by the Germans on or around 13th October 1943. It is thought that she was betrayed to the Germans by either Henri Dericourt or Renee Garry. Renee Garry was the sister of Emile Garry, who organised the Physicians Network and oversaw Inayat Khan’s work. Theories attest to Garry being more likely the source of Inayat Khan’s betrayal for a mere 100,000 Francs, acting out of jealousy. Apparently, Renee had been in love with another SOE agent, France Antelme, whose affections were directed toward Noor.



Upon her arrest, Inayat Khan fought so viciously that her captors treated her as a dangerous prisoner. She was held at the SD Headquarters at 84 Avenue Foch in Paris, where all other prisoners of the SOE in Paris were taken upon arrest. Her stay at the headquarters lasted more than a month and while there is no hard evidence of torture, there is plenty of speculation. Inayat Khan also attempted escape twice and once nearly succeeded.



Noor Inayat Khan did not reveal any information to the Nazis, but did lie consistently according to the testimony of Hans Keiffer, head of the Gestapo in Paris. However, Inayat Khan did not have to give up any information as she kept a notebook with transcriptions of every message she ever sent or received during her work in Paris. This notebook was against the regulations of the SOE and provided the Nazis with all the information they could want. Information found within this notebook was used by the Germans to send false messages.



It is often questioned as to whether the SOE used Inayat Khan, and other female operatives, as bait to misguide the Nazis during the war. Through their capture, the SOE could feed disinformation to the Nazis and eventually defeat them. Part of this speculation is rooted in the fact that London did not investigate anomalies sent in the transmissions from the Nazis after Inayat Khan’s capture.



Because Inayat Khan refused to sign a declaration that she would cooperate and make no more escape attempts, the Nazis transferred her to Pforzheim as a Nacht and Nebel (Night and Fog) prisoner on 27th November 1943. This was done in complete secrecy. It was at this camp that she was kept in complete isolation and continuously shackled. It is also claimed by eyewitnesses that female prisoners, including Noor, were tortured, beaten and raped.



In early September of 1944 (on or around the 11th), Inayat Khan and three other SOE agents, Yolande Beekman, Eliane Plewman, and Madeleine Damerment, were moved to the Dachau Concentration Camp. Early on the morning of September 13th, all four women were executed with a shot to the head. According to a Dutch prisoner who witnessed the execution, Inayat Khan’s last word was “Liberte!”



In 1949, Noor Inayat Khan was posthumously awarded the George Cross, Britain’s highest award for gallantry off of the battlefield. She was also awarded a British Mention in Dispatches as well as a French Croix de Guerre with Gold Star for her efforts during the war. Noor Inayat Khan is one of the most famous of all the female SOE operatives of World War II, perhaps due to her remarkable actions of self-sacrifice in the name of freedom.



A statue of Noor Inayat Khan was unveiled in Gordon Square, London, by HRH Princess Anne in November 2012.



Shahida Rahman is an author, writer and publisher. She lives in Cambridge, UK with her husband and four children. More details of her work can be found on www.shahidarahman.co.uk.




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