Saturday, May 7, 2016

Noor Inayat Khan, Spy and SOE Wireless Operator

Age 29, in 1943. SOE file photo, National Archives, Kew,
photographed by Martin Langsfield
Noor Inayat Khan was a Muslim Sufi pacifist that became a spy during WWII. As a member of a secret operation in France she held her post for months, completing her work even after everyone else was captured. 

"I wish some Indians would win high military distinction in this war. It would help to build a bridge between the English and the Indians." ~ Noor Inayay Khan

Noor Inayat Khan seems an unlikely candidate for a spy if ever there was one. A writer, musician, and pacifist who made such an indelible impression on everyone she met, some wondered if she was even a good choice for a spy at all - but, as noted by historian MRD Foot, "The work had to be done, and there was no-one else to send."

Not that Noor was a terrible option.

A Cultured Upbringing

Born in Russia in 1914, Noor had an American mother and an Indian Muslim father, and grew up in London and Paris. She learned fluent French and was raised to believe in religious tolerance and non-violence, and with a father who was a practicing Sufi, she did not even find it acceptable to lie.

In school Noor studied medicine, poetry, music, and also wrote children's stories - in 1939 she published a book of Indian tales retold, called The Twenty Jataka Tales. Sincere and honest but also a dedicated pacifist, she would not have seemed to have the makings of a secret agent, but as happened all across Europe, the actions of the Nazis made her reexamine her beliefs.

When WWII broke out, Noor trained as a nurse with the French Red Cross as Nazi Germany bombed France and decimated the countryside. By the time France surrendered in November 1940, Noor had seen enough and fled with her mother and sister to England.

She had no alliance to England (though she was there in her infancy), and would tell British operatives this quite plainly when they interviewed her for Winston Churchill's Special Operations Executive, or SOE. What motivated her was the fight against fascism and dictatorial rule, and she was determined to help any way she could.

Having trained as a wireless operator with the Women's Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF), she joined the elite SOE network in 1942 when they were desperately short of wireless operators. Noor did not immediately fill her superiors with hope and pride. Instead, she earned reports of being "not overburdened with brains," "unsuited to her work," "an unstable and temperamental personality," as well as clumsy and scatterbrained. Under test interrogation situations, she would freeze in apparent panic and begin muttering to herself. She was reported as leaving codebooks out in the open.

Image courtesy of the Imperial War Museum
With all of this going against her, it might have seemed advisable for Noor to quit, but there was no-one else to take her place, and besides that, she did not want to. She resigned herself to her position and trained diligently, becoming adept both physically and mechanically in a very short period of time.

She could not shake the reputation of being eccentric, however - some examples given of this are that that she used one of her poems for her radio encryption code, and her codename, "Madeline," was a character from one of her stories, but who among us does not draw on these kinds of tricks to help us remember important information, or to help us feel human at work?

Noor's style of morse signaling was considered "clumsy" and peculiar and she was given the nickname "Bang Away Lulu" as a way of making fun of that style. Her superiors were patronizing and filled with misgivings, but Noor quickly finished her training and was the first female secret radio operator sent into Nazi-occupied France.

She joined a resistance network named Prosper, tasked with orders from Prime Minister Churchill to "set Europe ablaze." Barely a week into the assignment, nearly the entire Parisian network was captured in a sweep by Gestapo forces. Noor escaped capture but was the lone radio operator remaining in all of Paris.

The Tigress

With Noor as the sole operator, London offered to extradite her to safety, but she refused - something came over her, as her biographer Shrabani Basu would later describe. "She was this gentle writer of children's stories, a musician, but she was transformed. She was a tigress in the field."

The average lifespan of an operator in this position was 6 weeks, but Noor spent a total of 5 months in the field as she single-handedly ran a cell of spies across Paris and intercepted radio messages from the enemy to send back to England. The striking-looking Noor changed her appearance, outfits, and locations daily to evade the Gestapo, and on more than one occasion narrowly escaped capture, but somehow managed to stay just far enough ahead.

Throughout all this, Noor did the work of six people. She relayed all of the information for the entire spy network in Paris herself.


As happened to so many SOE operatives in WWII, Noor was captured after being betrayed by a double agent. Her pacifist days long behind her, she did not go quietly but kicked and fought, screaming like a wild animal as her captors bound her hands and feet.

Several hours into her imprisonment she attempted her first escape, after demanding a bath and insisting that the door be closed, to hide her modesty. As soon as the door was shut she clambered out of the window and onto the roof, running lightly across the tiles.

She was captured and brought back to her cell, where she tried another tactic: be outwardly submissive, while inside biding her time. She fed the Germans lies and pretended to cooperate, then when she saw her chance she fled again - only this time, there was an air raid and the guards came to check her cell prematurely. When they looked in they only saw an empty cell, with bars on the window undone, and the vision of Noor again, this time in the distance, sprinting across the roof.

"Highly Dangerous" 

Following this second attempt Noor was captured again, and classified as extremely dangerous. She was moved to Pforzheim prison, put in shackles, and left in solitary confinement. Over the next 10 months Noor's interrogations changed from fairly friendly questioning to a series of relentless beatings and violence.

Her prison mates did not knew who she was, only that she spent much of her time weeping. What they came to know in her last few months was communicated by Noor by scratching out messages on the bottoms of the food bowls that were taken from cell to cell, and this was communicated to the outside world by the few who left the prison alive.

Through all her interrogations, the girl who had performed so poorly during test interrogations never revealed anything.
Excerpt from Noor's SOE file at National Archives, Kew,
photographed by Martin Langfield
In September of 1944, Noor and three other female SOE agents were transferred to a concentration camp in Dachau. While her associates were shot almost immediately, her captors took an extended time with Noor, granting her an extra day of life during which they beat her brutally every hour.

Peace of some form was provided when Noor was shot dead. Her final word, shouted at the Nazis as they raised their weapons to shoot her, was "Liberté!"

Noor's biographer Basu holds that liberty was a notion that Noor valued highly. It was for this notion that a poet-musician-pacifist that wrote stories for children fought and refused to give in, even when she was the only one remaining. Even then she died with the name of "liberty" on her lips.

Noor's Memorial

After the war, Noor received the recognition that few other female SOE agents experienced, and was posthumously awarded the George Cross, the highest civilian medal given for bravery and sacrifice in Great Britain. The French awarded her the Croix de Guerra with Gold Star.

The Noor Inayat Khan Memorial was unveiled in London on November 8th, 2012, in a ceremony led by HRH Princess Royal, Princess Anne. Over 450 people were in attendance, including Noor's family, veterans, and ambassadors from India, USA, Germany, Russia, and the Netherlands.

As described by Basu, for Noor to fight for a culture and country that was essentially adopted and not only that, but to fight on the front lines directly with the Gestapo, took a great deal of courage. She volunteered to serve in the army, as did two and a half million other Indians. She could not have know that her role would be so great, and she will not be forgotten.

Quotes about Noor: 

"I find myself constantly remembering her with a curious and very personal vividness which outshines the rest. The small, still features, the dark, quiet eyes, the soft voice and the fine spirit glowing in her." ~ Captain Selwyn Jepson, the novalist-turned-spy who first interviewed Noor for SOE

"Her unworldliness will be her undoing - she was born for sacrifice." ~ Noor's brother talking to her friend Jean

  • Noor Inayat Khan, "Madeleine," Martin Langfield, The Secret Fire,, 2016
  • Enemy of the Reich: The Noor Inayat Khan Story., 2016
  • Remembering a Heroine of the Second World War, Noor Inayat Khan Memorial Trust,, 2016.
  • Noor Inayat Khan: the Indian Princess Who Spied for Britain, Samantha Dalton, BBC News,, November 8th, 2012

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