Noor Inayet Khan

Noor Inayat Khan

Noor-un-Nisa Inayat Khan, GC, MBE, (1 January 1914, Moscow - 13 September 1944, Dachau concentration camp), usually known as Noor Inayat Khan, was a British Special Operations Executive agent in World War II of Hyderabadi (Indian) origin and the first female radio operator to be sent into occupied France to aid the French Résistance.

Early years

Noor was the eldest of four children. Her father Hazrat Inayat Khan came from a princely Indian Muslim family (he was a great-grandson of Tipu Sultan, the famous eighteenth century ruler of Mysore) and lived in Europe as a musician and a teacher of Sufism; her mother Ora Meena Ray Baker Noor was an American from Albuquerque, New Mexico, who had met Inayat Khan during his travels in the United States. She was the half-sister of American yogi and scholar, Pierre Bernard (yogi), her guardian at the time she met Hazrat Inayat Khan. Noor Inayat Khan's eldest brother Vilayat Inayat Khan later became head of the Sufi Order International, which was founded by their father.

In 1914, shortly before the outbreak of the First World War, the family left Russia for London and lived in Bloomsbury, while Noor attended kindergarten at Notting Hill. In 1920, they settled in France, moving into a house in Suresnes near Paris, a gift from a benefactor of the Sufi movement.

After the death of her father in 1927, Noor had to take added responsibility for her grief-stricken mother and her younger siblings. The young girl, described as quiet, shy, sensitive, and dreamy, studied child psychology at the Sorbonne and music at Paris conservatory under the famous Nadia Boulanger, composing for harp and piano.

She started a career of writing poetry and children's stories and became a regular contributor to children's magazines and French radio. In 1939 her book 'Twenty Jataka Tales', inspired by the Jātaka tales of Buddhist tradition, was published in London.

After the outbreak of World War II, when France was overrun by German troops in 1940, the family fled from Paris to Bordeaux and from there by sea to London, landing in Falmouth on 22 June 1940.

Wartime activities

Although Noor Inayat Khan was deeply influenced by the pacifist teachings of her father, she decided to help defeat Nazi tyranny. So on 19 November 1940 she joined the Women's Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF), and as an Aircraftwoman 2nd Class, she was sent to be trained as a wireless operator.

After being assigned to a bomber training school in June 1941, she applied for a commission in an attempt to relieve herself of the boring work there. Later she was recruited to join F (France) Section of the Special Operations Executive and in early February 1943 she was posted to the Air Ministry, Directorate of Air Intelligence, seconded to First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY), and sent to Wanborough Manor, near Guildford in Surrey, from there to various other SOE schools for training, including STS 5 Winterfold, STS 36 Boarmans and STS 52 Thame Park. During her training she adopted the name Nora Baker.

Her training was incomplete and her superiors held mixed opinions on her suitability for secret warfare. Nevertheless, her fluency in French and her competency in wireless operation—coupled with a shortage of experienced agents—made her a desirable candidate for service in Nazi-occupied France.

On 16/17 June 1943, cryptonymed 'Madeleine'/W/T operator 'Nurse' and under the cover identity of Jeanne-Marie Regnier, Assistant Section Officer / Ensign Inayat Khan was flown to landing ground B/20A 'Indigestion' in Northern France on a night landing double Lysander operation, code named Teacher/Nurse/Chaplain/Monk. She was met by Henri Dericourt.

She traveled to Paris, and together with two other women (Diana Rowden, code named Paulette/Chaplain, and Cecily Lefort, code named Alice/Teacher) Noor joined the Physician network led by Francis Suttill, code named Prosper.

Over the next month and a half, all other Physician network radio operators were arrested by the Sicherheitsdienst (SD). In spite of the danger, Noor rejected an offer to return to Britain, and she continued transmitting as the last essential link between London and Paris.

Moving from place to place, she managed to escape capture while maintaining wireless communication with London. "She refused to abandon what had become the most important and dangerous post in France and did excellent work."

Imprisonment and death

Finally Inayat Khan was betrayed to the Germans, either by Henri Dericourt or by Renée Garry. Dericourt (code name Gilbert) was an SOE officer and former French Air Force pilot who has been suspected of working as a double agent for the German Abwehr. Renée Garry was the sister of Emile Garry, Inayat Khan's organizer in the Physician network. Allegedly she was paid 100,000 Francs, but acted mainly out of jealousy because she had lost the affection of the SOE agent France Antelme, to Noor.

On or around 13 October 1943 Inayat Khan was arrested and interrogated at the SD Headquarters at 84 Avenue Foch in Paris. Though SOE trainers had expressed doubts about Inayat Khan's gentle and unworldly character, on her arrest she fought so fiercely that SD officers were afraid of her and she was thenceforth treated as an extremely dangerous prisoner. There is no evidence of her being tortured, but her interrogation lasted over a month. During that time, she attempted escape twice. Hans Kieffer, the former head of Gestapo in Paris, testified after the war that she didn't give the Gestapo a single piece of information, but lied consistently.

Although Inayat Khan did not talk about her activities under interrogation, the SD found her notebooks, in which she had kept, contrary to security regulations, copies of all the messages she had sent as an SOE operative. Although she refused to reveal any secret codes, the Germans gained enough information from it to continue sending false messages imitating her.

As London failed to investigate properly anomalies in the transmissions which should have indicated they were sent under enemy control, three more agents sent to France were captured by the Germans at their parachute landing, among them Madeleine Damerment, who was later executed.

On 25 November 1943, Inayat Khan escaped from the SD Headquarters, along with fellow SOE Agents John Renshaw Starr and Leon Faye, but was captured in the immediate vicinity. After refusing to sign a declaration not to make further flight attempts, Inayat Khan was taken to Germany on 27 November 1943 "for safe custody" and imprisoned at Pforzheim in solitary confinement as a "Nacht und Nebel" ("Night and Fog") prisoner, without any contact with the outside world and in complete secrecy.

She was classified as 'highly dangerous' and shackled in chains most of the time. As the prison director testified after the war, Inayat Khan remained uncooperative and continued to refuse to give any information on her work or her fellow operatives.

On 11 September 1944 Noor Inayat Khan and three other SOE agents from Karlsruhe prison, Yolande Beekman, Eliane Plewman and Madeleine Damerment, were moved to the Dachau Concentration Camp. In the early hours of the morning, 13 September 1944, the four women were executed by a shot to the head. An anonymous Dutch prisoner emerging in 1958 contended that Noor Inayat Khan was cruelly beaten by the sadistic SS guard Wilhelm Ruppert before being shot from behind. Her last word was "Liberté".

Noor Inayat Khan was posthumously awarded a British Mention in Dispatches and a French Croix de Guerre with Gold Star. Khan was the third of three World War II FANY members to be awarded the George Cross, Britain's highest award for gallantry not on the battle field.

George Cross citation

The announcement of the award of the George Cross was made in the London Gazette of 5 April 1949. The full citation reads:

The KING has been graciously pleased to approve the posthumous award of the GEORGE CROSS to:— Assistant Section Officer Nora INAYAT-KHAN (9901), Women's Auxiliary Air Force.

Assistant Section Officer Nora INAYAT-KHAN was the first woman operator to be infiltrated into enemy occupied France, and was landed by Lysander aircraft on 16th June, 1943. During the weeks immediately following her arrival, the Gestapo made mass arrests in the Paris Resistance groups to which she had been detailed. She refused however to abandon what had become the principal and most dangerous post in France, although given the opportunity to return to England, because she did not wish to leave her French comrades without communications and she hoped also to rebuild her group. She remained at her post therefore and did the excellent work which earned her a posthumous Mention in Despatches.

The Gestapo had a full description of her, but knew only her code name "Madeleine". They deployed considerable forces in their effort to catch her and so break the last remaining link with London. After 3 months she was betrayed to the Gestapo and taken to their H.Q. in the Avenue Foch. The Gestapo had found her codes and messages and were now in a position to work back to London. They asked her to co-operate, but she refused and gave them no information of any kind. She was imprisoned in one of the cells on the 5th floor of the Gestapo H.Q. and remained there for several weeks during which time she made two unsuccessful attempts at escape. She was asked to sign a declaration that she would make no further attempts but she refused and the Chief of the Gestapo obtained permission from Berlin to send her to Germany for "safe custody". She was the first agent to be sent to Germany.

Assistant Section Officer INAYAT-KHAN was sent to Karlsruhe in November; 1943, and then to Pforsheim where her cell was apart from the main prison. She was considered to be a particularly dangerous and unco-operative prisoner. The Director of the prison has also been interrogated and has confirmed that Assistant Section Officer INAYAT-KHAN, when interrogated by the Karlsruhe Gestapo, refused to give any information whatsoever, either as to her work or her colleagues.

She was taken with three others to Dachau Camp on the 12th September, 1944. On arrival, she was taken to the crematorium and shot.

Assistant Section Officer INAYAT-KHAN displayed the most conspicuous courage, both moral and physical over a period of more than 12 months.


Further reading

  • Shrabani Basu - Spy Princess: The Life of Noor Inayat Khan, Sutton Publishing, 2006, ISBN 0-7509-3965-6. Biography
  • Jean Overton Fuller - Noor-un-nisa Inayat Khan: Madeleine, East-West Publications 1988. Biography.
  • Marcus Binney - The Women Who Lived For Danger: The Women Agents of SOE in the Second Word War, Coronet Books, 2003
  • Sarah Helm - A Life in Secrets: The Story of Vera Atkins and the Lost Agents of SOE, Abacus, 2005
  • M. R. D. Foot - S.O.E. in France, Frank Cass Publishers, 2004 (first published London, HMSO 1966). Official history.
  • Shauna Singh Baldwin - The Tiger Claw, Knopf Canada 2004. 592 pages, Paperback: Vintage Canada (July 26, 2005) ISBN 0-676-97621-2 A novel based on her life.
  • Laurent Joffrin - La princesse oubliée, 2004. A novel in French based on her life.
  • William Stevenson - A Man Called Intrepid, The Lyons Press, 1976, Part II, Chapter 27.

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