Noor Inayat Khan: The Indian-Origin ‘SPY Princess’

A descendant of Tipu Sultan of Mysore, Noor Inayat Khan was the first British Spy to operate in the French-occupied area. During World War II, she handled the Clandestine radio traffic in occupied Paris alone, after all, her fellow teammates were caught and executed by the Nazis. Shrabani Basu, the biographer of Noor, tells that she (Noor) was the first woman radio operator to be infiltrated into captured France in 1943 and worked under the code name “Madeleine”. 

Although, Noor could never visit India but her heart went out to the Indians while the country was occupied by the Britishers. She believed that the courage and bravery would build a bridge between England and India. She always wished that some Indians would win high military distinction in the Second World War. Sadly, Noor was executed way before India was declared independent and her wish to see India free of British colony remained unfulfilled. 

Early life

Born on January 1, 1914, Noor was born to an Indian father and an American mother. Her father Inayat Khan was closely related to Tipu Sultan, a famous ruler of the Kingdom of Mysore.

Young Noor Inayat Khan

Young Noor Inayat Khan | Image Credit: nytimes.com

Inayat was a pacifist, as his religion and moral code dictated, he was the founder of the Sufi order in the West. By the time of Noor’s birth, he had moved to London along with his family and worked as a musician and a teacher of Sufism. After six years the Khan family again relocated to France. 

Growing up Noor was a very quiet and thoughtful child. She was vey fond of music and has produced several music compositions, poems, and children’s stories. After her father’s death, Noor took charge as the head of the family to take care of her mother and three siblings. 

Joining the War

After France was occupied by the Nazis in 1940, the Khan family fled back to England. Coming from a cosmopolitan family, she and her brother, Vilayat decided to partially volunteer in the War upfront in the hopes that the bravery of few Indian fighters might help improve the Britain-India relations. Despite, the pacifist learnings she never forgot her humanist faith and fought against fascism till her last breath. As Shrabani Basu says “Noor Inayat Khan’s life was so interesting, she was a Sufi who believed in non-violence and in the unity of religions. But, during the War, she volunteered as she felt that it was equally important top fight fascism”.  

Noor Inayat Khan

Noor Inayat Khan | Image Credit: wikipedia.org

In November 1940, she was recruited in the British Royal Airforce as a part of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force and started training as a radio operator. Within a year, she was bored with her posting at a training camp and applied for a transfer. She was then hired by the Special Operations Executive (SEO) (founded by Winston Churchill), the British spy organization during the war. Noor was the first radio operator to be sent to Paris to work for SOE’s Prosper resistance network. While working in France she operated under the code name Madeleine in order to hide her identity. 

Deployed to France 

Despite, being average at espionage Noor impressed Vera Atkins, the intelligence officer who was also her superior in “F Section”. Impressed by her wireless skills, Vera selected Noor for a dangerous mission as a wireless operator in occupied France. Serving as a connection between agents on the ground and the base in London, she had to transmit messages secretly to the London headquarters. 

Operators had to keep changing their locations frequently in order to avoid being caught but moving was also risky due to the bulky and easily noticeable radio equipment. By the time Noor was deployed to France, it was considered lucky if the operators survived even two months before being captured. 

In June 1943, she was deployed to France along with a few other agents, where they were met by Henri Dericourt, a French SEO agent. Noor started working in the sub-circuit led by Emile Garry in Paris. Anyhow, within a few weeks the Paris circuit was discovered and almost all the fellow agents were caught by the Gestapo, making Noor the only remaining operator in the region. Owing to the situation, she was given a choice to be pulled out of the field, but she refused and planned on staying to complete her mission. 

The on-field bravery of Noor Inayat khan 

For the next four months, Noor was on the run, changing her looks and location and whatnot, evading the Nazis at every turn. Displaying her determination and bravery, Noor single-handedly took care of the spy radio traffic that would normally be handled by a full team. 

As Basu recapitulates, “She knew how dangerous her mission was and she knew she could get killed. Eventually, the circuit collapsed around her and she remained the last link with London but refused to abandon her post despite the dangers. However, she was betrayed by one of the people working beside her and was arrested by the Germans and shot in the Dachau concentration camp”. 

The Betrayal 

Unfortunately, she was discovered by the Nazis after being betrayed by someone. Although there is no solid evidence as to who betrayed her but there are two most likely culprits. The first one being Henri Dericourt, who was found to be a double agent but may have revealed Noor’s identity on the orders from British intelligence M16. The second culprit might be Renee Garry, who was the sister of Noor’s supervising agent, Emile Garry. Renee believed that Noor had stolen the affections of the SEO agent, France Antelme, and is thought to be seeking revenge on Noor by outing her to the Nazis. However, it is still unknown if Noor was actually involved with Antelme or it was just Renee’s jealousy. 

After being arrested and imprisoned in October 1943, Noor refused to cooperate with interrogations, she even managed to escape twice. Her lack of good espionage skills came back to her as the Nazis were able to find her notebooks and misuse the information in them to impersonate her and continue to transmit false data to the oblivious London headquarters. This resulted in the captures and deaths of several other SEO agents who were deployed to France because their superiors did not realize that Noor’s transmissions were fake. 

Torture and Death 

On November 25, 1943, Noor attempted to escape for the third time along with two other prisoners but was caught immediately due to the British air raid. The air raid sirens prompted an unannounced check on the prisoners, which led to her final capture. She was then moved to Germany, which made her the first agent to be taken to a different country for safe custody. She was considered highly dangerous at the Pforzheim Prison and was kept in solitary confinement. Later on, in 1944, she was transferred to the concentration camp in Dachau and was executed on September 13, 1944. 

However, there are two very different accounts of her death. One was given by an SS officer who witnessed her execution, describing it very clinically; a death sentence pronounced, some sobbing and then executed by getting shot in the head. The other account was given by a fellow prisoner who survived the camp, claiming that she was beaten and tortured on the night before her execution. The person also claims that her last words were “Libertè!”

Legacy 

After her death, Noor Inayat Khan has been awarded with several honors for her bravery and determination. In 1949, She was awarded with the George Cross, the second-highest British honor for bravery as well as the French Croix de Guerre with a silver star. 

In 2011, a bronze bust of Noor Inayat Khan was placed near her former home in London. The money for the bust was raised from a campaign, enduring her as a war hero who refused to abandon her responsibilities. 

In 2006, Shraboni Basu wrote a book, Spy Princess commemorating the life of Noor. She also set up the Noor Inayat Khan Memorial Trust in 2010 to ensure that her legacy would be preserved and carried on for the next generation. 

All because of Basu’s efforts to make Noor Inayat Khan’s legacy heard and remembered, in November 2012, a memorial was unveiled in London’s Gordon Square by Princess Anne. Followed by the release of a Royal Mail stamp in honor of Noor in March 2014. 

Noor Inayat Khan Statue

Noor Inayat Khan Statue | Image Credit: londonist.com

Commemorating the Indian-origin lady who worked as an undercover agent for Britain during the World War II, a Blue Plaque was given to the house in Taviton Street, Bloomsbury, London, where Noor used to live before being deployed to France. Run by the English Heritage, the London Blue Plaques scheme was started in 1866.  So far, 950 plaques have been bestowed on buildings humble and grand, to honor the notable men and women who have lived or worked in them. 

Before Noor Inayat Khan, Blue Plaques have been provided to several veteran women including Rosalind Franklin, the scientist who developed discover DNA, Ada Lovelace, the pioneer of computing, and Dame Maud McCarthy, who was an Army Matron-in-chief during World War I. 

Addressing the ceremony, Shraboni Basu says that it is fitting that Noor is the first woman of Indian origin to be remembered with a Blue Plaque. As people walk by, Noor’s story will continue to inspire future generations. She also said that in today’s world, her vision of unity and freedom is more important than ever.

The trailer of a movie based on Noor Inayat Khan’s life was released in August 2020. The movie A Call to Spy, directed by Oscar-nominated director Lydia Dean Pilcher,  featuring Radhika Apte, is an ode to the unsung female heroes of World War II, especially the ones who were a part of Winston Churchill’s special spy agency (SEO).

Radhika Apte Plays the Role of Noor Inayat Khan

Radhika Apte Plays the Role of Noor Inayat Khan | Image Credit: newindianexpress.com

According to a British media report, it was informed that Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor of the Exchequer is considering a proposal to feature Noor Inayat Khan’s impression on special edition coins. This proposal is a part of the initiative which promises to feature historical figures from the Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic (BAME) community of the country on a set of coins titled “Service to the Nation”. The proposal has been submitted to the Royal Mint, containing Noor’s name on the top of the list. 

Noor Inayat Khan is an inspiration to all especially, women and children. While other women were struggling to get their voices heard, Noor went ahead of her time by working undercover in extreme environments in a foreign country. She is a veteran and a voice that should be resonated in the upcoming generations.

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