Every now and then I like to post on great but often overlooked female figures in history. Over the 9 years I have been blogging just some of the notable women I have written about include Khutulun – The Mongolian Wrestling Princess Empress Matilda Edith Cavell – Patriotism Is Not Enough Mary Seacole – The Greatest Black Briton Gertrude Bell – The Ketrun – Desert Queen, Nikbanou as well as The Most Powerful Women in History 10-6 The Most Powerful Women in History 5 – 1 and not forgetting the recent post on Lottie Dod – The Victorian Wimbledon lady tennis star who even beat the men!
Today though I thought I’d write about a very special lady whose life spanned half the world and who more than played her part in saving it. Her name is Noor Inayat Khan and she is almost equally forgotten in India, Russia, France and the U.K.
Noor was born in Moscow to musician father Hazrat Inayat Khan and American mother, Pirani Ameena Begum. From her name you might hazard a guess that she was a Muslim lady and Noor Inayat was a descendant of Tipu Sultan (the Tiger of Mysore) who famously fought the British East India Company, then the most powerful commercial organisation of its era and likely still unsurpassed in that regards.
The onset of World War I in 1914 forced Noor Inayat’s family out of Russia and eventually, they moved to France. There, she grew up to become a writer of children’s stories and poems, and a frequent contributed to French radio programmes.
But Noor Inayat’s peaceful life was rudely interrupted by the onset of the Second World War. With Nazi Germany seemingly unstoppable, her family did as many wealthy Europeans did and fled to London.
Noor was disgusted at how Fascism was destroying Europe and her beloved Paris in particular. She was both a pious Sufi which meant amongst other things she abhorred violence and lying and she believed in the ideals of Gandhi and his near life-time long movement of non-violence to achieve Indian Independence but like many her innate hatred of Fascism along with a belief that Britain was likely to move towards Independence after the war, led her to join up with the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF).
Wanting to take a more active part in the war, by 1943, Noor joined the F (France) Section of the Special Operations Executive, which a British World War II organisation. From here, she was sent to be trained as a special wireless operator in occupied territory.
In WWI and II, a wireless operator’s job basically was to maintain a link between the agents in the field and London. They had to pass secret messages back and forth about, planned sabotage operations or where arms were needed for resistance fighters. Hence, it is safe to say that a wireless operator was very much the nervous system of a resistance.
The role of a wireless operator during WW2 was rigged with danger and threat to life. As long as they were on the mission, the operator had to be quick on their feet, live in disguise, have quick exit routes wherever they were working, which included having aerials hung up disguised as washing lines.
Noor Inayat was sent to France with a new identity: Jeanne-Marie Renier, a professional children’s nurse. But just before leaving, she began having second thoughts about the mission. Perhaps it is because her superiors did not have high opinions about her. In feedback reports, Noor Inayat was called “unstable”, “not overburdened with brains”, “childlike”, “very feminine”, “pretty scared of weapons”, “clumsy”, and “physically unsuited for her job”, among other things. She was going to prove everyone wrong in a big way and to be fair, Vera Atkins, a British intelligence officer at the F section, admitted that Noor Inayat’s (or Nora Baker as was her alias) commitment was unquestioned.
Working for the SOE or Special Operations Executive was amongst the most dangerous jobs in the British military and her job role generally had a life expectancy of only six weeks. Given the code name of Madeleine and assuming the identity of “Jeanne-Marie Renier”, Noor was parachuted into France. Shortly after her arrival however, the Gestapo arrested hundreds of people and her spy network all but collapsed. Her commanders in London urged her to return, but she refused to abandon her French comrades without communications.
For three months, she single-handedly ran a cell of agents across Paris, frequently changing her appearance and name.
Terribly, this all came to a sudden end when she was betrayed for a sum of 100,000 French Francs and after making a failed attempt to escape over the rooftops, she was captured and taken to a series of German prisoner and concentration camps where she was kept mostly in solitary confinement as the Germans considered her so dangerous. One of her few communications to her fellow prisoners was done by her etching her name and address in London on the base of her food bowl.
In the following weeks she was terribly beaten and tortured time and time again but refused to give away any details of her French operatives even though she was told by doing so, her life would be spared.
On 13 September 1944, Noor Inayat Khan was shot dead at Dachau concentration camp. Her last word that she shouted to the guards was “Liberte” which means ‘Freedom’ in English.
Two and a half million Indian soldiers volunteered for the British Empire in WW2, fighting in far-away fields in Africa, Europe and the Far East. It was the largest volunteer army in history and Indian soldiers were awarded 28 Victoria Crosses and 9 George Crosses in World War II.
In April 1949, Noor Khan was posthumously awarded the George Cross by King George VI. Her 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 she 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. However, she refused to abandon what had become the principal and most dangerous post in France, even though she had been given the opportunity to return to England, because she did not want to leave her French comrades without communications and she also hoped to rebuild her group. Therefore, she remained at her post and did the excellent work which earned her a posthumous Mention in Despatches.
The Gestapo had a full description of her, but it only knew her code name “Madeleine”. It deployed considerable forces in its effort to catch her and break the last remaining link with London. After 3 months, she was betrayed to the Gestapo and taken to its H.Q. in the Avenue Foch. The Gestapo had found her codes and messages and as a result, it was now in a position to work back to London. It asked her to co-operate, but she refused and gave it no information of any kind. She was imprisoned in one of the cells on the 5th floor of the Gestapo H.Q. and she remained there for several weeks during which time she made two unsuccessful attempts to escape. She was asked to sign a declaration which stated that she would make no further escape attempts, but she refused to sign it and the Chief of the Gestapo obtained permission to send her to Germany for “safe custody” from Berlin. She was the first enemy agent to be sent to Germany.
Assistant Section Officer INAYAT-KHAN was sent to Karlsruhe in November 1943, and then she was sent to Pforzheim where her cell was apart from the main prison. She was considered a particularly dangerous and unco-operative prisoner. The Director of the prison was also interrogated and confirmed that Assistant Section Officer INAYAT-KHAN refused to give any information whatsoever either about her work or her colleagues when she was interrogated by the Karlsruhe Gestapo.
She was taken to the Dachau Concentration Camp with three other female prisoners on 12 September 1944. On her 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.
In my next post, I will visit the statue commemorating the life of this brave lady.