Noor Inayat Khan (Hindustani, (Urdu): نور عنایت خان, Devanagari: नूर इनायत ख़ान) GC (2 January 1914 - 13 September 1944) was an Allied SOE agent during the Second World War.
Also known as "Nora Baker" and "Madeleine", she was of Indian and American origin. As an SOE agent during the Second World War, she became the first female radio operator to be sent from Britain into occupied France to aid the French Resistance.
1 Early years,
2 Wartime activities,
3 Imprisonment and death,
4 Honours and awards
4.1 George Cross citation,
5 Popular culture,
7 Further reading,
8 External links,
Noor-un-Nisa Inayat Khan was the eldest of four children. Her siblings were Vilayat (born 1916), Hidayat (born 1917), and Khair-un-Nisa (born 1919). Her father, Hazrat Inayat Khan, was born to nobility and came from a princely Indian Muslim family. (His mother was a descendant of the uncle of Tipu Sultan, the 18th-century ruler of the Kingdom of Mysore). He lived in Europe as a musician and a teacher of Sufism. Her mother, Ameena Begum (Ora Meena Ray Baker), was an American from Albuquerque, New Mexico, who met Hazrat Inayat Khan during his travels in the United States. Ora Baker was the half-sister of American yogi and scholar Pierre Bernard, her guardian at the time she met Hazrat. Vilayat later became head of the Sufi Order International.
In 1914, shortly before the outbreak of the First World War, the family left Russia for London and lived in Bloomsbury. Noor attended nursery at Notting Hill. In 1920, they moved to France, settling in Suresnes, near Paris, in a house that was a gift from a benefactor of the Sufi movement. After the death of her father in 1927, Noor took on the 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 the Paris Conservatory under Nadia Boulanger, composing for harp and piano. She began a career 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 (ISBN 978-0892813230), inspired by the Jataka tales of Buddhist tradition, was published in London.
After the outbreak of the Second World War, when France was overrun by German troops, the family fled to Bordeaux and, from there by sea, to England, landing in Falmouth, Cornwall on 22 June 1940.
Although Noor was deeply influenced by the pacifist teachings of her father, she and her brother Vilayat decided to help defeat Nazi tyranny: "I wish some Indians would win high military distinction in this war. If one or two could do something in the Allied service which was very brave and which everybody admired it would help to make a bridge between the English people and the Indians."
On 19 November 1940, she joined the Women's Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) and, as an Aircraftwoman 2nd Class, was sent to be trained as a wireless operator. Upon assignment to a bomber training school in June 1941, she applied for a commission in an effort 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, and from there to various other SOE schools for training, including STS 5 Winterfold House, STS 36 Boarmans and STS 52 Thame Park. During her training she adopted the name "Nora Baker".
Her superiors held mixed opinions on her suitability for secret warfare, and her training was incomplete. Nevertheless, her fluent 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 Déricourt.
She travelled to Paris, and with two other women (Diana Rowden, code named Paulette/Chaplain, and Cecily Lefort, code named Alice/Teacher), joined the Physician network led by Francis Suttill, code named "Prosper". Over the next month and a half, all the other Physician network radio operators were arrested by the Sicherheitsdienst (SD). In spite of the danger, Noor rejected an offer to return to Britain. She continued to transmit 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:
Khan was betrayed to the Germans, either by Henri Déricourt or by Renée Garry. Déricourt (code name Gilbert) was an SOE officer and former French Air Force pilot who had been suspected of working as a double agent for the Sicherheitsdienst. Garry was the sister of Émile Garry, Inayat Khan's organizer in the Cinema network (later renamed Phono). Allegedly paid 100,000 francs, Renée Garry's actions have been attributed by some to jealousy due to Garry's suspicion that she had lost the affections of SOE agent France Antelme to Noor.
On or around 13 October 1943, Noor was arrested and interrogated at the SD Headquarters at 84 Avenue Foch in Paris. Though SOE trainers had expressed doubts about her gentle and unworldly character, on her arrest she fought so fiercely that SD officers were afraid of her. 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 the SD in Paris, testified after the war that she did not give the Gestapo a single piece of information, but lied consistently.
Although Noor did not talk about her activities under interrogation, the SD found her notebooks. Contrary to security regulations, she had copied out all the messages she had sent as an SOE operative. Although she refused to reveal any secret codes, the Germans gained enough information from them to continue sending false messages imitating her. London failed to properly investigate anomalies which should have indicated the transmissions were sent under enemy control. And so 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, Noor escaped from the SD Headquarters, along with fellow SOE Agents John Renshaw Starr and Leon Faye, but was captured in the vicinity. There was an air raid alert as they escaped across the roof. Regulations required a count of prisoners at such times and their escape was discovered before they could get away. After refusing to sign a declaration renouncing future escape attempts, Noor was taken to Germany on 27 November 1943 "for safe custody" and imprisoned at Pforzheim in solitary confinement as a "Nacht und Nebel" (condemned to "Disappearance without Trace") prisoner, in complete secrecy. For ten months, she was kept there handcuffed.
She was classified as "highly dangerous" and shackled in chains most of the time. As the prison director testified after the war, Noor remained uncooperative and continued to refuse to give any information on her work or her fellow operatives.
On 11 September 1944, Noor 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 of 13 September 1944, the four women were executed by a shot to the head. Their bodies were immediately burned in the crematorium. An anonymous Dutch prisoner emerging in 1958 contended that Noor was cruelly beaten by a high-ranking SS officer named Wilhelm Ruppert before being shot from behind. She was 30 years old.
Honours and awards:
Inayat Khan was posthumously awarded a British George Cross and a French Croix de Guerre with Gold Star. As she was still considered "missing" in 1946 she could not be recommended for the Member of the Order of the British Empire but was Mentioned in Despatches instead, in October 1946. Inayat Khan was the third of three Second World War FANY members to be awarded the George Cross, Britain's highest award for gallantry not in the face of the enemy. At the beginning of 2011, a campaign was launched to raise £100,000 for a bronze bust of her in central London close to her former home. It was claimed that this would be the first memorial in Britain to either a Muslim or an Asian woman, but Inayat Khan had already been commemorated on the FANY memorial in St Paul's Church, Wilton Place, Knightsbridge, London, which lists the 52 members of the Corps who gave their lives on active service.
The unveiling of the bronze bust by HRH The Princess Royal Anne took place on 8 November 2012 in Gordon Square Gardens, London.
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 Pforzheim 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 12 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.
In February 1979, a six-hour miniseries, A Man Called Intrepid, was made. It was broadcast in Canada on CTV and in the US on NBC. In this fact-based miniseries which starred David Niven as its protagonist Sir William Stephenson, Noor was played by American Jewish actress Barbara Hershey, and the following deviations from facts are noted:
her alternate name "Nora Baker" was never mentioned,
her capture was attributed to German diligence in sweeping for transmissions, not to betrayal by Déricourt or Garry,
the torture was managed by "Colonel Juergen", a composite character partly based on Wilhelm Ruppert--it is unlikely that a singular German military officer would have been in all four of Paris Gestapo, Karlsruhe prison, Dachau and Oslo branch of SD (even sequentially),
during the escape attempt by herself and Starr (unnamed), she reached her transmitter--only to find out that she had been set up by Juergen, and that Starr was his plant,
when the fake transmissions were sent in her name, Noor managed to signal her (fictitious) handler and lover Evan Michaelian (played by Michael York) that she was compromised by giving an incorrect answer to a question which related to a secret she had revealed to him (and Michaelian was able to then tell Stephenson and SOE to retaliate with faked replies),
another escape attempt was arranged by Juergen on the route from Karlsruhe to Dachau--and she was executed alone (no mention of Beekman, Plewman and Damerment) after not being taken in. Also Juergen wept after her execution (which was not likely from Ruppert),
while Ruppert was executed 1946/05/29 by the American forces in Germany, Juergen was killed in 1945 in Oslo Harbour by the second of two bombs planted by Michaelian who thus (possibly inadvertently) avenged her execution,
On 19 September 2008, Christopher Atkins appeared on the BBC2 TV show Mastermind, with Noor Inayat-Khan as his specialist subject. On the specialist subject round, he scored 17 points, getting every question correct.
In September 2012, producers Zafar Hai and Tabrez Noorani obtained the movie rights to the biography Spy Princess: The Life of Noor Inayat Khan by Shrabani Basu.
On March 3, 2013, Irfanulla Shariff, an American poet, posted a poem on the internet, "A Tribute To The Illuminated Woman Of World War II", the very first poem dedicated to Noor Inayat Khan. It fully illustrates the life story of this remarkable heroic woman of World War II.
In June 2013, Robert H. Gardner began directing a 60-minute biographical docu-drama to air on PBS in 2014.Unity Productions Foundation is scheduled to release this production as Enemy of the Reich: The Noor Inayat Khan Story. The executive producers are Michael Wolfe and Alex Kronemer (A Prince Among Slaves, Islamic Art: Mirror of the Invisible World).
Text from this biography licensed under creative commons license