Noor Inayat Khan – A British Spy – Fantastic Women Series

The first female wireless operator to be sent from the UK into occupied France to help the French Resistance during World War II.

Hon. Assistant Section Officer Noor Inayat Khan (code name Madeleine), George Cross, MiD, Croix de Guerre avec Etoile de Vermeil. Noor Inayat Khan served as a wireless operator with F Section, Special Operations Executive. Black and white image, with Noor smiling, facing the camera, in her unifrom.
Hon. Assistant Section Officer Noor Inayat Khan (code name Madeleine), George Cross, MiD, Croix de Guerre avec Etoile de Vermeil. Noor Inayat Khan served as a wireless operator with F Section, Special Operations Executive.
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Noor Inayat Khan was the first female wireless operator to be sent from the UK into occupied France to help the French Resistance during World War II.

Britain’s Special Operations Executive (SOE) was established to conduct espionage, sabotage, and reconnaissance in countries ruled by the Axis powers, specifically those occupied by Nazi Germany.

Noor Inayat Khan was an SOE agent with codename Madeleine sent to France in 1943 as a wireless operator to help the French resistance during World War II. Her job was to support the French resistance network known as Prosper.

Noor was born in Moscow on January 1, 1914, the eldest of four children. As the great-great-granddaughter of Tipu Sultan the ruler of Mysore (a princely state in India) from 10 December 1782 – 4 May 1799, she was descendent from royalty. Her father, Hazrat Inayat Khan, was a Sufi teacher, and her mother Ora Ray Baker was an American poet. Her brother Vilayat became the head of the Sufi Order of the West, which later became the Sufi Order International, and now the Inayati Order.

From all accounts, Noor’s childhood was happy and loving, with philosophy, music, religious teaching as part of her daily routine. Her family moved to Britain from Moscow in 1914, to live in Bloomsbury, London. In 1920, they moved to Paris, France. Her father’s sudden death in 1927 had a huge impact and Noor had to take on the responsibility of looking after her siblings to help her mother.

In France, she studied child psychology at the Sorbonne, and also music at the Paris Conservatory under Nadia Boulanger, composing for both harp and piano. She subsequently began writing as a young woman and published her poetry and children’s stories in English and French to children’s magazines and aired on French radio.

Noor’s life changed again when France was occupied by Nazi Germany, and she and her family fled to Britain, in June 1940. Even though she was a pacifist, Noor wanted to contribute to the war effort. So, she joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) and, as an Aircraftwoman 2nd Class, was sent to be trained as a wireless operator, where she learned Morse code. 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.

She was subsequently recruited to the Special Operations Executive (SOE) after one interview and was given special training as a wireless operator in occupied territory. At the SOE she was also provided training on survival skills, weapons and how to keep codes secret, to supplement her Morse code training.

Surprisingly, her reports from this time are not very complimentary. Her superiors had mixed opinions about her abilities and her final report read:  “Not overburdened with brains but has worked hard and shown keenness, apart from some dislike of the security side of the course. She has an unstable and temperamental personality, and it is very doubtful whether she is really suited to work in the field.” However, the head of her section (F [France] Section) did not agree with this assessment. Her instructors from secret warfare training wrote that “she confesses that she would not like to have to do anything ‘two faced'”, and that she was “very feminine in character, very eager to please, very ready to adapt herself to the mood of the company; the one of the conversations, capable of strong attachments, kind-hearted, emotional, imaginative.”

A further observer said: “Tends to give far too much information. Came here without the foggiest idea what she was being trained for.” Others later commented that she was physically unsuited, saying she would not easily disappear into a crowd.

Through all this Noor remained committed to her SOE work, so when the Parisian SOE chapter needed a wireless operator, she was chosen.

And although some fellow agents wrote to her intelligence officer, concerned that she should not go, Noor’s 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.

She was sent to Paris in June 1943, with the codename Madeleine and the profession of a children’s nurse, Jeanne-Marie Renier as cover. Noor immediately began working for the Prosper network and as a secret agent. Her main job was to communicate with the SOE in Britain, as well as to coordinate other agents’ arrival and the supply of weapons for the resistance.

Noor’s job as a secret agent was extremely dangerous. The fact that she carried the tool of her trade – a wireless set – in a suitcase around with her meant that she could be caught at any time. In 1943, an operator’s life expectancy was six weeks.

Soon after her arrival in Paris though, the Prosper network was in jeopardy. It had been infiltrated by the Gestapo and its agent were arrested. Even after Prosper was disbanded, Noor stayed on to maintain the wireless contact with Britain, even though she was asked to come home. At this point she was told only to receive signals, not to transmit.

The Gestapo were on high alert to catch her and had put a reward of 100,000 francs on her head. Historians think that Noor was eventually betrayed for 10,000 francs by a Frenchwoman who thought that the man she loved was more interested in Noor.

When the Gestapo arrested Khan, they didn’t just apprehend her – they also confiscated her notebooks, where, unfortunately, she had copied her encrypted communications and plain text messages to SEO.

She was taken to and interrogated at the SD Headquarters in Paris. During that time, she attempted escape twice. Hans Kieffer, the former head of the SD in Paris, testified after the war that Noor did not provide the Gestapo with any information, and in fact lied consistently. So, it turns out that the people back home who thought that she was not suitable for secret warfare, were wrong.

Although Noor refused to reveal any secret codes, the Germans gained enough information from her notebooks to continue sending false messages imitating her.

She refused to sign a declaration renouncing future escape attempts, so Noor was taken to Germany on 27 November 1943 “for safe custody” and kept in solitary confinement as a “Nacht und Nebel” (“Night and Fog”: condemned to “Disappearance without Trace”) prisoner, in complete secrecy. She remained there for ten months, her hands and feet shackled.

Noor did manage to inform another inmate of her identity by scratching messages on the base of her cup, writing her other name, Nora Baker, and the London address of her mother’s house.

Finally, on 12 September 1944, Noor Inayat Khan was abruptly transferred to the Dachau concentration camp along with three fellow agents. The four women were executed at dawn the following morning.

 

Noor Inayat Khan's memorial plaque at the Dachau Memorial Hall

Noor Inayat Khan’s memorial plaque at the Dachau Memorial Hall. (CC BY)

 

In 1958, an anonymous Dutch prisoner revealed that Noor was cruelly beaten by an SS officer before she was shot from behind. Her last word was said to be Liberté.

Noor Inayat Khan was posthumously awarded the George Cross in 1949, as well as the French Cross, Croix de Guerre avec étoile de vermeil (“with a silver-gilt star”).

 

Inayat Khan's inscription at the Air Forces Memorial at Runnymede, England, memorialising those without a known grave

Inayat Khan’s inscription at the Air Forces Memorial at Runnymede, England, memorialising those without a known grave. (CC BY)

 

In 2011, £100,000 were raised to build a bronze bust of her to be placed in central London near her former home. It was unveiled by the Princess Royal on 8 November 2012 in Gordon Square Gardens, Bloomsbury, London.

 

Memorial bust of Inayat Khan in Gordon Square Gardens, Bloomsbury, London

Memorial bust of Inayat Khan in Gordon Square Gardens, Bloomsbury, London. (CC BY)

 

She was also commemorated on a Royal Mail stamp on 25 March 2014 in a set of stamps about “Remarkable Lives”.

Noor was honoured with a blue plaque on 25 February 2019, at her wartime London home at 4 Taviton Street in Bloomsbury. This was the house that she had left on her final and fatal mission and the address that she wrote onto her bowl while in prison so she could be identified. Noor Inayat Khan was the first woman of South Asian descent to have a blue plaque in her honour.

 

Blue Plaque, August 2020 Saying Noor Inayat Khan 1914 to 1944 SOE Agent codename Madeleine stayed here

Blue Plaque, August 2020 for Noor Inayat Khan. (CC BY)

I am a Chartered Environmentalist from the Royal Society for the Environment, UK and co-owner of DoLocal Digital Marketing Agency Ltd, with a Master of Environmental Management from Yale University, an MBA in Finance, and a Bachelor of Science in Physics and Mathematics. I am passionate about science, history and environment and love to create content on these topics.

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