Noor Inayat Khan was a British spy in the Second World War, sent into France by Winston Churchill’s secret Special Operations Executive (SOE) but was later betrayed, captured, and executed by the Nazis. The story of Noor Inayat Khan – a descendant of 18th-century Muslim ruler Tipu Sultan – is a remarkable one.
World War I and World War II history provides very little acknowledgment of how citizens of the Indian subcontinent and African nations either volunteered or were forced into war by their colonial masters (my British school education has a lot to answer to), but Noor’s extraordinary contributions have recently come to light thanks to the biography “Spy Princess“ written by Shrabani Basu; the film “A Call to Spy” that pays tribute to Noor and two other female agents, Vera Atkins and Virginia Hall; recognition with a blue plaque in August 2020 – a permanent sign commemorating a notable figure fitted near a building in which the person worked or lived; the Royal Mail issuing a postage stamp; and a bronze bust in London unveiled by Princess Anne in 2012.
So how did Noor Inayat Khan, a Muslim woman described as well-mannered and gentle, go on to become a secret agent, working undercover in one of the most dangerous and devastating areas during the Second World War?
The eldest child of a musician and famed teacher committed to building a Sufi movement in the West, Inayat Khan, and American poet Pirani Ameena Begum (born Ora Ray Baker), Noor Inayat Khan was born in Moscow in 1914, moving shortly afterwards with her family to London during the First World War.
At the age of six, Noor, her parents, and siblings relocated again to France after the First World War in 1920, where Noor would spend most of her adult life. The untimely death of her father in 1927 during a trip to India meant that the responsibility of looking after the family fell on Noor’s shoulders.
In France, she studied child psychology at Sorbonne University and composition at the Conservatoire de Paris – continuing her love for music inherited from her father – where she studied the harp, piano, solfeggio, harmonic analysis, and harmony. She held a successful career as a children’s writer, contributing regularly to French radio and children’s magazines, and published a collection of animal fables ‘Twenty Jātaka Tales’ in 1939.
But critical events in Europe would soon put aside the ambitions of the young writer. As the Nazis seized control of France during the Second World War, Noor and her family returned to England in 1940 for safety.
Strongly influenced by the Sufi teachings of her father, the principle of non-violence was firmly entrenched in Noor. But Noor and her brother, Vilayat, felt conflicted by their Sufi teachings and the Nazi activities they had witnessed. Vilayat asked his sister, “How can we preach spiritual morality without participating in preventative action? Can we stand by and just watch what the Nazis are doing?” Noor felt it was her duty to play a vital role in the war against fascism, but in a way that would not involve killing a single person.
The same year Noor and her family arrived in England, Noor volunteered to join the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF), her decision to do so inspired by the conversation Noor had with her brother. There, she joined as an Aircraftwoman 2nd Class, trained in wireless operations.
During her initial interview with the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, the panel asked about her views on Indian Independence. Noor responded back honestly – guided by the teachings of her father who sided with Indian Independence – by declaring that after the war she might find she had to support India against the British in the fight for independence. However, she remained hopeful that her service might help to build understanding between Britain and India: “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…it would help to make a bridge between the English people and the Indians.”
Later in 1943, Noor, who was fluent in French, joined the France section of the Special Operations Executive, a secret government branch set up to support the resistance movements in occupied countries, where Noor trained as a radio operator and became a secret agent for the British government.
On June 17 1943, Noor became the first woman agent to be parachuted into Nazi-occupied France under the code name ‘Madeleine’. She traveled to Paris with other operatives and joined other wireless operators carrying messages for the French Resistance from London. This was a dangerous mission for Noor – she was at risk of being detected by the Nazis if she stayed on air for more than 20 minutes at a time, and the average lifespan of a field agent was just 6 weeks – but Noor was resolute in her dedication to the cause.
After the sister of Noor’s circuit leader sold the Nazis Noor’s address for a sum of 100,000 francs, Noor was captured by the Gestapo in October the same year and taken to Germany a month later.
Noor was regarded as a highly dangerous prisoner by the Gestapo, as she never revealed any intelligence or gave up anyone to the Germans, and had tried escaping twice under their watch.
During her near one-year imprisonment, she was tortured and abused by officers. Later, she was taken to Dachau concentration camp near Munich, where she was eventually murdered.
Noor was posthumously awarded the George Cross, the United Kingdom’s highest civilian award, and the French Croix de Guerre, a military honor awarded by France.
Her exceptional life has now received the growing recognition she deserves. However, the erasure of her narrative post-WWII is reflective of the white-washing of history we read today.
Shrabani Basu, the writer of Noor’s biography, summarizes this sentiment perfectly in an interview with Al-Jazeera:
“The understanding in the West is that Britain won this war on its own, that Churchill won it for them. They need to know there were 2.5 million people of the Indian subcontinent who came forward to volunteer for this war,” said Shrabani.
“This was won on the backs of these Indians – and Noor is part of them.”
Get The Tempest in your inbox. Read more exclusives like this in our weekly newsletter!