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The princess spy

The life and death of Noor Inayat Khan

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Noor Inayat Khan in British uniform (Photo: Imperial War Museums)

In April 1942, a shortage of suitable male personnel induced Britain’s Special Operations Executive (SOE), the secret service set up by Churchill, to start recruiting women for covert operations in Nazi-occupied France. SOE agents were tasked to work with local Resistance groups and supply them with equipment for espionage and sabotage operations. Among the 37 women recruited in the coming years was an Indian princess, Noor Inayat Khan, a descendant of Tipu Sultan, the 18th century ruler of the Mysore administrative district in south-western India. Her name meant “light of womanhood.” Born in Moscow in a monastery from an Indian father, Inayat Khan, a musician and a Sufi preacher, and an American mother, the poet Ora Ray Baker (later Amina Begum), in 1914, Noor grew up in Paris. She studied psychology at the famous Sorbonne university, played several instruments and published children’s stories while caring for her younger siblings after the early death of their father when she was 13.

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A family photo (Noor is on the far left standing next to her father) (Photo: Shrabani Basu)

In 1940, Khan’s family fled to England from the advancing Germans. Noor and her brother, Vilayat, joined the fight against the Nazis: Vilayat on a Royal Navy minesweeper, Noor as a wireless operator in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) under the name Nora Baker. In 1942, Noor was invited to join by the SOE on account of her fluent, accentless French. She accepted the invitation on the condition that she would not have to go against her family’s pacifist beliefs and take human lives.

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Noor Inayat Khan playing the veena (Photo: Soefi Museum)

In February 1943, Noor started her 3-month training to become a wireless operator in occupied France, a job for which the average life expectancy was six weeks. Her training reports were not favorable; the instructors described her as not suited to work in the field. The shortage of wireless operators nonetheless led to her deployment. She became the first female radio operator sent on a mission to occupied France. Noor told her mother that she was going to Africa. She received a false identity as Jeanne Marie Regnier, the codename Madeleine, and the call sign “nurse”. On June 16, 1943, she left for France in a Westland Lysander, a transport aircraft used frequently for clandestine operations due to its ability to land on short and rough fields.

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A Westland Lysander in black camouflage as used for special night missions into occupied France (Photo: Wikipedia, Paul Maritz)

Noor arrived in Paris with two fellow SOE operators and joined the Prosper network, the largest SOE circuit in Europe. By the time of her arrival, Prosper was already compromised due to the betrayal by a fellow agent. In the following weeks, Prosper’s agents were arrested one by one by the German security services, and Noor remained SOE’s sole wireless operator in all of Paris. She dyed her hair, was continuously on the move with her radio set and eluded the Germans for three months. She was offered extraction but refused to abandon her post because she did not want to leave her French comrades without communications. On 14 October, she was betrayed and was captured by the Gestapo and taken to their headquarters on Avenue Foch in the center of the French capital.

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The building where Noor and other SOE agents were interrogated on Avenue Foch in Paris (Photo: Google)

While Noor remained silent during her interrogations, her notes (which she kept against SOE regulations) provided enough information for the Germans to start faking transmissions under her name. These transmissions lacked one of the necessary security checks and a fellow agent even got word out to London that Madeleine had been captured. However, Maurice Buckmaster, head of SOE’s section F, ignored the warning signs and was convinced that Madeleine was free and rebuilding the Prosper network.
 
Noor made several attempts to escape, so the Germans decided to move her to Germany and the SOE lost her trace. As a “highly dangerous” spy, she spent ten months in a prison at Pforzheim kept in chains and in solitary confinement. She was regularly interrogated and beaten. Noor was moved to Dachau concentration camp on September 11, 1944, where she was probably one of four SOE women executed shortly after on September 13. According to eyewitness accounts she was tortured and beaten but refused to give any information on her work or colleagues. Eventually, she and the three other women were shot from behind in the back of the head close to the crematory of the camp. Her last word was “Liberté!”. Noor was only 30 years old. Her body was burned in the crematorium right after the execution.
 
Although she started her fight against the Nazis as an unlikely spy, she eventually became a heroine in World War II and still serves as an inspiration for many. She is remembered in several ways. A commemorative plaque was placed on the wall of the crematory in the concentration camp. She was awarded also the George Cross, the highest civilian decoration in the United Kingdom, and the French Croix de Guerre posthumously.

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The crematory of the Dachau concentration camp with Noor’s commemorative plaque on the left (Photo: Author’s own)

A Call to Spy, an American historical drama film was released on the 75th anniversary of D-Day in 2019. It presented the stories of female SOE agents, including that of Noor’s.

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The movie poster of A Call to Spy (Photo: IMDB)

A series, based on the book Spy Princess: The Life of Noor Inayat Khan written by Noor’s biographer Shrabani Basu, is in the works, too. She will be played by Indian actress Freida Pinto, known from movies such as Slumdog Millionaire.

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Freida Pinto to play Noor in the upcoming series (Photo: Instagram - Freida Pinto)

In 2012, a bronze bust of her was unveiled by the Princess Royal in London. The Royal Mail has released a commemorative stamp of Noor in 2014 in a set of stamps about "Remarkable Lives." Erected in 2020 by English Heritage, one of London’s iconic blue plaques is dedicated to her at her family home in Taviton Street.

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The blue plaque in London (Photo: English Heritage)

In France, Noor is remembered by her nom de guerre, Madeleine. One of the small streets of Suresnes, a western suburb of Paris where she used to live, is named after her. The Mayor of Paris once described her as a “modern-day Joan of Arc”.

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