Heroes of WWII: Noor Inayat Khan

heroes of WWII -

Heroes of WWII: Noor Inayat Khan

Have you heard of the pacifist Indian spy Princess of World War Two who worked as a British resistance agent in France?

Noor Inayat Khan (also known as Nora Baker) was born in 1914 to Inayat Khan, a Muslim Indian from royal descent, and Ameena Begum (formally known as Ora Ray Baker). Noor's parents were Sufi pacifists, who put their faith in music and compassion.

The family moved from Moscow to London in 1914 just before the outbreak of World War One, and in 1920 they moved to Paris where Noor was educated. As a young girl, Noor was described as quiet, shy, sensitive, and dreamy. Noor's father sadly passed away in 1927 and Noor took on the responsibility of her grief-stricken mother and her younger siblings.

In Paris, Noor studied child psychology, alongside music under Nadia Boulanger, composing for both harp and piano. Noor then went on to write several children's books and in 1939, her book Twenty Jataka Tales, inspired by the Jataka tales from the Buddhist tradition, was published in London by George G. Harrap and Co.

In 1940, with the German army closing in on Paris, the family fled to Bordeaux and from there by sea to England, landing at Falmouth in Cornwall. They then settled in London where Noor and her brother, Vilayat had a difficult decision whether to go against their pacifist beliefs and help in the war effort.

They both decided to help in the war and in November 1940, Noor signed up for the WAAF and was trained as a wireless operator. She said, "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."

In February 1943 Noor Inayat Khan was recruited to join the French section of the Special Operations Executive (SOE), while in training it was noted by her superiors that Noor was "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." Next to this comment, Maurice Buckmaster, the head of F Section, had written in the margin "Nonsense" and that "We don't want them overburdened with brains."

Due to her Sufi pacifist upbringing, Noor was discouraged from lying, subsequently this became an issue for her, with one instructor writing, "she confesses that she would not like to have to do anything 'two faced'" and another stating "Tends to give far too much information. Came here without the foggiest idea what she was being trained for."

Vera Atkins, the intelligence officer for the F sections of the SOE, called Noor back to London for a meeting to talk about her belief in her own capabilities to succeed in the SOE as an operator. Vilayat remembered trying to stop his sister going on her mission exactly at the time of this meeting. "You see, Nora and I had been brought up with the policy of Gandhi's nonviolence, and at the outbreak of war we discussed what we would do," said Vilayat, who had followed his father and become a Sufi mystic. "She said, 'Well, I must do something, but I don't want to kill anyone.' So I said, 'Well, if we are going to join the war, we have to involve ourselves in the most dangerous positions, which would mean no killing.' Then, when we eventually go to England, I volunteered for minesweeping and she volunteered for SOE, and so I have always had a feeling of guilt because of what I said that day."

Never the less, in June 1943 Noor arrived in Angers, where she then made her way to Paris to meet with the leader of a Prosper sub-circuit named Emile Garry, or Cinema. Within a week of her deployment her network was compromised and they were all arrested, except Noor who was called back to London. Noor didn't want to return to London and convinced her superiors to allow her to stay - which meant doing the work of six radio operators singlehandedly.

Over the following months, she tracked and transported supplies to the French resistance, sent reports of Nazi activity back to London and arranged safe passage for allied soldiers. But in October 1943, the sister of a colleague, in love with an agent that loved Noor, sold her address to the Gestapo and Noor was arrested.

While under arrest Noor did not give up any information, even when continually tortured. On one occasion after pocketing a screwdriver away from the guards, Noor and two fellow prisoners were able to loosen a skylight and escape. But as the prisoners began to run for their lives, an air raid siren alerted her captors. Noor was caught once again and sent to a German prison. Then, on to Dachau concentration camp.

On the 13th of September 1944, Noor Inayat Khan was executed alongside her fellow agents Yolande Beekman, Madeleine Damerment and Eliane Plewman. It is said that before being executed Noor shouted "Liberté".

Noor Inayat Khan was posthumously awarded the George Cross in 1949, and she was awarded a French Croix de Guerre with a silver star (avec étoile de vermeil). Noor was commemorated on a stamp which was issued by the Royal Mail on 25 March 2014 in a set of stamps about "Remarkable Lives".

If you would like to hear more of Noor Inayat Khan's story, watch the below video.

1 comment

  • Kevin

    Love these blogposts, keep em coming!

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published