This week, a woman descended from Indian royalty who sacrificed her life for Britain. Noor Inayat Khan was described as gentle, shy, sensitive, musical, dreamy, poetic and otherworldly, but as a spy she was one of the bravest and most defiant women in the Second World War.
Noor was born in 1914 in the Kremlin in Moscow while her parents were the guests of the Russian royal family. Her mother was American, her father Indian and a direct descendant of Tipu Sultan, a famous 18th century Muslim ruler. Her father, a Sufi teacher, instilled in her strong principles, including religious tolerance and non-violence. She was raised in London and Paris and became an accomplished young woman, educated at the Sorbonne in child psychology, as well as being skilled in music and writing children’s stories. But despite her Sufi ideals, she couldn’t sit back and watch as war approached. When World War II started, she trained as a nurse with the French Red Cross but fled to England before the surrender of France and joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force. Because of her fluent French, she was recruited by the elite Special Operations Executive (SOE) as a radio operator. This gentle woman who loved to played the harp was taught to shoot and kill.
In June 1943 she became the first female to be sent into Nazi-occupied France by the SOE and became the radio operator for the Prosper resistance network in Paris, with the codename Madeleine, despite a report that described her as “unsuited to work in her field” because she was scared of guns and easily flustered. But Noor flourished in her hazardous role and was more concerned about worrying her mother than the constant threat to her own life. Her mission soon became the most dangerous undercover operation in France. Although most members of the network were arrested and rumours abounded that the network had been infiltrated by a Nazi spy, she refused to return to England and spent the entire summer moving around, sending messages to London while evading capture, frequently changing her appearance and alias. Hers became the last radio operating between Paris and London.
In October, she was betrayed by the sister of a friend and seized by the Gestapo, but put up such a fight that the arresting officer had to request assistance. Unfortunately they found her book recording her secret signals and used her radio to trick London into sending three new agents who were captured as soon as they arrived. In November 1943, she was sent to Pforzheim prison in Germany where she was kept in chains and in solitary confinement. Despite ten months of beatings, starvation and torture, she refused to reveal any information. In September 1944, Khan and three other female SOE agents were transferred to Dachau concentration camp. Despite being kicked and tortured all night by an SS officer, Noor refused to crack. On 13 September, she was shot. Her final word, spoken as the German firing squad raised their weapons, was Liberté. Noor made a strong impression on everyone who met her. Even the head of the Gestapo headquarters in Paris, Hans Josef Kieffer, wept when told of her death during his postwar interrogation.
Noor was posthumously awarded the Croix de Guerre and the George Cross, one of only three women from the SOE to receive the latter. A memorial was unveiled to her in London in 2012, the first statue to an Indian woman in Britain and the first to any Muslim.