Updated: Nov 11
If Noor Inayat Khan and I had met, I am sure we would have been friends. For a start, I share
a core belief in peace as she did and I also have an immense need to address injustice when I see it. It is the reason I highlight women’s stories on my tours, because their lives and achievements are largely invisible. With Noor, she needed to address her dislike of what was happening in Nazi occupied France but without being involved in war work which manufactured weapons.
Noor was born in Moscow in 1914, the eldest child of a Indian Muslim father Inayat Khan and an American mother Pirani Ameena Begum. Her family had nobles and classical musicians on both sides and her great great grandfather was ruler of Mysore, Tipu Sultan. Her brother Inayati became the head of the Sufi order of the west. So I guess I am telling you in a long winded way that she was not your average girl in London at the time!
In 1914 shortly before the outbreak of WWI her family moved to Bloomsbury and Noor attended nursery in Notting Hill. In 1920 the family moved to France, settling near Paris. In 1927 when Noor was 13 her father died. Grief stricken she took on the responsibility of her mother and siblings. She went on to study child psychology at Sorbonne. As a young girl she started to write and publish poetry in both French and English.
At the outbreak of WWII the family fled to England initially living in Southampton (wasn’t that where Rishi Sunak started his life)?
Noor decided she wanted to join the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, training to be a radio operator. In the early part of 1943, she was recruited by the F Section as a Special Operations Executive. Training first at Guildford Wanborough Manor then Aylesbury.
Like Violette Szabo who you may have read about in another of my blogs this week, she was sent to Beaulieu, the finishing school for spies. Next time you take the kids or grand kids to see the lions at Beaulieu remember much more important work went on there 80 years ago!
The training she underwent included a mock up Gestapo interrogation. Noor was apparently terrified and totally overwhelmed, trembling, she nearly lost her voice. Her teachers wrote on her final report “not overburdened with brains, but she 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 is really suited to the work in the field”. Next to this comment Maurice Buckmeister head of the F section had written "Nonsense. We don't want them overburdened with brains"
Physically small, her athletics reports were not good either!
Vera Atkins (the intelligence Officer for F section) and largely thought to be the inspiration for Ian Fleming’s Miss Moneypenny, thought she was ready for the challenge but just needed to meet with Noor to confirm, so she invited her to meet at Manetta’s in Mayfair. She told Noor what had been written about her on the training course and asked her if she was sure she wanted to go. She gave her the opportunity to pull out. But Noor was not only horrified at what had been written about her but was adamant she was ready. Bear in mind that the life expectancy of a radio operator was 6 weeks. This was one of the most dangerous jobs behind enemy lines. They had to keep on the move and if they spent more than 20 minutes anywhere signalling the Germans would track it and find them. Having assured Vera she was ready the decision was made to despatch her as soon as possible.
She wasn’t parachuted into France but rather went by Lysander, a small plane capable of landing on rough grass. With a June moon they landed in a field near Angers and she made her way to Paris. Noor, code name Madeleine, was fluent in French, a brilliant wireless operator and with the shortage of agents she was a desirable candidate for Nazi occupied France.
Whilst in Paris, the section that she was part of ‘The Prosper’ started to be rounded up by the Germans and she received an order from Maurice Buckmeister back in London that they were bringing her home. She said she would rather stay as she believed she was the last wireless operator left in Paris. He agreed to her staying but that is when things changed.
She was betrayed by Renée Garry the sister of a resistance member Émile Henri Garry. Renee believed she had lost the affections of an SOE officer to Noor so she took a bribe of 100’000 francs (£500). Garry was acquitted by a court later.
Noor was captured by the Nazi’s and they tortured her incessantly but according to reports taken from witnesses she never broke for one minute, nor gave them any information. However, she made one fatal mistake, because her training had been cut short in England, she had been told to file stuff and she thought that meant she had to keep notes. The Germans found her pocket book and started to send wireless messages back to London in her style.
Reports suggest that London should have realised much sooner that there were certain anomalies. One such anomaly was the style of the morse being sent. It was not the hand of Noor as she had obtained the nickname ‘Bang away Lulu’ as she was pretty heavy with her coding.
After being interrogated in France in November 1943 she was taken to Pforzheim and placed in solitary confinement. For ten months she was shackled by her hands and feet. Classified as highly dangerous as she had already successful escaped. She remained uncooperative and did not break for one minute.
On 12 September 1944 she was transferred to Dachau Concentration camp along with fellow agents Yolanda Beckman, Madeleine Damerment and Eliane Plewman the next day they were shot.
Her last words as the bullet entered her brain were ‘Liberté’
Posthumously she was awarded the George Cross and the Croix de Guerre
In 2011 a campaign raised £100’000 to construct a bronze bust near her central London home in Bloomsbury.
You might like to watch a film which was made in 2020 called ‘A call to Spy’ in which Noor’s character is played by Indian Actress Radhika Apte. Well worth watching.
This completes my series of tributes in recognition of the sacrifices women made in WWII. There are so many people I could have mentioned. Vera Atkins for one, whose story is both heartbreaking and inspiring, my favourite, the truly eccentric but terribly brilliant Nancy Wake, fellow George Cross recipient Oddette Sansom Hallowes and heroine of the first world war Edith Cavill. Seriously there are too many to list here. They all possessed off the scale courage and I am in awe of them all.
Most of these names I have listed above feature in more detail on my tours around the capital. From Noor in Bloomsbury to Vera Atkins in Marylebone, Nancy Wake in Mayfair to Edith in Whitechapel. Book tickets on my website.
Officer Noor Inayat Khan we salute you!