In June 1941, a young woman applied for commission in the army to help the war efforts against Nazis. Owing to her fluency in French and proficiency as a wireless operator, Noor Inayat Khan was picked up by the Special Operations Executive (SOE) and trained in espionage. She was promoted to Assistant Section Officer (the WAAF equivalent of RAF Pilot Officer), and flown clandestinely by a Lysander aircraft to France. Her mission was highly dangerous, and she was travelling as a children’s nurse Jeanne-Marie Renier, using fake papers.
Noor-un-Nisa Inayat Khan, also known as Nora Inayat Khan and Nora Baker, was a British spy in World War II and conducted espionage and reconnaissance in occupied Europe and to aid local resistance movements.
Born in Moscow in 1914, Noor moved to London from Moscow the same year shortly before the outbreak of the First World War. In 1920, they again moved to France. After the death of her father in 1927, 13-year-old Noor took on the responsibility for her grief-stricken mother and her younger siblings. She went on to study child psychology at the Sorbonne, as well as music at the Paris Conservatory.
After the outbreak of the Second World War, when France was invaded by German troops, the family fled to Bordeaux and, from there by sea, to England.
Working under the codename “Madeleine”, she became the first female wireless operator to be sent into occupied France to aid the French Resistance during the war. Her brief yet momentous life came to an end after Noor was betrayed and captured, and executed at the Dachau concentration camp in Germany.
For her service in the SOE, she was posthumously awarded the George Cross, the highest award bestowed by the British government for non-operational gallantry. She is also the recipient of French Croix de Guerre with a silver star (avec étoile de vermeil). A memorial bust of Khan was erected at Gordon Square Gardens, London. It is the first memorial to either a Muslim or an Asian woman in Britain.
Noor has also been commemorated on the FANY memorial in St Paul’s Church, in London, which lists the 52 members of the Corps who gave their lives in active service. She was also commemorated on a stamp issued by the Royal Mail in 2014 in a set of stamps about “Remarkable Lives”. In 2018, a campaign was launched to have Noor represented on the next version of the £50 note.
On 25 February 2019, it was announced that Noor Inayat Khan would be honoured with a blue plaque at her wartime London home at 4 Taviton Street in Bloomsbury—the house that she left on her final and fatal mission and the address that she etched onto her bowl while in prison so she could be identified. Noor is the first woman of South Asian descent to have a blue plaque honoring her in London.
It is ironic that while Noor Inayat Khan sacrificed her life to fight the onslaught of the Nazis in the defense of Britain and its allies in WWII, her great-great-great grandfather Tipu Sultan, the Tiger of Mysore, was martyred in 1799 trying to rid his homeland of the British occupation.
As a young woman, Noor also began a career as a writer, publishing her poetry and children’s stories in English and French, becoming a regular contributor to children’s magazines and French radio. In 1939, her book Twenty Jataka Tales, inspired by the Jataka tales of Buddhist tradition, was published in London.
Although Noor was a pacifist by nature, she raised her voice for India’s freedom and she and her brother Vilayat decided to help defeat Nazi tyranny. In November 1940, Noor joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) as an Aircraftswoman 2nd Class and was sent to be trained as a wireless operator.
After a successful stint in the SOE, Noor was endangered as Germans began to round up British spies owing to a mole leaking information. Noor was given the option to return but she chose to stay on because of the sensitivity of the mission and being the only wireless operator behind enemy lines.
Unfortunately, like her ancestor Tipu Sultan, she too was betrayed by a fellow agent and arrested. Noor attempted to escape twice but was apprehended and sent to Germany. Despite extreme torture, Noor refused to reveal any vital information to her captors. On 13 September 1944, Noor, along with four other captives was executed and buried in an unmarked grave.
Numerous books, plays, poems, films and documentaries have been produced to pay homage to this gallant and selfless Muslim girl of the Sub-Continent. The legend of Noor Inayat Khan lives on and she is a source of inspiration to women in Britain as well as the Sub-Continent.
The writer is a former Group Captain PAF and an author.