Noor Inayat Khan was a mass of contradictions. She was a devout Muslim Sufi who believed in nonviolence and refused to tell a lie and disliked the British because of their involvement in India. Described as a “dreamy” and “sensitive” person who spent time writing children’s stories, poetry and music, Noor was the last person who anyone would have thought could be a spy against the Nazis. However, underneath that soft exterior was a spine of steel the Nazis could not break no matter how hard they tried.
Noor Inayat Khan was born in the Kremlin in Moscow on January 2, 1914. Her father was a musician and a Sufi teacher, who was the descendant of famous 18th century Muslim ruler, Tipu Sultan. Her mother was an an American from Albuquerque, New Mexico. Noor was raised in an atmosphere of religious tolerance and nonviolence. In 1914, the family left Russia and moved to London and then Paris. Noor spent most of her childhood in France and grew to love it. She studied child psychology a the Sorbonne and music at the Paris Conservatory, composing for harp and piano. When World War II broke out and the Germans invaded France, her family escaped to Britain. Noor wanted to do something to help free her beloved France. She joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force in 1940 as a trainee wireless operator.
Noor’s fluent French marked her as a valuable asset, and she was selected for special training as a radio operator. Her first evaluations were not promising. She would get flustered during mock interrogations and was scared of guns. Physically petite, one report said she was also”not overly burdened with brains.” There were also concerns her exotic beauty would draw unwanted attention. Her instructors reported she was clumsy and scatterbrained, repeatedly leaving her code books out for anyone to see. She also informed her British handlers she would not lie, and proved this fact by informing them she did not like Britain very much. She was deeply committed to obtaining India’s independence. Noor’s father was a personal friend of Mahatma Gandhi and her ancestor, Tipu Sultan, had been killed attempting to stop the British from taking over southern India. Awkward. However, she threw herself into training to become an undercover radio operator and overcame her obstacles. She based her code on a poem she wrote and gave herself the code name “Madeleine”, which was a character from one of her stories.
In June 1943, she was airlifted into France with the cover identify of Jeanne-Marie Regnier as the first secret female radio operator in the Prosper Network. This was an extremely dangerous job, and most radio operators lasted about six weeks. In fact, just after Noor landed in Paris, all of the other radio operators in Paris were captured by the Nazis. The British offered to evacuate her twice, but she refused until there could be a replacement sent. She spent months evading the Gestapo sending coded messages back to London from Paris. She used disguises, cunning and straight up running to get away from the agents pursuing her. She did the work of six people all while outsmarting the Paris Gestapo. However, she was eventually caught.
As with most things, it was jealousy that brought her down. Noor was beautiful woman, and drew the attention of her male counterparts. The sister of her organizer, Renée Garry, was in love with an agent named Antelme. Apparently, Antelme preferred Noor to Renée so Renée sold Noor out to the Gestapo for revenge. That’s the official story anyway. In the book “Flames in the Field,” Rita Kramer wrote that a double agent said the British had deliberately sacrificed women like Noor to distract the Germans from the invasion of Sicily. However, this has not been confirmed. The Gestapo agent sent to arrest her probably thought it would be an easy task, but he was in for a surprise. Petite Noor put up one hell of a fight, biting hard enough to draw blood, kicking and scratching. He had to call for other agents to assist him in bringing her down. I bet they gave him hell for that. A few hours after her imprisonment, Noor made her first escape attempt. She demanded a bath and insisted the door be shut for her modesty. Instead of bathing, they found her climbing onto the roof and trying to jump from building to building. The Nazis must have realized they had a live one.
She was tortured and interrogated, but Noor never revealed any of the messages she transmitted. She became outwardly compliant to avoid suspicion as she plotted another escape attempt. This time she was foiled by the timing of a British air raid. The guards did an unscheduled check of the cells and found her shimming out the window. Taking no more chances, Noor was classified as extremely dangerous and kept in solitary confinement and constantly shackled. The torture became worse and she was subjected to terrible violence. To keep her memory alive, she scratched messages on the bottom of her food bowl to communicate with the inmates of the cells around her in Pforzheim prison. They only other thing they could report about her was the nightly weeping they heard from her cell.
The Nazis decided they had had enough, and took Noor and three other captured spies to Dachau concentration camp. The other spies were shot immediately, but Noor was singled out for a prolonged execution. They beat her brutally for an entire day until she was shot by an SS officer. She died screaming “Liberté”. She was only thirty years old.
Hail and farewell to a true hero. Liberté at last, my friend.