I have so much admiration for Noor Inayat Khan.
The great great great granddaughter of Tipu Sultan (eighteenth century ruler of Mysore in India – at the time, its own kingdom), she was born in Russia to an Indian father and an American mother. She spent part of her childhood in England and most of it in France.
Her full first name, Noor-un-Nissa, means “Light among Women” in Persian.
Noor studied child psychology at the Sorbonne, one of France’s top universities, she was a skilled pianist and harpist, a poet and translator; her translation of the Buddhist stories ‘Twenty Jataka Tales’ was published in French in the 1930s. Then, when the Second World War broke out in 1939, she and her sister trained as nurses. All round, a remarkable woman. But there’s more…
I’ve been mildly obsessed with Noor, ever since I discovered her bust in the corner of Gordon Square gardens in Bloomsbury. The square has two links to her. It was where she lived in 1917, at 1 Gordon Square – a 3-year old who played in the gardens and saw fairies there. When she returned to England in 1940, her mother lived not far away at 4 Taviton Street and when Noor came to visit she would often stay in Gordon Square with her friend, Jean Overton Fuller.
It was in Suresnes, however, in the western suburbs of Paris, that Noor spent the bulk of her young life, from 1920 until 1940. She remembered it very fondly, in a large house, always busy, with her parents, three siblings and her uncles, although life had become harder after the death of her father when she was just 13.
Unfortunately their lives changed forever in 1940, after the outbreak of the Second World War. As the Nazis moved west, Noor and most of her family felt compelled to flee France for London. She wanted to join the war effort and started out in the WAAF (the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force). Initially, she was actually rejected because her passport said she was born in Moscow, (Russia and Britain weren’t exactly best friends at the time), but she wrote an outraged letter back, saying that her “British Protected Person” status should allow her to fight for her country. She very rapidly received an apology and her appointment letter to the WAAF.
Her progress was closely monitored and she was subsequently recruited as a secret agent for the Special Operations Executive (SOE), an intelligence service focussed on industrial and military sabotage. She underwent intense training. In 1943, Noor was sent into France as a radio operator.
She was the first female radio operator to be sent by Britain into occupied France. These operatives, on average, had a life expectancy of only six weeks. Noor managed seventeen.
Not only that, but within ten days of her arrival, all of the other British agents in Noor’s network had been arrested, making her the only link between the agents in the Paris area and London. The SOE told her to evacuate France.
She proceeded to do the work of six radio operators for the next four months. Between July and October, she helped thirty Allied pilots who’d been shot down over France escape Europe. Both she and the SOE knew it was only a matter of time before she was caught…
The bulk of my research on Noor comes from two books: Spy Princess by Shrabani Basu and the recently released Code Name Madeleine by Arthur J. Magida. These are two of the most comprehensive works on her. Very kindly, I was sent an Advanced Reader’s Copy of the latter back in January, which was very exciting, so it was first on my reading list during lockdown! There’s also a biography about her, Madeleine, by her friend, Jean Overton Fuller, written in 1952, which I haven’t been able to read yet. Both Basu’s Spy Princess and Magida’s Code Name Madeleine are extensively researched and both authors are clearly passionate about Noor and her story. Basu’s work also has a very useful timeline in the back which runs parallel with events in Europe and India. It was Basu who established more of a reputation for Noor with the book’s publication in 2006 and she paved the way her memorial bust in Gordon Square.
In terms of readability, I found Code Name Madeleine flowed more easily and the narrative more engaging. Though I sometimes found the explanations of the different spy circuits and understanding the secret code systems confusing, what I loved about the book were the personal touches which Magida included, much of it never revealed before: Noor’s writings and poems, the letters she received from her father, the ones sent between her and her mother and brother, Vilayat. Only a month before her capture she told her brother how she missed him “terribly” – “Til we meet again, old boy, and good luck and all the love in the world”. Magida also writes about the letters her mother, Ameena, continued to receive at the end of the war, this time not from Noor but pretending to be, because Noor had insisted the SOE keep up appearances until they were absolutely sure she was dead. She was. Knowing that only makes the extracts from her mother’s letters even more heart-breaking.
Eight days after Noor’s death, Ameena responded to a letter supposedly from her daughter:
“We are so happy to know you are well… When shall we be given the happiness of having you again in our midst, bringing sunshine into the home?… I suppose though that we must have still more patience, hoping for a final reunion. Love always and always from Mother.”Ameena Begum, Noor’s mother, 1944
What I appreciate about Code Name Madeleine is that, while it’s tempting to build her up as this superhero secret agent, she’s human, she’s flawed. She was intensely courageous, she was intelligent, insightful, she was kind. She was unswervingly determined to help people. In many ways, however, she was not cut out for espionage. Her instructors were quite polarised about whether she should be sent into operation; some of that was due to ignorance and prejudice about sending a young woman of Indian heritage into the field, but others were genuinely concerned that her emotional nature and occasional absent-mindedness would be a danger to her. Small English habits she had, like putting milk in her tea first, were enough to arouse suspicion if she did them in the wrong company. In her early days in Paris, she had left her briefcase with her radio code inside at a friend’s flat. She had to be reminded to use payphones to prevent being traced. She had once left her notebook open on the table with all her codes in it at an acquaintance’s. The individual in question, Madame Peineau, impressed on her that she should trust no one, even those she’d been told were trustworthy.
In some ways though, it was also her trusting nature which protected her. She created such close relationships during her childhood in Suresnes that she was able to rely on this small network of old friends to shelter her as the Nazis closed in. Another thing which really helped her was that she was excellent at constantly moving around – she knew the Nazi equipment was good at detecting enemy radio signals, but that they wouldn’t be able to keep up with her.
She may have been gentle and timid, but her sense of duty and morality made her a fearsome opponent. The same woman who was described by several different people, including her brother, Vilayat, as a deer, became “exactly like a tigress”, according to first-hand accounts, when finally cornered by the Gestapo, the secret police. Her father, Inayat, had taught her a lot about courage, that it had to be exercised continuously like a muscle, and Noor certainly took that to heart. There are three instances from the book that really stuck with me: during her evasion of the Nazis in Paris, her time in a Gestapo prison at 84 Avenue Foch, and her incarceration in Pforzheim prison.
One of a number of close shaves with Nazi soldiers in Paris, she was on the Metro with her wireless (her radio which was transported in a suitcase), and two soldiers began trawling through the carriages, conducting spot checks. She must have been praying, begging that they would ignore her and keep moving, but they stopped and asked what she was carrying. In a moment of quick-thinking which wouldn’t have been misplaced in a James Bond film, she showed them the contents and claimed it was cinematographic equipment. It quickly became obvious that the soldiers had no idea what they were looking at so started describing the film projector, pointing out the “little bulbs” and other parts, and the bluff saved her life.
Unfortunately, it was only a temporary reprieve. In October 1943, little over a week after Noor had finally agreed to come back to England, she was captured. On 13th October, she was arrested in her flat and taken to the Gestapo headquarters on Avenue Foch.
One concern the SOE had had during her training was that she’d absolutely crumbled during the fake Gestapo interrogation. Clearly though, when push came to shove, she proved that this was not something they should have worried about, as she withstood an interrogation of varying severity at Avenue Foch and later in Germany for almost an entire year.
Unfortunately, the Nazis had captured her wireless, her radio. They were able to use it, and others they’d captured, to their advantage, and because inconsistencies and mistakes had become quite common in the messages from agents in occupied Europe, the SOE back in London didn’t catch on to Noor’s capture. In addition, due to a miscommunication during her training, Noor had also kept all of her messages and past codes in her notebook, rather than destroying them – information the Gestapo made efficient use of. Back in England, the SOE had told agents to be careful about “filing their messages”, but they had meant “filing” in a journalistic context, like “sending” (instructing agents to be careful about sending messages), whereas Noor had taken it to mean “storing”. Using her set, the Gestapo captured seven SOE agents.
In the month she was held at Avenue Foch, she made two escape attempts. The first, within hours of her arrest. The second, the night of 24th November. She had engineered a daring escape with her fellow prisoners, Colonel Leon Faye and Captain John Starr. Her first attempt had been a desperate knee-jerk response to being captured, the second was much more calculated. She communicated with morse code tapped through the cell walls to Faye and smuggled messages under the toilet sink to Starr. The entire plan hinged on each of them dismantling the bars on their skylights and escaping onto the roof. Starr managed to acquire a screwdriver – he had slightly more freedom with their captors than the others – and they took turns loosening the screws, chipping away the plaster, and transferring the screwdriver between them via the sink. I can’t even imagine the desperation and the heart-racing terror this whole process must have induced, with such agonisingly slow progress. They had to cover their tracks as well – they couldn’t face getting so far, only for the missing screws and plaster to be noticed by one of the guards. As they worked, they disguised the conspicuous holes with a mix of face cream and powder (which Noor had managed to get from the soldiers when she’d sent them for a change of clothes at her flat) and kneaded bread.
Finally they were ready. On the cold November night, the window bars were carefully removed. Every knock, every scrape could mean discovery. Starr did his best to cover up the noises of his co-conspirators by whistling as loudly as possible when he went to the toilet. The adrenaline must have been racing.
Starr and Faye eventually made it onto the roof. Where was Noor? They crept over to her skylight; she was struggling to remove the last bar, desperately trying to force it free. The escapees already on the roof helped dislodge the bar from the other side and Faye pulled her up out of her cell. They’d brought blankets from their room to tie together to form a rope – their plan was to escape across a nearby house, which was lower down with a flat roof. They were so close.
If only, that night, the Royal Air Force hadn’t decided to attack.
Air raid sirens blared through the quiet night. The guards’ instant response was to check the cells to ensure the prisoners weren’t signalling to the aeroplanes. They discovered them empty.
Noor, Faye and Starr didn’t have a chance. They were all recaptured and returned to Avenue Foch. In retaliation to her captors, Noor plastered her wall with a ‘V’ for victory.
It was the escape attempt which led to Noor being sent to Germany, where she would eventually end up at Dachau concentration camp. Apparently she was the first female British agent to be sent to Germany.
Accounts of her time in Germany demonstrate her resilience and her incredible ability to find the positive, to find strength, even in her darkest moments. Her first stop was Pforzheim prison, where she was held for ten months. She was kept in solitary confinement, she spent almost the entirety of her time there in a small cell, no exercise, with her wrists and her ankles chained, an additional chain connecting her hands and feet for good measure. She survived on a diet of potato peel or cabbage soup.
One of the few glimmers which probably got her through this experience was when her fellow inmates found a way to communicate with her. Yolande Lagrave, Rosy Storcke, and Suzy Chireiz were held in Cell Number 12, across the corridor from Noor in Cell Number 1. They started scratching messages on their underside of their soup bowls.
“There are three French girls here”.
Obviously it took a while for Noor to end up with the right bowl, but eventually the women got a response, “You are not alone, you have a friend in Cell 1”, and the communication continued from there. What I find amazing is that, while the prisoners in Cell 12 were obviously essential in bolstering Noor, she also managed to find the strength to empower these women, sending them uplifting messages: a “Vive le 4 juillet” on American Independence Day, a celebration of “free France” on Bastille Day.
She eventually left Pforzheim and was taken to Dachau. The details of her brief time there vary, but what is consistent is that she came by train to Dachau, she was beaten, and then murdered. It had already been decided before her journey to Dachau that Noor was to be executed on her arrival.
Her final word was apparently ‘Liberté’.
Noor has captured my imagination and my admiration. She was posthumously awarded the Croix de Guerre with Gold Star, the highest civilian award in France, and the George Cross, the second highest honour in the UK for acts of great heroism. I love that at the back of Code Name Madeleine there’s even a photo of Noor’s siblings, Vilayat and Claire, accepting Noor’s George Cross at Buckingham Palace in 1949. I was constantly blown away by Noor’s bravery and it’s become my mission to tell everyone about her. Slowly but surely, we’re getting there! She even made a brief cameo on Doctor Who in February this year. So if you have the chance, maybe read one of the books about her, tell a friend her story, or just next time you find yourself in Bloomsbury, take a detour to Gordon Square, visit her bust, and take a moment to think about the exceptional Noor Inayat Khan.
“Thro’ all the stress and storms o life, / She moves in quiet dignity… / She has a gift that few possess, / The gift of love’s sublimity.”A poem by Ameena, for her daughter, Noor.
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