Noor Inayat Khan: Sufi Princess and SOE Agent
Noor Inayat Khan in her SOE uniform. Image courtesy of the Imperial War Museum.
Perhaps it was the color of her skin, her past work as a children’s book writer, or her calm, gentle demeanor nature which inclined Special Operations Executive (SOE) personnel to doubt Noor Inayat Khan’s (1914-1944) potential as an SOE agent. However, the resistance networks she single-handedly maintained and the German agents charged with her arrest would beg to differ.
The SOE was formed by British Minister of Economic Warfare, Hugh Dalton, on July 22, 1940. Its purpose was to conduct espionage and sabotage in Occupied Europe, and to provide aid to local resistance movements in occupied countries. SOE agents—coming from all walks of life, and having gone through a rigorous training process which included instruction on how to kill with your bare hands, how to derail trains, how to escape from handcuffs, and how to parachute—took Churchill’s order to “set Europe ablaze” to heart. They quickly set about destroying bridges needed for German supply lines, bombing the water plant needed to support the German atomic bomb program, and sending supply trains in the wrong direction.
Noor Inayat Khan’s path to the SOE began in Moscow. There, she was born on the first day of 1914 to Hazrat Inayat Khan and Ameena Begum. Her father, Hazrat Khan, was a musician, a teacher of Sufi Islam, founder of the Sufi Order of the West (now the Sufi Order International), and a descendant of Tipu Sultan, the last ruler of the Kingdom of Mysore in Southern India. Her mother, Ameena Begum (born Ora Baker), was an American woman who met Hazrat during his travels in the US. The family settled outside of Paris in 1920, where her father taught classes, held a summer school, and gave lectures. Hazrat Khan died in 1927, when Noor was thirteen years old.
Khan posing with her mother. Image courtesy of the Noor Inayat Khan Memorial Trust.
As a young adult, Khan studied child psychology at the Sorbonne, and music at the Paris Conservatory. After completing her studies she wrote poetry, children’s stories, and became a regular contributor to children’s magazines and French radio. In 1939 she published a children’s book called Twenty Jataka Tales.
Khan in her family’s home in France with her sitar. Image courtesy of the Noor Inayat Khan Memorial Trust.
Khan was deeply influenced by the Sufi teachings of her father, which centered on three tenets: that there is truth in every religion, that humanity is one and must rise above the distinctions created to divide it, and that the East and the West must be united for humanity to become one. These teachings of tolerance and understanding very much informed the course of her life after the outbreak of the Second World War.
She trained as a nurse with the French Red Cross as her children’s book was being published. However, her service with this organization was short lived as she fled to England with her family just before the French surrender to Germany in November, 1940. They settled in London. Shortly after their arrival, Khan, eager to do her part to bring an end to Nazi tyranny, joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force. It was around this time that she began to use the name Nora Baker.
She spent nearly three years training with the WAAF as a wireless operator. Impressed by her technical skill and her fluent French, the SOE recruited Khan into their France division—overseen by Colonel Maurice Buckmaster—in late 1942. During her three months of training, her team, obviously willfully ignorant of her background and abilities, described her as clumsy, fearful of weapons, “not over-burdened with brains,” unstable, and temperamental. However, Buckmaster regarded these comments as the nonsense that they were and allowed her to complete her training.
Khan’s passport photo. Image courtesy of the Noor Inayat Khan Memorial Trust.
With her fluent French and her skill as an operator, Khan was perfect for a post in Occupied France. On June 17, 1943, Khan, officially the first female wireless operator to be sent into France to aid the Resistance, landed and reported to her post in Paris.
She worked with the Prosper network (technically called the Physician network, but popularly known as Prosper after the codename of its organizer, Major Francis Suttill), the largest network in Northern France. The Prosper network communicated with England to organize the placement and arrival of SOE agents, locally recruited agents, and aid to the French Resistance. The network was of such importance that Berlin regarded it as the heart of a secret army posing the utmost danger to the security of the Third Reich.
However, only one week after her arrival, the precariousness of the life of a covert agent in Occupied France became uncomfortably clear. The local branch of the Gestapo arrested Suttill, and over the next three months hundreds of agents—including wireless operators and resistance personnel alike—supported by the Prosper network would be put under arrest.
After the initial arrests, Khan was the only wireless operator left in Paris, making her post the most dangerous one in all of Northern France. The SOE offered to repatriate her to Britain, but she refused to leave her comrades without communication channels. Over the next three months, Noor single-handedly maintained the network which supported resistance activities across Occupied France.
The Prosper network’s last remaining link to London, Khan quickly became the most wanted British agent in Paris. The Gestapo, though they had her full description, knew her only by her code name, “Madeleine.” Under constant pursuit by wireless detection vans, Khan could only transmit for twenty minutes at a time. Even so, she transmitted regularly from the first week of July through to the second week of October.
However in the beginning of that month, either an SOE double agent or a French woman betrayed her to the Nazis. On October 13, 1943, Khan was arrested, and held in the Paris headquarters of the SD. She fought so fiercely upon her arrest that the SD agents were afraid of her. She lied consistently to her interrogators while in custody, though they did uncover copies of her signals, allowing them to impersonate her in wireless communications with London. In addition to her fierce fighting and consistent lies, Khan made two escape attempts during her two month interrogation. One was successful, however, she was quickly recaptured.
After she refused to sign a declaration renouncing future escape attempts, the SD classified her as “Nacht und Nebel” (“Night and Fog”), a designation given only to those prisoners deemed as posing a threat to the security of the Third Reich. She was secretly shipped to Germany by night. Considered a particularly dangerous and uncooperative prisoner, she was kept in chains in solitary confinement during her time in Pforzheim. She continued to refuse to give away any information during this stage of her imprisonment.
On September 11, 1944 the Gestapo transferred her to Dachau. Two days later, an SS officer executed her by a shot to the head.
Her last word was “Liberté.”
Khan was posthumously awarded the George Cross—the highest gallantry award for British civilians, as well as for members of the armed forces in actions for which purely military honors would not normally be granted—in Britain, and the Croix de Guerre—a military decoration honoring those who fought with the Allies against the Axis forces during World War II—in France. On November 8, 2012, HRH Princess Anne unveiled a bronze bust of Khan located in the Gordon Square Gardens in London. In 2014, Khan was featured in Britain’s “Remarkable Lives” stamp series.
HRH Princess Anne standing with Khan’s memorial bust. Image courtesy of the Daily Mail.
While the British and the French honor Khan’s memory and claim her as one of their own, we must remember that this was a woman who believed passionately in a doctrine stressing the unity of humanity, the need for humanity to rise above artificial divisions, and the need to unite the East with the West. It is far more likely that, rather than fighting for any nation, Khan was fighting against oppression, against disunity, against artificial boundaries, and for her love of humanity.
And let’s be real if she was a dude she’d have a blockbuster action film starring the male equivalent of Freida Pinto out by now.