Noor Inayat Khan - British spy of Indian Origin


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Jan 22, 2006
Post of the Week
Tribute to an Indian princess who died for our freedom: Sculpture unveiled of spy tortured and executed by Nazis after refusing to betray Britain

Noor Inayat Khan was one of Churchill's elite band of women spies

Spy was the first radio operator to aid the French Resistance

Despite being tortured and interrogated by Gestapo she never gave up her loyalty to

Britain Shot by firing squad in 1944, Noor's last word was 'Liberte'

A beautiful Indian princess, she sacrificed her life for Britain as a wartime secret agent. With astonishing courage, Noor Inayat Khan evaded the Gestapo before being betrayed, tortured and, after refusing to reveal any information, executed at Dachau concentration camp.


Yesterday, seven decades after her death aged 30, a statue to the forgotten heroine was unveiled in London by the Princess Royal.

The bronze bust commemorating Britain’s only female Muslim war heroine is the first stand-alone memorial to an Asian woman in the UK.

It stands in Gordon Square near the house where Noor lived and from where she left on her last mission, unable to tell her mother she might never return.

Princess Anne said stories such as Noor’s are ‘remarkable in their own right’ but have a real connection to make with the modern age through their ‘multi-cultural aspect’.

She hoped the statue will 'remind people to ask: Who was she? Why is she here? And what can we achieve in her memory?'


Noor was part of an elite band of women in the Special Operations Executive (SOE) and the first woman radio operator to be flown into occupied France to aid the Resistance.
Born in Moscow to an Indian father and an American mother, Noor was a descendant of Tipu Sultan, the 18th century ruler of Mysore. The family lived in London, moving to Paris when Noor was six.

She studied the harp, gained a degree in child psychology and wrote children’s stories.
When Paris fell to the Nazis in 1940, she returned to London and volunteered for the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force. Recruited by the SOE in 1942, she was sent to Paris in June 1943 with the codename Madeleine. Many members of the network were soon arrested, but Noor chose to remain in France, trying to send messages back to London while avoiding capture.



That October she was betrayed by a Frenchwoman and arrested by the Gestapo. She was kept in chains and in solitary confinement. Her captors kicked and interrogated her but she revealed nothing.When posthumously awarded the George Cross, Britain’s highest civilian decoration, for her gallantry in 1949, the citation read: 'She refused to abandon what had become the principal and most dangerous post in France, although given the opportunity to return to England, because she did not wish to leave her French comrades without communications.'

Noor was one of only three women in the SOE to be awarded the medal. The other two – Violette Szabo and Odette Hallowes – have been more widely known and celebrated until now.

Campaigners spent years raising £60,000 for Noor’s statue, by London-based artist Karen Newman, from public donations and enlisted the support of politicians including David Cameron, who said it was ‘impossible not to be moved’ by her bravery.
Shrabani Basu who wrote a biography of Noor in 2006 called 'Spy Princess' and spearheaded the campaign to get her formally recognised, said: 'I realised how much Noor's story had touched ordinary people, especially the young.
'I felt it was all the more important to remember Noor's message, her ideals and her courage in the troubled times we live in.' Noor's brother Hidayat Inayat Khan, 95, was unable to travel from his home in The Hague, Netherlands, to attend the ceremony due to old age but said in a message read by his grandson Omar:


'May the inhuman suffering of all those - who like my dear sister perished under the brutal cruelty of the oppressor - not be in vain.' Her cousin Mahmood Khan Youskine, 84, who spent holidays with her in France as a child, did make it and said: 'I remember her as a very refined girl who believed in freedom as a spiritual condition. 'Later I think she decided freedom had to be a political and social experience too. 'Sometimes it can take time to gain clarity on the past, but I appreciate it enormously that she is now being given recognition in the heart of London.' Veterans of both the SOE and WAAF including Irene Warner, 91, who trained with Noor, were among the 300 throng.
She remembered her as 'quiet and shy but very nice' and said she 'certainly deserves recognition'. General Sir David Richards, the Chief of Defence Staff, said in a message in the programme: 'We owe our freedom to women like Noor Inayat Khan.' After the unveiling, a bugler played the Last Post before a minute's silence was observed. Noor was also posthumously awarded France's Croix se Guerre after the war. A film of her life is planned for release next year on the centenary of her birth.
She studied child psychology!! Something that interest me a lot as well!!

Father was Indian, mother was an american and was born in Moscow. Family lived in UK and then they moved to Paris! And fought against Germany! Wow what a journey she had in just 30 years!!! Incredible human.
She spied for Britain during the World War II and was eventually caught and killed by the Nazis, but Noor Inayat Khan, a descendant of Tipu Sultan – an 18th-century Muslim ruler of Mysore state, remained in near anonymity for decades.

Her contribution to the war came to light after author Shrabani Basu wrote Noor’s biography, Spy Princess, in 2006.

This year, Britain awarded her with the Blue Plaque – the first Indian origin woman to be honoured with the title for her sacrifices as a Special Operations Executive (SOE) in France. She was captured by the Gestapo – the official secret police of Nazi Germany – in Paris and taken to Germany where she was executed in 1944.

In 2014, a stamp was issued in her honour and there are reports that her face may soon appear on British coins.

For her valiant efforts, Noor was posthumously awarded the George Cross, the United Kingdom’s highest civilian award, in 1949 and the French Croix de Guerre, a military honour awarded by France in 1946.

A biopic, A Call To Spy, released on October 2, pays tribute to the work of three female British spies during the second World War, including Noor, who was also a children stories writer and pacifist.

“I think Noor Inayat Khan is one of the most extraordinary people I have come across,” Radhika Apte, who portrays Khan in the film, told Al Jazeera from London.

“She was at such an interesting juncture of being a pacifist and also her inactivity, of not doing anything, could have consequences for the war,” said Apte, who starred in the hit Netflix series Lust Stories, for which she received an Emmy nomination for Best Actress.

Shrabani, who founded a memorial in 2012 in the name of Noor, told Al Jazeera from London that Khan did not have to fight this war, but did so for her core principles of “non-violence, universality of religions, fighting against fascism and occupation”.
Prior to the war, Noor lived a largely peaceful life and grew up to become a prolific children stories writer, contributing regularly to the local French radio and magazines.

Her most notable work included Twenty Jataka Tales, an English translation of stories about the reincarnation of Buddha.

‘Intrinsically selfless’

Noor was born on January 1, 1914, in the Russian capital Moscow. Her father, Inayat Khan, a musician and Sufi preacher, and mother, Amina Begum (previously Ora Ray Baker). The family moved to England shortly after World War I broke out the same year.

After facing increased surveillance from the British for his pro-India views, Inayat would again relocate the family in 1920 to Paris, where Noor lived with her three younger siblings until the age of 26. Her great-great-great-grandfather Tipu Sultan died fighting against the British rule in India in 1799.

After the Nazi forces captured France in 1940, Noor’s life came to an abrupt halt, and she fled for a second time to Britain along with thousands of other French residents.

Immediately after her arrival, she joined the war effort, signing up for the Women Auxiliary Air Force, the female auxiliary for the UK’s Royal Air Force, as a wireless operator – a job Shrabani said she excelled at.

“To Noor, the ideology of the Nazis and their pogrom against the Jews was fundamentally repulsive and opposed to all the principles of religious harmony that she been brought up with by her father,” Shrabani wrote in Spy Princess.

Noor, right, with her brother Vilayat and father Inayat Khan [File: Courtesy of Noor Society]
“She was Muslim by birth but she had loved a Jewish man, and Noor felt the urge to do something to help the war effort.”

Khan’s father Inayat was a prominent preacher of Sufism – a mystical practice of Islam.

According to Shrabani’s Spy Princess, Inayat was a firm believer in non-violence and the oneness of all religions, concepts which Noor internalised growing up. Her father died in 1927 during a trip to India, leaving 13-year-old Noor, the oldest child, to help her mother raise her siblings.

“From a young age, Khan was already someone who was always very intrinsically selfless and self-giving,” her nephew and leader of the Inayati Order, Pir Zia Inayat Khan, told Al Jazeera.

Noor always stood up for those who were subjugated, Pir Zia added, no matter what their background was.

“She was willing to make any sacrifice for the oppressed. Despite not being British, she served their cause, and would’ve stood for Indian independence after as well,” he added.

Noor was a strong believer of Indian freedom fighter Mahatma Gandhi’s struggle for an end to British colonialism on the subcontinent. According to Spy Princess, she told her UK army recruiters that once the war ended, she might have to support India over Britain.

‘Perfect for the job’
Noor was recruited by the Special Operations Executive (SOE), a secret British organisation that hired spies to help local resistance movements against the Third Reich. She was found suitable for the job as she was fluent in French.

Fully aware of the highly dangerous nature of the assignment, combined with little monetary compensation, Noor immediately accepted the offer.

In June 1943, Khan was sent to France under the code name “Madeline”, the first woman wireless operator to be deployed to the country by the UK. After landing in the city of Le Mans, Noor travelled to Paris, where she would work with the French resistance network “Prosper”.

Within days of her deployment, all the high-ranking Prosper agents were captured by the Nazis, and their wireless sets seized, leaving Noor as the only operator in the field for the next few months.

After seemingly betrayed by one of her colleagues, she was captured by the Gestapo in October the same year and moved to Germany a month later.

The Gestapo considered Noor a highly dangerous prisoner, who had never given up anyone to the German and had tried escaping twice under their watch, according to the accounts in the book.

During her near one-year imprisonment, she was tortured, shackled and provided less than adequate meals. She was moved to Dachau concentration camp in Karlsruhe, where she was shot to death along with three other SOE agents.

According to Spy Princess, Noor’s interrogator in Paris, Ernst Vogt, told Jean Overton Fuller, friend and author of Khan’s 1952 biography Madeleine, how he had never come across someone like her and “admired her courage, bravery and kindness”.

“He [Vogt] once asked her whether she had wasted her life by joining the service and that her sacrifice was in vain … she replied it did not matter. She had served her country and that was recompense.”

Growing recognition
Apte, the Indian actor, told Al Jazeera one reason she signed up for A Call to Spy was the lack of discussion around female contributions to the war.

“I think when we talk about war, we talk about men so often, and don’t really talk about the struggle and the efforts that women put up,” Apte said.

With decades passing without any public acknowledgement of Noor’s work, there has been a resurgence of interest in her story.

In August, Noor became the first South Asian woman to be honoured with the prestigious Blue Plaque in Bloomsbury where she lived, a campaign spearheaded by Shrabani. The honour is a London scheme where a plaque of a notable figure is fitted near a building in which the person worked or resided in.

“She deserves this honour for her bravery and standing up for her principles. She never cracked under pressure,” Shrabani said, who also runs the Noor Inayat Khan Memorial.

In 2012, a statue of Khan was unveiled in London by Princess Anne honouring her war heroics.

The Indian-born writer noted it was important to realise the war would not have been won by the allies without the likes of Noor and millions from the British colonies, a fact which is too often ignored.

Experts say the contribution of people of Asian descent and people of colour to the nation-building has hardly been acknowledged at a time when ethnic minorities feel increasingly marginalised under the right-wing government.

“The understanding in the West is that Britain won this war on its own, that Churchill won it for them. They need to know there were 2.5 million people of the Indian subcontinent who came forward to volunteer for this war,” said Shrabani, whose another book Victoria and Abdul was made into a film.

“This was won on the backs of these Indians – and Noor is part of them.”