Noor Inayat Khan was a member of the Special Operations Executive (SOE) founded in World War Two to support the work of the French Resistance and to help fulfil Winston Churchill’s desire to ‘set Europe ablaze’. Some operatives for the SOE found posthumous post-war fame as a result of films made about the work that they did. Such films have helped to cement their place in history. For example, the work done Violette Szabo was made into a film. Some put in an equal great deal of work for SOE but have faded from history because their work was not similarly recorded for posterity. In Noor’s case, this was probably the result of her work being kept classified – the National Records Office in Kew have only recently released her files nigh on sixty years after her death. Noor Inayat Khan was posthumously awarded the George Cross and the Croix de Guerre with Gold Star for her work.
Noor was born into an aristocratic Indian family on January 1st 1914. Her American mother married a descendant of Tipu Sultan, the last Moghal Emperor of Southern India. Noor was born in Moscow in 1914 but the family left for England and then France. Living in Paris, Noor was brought up as a pacifist, Noor studied child psychology at the Sorbonne and wrote poems and spent much of her time playing music.
When World War Two broke out in 1939, Noor was already achieving her first success. As a harpist she had been heard at the Salle Erard. Her stories were appearing on the children’s page of ‘Le Figaro’ and broadcast on Radiodiffusion Francaise. A London publisher bought out her ‘Twenty Jataka Tales’, which was published in the UK, USA and France. Noor was also in the process of founding a children’s newspaper when war broke out.
When the Germans invaded France in the spring of 1940, Noor and her family travelled from Paris to Bordeaux to get a ship to Great Britain. They were aided in this by the fact that her brother had a British passport. They got the last ship to leave Bordeaux and landed in Falmouth, Cornwall, on June 20th, 1940. Noor had been brought up as a pacifist but she volunteered for the WAAF (Women’s Auxiliary Air Force) where she took the name Nora Baker. On her application form for the WAAF Noor stated that she was fluent in French and this was picked up by the SOE based at Baker Street in London.
The overall head of SOE was General Sir Colin Gubbins. Colonel Maurice Buckmaster was in command of the French Section (F Section) with Vera Atkins responsible for the female recruits in that section. A shortage of men with the necessary skills led to Churchill ordering that women could be used in France within the SOE networks. Noor fitted the skills requirement with ease – fluent in French and an already trained wireless operator as a result of her time in the WAAF. SOE was to send 37 women to France.
Noor was recruited into the Special Operations Executive in 1942. Her three months training did not always go well and she was described by her training team as “clumsy”, “pretty scared of weapons”, “not over-burdened with brains” and with “an unstable and temperamental personality”. Buckmaster referred to these comments as “nonsense” and he saw that her most vital attributes were her fluency in French and her expertise as a wireless operator. At the end of her training Noor was “an agent in the field”. Officially Noor was an Assistant Section Officer and seconded in the First Aid Women’s Yeomanry (FANY) with an annual pay of £350. In reality she was ‘Jeanne Marie Renier’ on her false papers with the call sign ‘nurse’ and the code-name ‘Madeleine’. Working as a spy, Noor was not afforded any protection under the Geneva Convention.
Noor took off by Lysander from Tangmere late on June 16th 1943 and landed in a remote field in the Loire on June 17th. ‘Madeleine’ was to serve as a radio operator for SOE in the Paris area working for the ‘Prosper’ network led by Francis Suttill. This was a highly dangerous job with a life expectancy of just six weeks. Her position had already been compromised however as the man who greeted her in the Loire – Henri Dericourt – was a double agent working for the Gestapo. Within a few months of her arrival, almost all the members of ‘Prosper’ were arrested in the most devastating coup the Gestapo made in occupied France.
However, Noor always managed to somehow keep one step
ahead of those chasing her. Her radio went wherever she went –
a heavy 33lb B Mark II set.
Overnight, the ‘poste-Madeleine’ became the most important link in France, being almost the only radio-link between France and England. For four months Noor carried out this extremely dangerous work – “the principal and most dangerous post in France” (General Sir Colin Gubbins, Head of SOE). She had been trained to use a pistol during her training but she had not taken the weapon with her because of her pacifist beliefs. Therefore, if caught she would have had nothing to fight back with. Even Gestapo records made it clear that they knew Noor existed but they simply could catch her.
Noor was eventually betrayed to the Sicherheitsdienst (SD) by one of her own. It is said that jealousy prompted Renée Garry to expose ‘Madeleine’ and she was rewarded with 100,000 French francs by the Gestapo – far less than the Gestapo had been willing to pay for her betrayal. Ironically, the Gestapo caught Noor just 200 meters from their headquarters at 84, Avenue Foch in Paris. Placed in a top floor room and demanding a bath, Noor attempted to use this privacy to escape – but was caught. She was never totured by the SD but throughout she daily interrogations Noor refused to talk claiming that she did not trust her interrogators.
The Gestapo used Noor’s own radio to send messages to Buckmaster in what they called a ‘radio game’. Against her training, Noor had kept copies of the messages that she had sent. These proved very useful to the SD who could mimic her use of her radio. They tried all they could to get SOE to send important and compromising information to them with SOE assuming they were sending it to ‘Madeleine’. Because radio messages were coming through on Noor’s wireless, Buckmaster believed that she was still free. On October 2nd 1943, Buckmaster decided to ignore a signal sent through that ‘Madeleine’ was in hospital – code for her being either captured or in great danger.
Post-war Gestapo reports clearly show that Noor never betrayed anyone under interrogation. “Madeleine after her capture showed great courage and we got no information whatsoever out of her. We could never rely on anything she said.”
In November 1943, Noor attempted another escape. This also failed but the Gestapo finally ordered that this highly prized prisoner should be taken out of Paris and imprisoned in Nazi Germany.
From November 1943 to September 1944, Noor was kept in the women’s section of Pforzheim prison. She was classed as highly important and was kept in chains and isolated from all other prisoners. However, she did manage to inform those other prisoners there that she was Nora Baker.
The records indicate that four SOE women were then sent to Dachau (Noor from Pforzheim and three others from a prison at Karlsrule) on September 11th, 1944. On September 12th, 1944, it is known that four SOE women were shot at Dachau – though their executions were never witnessed by any other prisoner.
The SS kept no records of SOE prisoners held at Dachau or what happened to them. However, post-war investigations indicated that Noor was severely beaten by a SS guard called Friedrich Wilhelm Ruppert who then shot her in the back of the neck. In May 1946, Ruppert was executed for his crimes.
At Dachau a plaque has the name of the four SOE women shot
Noorunisa Inayat Khan
Noor was posthumously awarded the MBE, the George Cross
(one of only three awarded to women in World War Two) and
the Croix de Guerre<//span>