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Noor Inayat Khan

The daughter of a noble born Indian Sufi master and an American mother, Noor-un-Nissa Inayat Khan (AKA Nora Baker), was a quiet, shy, sensitive and dreamy child. As a young woman she studied child psychology at the Sorbonne, and harp and piano composition at the Paris Conservatory, before becoming a poet and a writer of children’s stories.

 

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Unfortunately, she had to flee her creative life when France was overrun by German troops at the outbreak of the war, eventually escaping by sea to England. Though imbued with pacifist ideals, she was determined to both fight the Nazi menace and “make a bridge between the English people and the Indians”, and so signed up with the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF).

Noor Inayet Khan

She was eventually recruited for special training as a wireless operator within the British sabotage force, but did not initially impress. During a mock Gestapo interrogation she “seemed terrified ... so overwhelmed she nearly lost her voice”, and she was judged to have a “lack of ruse” and to be “very feminine in character”. Despite her education, it was felt she was “not overburdened with brains”. She was deemed able to “run very well but [was] otherwise clumsy” and was “unsuitable for jumping”. And when it came to combat, she was held to be “pretty scared of weapons”.

Despite this disparagement, her commitment never wavered and her musical ability translated into being a talented Morse signaller. Before she could even finish her training, she was dispatched by the Special Operations Executive as the first woman operator to be infiltrated into enemy-occupied France with the instruction to “set Europe ablaze".

Almost as soon she arrived, the Gestapo swept through the Paris resistance with a wave of mass arrests, but she refused to abandon her dangerous post or her French comrades when she was offered a chance to escape back to England. Acting as a relay between England and France, the signallers worked in the shadows as much as possible, stringing up aerials in attics or disguising them as washing lines, evading detection vans and smuggling the heavy transmitters from hiding place to hiding place.

For four months she changed appearance and aliases whilst running a spy cell until she was betrayed to the Nazis, possibly by a double agent, and imprisoned in Paris. She refused to divulge information under Gestapo interrogation, instead lying continuously and attempting escapes – once even across the roof. After refusing to promise to stop trying to escape, she was deported to Germany and thrown into secret solitary confinement. For ten months she was kept shackled by her hands and feet and was heard crying by other prisoners. Despite repeated torture she still refused to divulge her knowledge, but was suddenly transferred to Dachau concentration camp, along with three fellow female agents. At dawn on the following morning, all four women were shot in the back of the head. Thirty year old Noor’s last word was “Liberté!”

Noor Inayat Khan was posthumously awarded the George Cross in 1949, and a French Croix de Guerre with Silver Star. A bronze bust of Noor can be found in Gordon Square Gardens in London. In France, there are two memorials to her, and a ceremony is held each year to mark her death.