March 25 was a beautiful spring day in London. That day, Britain’s Royal Mail released a set of stamps, “Remarkable Lives,” celebrating 10 men and women born a hundred years ago. Included among these giants—Sir Alec Guinness, Dylan Thomas—is a South Asian woman in a uniform and hat, a shy smile on her lips: “Noorunnisa Inayat Khan, 1914-1944, SOE agent in occupied France.”
The beautiful Noor Inayat Khan, a descendant of Tipu Sultan, the 18th-century ruler of southern India, was an enigma to most. When she was shot dead—at age 30—in a concentration camp in Germany on Sept. 13, 1944, even her captors did not know her real name. To them, she was British spy Nora Baker. Others knew her as Madeleine or Jeanne Marie Renier, a children’s nurse. In fact, she was the first woman radio operator to be infiltrated into occupied France. To her grieving mother back in London, she was just Babuli, her eldest daughter, a musician and writer of children’s stories, a gentle dreamer, who, when the call came, sacrificed her life in the fight against Fascism.
Sixty-eight years after Noor’s death in Dachau concentration camp, Princess Anne unveiled a memorial for the World War II heroine in London’s Gordon Square, on Nov. 8, 2012, near the house where Noor had lived with her mother and from where she flew out on her last mission. It was a moving ceremony attended by her elderly colleagues, who came on wheelchairs braving the cold air. There were Royal Air Force veterans sporting shiny medals and wartime radio operators from Britain and France. Young members of the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry gave Noor a guard of honor and a piper played The Last Post. Complementing the spit and polish of the military uniforms were the Sufis who had come from all over the world: the U.S., Germany, Holland, Russia, India. The media reported the forgotten story of the Indian princess who had gone undercover to occupied France and repeatedly narrowly escaped from the Germans. It captured the people’s imagination. The Royal Mail stamp was a natural follow-up in her centenary year.
Noor was born on Jan. 1, 1914, in a monastery just outside the Kremlin. Her father, Hazrat Inayat Khan, was a Sufi preacher and her mother, Ora Ray Baker, was an American. Her father had traveled from his homeland of Baroda in India to the West on the instructions of his teacher, who had told him to take his message of music and peace to the world. Trained in Indian classical music, Inayat picked up his veena and left for New York with his brothers. They called themselves the Royal Musicians of Hindustan and toured the U.S. giving concerts and recitals combined with Inayat’s lectures on Sufism.
It was on one such tour, in California, that Inayat met Ora, and the two fell in love. The couple got married in London and Ora Ray was christened Begum Amina Sharada. At the wedding, she wore a sari to match her husband’s golden robes.
In 1913, Inayat was invited to sing in a salon in Moscow and it was here, in the Vusoko Petrovsky monastery, that Noor was born. Her name, Noorunnisa, meant “light of womanhood.” Her title was Pirzadi, daughter of the Pir. At home, she was Babuli.
Moscow of 1914 was seething with political discontent, and Inayat was advised to leave. As the World War engulfed Europe, the family left for England, where they lived for the next six years. In London, Inayat and Amina had three more children.
When Noor was 6, the family set sail for France and began to live in a large house on the outskirts of Paris. Inayat called it Fazal Manzil—“House of Blessing”—and it was here that Noor was to spend most of her short life. Fazal Manzil was everything the name stood for. It became an idyllic home for the family. It was always an open house full of music and meditation, with Sufis visiting round the year. The children played in the garden and loved sitting on the high steps outside the house looking out over the lights of Paris. On a clear day one could see as far as the Eiffel Tower and the Sacré Cœur. The four siblings formed a quartet and, dressed up in their Indian clothes, would regale their Sufi visitors with concerts.
By 1927, Inayat’s health began to noticeably decline. He yearned to go back to his motherland. When he left for India that year, the family knew in their hearts he would not return. A few months later, they received the devastating news: Inayat had died. Noor’s grieving mother went into seclusion at Fazal Manzil, refusing to come downstairs or meet anybody.
So Noor, only 13, took responsibility for the family and became a mother to her siblings. She began to write poems and short stories and found solace in these when the burden of domestic chores became too much to bear. Slowly, she drew her mother out of isolation and Amina Begum returned to wearing Western clothes.
After her schooling, Noor studied child psychology at the Sorbonne and also joined the École Normale to study music. Here she fell in love with a Jewish musician and became informally engaged to him. But the family disapproved, and she went through many highs and lows as she felt divided between her family and her fiancé.
While her personal life was often quite traumatic, Noor was finding her feet as a writer of children’s stories. These were published in the Sunday section of Le Figaro, and in 1939 her first book, Twenty Jataka Tales, was published in England.
But the clouds of war were looming over Europe. When England and France announced war against Germany, Noor put aside her dream to become a fulltime writer and immediately volunteered for the Red Cross. In 1940, with the German Army ready to enter Paris, Noor and her brother Vilayat took a crucial decision that would change their lives. Sitting in their father’s Oriental Room, looking out over the Parisian lights, they decided that they had to fight the Fascists. Though they were Sufis and believed in nonviolence, they thought they must go to England and volunteer for the war effort.
In bombed-out London, Vilayat volunteered for the RAF, and Noor volunteered for the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force. Here she was trained as one of the first female radio operators. But while Noor was tapping away at her Morse code, she was being watched by the Special Operation Executive that was on the lookout for people with language skills.
The SOE was a crack organization set up by Britain’s wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill to aid the Resistance in occupied countries. Their job was sabotage, and providing arms and money to the Resistance. Noor fit the bill perfectly. She was fluent in French and knew Paris well. She was also a trained wireless operator—a job that was in great demand and considered one of the most dangerous.
Noor was called in for an interview at the offices of the SOE. She had no idea what the organization was or what it did. She met Selwyn Jepson in a small office at London’s Victoria Hotel. They spoke in French. Noor was told that she would be sent as an agent to occupied France after her training; that she would have no protection, as she would not be in uniform; and that she would be shot if she were to get caught. Without a moment’s hesitation, knowing full well the risks, she signed on.
One morning, her colleagues in the WAAF found that she had simply disappeared. There was no note, no forwarding address, just a folded blanket on her bed. Noor had left for her career in the secret service.
She was now to be trained as a secret agent: to learn to live with a false identity and to transmit radio signals clandestinely. In a selection of country houses spread around England, Noor’s training began.
It was classic spy school. She was taught to handle guns, explosives, to pick locks, to kill silently in the dark, to find and cultivate sources, to use dead letter boxes and live letter boxes, to practice sending encrypted messages, to improve her Morse code. The trainees were taught about life in occupied France, shown pictures of the enemy so they could identify them from their uniforms, taught about the German Abhwer and Gestapo and the French Milice. Noor’s codename was Madeleine. She practiced her signature diligently.
Finally, the orders for her departure arrived. She would fly out on the night of June 16. Her immediate head, Vera Atkins, drove with her from the SOE apartments in Orchard Court, London, to the airfield in Tangmere. After dinner, last-minute checks were carried out. Noor’s pockets were emptied and checked to see that there were no English objects, like English cigarettes or train tickets, which could give her away. Armed with a false passport, some French francs, her pistol, and a set of four pills, including cyanide, Noor prepared for her mission. Atkins pinned a little silver bird on her lapel: “It will bring you luck.”
As the full moon shone in the clear summer sky, Noor stepped on the airfield. The Lysander was waiting to pick her up. As she walked on English soil for the last time, Noor felt elated. She was keeping her promise to the people of France. She was going back.
Agents were always flown on full-moon nights so that visibility of the landing spot was high. A line of L-shaped lights pinpointed the landing site. A special Morse code told them it was safe to land.
Noor made her way alone to Paris and joined the circuit. It was the biggest SOE circuit in Europe, Prosper, and was headed by an idealistic English barrister, Francis Suttill. Her immediate chief was Henri Garry, a local French recruit. Noor settled down and began her transmissions within 72 hours of her arrival.
But within a week, disaster struck the Prosper circuit. All the top operatives were captured by the Gestapo and their wireless sets seized. Noor was advised to go into hiding immediately. Together with another SOE agent, France Antelme, she lay low, gathering information about betrayals and further arrests as the Germans closed in.
Eventually, London contacted her and asked her to return since staying on was too dangerous. But Noor refused. Realizing that she was the last radio link left between London and Paris, she requested to stay back and supply information. By mid-August, Noor remained the only British agent in Paris and would have surely felt scared and isolated but kept her spirits up. Singlehanded, she now started doing the work of six radio operators. Over the next three months, Noor would outplay the Gestapo in a tense cat-and-mouse game.
Sticking to the rules of her training, she kept her relays short, and even changed her appearance by constantly dyeing her hair. She drew on old contacts—her school friends, her family doctor—and used different addresses to transmit, helping London pinpoint locations for arms and money drops to the French Resistance and for organizing safe passage home for injured airmen.
In the summer of 1943, Noor Inayat Khan, a gentle writer and musician, had become Madeleine, the British agent, with the Germans hot on her heels. They knew about her and could even hear her transmissions, but they could not catch her.
Noor took her wireless set with her everywhere. It was disguised in a suitcase and weighed 20 pounds, a fair amount for a frail girl to carry all the time.
She had several narrow escapes. One day on the Metro she was stopped and questioned by two German officers. Noor kept her wits about her and, cool as a cucumber, told the Germans: “Can’t you see, it’s cinematographic apparatus, look at all the light bulbs.” The Germans, totally ignorant of what cinematographic apparatus looked like, and too embarrassed to admit it, simply let her go.
Dodging the Gestapo in occupied Paris was no easy job. On another occasion she was hanging her aerial on a branch outside her room when she suddenly heard a voice. “Can I help you mademoiselle?” She spun around and saw she was face to face with a German officer who lived in the same apartments. Once again, she turned on her charm and pretended she just wanted to listen to the wireless (which was banned). He ended up helping her put up the aerial, not realizing for a moment that he had helped a British agent, who half an hour later would start transmitting to London.
Noor’s colleagues and seniors in London were stunned at her efficiency. Where most radio operators survived for two weeks, Noor had worked clandestinely for three months. Her messages were flawless. Her code master, Leo Marks, felt a special sense of pride in her.
But the noose was tightening around Noor.
Around the middle of October, she was still safe and would have managed to catch a flight out of France had she not been betrayed. Noor’s address was sold to the Nazis for 100,000 francs. The person who betrayed her was Renee Garry, sister of Noor’s circuit leader, Henri Garry.
The Germans immediately arrested her. She was taken to the Gestapo HQ at 84, Avenue Foch. Noor made an escape attempt, but was caught. A few weeks later, she made another daring attempt: she and two other prisoners loosened the sky window and clambered onto the roof. But, as fate would have it, the RAF started bombing while the three were on the roof. The air-raid sirens went off. The Germans searched the rooms, and Noor and her companions were found out. If this escape had succeeded it would have gone down as one of the most audacious escapes of the Second World War, ranking alongside legendary escapes from the Colditz and Stalag camps.
Noor was now labeled a “highly dangerous” prisoner. The orders to transfer her came directly from Berlin and she became the first woman agent to be sent to a German prison. She was sent to Pforzheim, on the edge of the Black Forest, and stayed there 10 months. Classified as “Nacht und Nebel” (Return Not Required), Noor was shackled in chains and foot irons. She was kept in isolation and had her food delivered when no one was in the corridor. She could not feed or clean herself. She was regularly beaten, tortured, and interrogated, but she revealed nothing about her circuit and gave out no names.
Despite the desolation, she kept her spirits up by thinking about her father and how he would soothe her when she was feeling low. She also remembered how he would tell her that she had “the blood of Tipu Sultan flowing in her veins.”
By scratching a message on her food bowl she managed to establish contact with some fellow women prisoners in the other cells. Soon the messages went back and forth. “Vive la France,” wrote Noor. The girls wrote back to her with encouraging words. They could hear the RAF planes flying overhead. Noor asked them to give her news of the progress of the war. At night they could hear her crying in her cell and often heard her being slapped and interrogated.
On the night of Sept. 11, Noor was ordered to come out of her cell. “I am leaving,” were the final words she managed to scratch on her bowl. She was driven handcuffed to another prison in Karlsruhe and met three of her colleagues there. The girls were driven to the railway station where they were put on a train for Munich. They were told they were going to work as agricultural laborers. None of them realized that their escorting officer, Max Wassmer, was carrying their execution orders with him.
They reached Dachau at midnight and walked with their suitcases to the concentration camp. In the chill air they saw the searchlights combing the camp and the huts where the prisoners were packed like cattle. It was to be a long night for Noor. Perhaps because she was labeled “highly dangerous” and perhaps because she was dark-skinned, she was singled out for further torture. All night long, she was kicked and beaten and when her frail body had slumped on the floor, she was asked to kneel. She was shot pointblank at the back of her head by an SS guard, Wilhelm Ruppert.
Her last word was “Liberté.” Immediately afterward, her body was thrown into the blazing crematorium. Eyewitnesses saw smoke billowing out the chimneys. Back in England, both her mother and brother had the same dream: Noor came to them surrounded by blue light; she told them she was free.
On Jan. 16, 1946, the French posthumously awarded Noor the Croix de Guerre, the highest civilian honor. Three years later, England awarded her the George Cross.
In a sense, Noor was born for sacrifice. She had sacrificed her youth to look after her siblings when their father died. She had been the main pillar for her mother. Later, when her adopted country needed her, she made the supreme sacrifice of her life.
In France, Noor is remembered as Madeleine, a heroine of the Resistance. There is a plaque outside her family home in Suresnes and a band plays outside her house every year on Armistice Day. A leafy square in Suresnes has been named Cours Madeleine for her.
It took a while for London to catch up with Paris, but the royal unveiling of the Noor memorial in Gordon Square more than made up for the delay. There are always flowers at the square as people pay their respects to the young woman who sacrificed her life for freedom. The Royal Mail stamp has ensured that Noor Inayat Khan is now a household name.
Basu, a journalist and historian, is the author of Spy Princess: The Life of Noor Inayat Khan. She is also the founder and chair of the Noor Inayat Khan Memorial Trust, which campaigned for the Gordon Square memorial. From our April 12, 2014, issue.