Noor-un-Nisa Inayat Khan

Location

RAF AbingdonOX13 6HW
United Kingdom
51° 39' 36.2808" N, 1° 19' 57.846" W
Other names: 

Noor Inayat Khan, Madeleine, Jeanne-Marie Renier

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Date of birth: 
02 Jan 1914
City of birth: 
Moscow
Country of birth: 
Russia
Date of death: 
13 Sep 1944
Location of death: 
Dachau Concentration Camp, Germany
Date of 1st arrival in Britain: 
01 Aug 1914
Dates of time spent in Britain: 

August 1914 - Spring 1920, June 1940 - June 1943

Location: 

Abingdon, Edinburgh, London, Oxford.

2
About: 

Noor Inayat Khan was the daughter of the Sufi preacher Hazrat Inayat Khan and Ora Ray Baker, an American of British origin (her father was half-English and half-Irish, her mother Scottish).

In 1914, Noor and her family moved from Paris to London, where they would remain until 1920. The family moved back to France in 1920, setting up home in Suresnes. In 1932 she enrolled at the Sorbonne, University of Paris, for a degree in child psychology. After leaving university, she began writing children’s stories. She published Jataka Tales, an English translation of stories and fables on the Buddha in 1939, and also wrote for the children’s pages of the Sunday edition of the newspaper Le Figaro. After the outbreak of the Second World War she trained as a nurse with the Red Cross in France.

With the imminent Fall of France in the summer of 1940, she fled to England with her brother Vilayat and her mother and she decided to join the war effort. Having previously trained with the Red Cross in France, she briefly worked at the Fulmer Chase maternity home for Officers’ Wives near Slough, before joining the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) under the name ‘Nora Inayat Khan’ in November 1940. Together with 40 other women she was chosen to train in wireless operation.  She trained as a wireless telegraphist at RAF Balloon Command, Edinburgh in December 1940, before being posted with RAF Bomber Command at Abingdon in June 1941. She was called for an interview by the Special Operations Executive (SOE) on 19 November 1942. Her language skills in French and English and her outstanding aptitude as a radio operator were of particular interest to the SOE. Despite controversies about her suitability for the job, she was recruited by Selwyn Jepson, who was responsible for recruitment for the SOE French Section, after just one interview. Her motivation was a great sense of justice and freedom and wanting to contribute to the liberation of France. During her time in London, Noor also had become increasingly aware of the Indian independence movement. Her brother Vilayat Khan was of the opinion that if Noor had survived the war the next cause she would have committed herself to would probably have been Indian independence.

Noor Inayat Khan joined SOE, F section on 8 February 1943 and was seconded to FANY (Women’s Transport Service First Aid Nursing Yeomanry) as a cover story for family and friends. There she trained in the use of firearms. On 16/17 June, after 4 months of training, she was flown to France under the code name ‘Madeleine’ and her cover name Jeanne-Marie Renier, one of the first female wireless operators to be infiltrated into France. However the team she was attached headed by ‘Prosper’ had  been betrayed, and by 24 June, only a week after her arrival, mass arrests had already begun. Nevertheless, she joined the ‘Prosper’ team, narrowly escaping from the Gestapo on a number of occasions. Within ten days of her arrival, the network was in complete disarray and Noor was lying low, moving between a number of safe houses. She re-emerged when matters had calmed down to inform London of the destruction of the Prosper circuit. Despite the dangers, she stayed and was the SOE’s last wireless operator in Paris. She continued transmitting messages to London under considerable personal risk to her own safety for arms and arms drops to be collected. By that time the Gestapo were already on her trail. She was arrested on 13 October 1943, a day before she was due to return to England, after someone, probably the sister of her first contact in Paris, had tipped off the Gestapo for 100,000 Francs. Despite hours of torture, Noor Inayat Khan did not reveal any information. However, because she had meticulously filed all her messages between her and London in cipher and clear, having interpreted too literally an order from SOE headquarters, the Gestapo could take over her station, and her arrest remained undetected by SOE.

Being deemed a difficult and uncooperative prisoner and after two unsuccessful attemps to escape, she was transferred to the Gestapo prison in Pforzheim, Germany, where she spent a lot of time in solitary confinement and in chains. On 11 September 1944 she was transported to Dachau concentration camp where she was executed on 13 September 1944. She was posthumously awarded the Croix de Guerre with Gold Star by the French Republic and in 1949 the George Cross by the British Government.

Connections: 

Jean Overton Fuller, Selwyn Jepson, Jean Marais (WAAF metereologist of Indian origin).

Involved in events: 

SOE operations in Paris, Second World War, 1943

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Published works: 

Twenty Jataka Tales Retold (London: G. G. Harrap & Co., 1939)

Children's Stories in the French newspaper Le Figaro (Aug. 1939), also broadcast on Radio Paris

Secondary works: 

Basu, Shrabani, Spy Princess: The Life of Noor Inayat Khan (Stroud: The History Press, 2008)

Binney, Marcus, The Women who lived for Danger: The Women Agents of SOE in the Second World War (London: Coronet, 2002)

Buckmaster, Maurice, They Fought Alone (London: Popular Book Club, 1958)

Cookridge, E.H., Inside SOE (London: Heinemann, 1966)

Cunningham, Cyril, Beaulieu: The Finishing School for Secret Agents (Barnsley: Pen & Sword, 2005)

Escot, Beryl E., The WAAF: A History of the Women's Auxiliary Air Force in the Second World War (Princes Risborough: Shire, 2003)

Escot, Beryl E.,  Mission Improbable: A Salute to Air Women of the SOE in Wartime France (Wellingborough: Stephens, 1991)

Foot, M. R. D., SOE in France: an Account of the work of the British Special Operations Executive in France, 1940-1944 (London: Frank Cass, 2004)

Frayn Turner, John, VCs of the Second World War (Barnsley: Pen & Sword, 2004)

Hayes-Fisher, John, Timewatch: The Princess Spy (BBC/The Open University,  2006) (documentary film for BBC2): [http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/programmes/timewatch/gallery_spy.shtml]

Helm, Sarah, A Life in Secrets: The Story of Vera Atkins and the Lost Agents of SOE (London: Little Brown, 2005)

Howarth, Patrick, Undercover: The Men and Women of the Special Operations Executive (London: Phoenix, 2000)

Lahiri, Shompa, ‘Clandestine Mobilities and Shifting Embodiments: Noor-un-nisa Inayat Khan and the Special Operatives Executive, 1940–44’, Gender and History 19.2 (2007), pp. 305–23

Lukes, Sue, The Real Charlotte Grays (Darlow Smithson Productions, 2004) (documentary film first broadcast on Channel 4, February 2004)

Mackenzie, William, The Secret History of SOE: The Special Operations Executive, 1940-1945 (London: St Ermins, 2002)

Marks, Leo, Between Silk and Cyanide: a codemaker's story, 1941-1945 (London: Harper Collins, 2000)

Overton Fuller, Jean,  The German Penetration of SOE, revised edition (Maidstone: Mann, 1996)

Overton Fuller, Jean, Madeleine: The Story of Noor Inayat Khan (London: Gollancz, 1952)

Overton Fuller, Jean,  Born for Sacrifice: the Sory of Noor Inayat Khan, revised edition (London: Pan Books, 1957)

West, Nigel, Secret War: The Story of SOE, Britain's Wartie Sabotage Organisation (London: Hodder & Staughton, 1992)

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Archive source: 

HS9/836/5, National Archives, Kew, UK

Sound Archive, Imperial War Museum, London