I started to write about Noor-un-Nisa Inayat Khan over two years ago but left it as I had done articles on war time exploits of other women, such as Nancy Wake in Second World War and Flora Sandes in the First World War I.
However she has just been commemorated by a blue plaque to remember her work and paying the ultimate sacrifice as a SOE (Special Operations Executive) operative in World War II. This is the first plaque in this country celebrating the achievements of a Muslim woman. It has been placed at 4 Taviton Street in Bloomsbury where she lived prior to leaving to work for SOE in France.
Inayat Khan the eldest of four children, was born on 1 January 1914 in Moscow
to an American mother, the poet Amina Begum and an Indian father, Inayat Khan who was a musician and Sufi teacher. After spending her early years in London, Noor lived with her family in Paris for much of her life.
As a young girl, she was described as quiet, shy, sensitive, and dreamy. She studied child psychology at the Sorbonne and music at the Paris Conservatory. She began a career writing poetry and children’s stories, and became a regular contributor to children’s magazines and French radio. In 1939, her book, Twenty Jataka Tales, inspired by the Jataka tales of Buddhist tradition, was published in London.
Despite their pacifist Sufi upbringing, Noor and her family decided to move back to England to join the fight against fascism. They left France days before the fall of Paris in June 1940 to return to England.
Noor enlisted in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) as Nora Inayat Khan on 19 November 1940 and towards the end of 1941 she applied for a commission in Intelligence. In May 1942 she was posted ‘for duties as a wireless operator’ and sent to Compton Bassett in Wiltshire, where she was the first member of the WAAF to receive this extra training. She was called to interview in London on 10 November 1942 by the Special Operations Executive (SOE), the independent British Secret Service set up by Churchill to conduct subversive warfare. The following year she received paramilitary training at a number of secret locations across Britain.
On the night of 16 June 1943 Noor was flown to France. Her task was to make contact in Paris with Henri Garry and to serve as his wireless operator in the Le Mans area. Her codename was ‘Madeleine’ – the name of a character from one of her own stories.
Her other alias was Nora Baker, Baker being her mothers maiden name. Soon after her arrival, the Gestapo made multiple arrests and the undercover network she was part of collapsed.
Noor chose to stay in France in order to keep communications open with her French comrades. Having managed to get her radio set from Le Mans to her Paris safe house, she was now the only transmitting agent in Paris. By keeping on the move and changing her appearance, she was able to evade the Germans for three-and-a-half months while continuing to transmit messages, via radio and the SOE air force, to Baker Street. The Germans had a full description of ‘Madeleine’ and had pursued her since July.
She was preparing to return to England when, on 14 October, she was betrayed. She was captured by the Gestapo and taken to their Paris headquarters at Avenue Foch. Noor escaped at least twice but was recaptured and sent to Germany ‘for safe custody’. At Pforzheim Prison, ‘Nora Baker’ was considered highly dangerous and kept in isolation with only short periods out of chains. Despite beatings, she refused to cooperate.
On 11 September 1944 she was sent with three other female agents to the Dachau concentration camp. Evidence given at the War Crimes trials and by surviving prisoners revealed that Noor was singled out for a night of torture and then, like her comrades, was shot in the head. She had revealed nothing to her captors, not even her real name, and her last word was said to have been ‘Liberté!’
She was awarded the Croix de Guerre with Gold Star on 16 January 1946 and, on 5 April 1949, the George Cross.
Talented, brave and beautiful she packed a lot into her thirty years on this plan
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