Meet Noor Inayat Khan, born in Russia to an Indian father and an American mother, raised in France and England, children’s book author and actual princess. She became one of the most important British spies in Nazi-occupied Paris during WW2 where she kicked some serious German ass under the codename Madeleine.
Noor’s father, Hazrat Inayat Khan, descended from Indian royalty, was a Sufi teacher and musician. While on tour in the US, he met Noor’s mother, Ora Ray Baker. The two fell in love (aww) and Ora left her family to be with Hazrat, her family obviously not being a fan of this match at all.
Noor was born in 1914 in Moscow, where Hazrat was performing at the time. While World War I was raging in Europe, the Inayat Khan’s lived in London. The British, however, suspected Hazrat might part of the Indian Independence movement. Probably because he was, you know, Indian. When the situation was getting too uncomfortable, the family relocated to Paris in 1920.
Fazal Manzil, Music, And Poetry
In Paris the family lived in a beautiful house they named Fazal Manzil, the House of Blessing. Noor grew up surrounded by music and Sufi teachings like tolerance, equality and non-violence. So far everything was pretty much rainbows and unicorns.
But naturally, this didn’t last long. In 1927, When Noor was only 13 her father died and her mother fell into a deep depression. It fell to Noor to raise her siblings and take care of her mother and the Manzil. But instead of drowning in self-pity or throwing a hissy fit, Noor dedicated herself to her family and grew up a loving, kind and earnest woman.
She went on to study child psychology and kept working on her poetry and music, her favourite instrument being the harp. Yes, you can play the harp and still be a badass!
Combining her knowledge about children and her love for the written word, Noor started building herself a pretty successful career as an author of children’s stories, publishing a book and writing regularly for French magazines and radio.
So here we have a harp-playing-child-psychologist-book-author-poet-believer-in-nonviolence, which clearly makes for a perfect CV to become a kickass spy. So you probably wonder what happened… Well, the Nazis. The Nazis happened.
Joining the Fight Against the Nazis
As France was overrun by the Germans, the Inayat Khans managed to escape on a boat from Bordeaux to England. Upon leaving her beloved France, Noor promised herself she’d return, a promise she kept.
In England, Noor and her brother learned more about what the Nazis were actually up to. You know the Holocaust and general tyranny. Despite her Sufi upbringing of kindness and nonviolence, her desire to join the war against the Nazis grew with every horrible new piece of information.
In 1940, Noor joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) where she was trained as a wireless operator, of the morse coding type, not of the WhatsApping type of course.
Communication back in the day was a lot more complicated than it is today, without cell phones or the internet, so wireless operators were placed in the field and on the ships in order to keep up the long-distance communication with the homeland.
Unbeknownst to Noor, the British were also searching for candidates for their Special Operations Executive (SOE). The SOE had been created especially to fight the Germans through “ungentlemanly” warfare. Special agents were placed in the field with the sole mission to sabotage the Germans behind their front lines: blow up bridges, cut off supplies, support the local resistance movements and the likes.
Noor, being fluent in both French and English, was the perfect fit for SOE’s F-Section, F for France. She was successfully recruited in early 1943 and started her training as a special agent.
Now, this is where shit got real. Being trained as a special agent meant weapons training, map reading and navigation, escaping, radio technology, explosives, to name but a few. They also had to learn the names, code names, secret code questions, and their responses to the agents in the field.
The most important part for the radio operators was encoding and decoding messages, and how to include a first security check and then a second one, in case the German’s ever found out about the first one. Each agent had their own specific code which they used to encode their messages. They were based on poems or lines of text, and Noor chose a line from a poem she had written.
Agents were also trained to behave 100% like a native French person in order to prevent being discovered. This included endless details like idioms, gestures, clothing, and mannerisms. Noor was once told off for pouring the milk in her tea cup before the tea, which is the English way of doing it and, mon dieu, no French person would ever pour their milk first. These details were extremely important because shit like this could get you killed.
Over the next few months, Noor threw herself into her training and was starting to make James Bond look like a Kindergartener.
Return to Paris
Before her training was even completed, it was decided that Noor was going to be sent into the field, right into Nazi-occupied Paris. At this point, the life expectancy of an agent in the field was a whopping 6 weeks. Yes, weeks, not months.
So naturally, there was a constant lack of agents which is why Noor was fast-tracked, even though her instructors weren’t all that sure if she was ready and capable enough to pull this mission. And man, were they wrong.
In June 1943, Noor was flown over the Channel to France in a Lysander (pictured). These planes were painted a matt black and flew once a month during the full moon to give the pilots some sort of visibility.
Noor made her way to Paris where she got in touch with her circuit and the French Resistance. A circuit was a group of agents, consisting of groups of three: active agent, wireless operator and messenger.
What Noor didn’t know, was that her network had already been infiltrated by the Nazis. They had arrested two Canadian agents and, pretending to be them, used their radios to get more information on the agents in the field from the British. Agent by agent was identified and arrested and/or killed. Captured agents were often tortured for weeks to get them to identify other agents in their circuit.
Noor started transmitting to London, codename: Madeleine.
Giving the Germans a run for their money
Wireless operators were at even higher risk of being captured, having to carry around their radio equipment with them which was the size of a suitcase. The Nazis also had listening devices, allowing them to zone in on radio signals and triangulate the operator’s position.
With the Nazis closing in on her circuit, Noor soon became the only active wireless operator in Paris. She transmitted for the remaining agents, organised weapon and money drops, evacuations of agents in immediate danger, and fed the British as much information as she could.
The chance of being discovered ever increasing, Noor often changed her appearance and used a network of safe houses and confidants to keep changing her location so the Nazis couldn’t locate her.
London ordered her many times to return home, but knowing that transmissions from Paris would stop without her, she refused.
Noor had a couple of close encounters with the feared Gestapo, the German Secret State Police, but managed to outrun or outtrick them every time.
Once, she saw two Gestapo agents heading her way, so she turned around a corner and used her awesome spy skills to give them the slip.
Another time, a Gestapo officer approached her as she was hanging up her radio antenna outside of one of her locations. He asked her what she was doing, and she coldly responded that she was trying to get a signal for her television and asked him to help her hang up the antenna. Seriously, she made the Gestapo guy help her hang up her radio antenna! She definitely had guts.
Many times, she decided to not go to arranged meetings with other agents because she felt it wasn’t save. Had she gone, she would have been met by Gestapo officers pretending to be British agents.
As the situation was getting progressively dangerous, Noor finally agreed to return to England and was scheduled to leave on the October Lysander in 1943, after 5 months behind enemy lines.
But Noor was betrayed, sold for money to the Germans by the sister of one of the head agents in Noor’s network. Noor was arrested by the Gestapo the night before she was supposed to fly back to England.
Being arrested so close to her escape understandably turned Noor into a fiery ball of fury and frustration, fighting back with all her might, punching, scratching, and biting the officer until she drew blood.
The Nazis classified her as an “extremely dangerous prisoner”.
Interrogations and Escapes
Together with other captured agents, Noor was held at the Gestapo Paris headquarters at Avenue Foch. The Germans had also seized her notebooks and codes and managed to continue transmitting as Madeleine without London knowing about her arrest. Even though her second security check was missing from the messages, London didn’t catch on and kept transmitting messages, feeding the Germans more information.
The moment she got there, Noor attempted her first escape. She asked to take a bath and promptly tried to climb out the window. Unfortunately, she was unsuccessful.
Despite being subjected to the most skilled interrogators, Noor didn’t give them anything. Instead, she managed to communicate with fellow prisoners by tapping morse code through the walls.
They managed to organise another escape attempt and actually managed to get onto the roof of the next building. An ill-timed air raid alarm alerted the Germans to their absence, and they were recaptured when they were trying to sneak out of a back alley.
Transferred to Germany
Noor was asked to sign a declaration stating that she’d stop trying to escape, which she instantly refused.
Having been interrogated without success and being a flight risk, it was decided that Noor was to be transferred to Germany.
Attempting another escape on the way, Noor was taken to Pforzheim prison where she was kept in isolation for 10 months, hands and feet chained at all times. While this would break anyone’s spirit, Noor still didn’t give up anything and refused to cooperate. Instead, she managed to exchange information with fellow inmates by scratching messages in the bottom of the cups they received at meal times.
This process took a bit of time as cups had to rotate around for messages to be received, but this way Noor kept up to date with what was happening in the war and also send her name and address so her whereabouts could later be traced.
Eventually, Noor was transferred to Dachau concentration camp together with three other women, one she had gone to SOE training with.
When they arrived in Dachau, the three women were immediately taken to the crematorium, shot and burned.
However, as a highly dangerous prisoner, Noor had to endure the full attention of the guard. She was stripped, kicked and abused all night. Basically beaten to a pulp, the guard eventually took his gun and shot her in the back of the head. Her last word was “Liberté”.
“Next day the hare met his friends again, and all the creatures of the woods gathered round them. And the hare told them of all that had happened to him, and they rejoiced. And all lived happy ever after.”
Noor Inayat Khan, Twenty Jataka Tales