Heroes of WWII in France – Females all of them! – Part 3 –Noor Khan

WWII Heroine – Noor Khan

When Noor Khan was training to be a Special Operations Executive spy in World War Two, a report on her progress stated that she was, “Not overburdened with brains.” Another observer said she, “Came here without the foggiest idea what she was being trained for.”

The SOE was a secret organisation set up to conduct espionage, sabotage, and reconnaissance in occupied countries. In Churchill’s words, their job was to “set Europe ablaze.”

Noor Khan was born in Moscow in 1914, but just before the outbreak of World War One, the family moved to Bloomsbury in London. Her father, Inayat was an Indian mystic and pacifist who founded Sufism, an organisation dedicated to tolerance, non-violence and religious harmony. In 1920, the family moved again—this time to Paris, where Noor studied child psychology at the Sorbonne. When France was occupied by the Nazis, the family fled back to England where she enrolled in the Woman’s Auxiliary Air Force.

SOE wireless operator & secret agent

Her fluency in French soon led to her recruitment by SOE where she trained to become a wireless operator and secret agent.

Khan encountered several difficulties during her training. It was thought that her Sufi allegiance would align her with Gandhi’s pacifism and his vision for an independent India. During a mock Gestapo interrogation, to give trainee agents an idea of what was in store for them if they were caught, another assessor said, “she seemed terrified…so overwhelmed she nearly lost her voice.” And a training officer said she was “Pretty scared of weapons…” Another found her to be “physically unsuited,” and thought she “would not easily disappear into a crowd.” This was presumably because she was of Indian extraction and the colour of her complexion would give her away in France.

Despite all these negative reports, her fluent French and her flair as a wireless operator, saw her touching down on a secret landing field in France in 1943.

Her code name was ‘Madeleine’ and her mission was an especially dangerous one.

Noor Khan in Paris & London

She was tasked with the coordination of the maquisard strategy via a radio link between herself in Paris and SOE headquarters in London. Her job was to string up an aerial wherever she could and then tap out her messages to Baker Street in Morse code. But radio operatives were highly vulnerable to increasingly sophisticated detection technology. Transmitting in one place for more than twenty minutes meant that the Germans could work out where the signal was being sent from. The life expectancy of a wireless operator in 1943 was six weeks.

The mission started badly.

When she arrived in Paris she discovered that her underground cell had been infiltrated by double agents. Several tumultuous months of cat and mouse followed, and she was constantly on the run. She regularly changed her name, appearance, and address. But she was eventually betrayed, captured, and tortured by the Nazis.

Khan was initially interrogated at Gestapo headquarters in Paris.

She was then sent to Pforzheim prison in Germany where she was kept chained hand and foot in solitary confinement and on starvation rations.

Only a few months before the war ended, she was abruptly transferred to Dachau where, in late 1944, she was executed by a shot in the back of the head. A disturbing account of Khan’s execution is available on Wikipedia. Although shocking beyond belief, it’s just one example out of millions illustrating what can happen when populism takes hold of nationalism.

Noor-un-Nisa Inayat Khan was awarded the Croix de Guerre avec étoile de vermeil, and a posthumous George Cross.

The British medal is given for “acts of the greatest heroism or of the most conspicuous courage in circumstances of extreme danger.”

She is commemorated on a SOE plaque at Dachau, and in 2012 the Noor Inayat Khan Memorial bust was unveiled outside her former home in Gordon Square, Bloomsbury.

Were you previously aware of Noor Khan? Share your thoughts and any comments you wish below.

Image credits
1. Noor Khan
2. Noor Khan memorial
3. Plaque at Dachau
4. SOE WW2 radio transmitter
5. George Cross
6. Croix de Guerre

Don’t miss this series: 3 Heroes of WWII in France – Females, all of them!
Part 1 – Violette Szabo
Part 2 – Odette Sansom
Part 3 – Noor Khan – this one

About the Contributor

Ray Johnstone

Ray is an artist & writer. His favourite subjects are nudes and portraits. Art holidays for groups & families are catered for in their 800-year-old house La Petite Galerie in Gascony. They also take up to 6 walkers on the 'best bits' of the Pilgrims Route to Compostela. Check out Ray's 100+ articles - he has his own column called 'Perspectives'

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