Over the last week, I’ve been learning a ton about an amazing woman named Noor Inayat Khan. She was the first female radio operator sent into Nazi-occupied France by the Special Operations Executive, a covert British operation formed to “set Europe ablaze” by supporting Resistance actions in the country, gathering intelligence, and sabotaging Nazi activities. Despite being a profound pacifist who considered telling the truth to be of the highest importance, Noor survived in Paris for four months when the average radio operator there lasted a mere six weeks. She resisted torture, made several escape attempts, and left a profound effect on everyone she met.
Noor was born in Russia in 1914 to an Indian Sufi mystic father and an American mother and spent her childhood moving from place to place as her father followed his calling. She spent time in Russia, England, France, and India, but considered France to be her true home. Her family’s household was famously tolerant of all faiths, and filled with music. Noor was always considered a dreamy child, writing poetry for her mother and brother on their birthdays, and later writing children’s books, often with themes of love and heroic sacrifice. When she was 13, her father died suddenly, and her mother fell into a deep depression. It fell to Noor to handle household matters and help raise her younger siblings.
When World War II broke out, Noor and her family just managed to escape France before the country surrendered to the Nazis. They moved to England, and Noor volunteered for the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) and began training to be a radio operator. Despite her pacifist beliefs, she knew she couldn’t stay back and help from a safe spot: she was driven to do as much as she could to help the war effort. She believed that a pacifist could fight if she weren’t doing it from a place of hate, and that sometimes it was required to fight in order to achieve peace.
Noor made some waves during training! She threw herself into her studies and learned quickly, but when she interviewed for a WAAF commission, she surprised the interviewers with her outspoken beliefs on Indian independence. She stated (because of course she would tell the truth, even when it was inconvenient!) that while she would fight for Britain during the war, she believed very strongly in the cause of Indian independence, and if it came to a fight, she would be on India’s side. She hoped, however, that if enough Indians helped the British during the war, it would make a better case for independence.
Unsurprisingly, she didn’t get the commission. She was, however, tapped shortly after for a position with SOE, who were looking for people who could speak French like the natives. SOE desperately needed radio operators in France to coordinate their actions, and it was essential that they could blend in with no trace of an accent and no British mannerisms. Trainees were even monitored to make sure that, if they talked in their sleep, it was in French!
During her interview for the SOE, her superiors had reservations about using Noor as an agent, when she seemed so spectacularly unsuited to be a spy. However, radio operators were in short supply, and Noor was willing and determined to succeed in this role, so she began training.
Noor progressed quickly through her training, and though she was a skilled radio operator, she could clearly use some work in the “spy” part of the job: lying to people, standing up to interrogation, and close-combat fighting. On the one hand, she was clearly not suitable for the job; on the other hand, her superiors continually supported her and trusted that when it counted, she would be able to step up.
And step up she did: within days of her arrival in Paris in June 1943, the Gestapo infiltrated SOE’s network there and arrested almost all the agents in the city and surrounding area. Noor was left as the only British agent in the field. She had the opportunity to flee to London, but refused, because she knew she was needed in Paris. Despite her poor performance as a spy during training, she remained on the run in the city for the next four months, dying her hair and changing her location constantly, and working to rebuild the SOE’s network. She did the work of six radio operators during this time, and was instrumental in the escape of 30 Allied airmen shot down in France. Throughout this, Noor remained amazingly cheerful, thanking her superiors for the opportunity to help and staying optimistic.
She was finally betrayed in October 1943, just days before her planned departure to London, and captured by the Gestapo, though she went down fighting her captor viciously: he described her as “a tigress”. On being taken to the house the Gestapo were using as a prison for captured agents, she requested a bath and escaped through the bathroom window. She was recaptured almost immediately, but soon after that she planned and executed another escape with two other prisoners, which was foiled by an Allied air raid. After that Noor was transferred to a prison in Germany and kept shackled hand and foot – though she made yet another escape attempt during the transfer!
She was kept in the prison for 10 months, during which she was kept on a starvation diet and never allowed to be unchained. She was beaten and kept in solitary confinement, but throughout this time she still managed to communicate with several other prisoners by scratching messages on the bottom of the bowls in which food was served. She never cooperated with the Gestapo, and never revealed anything to them – not even her name.
Finally in September 1944, Noor was sent to Dachau with three other female agents, where she was beaten mercilessly, and then shot. The last thing she said before she died was “Liberté”.
Noor Inayat Khan amazes me. She was completely unsuited for the job: an author of children’s books, a Muslim pacifist, and stubbornly honest, she survived longer than anyone could have thought possible and never broke during interrogation. When her entire network collapsed around her, she made the decision to stay, and did a truly spectacular job. She made a deep impression on everyone she met: during his post-war interrogation, when the head of the Gestapo in Paris was told about her death, he apparently broke down in tears. Noor’s determination, idealism, and commitment to her values at the cost of her life are astonishing and inspirational. I’m happy to have found her.