The haunting story of an Indian woman spy- Noor Inayat Khan
She was the great-great-granddaughter of an Indian king. She was also perhaps the first known Indian woman spy. Who was this mysterious young woman who fought for the Allied forces and died with the word,’Liberte’ on her lips?
Had Noor Inayat Khan, the ‘first Indian woman spy’ been living today, you would have dismissed her as just another beautiful woman who hangs around malls and discotheques. Yes, Noor was that glamorous in her life. Unfortunately, her life was snuffed short by an assassin’s bullet during the Second World War
Noor Inayat was born to Hazrat Inayat Khan and Pirani Begum. Her mother was born an American but converted to Islam before her marriage to Hazrat Inayat. Noor’s father was a Sufi and Indian in origin. He had settled in the United States at the turn of the 20th century to spread Sufism.It is said that Khan was related to Tipu Sultan through his mother, though this fact needs to be confirmed.
Tipu was a Muslim ruler who ruled over the southern parts of India. His kingdom spread over parts of Karnataka, Kerala, and parts of Tamil Nadu. Tipu ruled over his kingdom from 1782 till 1799.
Son of Hyder Ali, Tipu is considered by many historians as being among a handful of Indian rulers who opposed the East India Company. However, many Indians, particularly belonging to the coastal parts of Karnataka and North Kerala, consider this king to be a fundamentalist Muslim who converted and killed lacs of Hindus.
For more information on Tipu Sultan, please read this article > https://www.britannica.com/biography/Tippu-Sultan
From US to Russia and then UK
Hazrat Inayat Khan had a cosmopolitan temperament. While he was a Muslim, he also had leanings toward the philosophy of Shankaracharya. While in the United States, he propagated Sufism and Sufi music.
Noor had three siblings- Vilayat, Hidayat, and Khair-un-Nissa. Barring Noor, who died in 1944, the rest lived on well into the 21st century.
Sometime in the 20th century, Hidayat and his family moved to Russia where they stayed until 1914. At the outset of the First World War, the family moved again this time to London. It was here that Noor was born.
In the UK, Hidayat tried to launch his own version of Sufism but reportedly, he was not allowed to do so.
It was time to move again in 1920 to Paris, where the family got a house as a donation from one of the followers of Hazarat Inayat Khan.
What is Sufism
Islam is broadly divided into two sects- Shia and Sunni. There is a third sect also which is the Sufi way.
Sufism is a mystical form of Islam that seeks to search for God and asks its followers to shun materialism. This form is called ‘Tawwauf’ meaning ‘ in the wool’. The earliest Sufis used to wear clothes made of wool, and hence this term. In other countries, Sufis are called faqirs, peers, darwaishs, aauliyas etc. Compared to the Shia and Sunni sects, Sufis are more moderate and use less violence to achieve their religious objectives.
Sufis think that it is possible to achieve God or Allah by love. I don’t think that Sufis lay much emphasis on the Holy Quran as the Sunnis do. Probably this is the reason why Hazrat Inayat Khan also said that to be a good Muslim, one doesn’t have to follow Quran. Only the love of God is enough.
Sufism is very much a missionary thought and it emphasizes on the propagation of the Islamic thought by conversion.
Sufis aren’t tolerated by the mainline Muslims, though. The latter consider Sufism as heretical because Sufis pray and worship at the graves of their religious teachers. Of late, many Sufi places of worship in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere have been bombed by fundamentalist Muslims. In the process, every year, hundred of Sufis lose their lives because of this insanity.
To know more about Sufism, please read this article> https://www.britannica.com/topic/Sufism
Childhood and Education
Noor, who was born in 1914, had a very soft temperament. She is described by her reporters as being quiet, introvert and generally being away from controversy. While in London, she attended school at Notting Hill and when she went to Paris, Noor attended the Sorbonne. At this university, she studied psychology. Since she had an inclination for music, she picked up music classes at the Paris Observatory; her teacher was Nadia Boulanger.
I think that her lessons in psychology helped her become an Indian woman spy.
Since Noor liked music and poetry, she started her career as an author. It is said that in 1929, her book, Twenty Jataka Tales, was published in London. This book was inspired by the Jataka stories that are so popular in India.
In 1927, her father died and that is when Noor decided to take care of her mother and siblings. At the age of 13, she was ready to take on the world, though she was still a child in age as well as in mind.
Hazrat Inayat Khan is buried near the Nizamuddin Chishti grave in Delhi.
Image Credits- Flickr
After the fall of France to Germany in the Second World War, Noor and her family fled to Bourdeaux. That year was 1940. But they soon realized that even that city was not safe for them. Hence, Noor and her family came back to London, the city where she was born.
Around that time, thousands of miles away, Indians were locked in a struggle for independence from the Britishers. Did Noor know about India’s struggle? I think she did.
The makings of an Indian woman spy
Once back in England, the thought of helping the Allied Forces began crossing the minds of the girl and Vilayat, her brother. Both of them agreed that Indians need to help the British to defeat the Nazi tyranny. The other idea was to build bridges between the British and their Indian subjects.
“I wish some Indians would win high military distinction in this war. If one or two could do something in the Allied service which was very brave and which everybody admired it would help to make a bridge between the English people and the Indians.”(Visram, Rozina, 1986)
Finally, in November 1940, Noor Inayat Khan decided to join the Royal Air Force. To be exact, she joined the Woman’s Auxiliary Air Force.
Her first job was that of a Wireless Operator and I think she excelled in it. Since she played violin and piano, her skills in punching the keys helped her a lot.
This was the first time that a woman was being recruited as a wireless operator. Earlier, the British Intelligence recruited women only as couriers.
The job of a woman wireless operator during the Second World War was very dangerous, much more dangerous than that of women couriers.
In 1943, Noor joined the F Section (France Section) of the Special Operations Executive. Later, she joined the Air Ministry where Noor started learning the job of a wireless operator in the occupied territories. Clearly, she was risking her life for a higher goal- that of defending the interests of the Allied Forces.
After her stints in Surrey and Buckinghamshire, Noor was sent to Beaulieu where she received practical training as a wireless operator working in enemy territory. It was at Beaulieu where Noor ‘faced’ the Gestapo. She had to undergo simulated interrogations from ‘Gestapo’ officers so that as a wireless operator, she knew what to expect in the event of a capture.
Khan’s superiors held an average opinion of their apprentice. They recorded that unlike spies, Khan revealed too much. She was quite amiable and told her ‘friends’ too much about herself and her job. On the job, she was clumsy and it was difficult for her to met away in the crowds.
Her handlers recorded in her personnel file that Noor did not like the security side of her job, and also that she had difficulty in handling weapons. She had an unstable temperament and behaved like a child. Noor wanted to please everybody around her and did not have an independent opinion. Her reports said that she was feminine, and did not like being two-faced. ‘She lacks ruse,’ her report told about her.
Regarding her ‘Gestapo’ experience, her superiors recorded that she found that stint harrowing and unbearable.
Finally, her report concluded,
“Not overburdened with brains but has worked hard and shown keenness, apart from some dislike of the security side of the course. She has an unstable and temperamental personality and it is very doubtful whether she is really suited to work in the field.”
Maurice Buckmaster, her boss at the F-Section, responded to these comments by writing, ‘Nonsense’ at the margins. He found Noor competent for the job. but wanted one final confirmation whether this woman was indeed inclined to work as a spy?
Vera Atkins was Noor’s Intelligence Officer during the latter’s training. Vera decided to meet Noor in London and find about her pupil’s intentions.
Both met at a Mayfair restaurant where Vera showed Noor her intelligence reports. She expected Noor to give up the idea of being a wireless operative in German-held territories.
As said before, the work of a wireless operative involved huge risks. You had to conceal your antennae from pesky neighbors all the time. Wireless operators had to pretend that their antennae were mere clotheslines.
Carrying your big equipment was also a big challenge because of its bulkiness. Most operatives used to carry their gear which was concealed in firewood.
The biggest danger was that of being found out by the German spymasters. If you continued sending messages from your desk for more than 20 minutes, you ran the risk of being found out by German electronic reconnaissance teams.
In 1943, the average lifespan of a wireless operative working in enemy territory was just six weeks.
So, Vera told Noor of all these risks and expected her junior to back out. But there was no way Noor could be stopped from pursuing her dangerous objective- that of stopping Nazis in their tracks.
In the midnight of 16/17 June 1943, Noor boarded a Lysander and flew down to a secret location in North France. From here on, she had a new name, Jeanne Marie Regnier. Her code name was Madeleine and her fake job was that of a nurse.
Madeleine had to connect with her handler, Cinema. His real name was Emile Garry and was so code-named because of his similarity with the Hollywood movie-star, Gary Cooper. Garry was later executed by the Germans in September 1943 at Buchenwald.
At the airport, Madeleine, aka, Noor met Henri Derricourt.
Her capture and execution
Noor was betrayed by Derricourt or a woman Renee Garry to the Germans.
Many researchers believe that Derricourt was a double agent and was always looking for that side which was winning the battle.
The motivation for Renee might have been different. She felt that Noor might have stolen her lover’s affections from her. Her lover’s name was France Atelme.
Noor was arrested by the Germand SD in October 1943. The interrogators tried their level best to find out information from her but failed. Unfortunately, Noor had copied some of her messages which were later found out by her captors. She didn’t have to copy tose messages because it was against the training manual. But since Noor was very good at coding and her services were required urgently by the Allies in France, so her training had to be cut short.
Anyways, her arrest led to several Allied operatives being arrested and killed by the Germans and this was indeed a setback to the former.
In November 1943, Noor tried to escape from her prison in France beut failed. She was chained and later transported to a German concentration camp. Noor was designated as a dangerous prisoner by the Germans and was always kept under watch.
On 12 September, 1944, Noor Inayat Khan was executed by the Germans in the Dachau concentration camp. A single bullet ended her life.
How did she die
There is an unverified account about her execution from Christian Otte, a Gestapo operative.
The four prisoners had come from the barrack in the camp, where they had spent the night, into the yard where the shooting was to be done. Here he [Wassmer] had announced the death sentence to them. Only the Lagerkommandant and the two SS men had been present. The German-speaking Englishwoman (the major) had told her companion of this death sentence. All four had grown very pale and wept; the major asked whether they could protest against the sentence. The Kommandant declared that no protest could be made against the sentence. The major had then asked to see a priest. The camp Kommandant refused this on the grounds that there was no priest in the camp. The four prisoners now had to kneel with their heads towards a small mound of earth and were killed by the two SS, one after another by a shot through the back of the neck. During the shooting the two Englishwomen held hands and the two French-women likewise. For three of the prisoners the first shot caused death, but for the German-speaking Englishwoman a second shot had to be fired as she still showed signs of life after the first shot. After the shooting of these prisoners the Lagerkommandant said to the two SS men that he took a personal interest in the jewellery of the women and that this should be taken into his office.
However, an unidentified Dutch prisoner later claimed that Noor was beaten up by a German Soldier before being shot dead.
Noor Inayat indeed served her adopted country in many ways than one. Not surprisingly, the British government awarded her the George Cross or GC posthumously. Her citation reads;
The KING has been graciously pleased to approve the posthumous award of the GEORGE CROSS to:— Assistant Section Officer Nora INAYAT-KHAN (9901), Women’s Auxiliary Air Force.
Assistant Section Officer Nora INAYAT-KHAN was the first woman operator to be infiltrated into enemy occupied France, and was landed by Lysander aircraft on 16th June, 1943. During the weeks immediately following her arrival, the Gestapo made mass arrests in the Paris Resistance groups to which she had been detailed. She refused however to abandon what had become the principal and most dangerous post in France, although given the opportunity to return to England, because she did not wish to leave her French comrades without communications and she hoped also to rebuild her group. She remained at her post therefore and did the excellent work which earned her a posthumous Mention in Despatches.
The Gestapo had a full description of her, but knew only her code name “Madeleine”. They deployed considerable forces in their effort to catch her and so break the last remaining link with London. After 3 months, she was betrayed to the Gestapo and taken to their H.Q. in the Avenue Foch. The Gestapo had found her codes and messages and were now in a position to work back to London. They asked her to co-operate, but she refused and gave them no information of any kind. She was imprisoned in one of the cells on the 5th floor of the Gestapo H.Q. and remained there for several weeks during which time she made two unsuccessful attempts at escape. She was asked to sign a declaration that she would make no further attempts, but she refused and the Chief of the Gestapo obtained permission from Berlin to send her to Germany for “safe custody”. She was the first agent to be sent to Germany.
Assistant Section Officer INAYAT-KHAN was sent to Karlsruhe in November 1943, and then to Pforzheim where her cell was apart from the main prison. She was considered to be a particularly dangerous and unco-operative prisoner. The Director of the prison has also been interrogated and has confirmed that Assistant Section Officer INAYAT-KHAN, when interrogated by the Karlsr
uhe Gestapo, refused to give any information whatsoever, either as to her work or her colleagues.
She was taken with three others to Dachau Camp on the 12 September 1944. On arrival, she was taken to the crematorium and shot.
Assistant Section Officer INAYAT-KHAN displayed the most conspicuous courage, both moral and physical over a period of more than 12 months.
- Basu, Shrabani (2006). Spy Princess: The Life of Noor Inayat Khan. Sutton Publishing. ISBN 0-7509-3965-6.
- Stevenson, William (2006). Spymistress: The Life of Vera Atkins, the Greatest Female Secret Agent of World War II. New York, US: Arcade Publishing. ISBN 978-1-5597-0763-3. Overview of Atkins’ activity at SOE (served as Buckmaster’s intelligence officer in the F Section)
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