On 13 September 1944 Noor Inayat Khan the first female wireless operator to be flown into occupied France we shot at Dachau the descendant of Tipu Sultan the Tiger of Mysore Noor was born in Moscow and raised in the Sufi style of Islam. From this unlikely background she became the only Asian secret agent in Europe in World War II was one of three women in the SOE to be awarded the George Cross and was awarded the Croix de Guerre. Shrabani Basu’s new book tells the full story of this extraordinarily heroic woman.
Noor was brought up in finance and Britain and joined the Red Cross when World War II broke out. But though Sufi tradition preached non-violence. She felt that she had to do more to oppose the horrors of fascism. In Britain Noor trained as a wireless operator before being recruited by the SOE.
Such was the urgent demand for radio operators that she was sent to France before her training was completed. Working under the code name of Madeleine she joined a group that sabotaged communication lines. But disaster struck quickly and within days her circuit collapsed and he colleagues were arrested.
Though instructed by her controller the famous Maurice Buckmaster to return home she refused to abandon her post as she was the last radio operator left in Paris. For a time she successfully dodged the Gestapo but by late 1943 her luck had run out. She was betrayed arrested and imprisoned at avenue Foch. Undaunted she made tow dramatic escape attempts but was recaptured and sent to Germany here she was interrogated and tortured and finally sent to Dachau where she was shot the Germans had learned nothing from her not even her real name.
Shrabani Basu is the London correspondent for the Calcutta based Ananda Bazar Patrika group and writes for the telegraph and other publications. She is the author of curry the story of the nation’s favorite Dish.
Holders of the George cross are out of the common run; Noor Inayat Khan was even farther out of it than most. She was an Indian princess on her father’s side her mother was American. She was brought up in Paris where she wrote and broadcast children’s stories she had a gentle character and the manners of a lady but lived in no luxury. She fled to England in 1940 when the German invaded France and worked as a humble wireless operator on Bomber to go back to France in secret survived for a few months in Paris but got betrayed and was beaten up and murdered in Dachau.
What was an innocent like this doing with a pistol in her handbag? Why was she sent to France at all in the teeth of reports that she was quite unfit to go? Why was the prearranged code that showed she was in German hands not believed when she sent it? These are some of the questions this book raises to some of them it can provide answers.
There are books about her already one by a close London friend of hers who detested SOE one in French that does not pretend to be truthful. No other biographer had access as this author did to her recently released secret archive and none till now was a compatriot. Shrabani Basu London correspondent of a leading Indian newspaper understands was about the struggle for Indian independence. This is not a story to be missed.
The lone gardener was working in the June sun clearing the weeds around Fazal Manzil the childhood home of Noor Inayat Khan. It was a particularly hot day in Paris a precursor to the hear wave that would sweep Europe in the summer of 2003. From the steps of Fazal Manzil where the Inayat Khan children had often sat and played I looked out over the hill towards Paris. The view was blocked by apartment blocks that have mushroomed in Suresnes. It was not quite the sight the children would have seen all those years back.
At eighty seven Pir Vilayat was a frail but impressive figure in his white robes. Walking with the help of a stick he took me to the living room with its large bay window. From here one could see the garden and the city beyond. t was in this room that he and Noor had decided that they would go to Britain and join the war effort. A large portrait of their father Hazrat Inayat Khan hung on the wall.
Every day of my life I think of her. When I go for a walk I think of her when I feel pain I think of how much more her pain was, I think of her chains I think of her being beaten. When I am cold I think of her, I think of her lying in her cell with hardly any clothes. She is with me every day said Vilayat. It was a moving tribute from a brother.
I had first heard of Noor Inayat Khan many years ago in an article about the contribution of Asians to Britain. I was immediately drawn to the subject and read Jean overton fuller’s Noor-un-Nisa Inayat Khan which was fascinating.
As an Indian woman myself Noor’s life held a natural attraction for me. How a Muslim woman from a conservative spiritual family went on to become a secret agent working undercover in one of the most dangerous areas during the war was something I wanted to study in detail. The fact that jean Overton Fuller’s book had been written over fifty years ago in 1952 made me feel it was worth making another attempt. Noor was an unlikely spy. She was no Mata hari instead she was dreamy beautiful and gentle a writer of children’s stories. She was not a crack shot not endowed with great physical skills and a far cry from any spy novel prototype. Yet she went not to display such courage and fortitude in the field that she was presented the highest civilian honors the George Cross (UK) and the Croiz de Guerre (France). She was one of only three women SOE agents to receive the George Cross the others being violette Szabo and Odette Sansom.
The opening of the personal files of SOE agents in 2003 gave me the leads I had been looking for. Though the main players in the field Noor’s chiefs and associates at SOE – Maurice Buckmaster Selwyn Jepson, Vera Atkins and Leo Marks were all dead I was confident that Noor’s own fills and the files of the agents who worked with her in the field would provide fresh material. In an area like the secret service there will always be gaps which cannot be filled. Meetings are held in secret and hardly any records kept. Most of Noor’s colleagues were killed in France murdered in various concentration camps and few lived to tell their tale making the job even more difficult. With the help of Noor’s family her brothers Vilayat and Hidayat jean Overton fuller’s account SOE archives and other sources I have tried to complete the jigsaw of Noor’s life and her final road of death.
While working on this book I realized that Noor has been romanticized in many earlier accounts with much information about her that is pure fantasy. She has been said to have been recruited while on a tiger-hunt in India. Her father an Indian Sufi Mystic is said to have been close to Rasputin and invited by him to Russia to give spiritual advice to Tsar Nicholas II. She is said to have been born in the Kremlin. None of this is true though much of it has been repeated in many seminal books on the SOE.
Noor was an international person Indian French and British at the same time. However she is better known in France than in Britain or India. In France she is heroine. They know her as Madeleine of the Resistance and every year a military band plays outside her childhood home on Bastile day. A square in Suresnes has been named course Madeleine after her. She has inspired a best selling novel La Princess Outline by Laurent Joffrin which has also been translated into German Joffrin has given her lovers she did not have and taken her through paths she did not walk it is a work of fiction.
Sixty years after the war Noor’s vision and courage are inspirational I hope my book brings the story of Noor Inayat Khan to a new generation for whom the sacrifices made for freedom are already becoming a footnote in history.
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