Update: May 14, 2019- Noor Inayat Khan is the first Muslim to be proposed to have her face on the British £50! We are voting yes! She deserves it!
When I sat down to write this blog, I thought of some of the many subjects I could write about concerning the Holocaust and World War II. I am working on one about Holocaust Deniers, then I thought about one on Sir Oswald Mosely who lead the British Union of Fascists just prior to the war and possibly one on Charles Lindbergh and his anti-Semitic view point, however I decided to start this New Year of 2019 strong with the story of a very strong woman- Noor Inayat Khan.
I first learned about Noor through a documentary on PBS and was amazed at what this one woman went through during World War II and what she was willing to sacrifice to maintain the principals and morals taught to her by her Sufi father.
Born in 1914 in St. Petersburgh, Russia, Noor was born to an Indian Sufi father (Hazrat Inayat Khan) and an American mother (Ora Ray Baker). Her parents had met in New York when her father was traveling the world, sharing his Sufi message through his music, as a path to God and self-discovery. From a very young age Noor was the light of her fathers’ eye and she exhibited a very generous soul, one that was self-sacrificing and often put other before herself.
In 1922 the family moved to Paris, where the family lived in a house given to them by a wealthy follower of Hazrat’s. In this home Noor met many of her fathers’ followers who came from all over the world. By being exposed to so many different nationalities, Noor became color blind (as she didn’t see the color of a person’s skin) and religion blind (she didn’t care about a person’s religious beliefs), she cared about the heart and soul of the person.
On a trip to the India in 1927, Noor’s father died suddenly. His death had a great impact on young Noor, however she stepped up and began to act as a mother to the younger children while her mother had slipped into a deep depression. The family continued their fathers work and it is during this time that Noor began to write. She wrote stories for the children of the congregation, they were stories that emphasized nobility and sacrifice, and were published under the title Twenty Jataka Tales just months before the family fled Paris.
Summer of 1940 saw the invasion of France by the Nazi army. Noor and her family fled Paris to England, where Noor volunteered for two years with the Women’s Auxiliary Airforce as a radio operator. During those two years, she also trained for bomber command but she wanted to do more, so she joined Churchill’s SOE (Special Operations Executive). The primary goal of the SOE was to “set Europe ablaze”. Churchill believed in war being everywhere, not just on the battlefield and the SOE was to wreak havoc all over Nazi occupied Europe.
The SOE was difficult for Noor. Even though she was a brilliant radio operator, she faced prejudice for being part Indian, she was an idealist in a center where the trainers thought idealism was a “female” obstacle. War documents describe Noor as being “emotional, imaginative and selflessly dedicated to her work”, however they ignored her positive attributes and used her negative ones (loss of focus during coding and un-coding of wireless messages) to try to drum her out of the SOE.
Twenty-two-year-old Leo Marks, who was the Head of Communications at the SOE, was assigned to look into Noor’s case. The superior officers felt that something was missing from her file, and Leo was tasked to find out what it was. Leo read her book of stories and learned her family history, in doing so he found that not lying was an integral part of Noor’s childhood teachings and adult values. And it was the one part in her training that Noor could not do, she could not lie. Leo sat down with her and explained that not properly coding and un-coding wireless messages was a form of lying, that was the missing detail from her file! Leo had found it! After that, her marks for coding and un-coding improved greatly and she showed unimaginable skill as a radio operative (the most dangerous training and job in the SOE). It was time to send her off on her first mission.
In the early morning hours of June 16, 1943, a RAF Lysander plane took off from England and dropped Noor and two other women in occupied France. Noor’s new identity was Jeanne Marie Renier, a French children’s nurse (code name Madeline). Noor was fluent in many languages and as she had lived in Paris as a child, she knew the city already. The women were met by Henri Dericourt and taken to Prosper networks headquarters just outside Versailles in the National School of Agriculture. It was here that Noor met Frances Suttill, codename “Prosper”, who was the leader of the Prosper network in Paris.
Noor’s job when she landed was to make radio contact with London as soon as possible. Her mission would be to code and decode messages to agents and arrange air drops of weapons and new agents into occupied France. Part of setting up her wireless radio was to string forty feet of transmission wire out from the radio. She would have to do it in a safe place and send messages quickly (spending no more than five minutes on line) as the Nazi’s had vans that honed in on the radio signals, making it easier for them to find the radio and the operator. Noor made her fist contact with London within seventy-two hours of landing in Paris, something that had been unheard of.
From the time she arrived, rumors had circulated that Henri Dericourt was a double agent, working both for the SOE and the German Abwehr (German Counter Intelligence). It was discovered that Henri would take messages from the SOE and take them to the Abwehr to be copied and then he would deliver them to the Prosper network. Any questions of Henri being a double agent ended on June 24, 1943 when the Gestapo began arresting agents from the Prosper network, as well as Frances Suttill, Prosper himself. The agents were taken to 84 Avenue Foch, the Gestapo headquarters in Northern France. Most people who went in never came out again. The buildings basement was lined with torture chambers, with offices and prison cells on the floors above.
Luckily Noor escaped captured, she had been warned off the safe house before the arrest happened. Knowing she had work to do, Noor rode her bicycle into Paris with her radio and a small bag. By making contact with the French resistance in Paris, she was able to secure a safe location to transmit from. She immediately sent a message to London that the Prosper network had been comprised. Maurice Buckmaster, Head of Section F of the SOE, requested that Noor return to London. She refused. She was the last radio operator in Paris and was determined to rebuild the network. She knew that without her vital supplies and weapons for the resistance would not be dropped and downed allied fighter pilots would not be able to escape the Nazi’s.
For months Noor continued her work in Paris. She grew accustomed to being exhausted and too moving continually. The Gestapo had her description and thus she was forced several times to change her appearance. She could trust no one. After three months of being on her own, Noor decides to return to her childhood neighborhood, a very risky move as it was now filled with Germans (even her family’s home). She planned to visit an old family friend for help, knowing it was very dangerous, but she was all alone.
Faith and Strength in Capture
By this time, the Germans had begun to offer money to anyone who would denounce others- those not faithful to the Nazi ideal, spies, communist, etc. After four months in Paris Noor was arrested on October 13, 1943. The Germans took her code book and used it to send false messages to London. Noor, who was a beautiful, glamorous and attractive woman, had been denounced by Renie Garry, the sister of her resistance contact.
Noor was taken to Gestapo Headquarters in Paris, where she endured unimaginable torture at the hands of the Gestapo. Everything they tried, failed. She refused to break. She learned of other prisoners and worked out a plan to escape by leaving them notes in the only place that they had any privacy- the bathroom. A fellow prisoner, John Starr, managed to steal a screwdriver and left it for Noor in the bathroom, she then used it to chip away at the bars that covered her ceiling skylight. She was the last of the prisoners to free her bars and they made their escape. They were free for one hour, when an RAF air raid led the Germans to discover that they were gone.
That had not been Noor’s first attempt at escape, she had tried it twice before. The commander of the prison decided that “she should disappear into night and fog”. After three weeks of torture and three failed escape attempts Noor was sent to Pforzheim Prison on November 26, 1943. On the train she was not permitted any contact with fellow prisoners and was kept chained at all times. At Pforzheim she continued to endure torture and isolation and still refused to break.
After months in Pforzheim, Noor was sent to Dachau concentration camp, where she endured even more torture, isolation and possible rape, and yet she did not break. She faced the worst of the worst in Dachau with huge faith, strong resilience, absolute trust in God and the assurance that when the horrors of war are over, the sun will rise. Noor’s last word in this world was “liberte”, French for Liberty. She was executed on September 12, 1944 along with three other female agents.
Following the war and her death, Noor was posthumously awarded:
George Cross (England’s highest civilian award) in 1949
Croix de Guerre with gold star from the French on January 16, 1946
A plaque was placed in Dachau with her name and the name of the other three agents, and is there today.
Memorial statue of Noor was placed in London’s Gordon Square in 2012.
Noor’s nephew Pir Zia had this to say about his aunt:
“Her message was that the human soul is of the divine source, that every human being is sacrosanct; that all people must be free and that if it requires the sacrifice of one’s own life, then that commonwealth of humanity deserves such a sacrifice”.
Noor and other agents who gave their lives have largely been lost to history, their names unknown to all but a few. But their stories need to be remembered and told. And that is why I write this blog. I write so that these stories are not forgotten. I write so that other may remember them when I am no longer here. We live in a time when Holocaust survivors and World War II veterans are leaving this world and with them their stories. Those stories need to be documented and told. World War II took inhumanity to new and unseen levels of cruelty and hate. When we stop looking at other people as human beings, we loose part of our humanity. And it is our humanity that directs us to be kind and compassionate, things this world needs more of.
I hope that you have a wonderful New Year and that you have enjoyed this blog. I encourage you to follow me for each new story. See you in two weeks!