The life of the British spy Noor Inayat Khan was short and dramatic.
Working with the French resistance and battling the Gestapo, she showed incredible courage and her life story has since been recounted in books and films, while her war efforts have been honoured by a memorial in Gordon Square Garden in London.
As it happens, Gordon Square Garden has seen its fair share of other big personalities over the years.
Located in Bloomsbury, in London’s West End, it was right at the heart of where the Bloomsbury Set lived, worked and mixed. This was a set of intellectuals prominent in the first half the 20th Century that included the novelists Virginia Woolf and E M Forster, and the economist John Maynard Keynes.
Though unlike the Bloomsbury set, Khan's name is not mentioned on the National Trust noticeboard at the entrance to the park square. A stroll through and around square is necessary to locate it. Though once you have, her name is clear to see.
It perhaps need not have necessarily read ‘Noor Inayat Khan’, but instead could have had ‘Nora Baker’, ‘Jeanne Marie Renier’, ‘Nurse’ or ‘Madeleine’ etched upon it, as these are all names she used during her short but remarkable life.
By all accounts rather softly spoken and gentle, Khan’s character contrasted with the grandeur of her lineage. She was descended from Tipu Sultan, the 18th Century ruler of Mysore in India who had died fighting against the British 1799.
And as Shrabani Basu explains in ‘Spy Princess’, because the British sought to remove his descendants from Mysore to prevent future uprisings against them, the royal line essentially went underground. The family legend was that the royal blood of his surviving daughter Casimebi was kept secret, hidden from the British.
A suitable origin story then for a woman further down the family line who would one day become a spy.
Noor’s father, Hazmit Inayat Khan, was a teacher of Sufism, a mystical form of Islam, and a travelling musician. His influence made Noor and her siblings pacifist in their outlook, somewhat of an irony for a woman who would go on to become a wartime heroine.
In fact, Noor’s very beginnings and presence in London were the result of war. She had been born in Moscow in January 1914, though her father had moved the family to Paris by the summer of that year. When war broke out, he moved his family to London, and it was in these early years of her life that Noor’s connection to Gordon Square and Bloomsbury was made.
The family moved to 1 Gordon Square in 1917, and Shrabani Basu relates that Noor played games and claimed to see fairies in the park’s flowers and bushes.
Noor moved with her family again in 1920, this time to Paris, something that would have profound consequences for her future war service since spending the rest of her childhood in France would mean she became a fluent speaker of the language.
It also meant she would have to leave France for a second time because of war, this time after the 1940 German invasion, as a young woman with her brother Vilayat.
Speaking in the BBC’s Timewatch episode ‘The Princess Spy’, Noor’s nephew David Harper explains that:
“ … their philosophical background did not allow them to kill anyone, so if they were going to help in the war they could do anything, even if it was dangerous, so long as they didn’t have to fire a gun.”
Vilayat worked on minesweepers in the Royal Navy, whilst Noor joined the WAAF, became a wireless operator and went by the name ‘Nora Baker’. This was derived from her mother, Pirani Ameena Begum, who was actually an American with the birth name Ora Ray Baker.
The name Baker would very soon feature again in Noor’s life, since Baker Street was where the headquarters of the Special Operations Executive (SOE) was located.
This organisation of undercover agents was set up to work with and arm resistance movements within Nazi-occupied countries. In 1942, it had recently started accepting women because there was a shortage of men, and, Shrabani Basu explains, because women were seen as being more inconspicuous than men:
“The argument was that women would find it easier to move around under cover of shopping or doing the daily chores and were less likely to be questioned than men.”
This, combined with her fluent French, made F Section interested to meet ‘Mrs Baker’, and so the ‘Inter-Services Research Bureau’, as it was euphemistically known, got in touch. Basu again picks up the story:
“And so it was that Noor was called upon to meet Selwyn Jepson, chief recruitment officer for the SOE. She had been under observation by Military Intelligence ever since her recruitment. She had already been trained in transmission and had increased her Morse speed during a specialist course. She had cleared the language test as her French was flawless. The rest would depend on the interview and her own willingness to join …
“ … Jepson felt that Noor was almost perfect for the job of a wireless operator. He felt she was careful, tidy and painstaking by nature and ‘would have all the patience in the world’ – an essential characteristic for a wireless operator.”
Of course, as Timewatch points out, Noor’s multicultural, international background, biracialism and royal lineage meant that “ … of the 37 women agents that SOE sent to France, Noor must have been the most unlikely spy”.
Speaking on the program, SOE Official Historian, the Professor MRD Foot, says of the recruitment interview:
“ … Jepson said to her, ‘You realise if you take this on, you’re putting your life on the line? I’m putting your life on the line? It’s about evens (i.e. 50-50 odds) whether you come back’.”
In ‘SOE Agent: Churchill’s Secret Warriors’, Terry Crowdy explains the usual procedure for an interview with the Special Operations Executive:
“As a secret organization, SOE could not openly recruit. Instead it relied on hours of research, looking for the right type of individual, or following up personal recommendations and delving into background checks. At the first interview the emphasis was on assessing the candidate’s language skills.
“In addition, more risks were taken with radio operators simply because there were not enough of them to go around. In most cases, the candidates went away from their first interview with only vague ideas of what they were getting drawn into, although sometimes others were told the risks up front and given a blunt ‘take it or leave it’ proposal. The gut feeling of the interviewer was what mattered most. Even if a negative report came from the scientific appraisal by the Student Assessment Board, this was often ignored in favour of the recommendation of the recruiting officer.”
Basu relates that in this regard Noor was rather unusual. Jepson apparently felt he could be upfront with her about what she was getting into, and what risks that entailed. He also noted she was clearly discreet and trustworthy, and that if she decided not to join the organisation, she would keep schtum about the interview with him.
As it happens, when she did join, her training – in weapons handling, explosives, and simulated interrogation and torture – did not always go well.
This was a bad sign, since Noor was being trained up, thanks to her experience in the WAAF, to be a highly valued and important wireless operator in France.
While some of her reports praised her extreme conscientiousness, and one evaluator said they had had the greatest admiration for her, she also got negative reports. According to Timewatch, these were such comments as “Highly temperamental”, “Pretty scared of weapons” and “clumsy” and “Not over-burdened with brains.” Maurice Buckmaster, the head of F Section, responded in the margin: “We don’t want them overburdened with brains”.
As per Crowdy’s point above though, it seems the important people wanted to see her succeed, and it was their view prevailed.
As it turned out, their view seems to have been right.
She was taken to France by plane at night in 1943, complete with a false identity, Jeanne Marie Renier, and codenamed Madeleine, and call sign ‘Nurse’.
Before leaving, Timewatch reveals she had written the following in a letter to her brother:
“Nothing could have infuriated me more than to leave without seeing you. Maybe we will meet someday, somewhere, somehow. Duty can pull us apart to the ends of the world, but it can only strengthen ties, and brother is dearer than ever. We’ll carry on old boy. Wish me luck.”
She would never see him again, but not because she would be caught and killed within the six-week period of life expectancy for SOE agents in France at that time.
Instead, the shy, quietly spoken Noor survived for three months in France, staying on as the only wireless operator sending morse code messages back to London, even after her network of fellow spies had been caught.
Carrying her heavy wireless device in a suitcase, Noor moved from place to place and stayed on the run, staying ahead of the Gestapo through luck but also by her wits. At least this is the judgement ‘A Life in Secrets’ author Sarah Helm gives on BBC’s Timewatch.
But, thanks to a tip off from a Frenchwoman jealous about not being able to get into SOE herself, the Gestapo closed in. When they did, the quiet Noor apparently fought so fiercely she was told she would have to be shot if she did not stop resisting arrest.
Noor was interrogated and died under harsh conditions, not revealing anything to her captors. When she was executed at Dachau concentration camp in 1944, her last word before being shot is said to have been “Liberté“.
It is quite something to think of the sheer courage, fortitude and the incredible life that lies behind the quiet memorial to Noor Inayat Khan now standing in Gordon Square.
To learn more about Noor Inayat Khan read ‘Spy Princess: The Life of Noor Inayat Khan’ by Shrabani Basu.
And check out ‘SOE Agent: Churchill’s Secret Warriors’ by Terry Crowdy for more on the SOE. Visit Osprey Publishing for more military history.
Cover image: writer’s collection