A gutsy British Second World War hero — a woman, and a Muslim. Have you ever heard of her?

A gentle musician and children’s book writer – and one of the SOE’s bravest agents

On Friday 26 September, Parliament voted for military action in Iraq. Many suspect it is the opening phase of what will become the third Iraq war in the space of 25 years. In the Commons debate, a number of Muslim MPs spoke of the Muslim community in Britain, shining a light into what must be a difficult time as they face the inevitable upsurge in anti-Islamic feeling that can already be seen on the streets, in the social media, and plastered across the comments sections of online newspapers.

Of course, it is simply not possible to categorise an entire section of the British public as definitively one thing or another. There are certainly no straightforward classifications of Islam in Britain, where it has a long and rich history, drawing on an immense number of cultures. Although we again see and hear the usual extremist spokespeople denigrating Britain on television and radio, no one seriously imagines they represent anything other than a tiny minority view.

Moderate opinion is not newsworthy, so it is rarely heard. But it is important to remember that it is there. For example, in the last century alone, hundreds of thousands of Muslims volunteered to fight for Britain — in notably large numbers during World Wars I and II — with many sacrificing their lives, as recorded on war memorials in all the main theatres of battle. At a time like this, perspective can be sobering.

This year marks the 70th anniversary of the death of one British war hero — who happened to be a woman and a Muslim. Given the endless current debates about Britain and Islam, it is a good time to tell her story again.

Noor Inayat Khan was an Indian princess through her father’s side — a direct descendant of Tipu Sultan, the legendary eighteenth-century ‘Tiger’ ruler of Mysore.

Her father, Inayat Khan, was a Sufi Muslim intellectual, who made his living as a musician and philosopher of mystical Islam. Her mother was an American, and the two fell in love after a lecture he gave on mysticism at an ashram in San Francisco. They married in London in March 1913, and set up house in Bloomsbury.

Inayat Khan’s work took him abroad for lengthy periods, and for a while he temporarily relocated the family to Moscow, where Noor was born in the Vusokopetrovsky monastery just over a mile from the Kremlin. After moving back to London briefly, the family eventually settled in France, where Noor spent most of her childhood.

By the time she finished school, Noor was fluent in English and French, much influenced by her father’s mysticism and pacifism, fascinated with stories and music, and by all accounts gentle and dreamy.

On leaving school, she enrolled in the École Normale de Musique in Paris to study piano and harp, and the following year began a degree in child psychology at the Sorbonne. When she graduated, she turned to writing for children, publishing a number of successful books, and penning stories for the children’s page of the Sunday Figaro newspaper, a number of which were also broadcast on Radio Paris and later the BBC.

When the Second World War broke out, she unhesitatingly signed up for the French Red Cross, and received training in nursing and first aid. But as the Germans broke through into France and advanced on Paris, she made a decision that would change her life forever. Although her father had instilled in her a firm Sufi Muslim belief in non violence, she nevertheless knew that she could not sit by and watch the horrors of modern warfare, especially the atrocities against civilians, women, and children. So she headed to England to join the war effort.

Burning to do as much as she could, she applied to join the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF), a corps of women created to perform the support functions needed by the Royal Air Force in order to free the men for direct combat roles. When she was rejected because she had been born near Moscow, she sent a passionate letter back insisting that as a British Protected Person she be allowed to serve her country. She was immediately accepted, and on the 19th of November 1940, aged 26, she joined the WAAF as an Aircraftswoman Second Class, number 424598.

There was little science in which tasks individual WAAFs were trained in. Noor was selected to be a wireless operator, and promptly packed off to Harrogate for a month’s basic military training. Despite her small size — she was five foot three inches tall and weighed less than eight stone — she nevertheless passed all the physical exercises. After the discipline of the parade ground and the barracks, which she passed with an A grade, she was sent to Edinburgh for six months with 34 (Balloon Barrage) Group, where she received instruction in wireless telegraphy. Again, her instructors scored her with A grades.

In June 1941 she was promoted to Aircraftswoman First Class and posted to RAF Bomber Command at Abingdon in Oxfordshire, where by the end of the year she was commissioned as a Leading Aircraftswoman.

However, unknown to her, a shadowy group was watching her from its headquarters deep in the Ermin Street Hotel in London’s fashionable St James’s district. They were the men of the Special Operations Executive (SOE), and they had decided they wanted to meet her. So, on the 10th of November, she was called to an interview in Room 238 of the scruffy Hotel Victoria on Northumberland Avenue off Trafalgar Square. There, in a shabby room furnished only with a kitchen table, two hard chairs, and a naked light bulb, she was interviewed by the SOE’s chief recruiter, “Captain” Selwyn Jepson.

Noor Inayat Khan

The organisation Noor was being interviewed by was new — the brainchild of Winston Churchill, who wanted a fifth column to work behind enemy lines in Nazi-occupied territory specialising in sabotage and helping the resistance movements. This clandestine secret service was separate from MI5 and MI6, and drew heavily on the lessons learned from the IRA’s highly effective guerrilla warfare against the British in Ireland. The SOE would, in Churchill’s words, be “the Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare” tasked to “set Europe ablaze”.

The nature of SOE’s cloak-and-dagger work meant it needed all sorts of covert equipment. Workshops at the Victoria and Albert Museum, the National History Museum, and the Thatched Barn at Barnet invented a cornucopia of sabotage gear: explosives secreted in dead rats, tropical fruit, horse droppings, pens, milk bottles, nuts and bolts; concealed radios in logs and petrol cans; shoes that laid false trails; and — most famously — exploding Buddhas for sale by street hawkers to Japanese troops. There were also a whole range of spy gadgets: spectacles with microfilm dots, miniature compasses in buttons, diminutive saws for escape, maps on silk scarves. The ingenuity was endless. Today, there is even a blue plaque at the Natural History Museum commemorating the “toy shop” where many of these devices were made — a workshop which provided the inspiration for the character of Q in Ian Fleming’s James Bond books, as Fleming had worked closely with SOE when he had been in Naval Intelligence.

The SOE department taking an interest in Noor was F Section, which specialised in recruiting fluent French speakers. Because of the nature of SOE work, Jepson was looking for people “with real guts” who were willing to go up against the Abwehr (German military intelligence) and the collaborating French Milice. Courage and bluff were more important than anything else, as if the agents were discovered behind enemy lines, they would not have the protection given to uniformed forces under international law, but would face certain torture and death at the hands of the Gestapo.

Noor was one of the first women invited to interview by the SOE, as it was only in April 1942 that the War Cabinet had reached the decision to authorise SOE to employ women agents in the field. As Captain Selwyn Jepson (who recruited Noor) later recalled:

I was responsible for recruiting women for the work, in the face of a good deal of opposition, I may say, from the powers that be. In my view, women were very much better than men for the work. Women, as you must know, have a far greater capacity for cool and lonely courage than men. Men usually want a mate with them. Men don’t work alone, their lives tend to be always in company with other men. There was opposition from most quarters until it went up to Churchill, whom I had met before the war. He growled at me, “What are you doing?” I told him and he said, “I see you are using women to do this,” and I said, “Yes, don’t you think it is a very sensible thing to do?” and he said, “Yes, good luck to you.” That was my authority!” (interview with the Imperial War Museum)

Jepson usually interviewed potential recruits two or three times. But in Noor’s case there was something so sincere about her that it only took one meeting. After he offered her the job, she replied by letter to confirm her acceptance. Although she had real concerns about leaving her family (with whom she was always immensely close), and despite the fact she was very much in love and had recently become engaged, she had come to an important life decision:

I realise how petty our family ties are when something in the way of winning this war is at stake. I shall therefore accept gratefully the privilege of carrying out the work you suggested.

Behind the scenes, the reason for SOE’s interest in Noor was the dire shortage of covert radio operators in occupied France. Each SOE/Resistance network comprised an organiser, a courier, and a radio operator to send the messages back to London. Because the radio operators had to keep the large radios with them, they were especially vulnerable, and the Gestapo was keenly aware that capturing the radio operator neutralised the entire cell. As a result, the average life expectancy of an SOE radio operator in France was six weeks.

Now that Noor had accepted, the first step was for her to be discharged from the WAAF and enrolled in the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry — a volunteer organisation which would, uniquely, train women in firearms and other military skills. (In total, of the 50 women sent into France by the SOE, 39 were members of the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry.)

A Royal Mail stamp (2014) commemorating Noor Inayat Khan as part of the Remarkable Lives collection

After intensive training at Wanborough Manor, an Elizabethan pile in Surrey, Noor (now Nora Baker) was sent to the spy’s finishing school at Beaulieu in the New Forest, where the SOE put her through harsh lessons in survival behind enemy lines. (The SOE’s access to dozens of large English country houses for its training courses led to its nickname as “Stately ‘Omes of England”.) The instructors who ran the training at the country house and around the grounds of the ruined medieval Cistercian abbey were seasoned and demanding — Kim Philby had finished his role as an instructor there only a short time earlier.

It turned out that Noor was not a natural at any of the activities she was being taught, but her instructors consistently noted her diligence, conscientiousness, and calm resolve. Weapons, explosives, and sabotage training clearly frightened and upset her -— they were, after all, a world away from Sufi meditation and writing children’s books — but she persevered.

At Beaulieu, part of the training involved being hauled out of bed in the middle of the night and subjected to mock interrogations by men wearingGestapo uniforms. The sessions were rough and ruthless (although not overly physically violent), but their purpose was important. If the trainee cracked, it was better to know that before sending them behind enemy lines where they could endanger others. If the trainee held out, then it gave everyone concerned — especially the trainee — a boost in confidence. Noor did not break, but was palpably terrified by the sessions. She vowed that if ever she was caught, she would simply just never say anything.

Her final report was highly positive, as were the comments on her character.

She is a person for whom I have the greatest admiration. Completely self-effacing and un-selfish. The last person whose absence was noticed, extremely modest, even humble and shy, always thought everyone better than herself, very polite. Has written books for children. Takes everything literally, is not quick, studious rather than clever. Extremely conscientious. (Lance Corporal Gordon, lead instructor)

The next stage was advanced SOE signals training at Thame Park (another former Cistercian abbey) just outside Oxford, where Noor was the first woman ever to be put on the course. But as the grind of the instruction wore on, behind the scenes events were moving quickly. Paris needed a new wireless operator, and Noor — even through her training was unfinished — was the only person with the required profile.

When asked if she would go even though she was not fully trained, she agreed without hesitation, As a final preparation, she was quickly put through a crash survival course in Bristol, where she had to rent rooms, find a job, set up and use cut-outs to deliver messages, and survive an arrest and interrogation by the police.

As her departure date drew closer, a number of SOE individuals began to voice their concerns about her suitability. No one doubted she was diligent and committed, but she was often identified as emotional, and many believed she had inherited a certain impractical dreaminess from her father. Some even thought she was too beautiful and exotic to go unnoticed. Later, Yvonne Cormeau, one of her fellow trainee agents at Beaulieu who survived, said she was a “splendid, vague dreamy creature, far too conspicuous — twice seen, never forgotten” who should never have been sent to France. One unimpressed instructor said that the “potty princess” had radically split opinions at Beaulieu, and that she was utterly unsuitable. Referring to the influence her father had over her, he complained, “‘Do you know what the bastard taught her? That the worst sin she could commit was to lie about anything,” The interrogation by the Bristol police had not gone too well, either. The superintendent had reported back to the SOE saying, “If this girl’s an agent, I’m Winston Churchill”.

Nevertheless, Paris desperately needed a “pianist” (code for telegrapher), and there was no one else. With her training cut short, Noor was fitted for French-made clothes, and given French ID papers and a ration card. Her only spy equipment apart from a Webley pistol was a knock-out pill, a Benzedrine pill for energy, a pill to induce a stomach disorder, and a cyanide pill that could be safely swallowed but would kill if bitten.

She had been assessed as unsuitable for parachute jumping, so at the next full moon, wearing a green oilskin coat, she boarded a Lysander from 161 Squadron at Tangmere near Chichester and, after a swift Channel crossing, was dropped at a covert landing strip north-west of Angers.

As she stepped back onto French soil, she was no longer Noor Inayat Khan or Nora Baker, but now Jeanne-Marie Renier, a children’s nurse, codenamed MADELEINE after a character in one of her books. It was the 16th of June 1943, and she was the first woman wireless operator to be inserted behind enemy lines. Shortly before she landed, the BBC World Service broadcast the message: “Jasmine is playing her flute” to let the reception committee know she was flying in.

The first thing she did on landing was bury her Webley pistol, as it would be too incriminating if found during the many searches all residents of Paris suffered daily.

Noor quickly found her contacts in the PROSPER/CINEMA network of SOE/Resistance fighters and was up and running in no time,

One of the greatest dangers in her role was the wireless unit itself. The Mark II crystal set she operated weighed 30 pounds and filled an entire suitcase. It was not easy to hide, and nor was the 70 foot aerial she needed to rig up for each broadcast. However, the 400 strong team of women from the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry staffing the SOE’s listening post at Grendon Underwood soon began to receive vital information from agent MADELEINE.

As SOE wireless set

Noor had been in Paris for only 5 days when, after years of trying but failing, the Gestapo finally penetrated the PROSPER network and began arresting its agents. Within only 3 days, they had all the main people rounded up and in custody. Noor’s world had collapsed. Miraculously still free, she broke the devastating news to London, who told her it was too dangerous for her to stay on her own and that she would be extracted as soon as possible. However, aware that she was now the only radio operator left in Paris, she declined, saying she would rather stay. She knew she was now the only connection with London, and she wanted to keep them informed of events while simultaneously trying to rebuild the blown network.

For a little under 3 months, Noor used every skill she had been taught at Beaulieu to evade arrest. Aware the Gestapo had her description and she was top of their wanted list, she changed her hair colour and style frequently, and kept moving around the city. She carried her wireless set with her at all times, travelling daily between a network of bedsits and rooms she rented or borrowed. On one occasion, some German soldiers in the same Métro carriage asked what was in her suitcase and she happily showed them, explaining it was cinematic equipment.

As the only radio operator in Paris, she also began sending messages for other sections, including directly to De Gaulle’s office in England. While on the run, she arranged the escape of 30 Allied airmen, the return of a number of agents to England, four sets of false papers for other agents, and the delivery of significant amounts of money and weapons to the Resistance.

When London finally convinced her that another radio operator was being sent to replace her, she agreed to be flown home on the 14th of October. As she went around saying her goodbyes, a Frenchwoman named Renée, who was on the periphery of Noor’s circle, presented herself at Gestapoheadquarters on the Avenue Foch and offered to sell them Noor’s whereabouts for 100,000 francs.

As the net closed on the day before her planned extraction, Noor shook off a group of Gestapo hoods sent to pick her up, but when she later returned to one of her rooms, she found a French Gestapo officer waiting for her inside. After a struggle, she was subdued and taken to Gestapoheadquarters at 82–86 Avenue Foch. At the first opportunity, she climbed out of a bathroom window five floors up, but was immediately caught and brought in again.

For a month and a half she was held in the headquarters and refused to reveal anything. Hans Kieffer, the station head, later confirmed that she yielded no information and they had been unable to make a single arrest from interrogating her.

While there, she made contact with two other prisoners, and together they hatched a plan to escape. They procured a screwdriver and managed to break out of the barred skylights in their individual cells and onto the roof. But an air raid sounded immediately, and the rooftops were suddenly ablaze with searchlights. They were quickly found missing from their cells, and a hasty cordon thrown around the building found them once they had climbed down to ground level and were trying to make a break for it.

When asked to sign an assurance that she would not try and escape again, Noor refused to lie, and said it was her duty to try at every opportunity. As a result, she was branded ‘highly dangerous’, and on the 25th of November was transferred to Pforzheim prison, making her the first SOE agent to be sent back to mainland Germany. She was now being held under the dreaded Nacht und Nebel(night and fog) regulations. People who disappeared into Nacht und Nebel were gone, and no further information was ever provided to family or other enquirers.

At Pforzheim, she was treated barbarously, chained in solitary confinement on minimum rations for 10 months, during which time she resolutely provided her Gestapo interrogators with no information at all. Meanwhile, London had no idea she had been taken as the Gestapo were using her radio set to transmit phony information back to the SOE. Unknown to Noor, she was awarded the George Medal in February 1944 for her extraordinary bravery and heroism in fighting on,

Finally, on the 11th of September, Pforzheim prison received a message direct from Berlin to move Noor. She was reunited with three other SOE women and put on a train south to Dachau. Forced to walk the last two kilometres on foot, she entered the infamous Arbeit macht frei gate into the concentration camp around midnight. She was immediately taken to a cell where she was savagely beaten and kicked until the small hours. Then, as dawn came, she was shot in the back of the head, before her body was taken to the crematorium and incinerated.

She was 30 years old.

The same gruesome fate ultimately awaited most captured SEO agents. Himmler’s orders were that they were to be interrogated without mercy, then killed to prevent information about their interrogations or the workings of the Gestapo being reported back to London. Of over 200 agents from SOE’s French section who were caught, only 26 survived.

In honour of Noor’s extraordinary personal courage and sacrifice for Britain, she was posthumously granted an MBE and awarded the George Cross — the civilian equivalent of the Victoria Cross, with which it ranks equally in precedence. In memory of her sacrifice for France, she was given the highest French award for civilian bravery: the Croix de Guerrewith Gold Star, and every Bastille Day a French military band plays outside the family house in the Parisian suburb of Suresnes where she grew up. There are also tributes to her in Dachau, and on numerous military and SOE memorials.

Princess Anne unveiling the statue of Noor Inayat Khan in Gordon Square (7th of November 2012)

In London. HRH the Princess Royal unveiled a bust of Noor in Gordon Square in November 2012, commenting that the life of the “spy princess”, while truly remarkable in its own right, also “has a real connection to our modern era”.

Noor’s story is powerful, as sacrifice for a greater good always is. She gave her young life — as did millions of others — to gift posterity the world she wanted to have. So as opinions harden about Britain’s role in the Middle East, it is worth remembering that the society we live in today was bought in part, unquantifiably but surely, by Noor’s courage, loyalty, and blood, in the field, and in the lonely, dawn terror of Dachau.

Her story should end with the recollection of Captain Selwyn Jepson, the SOE’s chief recruiter who met her that fateful winter day just off Trafalgar Square when he recruited her:

I see her very clearly as she was that first afternoon, sitting in front of me in that dingy little room, in a hard kitchen chair on the other side of a bare wooden table. Indeed of them all, and there were many who did not return, I find myself constantly remembering her with a curious and very personal vividness which outshines the rest … the small, still features, the dark quiet eyes, the soft voice, and the fine spirit glowing in her.

(First published in The Daily Telegraph, 8 October 2014)