8.11 Noor Inayat Khan: A Spy for Britain

Noor Inayat Khan: A Spy for Britain

Not all the British spies fit the prototype. Noor Inayat Khan had an Indian father, an American mother, a Russian birthplace, and a French education. She was a timid, peace-loving mystic with an alarming tendency to expect everyone around her to be decent and good. She was also a phenomenally successful undercover radio operator for Britain, exceeding everyone’s expectations, until she was betrayed to the Nazis.

This episode is part of the series Women in Espionage.

Full Transcript

Last week I told you about Lise de Baissac. She was technically British, but perfect to impersonate a single middle-aged French woman because in every sense except the legal one, that’s exactly what she was. She blended in.

But she was only one of 39 lady spies sent in by the British Special Operations Executive. And one of the others had never blended in anywhere in her whole life.

The story begins in India with a man named Hazrat Inayat Khan. He was a descendant of royalty, and in his youth he studied music and spirituality, learning from Hindus, Zoroastrians, Buddhists, and Sufi masters, which was where he found his home.

Sufism is a mystic practice in Islam, concerned with finding the divine through personal experience with God and His love. Inayat became famous in India for his wisdom and music, but he felt called to spread it further.

He toured the United States, giving concerts and teaching. One of those who appreciated him was a girl from Iowa. Her family forbade her to marry him, but after his tour left for Europe, she snuck away and followed him. They married and continued to tour, which is how Noor Inayat Khan came to be born in Russia to an Indian father and an American mother on January 1, 1914.

1914 wasn’t a fabulous time to be in Russia, so the family moved to England to endure the First World War. Then a wealthy devotee bought the family a nice house near Paris and the family lived there while Inayat traveled alone.

But when he was home, he made an impression. His standards were very high. Every day he gave his children a virtue to work on: patience, tolerance, forgiveness, something like that. In the evening they had to say what they had done to improve on that virtue. And if they had failed, they devised their own punishment. One day Noor reported “I wanted to be bad, but my goodness prevented me” (Magida, 34).

Compassion was required. Honesty was required. Respect for all human beings of any race and any religion was required. High ideals and duty brought one to God. “The essence of spirituality and mysticism is readiness to serve the person next to us” (Khan, Volume XI, Part 3, Mysticism). One should never let the self get in the way.

The Khan Family (Source)

The family was, shall we say, unusual, surrounded as they were by French Catholics. And then on a trip to India, Inayat caught pneumonia and died. Noor was 13 years old.

With her father dead, and her mother increasingly frail and possibly clinically depressed, Noor took over much of the running of the household. Duty and service came first, as she had been taught. But she also finished school, entered the Sorbonne, took music lessons from a woman who is still legendary in the music world: Nadia Boulanger, who also taught the great Leonard Bernstein, Aaron Copland, and Philip Glass. Noor played a very expensive harp and performed regularly with her siblings. She also wrote poetry and published a children’s book on tales from India.

She had a lengthy engagement, which displeased her entire family. In 1939, she broke it off. She was tired of the family arguments and anyway, who could be thinking about engagements with another war brewing?

In 1940, the Germans broke through French defenses like a child toppling a tower of blocks and soon most of northern France was running south.

Noor and her brother Vilayat met to discuss what the Sufi response would be, the moral response, the one that involved compassion and forgiveness and respect for all lives, even the German ones.

It wasn’t easy. “If you counter violence with violence,” Vilayat asked, “are you participating in the very violence you purport to oppose?”

Back in India, Mahatma Gandhi was preaching passive resistance, even for German Jews. The rest of the world boggled at the idea, but he remained so firm that some accused him of anti-Semitism. The British imperialists certainly had a history of atrocities, but in the end they were more interested in exploitation than in extermination. So the slow and steady march of Indian passive resistance was able to prick their moral conscience into gear, albeit belatedly. It was by no means clear that Hitler even had a moral conscience. And his extermination policies were moving so fast that by the time a moral conscience made an appearance (if it ever did), all the Jews would be dead.

Gandhi was right for India, Noor and Vilayat decided. But he was wrong about Europe. “Right at our door” Vilayat argued, “people… are being tortured… How can one preach spiritual morality without participating in some sort of preventive action? Spirituality in action—that was the real teaching of our father” (Magida, 60).

But there was no clear way to act in France. France was one massive exodus and the Khans joined it, as heartsick and afraid as all the others. It would be easier in England, where there was an organized war effort.

They made it to England. Noor worked briefly as a nurse, but that didn’t seem enough, so she joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force. They didn’t mind that she was not a British citizen, just a British Protected Person, by virtue of her Indian father.

The WAAFs taught her to use a wireless telegraph in morse code and assigned her to an air force base. As a woman she earned 2/3 of an equivalent man’s pay and ate 4/5 of his food rations (Magida, 76). She did well and she was in line for a commission, which would have been nice: more money, more prestige. But in the interview they asked her opinion of Indian nationalism. Surprised, she fell back on her father’s teachings: always tell the truth. And yes, she wanted an improvement in India’s situation. After the war, she might very well go to India to support independence.

Noor went home, sure she would not get that commission.

What she got instead was an invitation to a meeting with an official in the Special Operations Executive or the SOE. Noor had never heard of it.

Captain Selwyn Jepson was the man who had pushed for women as agents and won. He had interviewed Lise de Baissac and now he interviewed Noor Inayat Khan. He was impressed. She was patient, tidy, and completely fluent in French language and culture.

She was also dark-skinned by European standards and breathtakingly beautiful. She would be noticed wherever she went. But Jepson actually considered that an asset. One way to avoid detection was to be so unremarkable that no one noticed you. The other way was to reek of money and leisure. Even Germans were intimidated by rich people.

Jepson was honest with her. “I have to decide whether I can risk your life,” he said. “And you have to decide whether you’re willing to risk it” (Magida, 76).

The risks were staggeringly high for any agent, and highest of all for a radio operator. Last week you may have wondered (as I did) why Lise de Baissac wasn’t trained as a radio operator? Or why didn’t they send one with her? It was because it took months, even years, to train them. And when they got behind enemy lines their life expectancy was less than 6 weeks.

The Germans were perfectly well-equipped to pick up a radio signal. They had vans that drove around listening with a range of 20 miles. And if two vans locked onto a signal, it was a simple bit of triangulation to pinpoint the source and nab the operator.

Noor believed in service, in duty, in using every skill she had to help others. She knew how to send a signal on the wireless. And if the Allies needed that from her then the self did not enter into it. She said yes.

The SOE gave her a new wireless. This new version could be carried in a small suitcase. In good weather it had a range of 500 miles. Paris to London as the crow flies was only 214 miles. Those were the good points. The bad points were that the suitcase weighed 30 pounds and the antenna had to be stretched out for 70 feet. It was hard to find a good place for that. Agents often had to hang it in trees or tall grass, not knowing who might be watching them.

A World War 2 Wireless Set (Source)

Morse code was all about rhythm, tempo, cadence, and dexterity. As a musician, Noor had been practicing all of that since childhood. What was interesting was that each operator eventually developed a distinctive touch, or “fist” as it was called. If you listened enough, you could tell one operator from another in the same way you can tell one singer from another. They just sounded different.

That was important because it had already happened that the Germans captured an SOE radio and impersonated the agent to get information direct from London. So messages were not just in Morse code, they were also encrypted with other codes. And operators also got a security check, like misspelling every tenth word. If that word was correct after all, it was a clue that Germans were forcing the agent to send the message.

The problem with all this was that operators sending messages were always both rushed and terrified. They made lots of mistakes. Sometimes so many the SOE couldn’t even figure out what the message was, much less who had sent it.

Early on, the SOE had considered radio operation enough for one person to learn. But as they lost agent after agent, it because clear that operators had to protect themselves as well. So Noor learned how to disguise herself. How to choose a dead drop. How to shoot. How to read maps. How to detonate explosives. Her trainers thought her hardworking, earnest, unselfish, modest, shy, and timid. Admirable as a person, but not enough guts to be an agent. Also, they said, she was excessively moral. If you asked her to do something that conflicted with her sense of what was right (like, telling a lie for example), it would cause an emotional crisis. Being an agent was all about telling lies.

The other part of Noor’s training was to practice getting caught. At any point in the night, Noor might be roughly awoken, shouted at in German, blinded with lights, and peppered with angry questions.

Her trainers were not impressed with her ability to cope with this. True, she didn’t give much away. But she also trembled and shook and looked utterly terrified. And a real interrogation was likely to be worse. Much worse.

All in all, they didn’t recommend her. But the head of the SOE, Maurice Buckmaster, was desperate. On one report a trainer commented that Noor was “not overburdened with brains” and Buckmaster angrily crossed it out and wrote “we don’t want them overburdened with brains” (Magida, 104). Her French was perfect. Her telegraphy was perfect. Her loyalty and motivations were perfect.

A report on Noor. Apparently, the report made Buckmaster cross. (Source)

Buckmaster’s top advisor was a woman named Vera Atkins, and she interviewed Noor to decide what to do with her. She told Noor that the real crime would be to go out and let her comrades down. She didn’t have to go. She could back out.

Noor said she was going. The final examination was with Leo Marks, a man who said that he entered the exam with the intention of being detached and objective. He later wrote that after she walked in, he realized that “the only thing likely to be detached was one (if not both) of my eyeballs. No one had mentioned Noor’s extraordinary beauty” (Magida, 115). He grilled her hard, setting the bar so high he thought for sure she would fail. Instead, she encoded twice as many messages as he asked for. She made no mistakes at all. She was going to France.

The France Noor returned to was not the one she had grown up in. The French were tired and underfed. Rations in Paris were the lowest in Europe: you got 120 grams of meat a month. That’s just over a quarter pound, less than many Americans eat in just one fast food burger. This was supplemented with 50 grams of cheese per week or about 2 of those mozzarella string cheese sticks. The amount of bread varied, but it wasn’t large (Magadi, 126).

Air raid sirens went off regularly, sometimes twice a day. The SOE and the resistance had sabotaged enough that Hitler was furious, and the country was now wallpapered with yellow signs that said:

All traitors working for the British will be shot.

All male relatives of those traitors between the ages of 1 and 65 will be shot.

All female relatives and children will be deported to Germany.

(Magadi, 109)

These were not idle threats. The Nazis had been as good as their word, leading some section leaders, such as Claude de Baissac, to suspend sabotage in favor of simply stockpiling weapons against a D-day that had already been years in the coming.

On June 16, 1943, a pilot took Noor to Angers, France. She had not had time to learn to parachute, so she was taken all the way to the ground and handed a bicycle. She biked to a train station and rode into Paris.

A Lysander plane of the type that delivered SOE agents to France (Source)

Her name was now Jeanne Marie Regnier. Or code name Madeleine. She was to find a man named Emile Henri Garry, leader of her resistance cell. He would help her settle, after she had given him the correct passwords, of course. She also sent her first message to London, which simply said that she had safely arrived.

Garry gave his new operator a good meal and told her how to use her forged ration cards, but he wasn’t happy. She looked young and scared. And she was sloppy. They found a piece of paper she had left lying around with her radio code on it. She had an alarming tendency to assume that people in general were fundamentally decent and good and would never betray her.

And within days of her arrival, the Gestapo arrested all the other SOE agents in Paris, including Andrée Borrel, the woman who had parachuted in with Lise de Baissac. Her network, which had been so successful, shattered immediately.

Noor was too new to be included in the deadly mop up. The Gestapo didn’t know about her. And she was now the only SOE radio operator in northern France.

Buckmaster was desperate but not a monster. He could not leave Noor out there, brand new and alone. He ordered her home.

Noor disagreed. Her father had taught her not to turn her back on things that were hard. “Life is a struggle,” he had said, “and we must be ready to struggle” (Khan, Volume 6, “What Is Wanted in Life?”). She would stay, she insisted. She would rebuild the network from the ground up.

To do it, she broke all the rules. She sent her radio messages alone. (She was supposed to have a lookout.) She needed help, so she contacted friends she knew from before the war. (Definitely forbidden as it broke her cover.) She constantly changed her hair color and her address, rarely staying anywhere for more than a few nights.

She had many close shaves: a routine stop-and-search found her radio. She said it was a film projector. The soldier didn’t know what either looked like, so he let her go.

Another time she arrived for a meeting with a contact. It was a trap and she watched from hiding while the Gestapo threw her contact in a van and drove off.

When she finally found an apartment of her own, her neighbors were all Nazis. And the apartment was too small to spread out her antenna, so she couldn’t use it at home. But one night there was no time to get anywhere else, so she strung it in the trees by the building.

A German officer saw and stopped her. Not to arrest her, but to ask if she needed help. Calmly, Noor said yes, thank you. He hung it for her and bid her farewell. When she told a friend afterwards, she said the officer must have thought her radio was just for entertainment. Radios were forbidden even for entertainment, but apparently that officer didn’t care. Her friend told her not to go back to that apartment. But she did (Magida, 141).

Buckmaster even sent an agent to assess the situation and bring Noor back. But she didn’t come. There was no one to replace her, and duty always came first.

The Gestapo’s first inkling about Noor came in a raid, where they found some notes signed Madeleine. The notes should not have existed. It was against regulations not to have destroyed them immediately. The Gestapo didn’t know who Madeleine was, but they knew the British had a new agent.

Their second inkling was worse. Noor had instructions to meet two Canadian agents flying in. The agents were real enough, but they got caught in a routine inspection on their way to Paris. They carried their instructions in their pocket (also against the rules). So the new agents Noor met were not Canadians, but Germans in disguise. Unbelievably the Gestapo failed to tail her afterwards, but from then on, they had a physical description of her.

Noor didn’t know and she carried on. The information she was sending was critical. She sent lists of factories helping the German war effort. Within weeks they were sabotaged. She sent such good info about Orly airport that bomber planes disabled it.

She reached the 6-week life span for an operator, and the woman they had thought too timid for this job was still going strong.

After four months, Noor finally agreed to return to England. She was exhausted. She was wearing down. The SOE’s small planes came every time there was a clear night and a full moon. She was expected to meet one and get on. But she didn’t.

From the SOE s point of view, Noor’s radio went dark for 10 days. Then she started up again. saying the old address was unsafe but she had found a new one, which she sent.

That sounded reasonable enough. In fact, Buckmaster was so pleased with her amazing performance that he was recommending her for the George Cross for Exceptional Heroism. And “had she been a man she would have been recommended without hesitation for the Military Cross” (Magida, 222).

It was weeks before Buckmaster accepted the reality. Yes, Noor’s radio was sending messages. Yes, they were in her codes, but she was not the one sending them anymore. The fist was wrong and her security check was missing. Also, she did not meet on any of the planes, and nor did any of the handwritten letters she had previously been sending to her mother.

While Buckmaster was deluding himself about this, whoever was operating that machine received multiple shipments of money, weapons, and agents straight from London.  

Months later, after D-day, when the British entered France, many SOE agents came out of hiding and presented themselves. But Noor never reappeared.

Vera Atkins, the woman who had told Noor that the crime would be to let her comrades down, took it upon herself to hunt for her missing agents. So did Vilayat, Noor’s brother. And a friend. And it is by combining the stories of people they interviewed that we know the rest of Noor’s story.

Emile Garry, Noor’s first contact in Paris, had a sister. In October 1943, this woman told the Gestapo that for a price, she could deliver an SOE agent. The Gestapo must have laughed, for the price she asked was only a tenth of what they had paid other informants. She gave them Noor’s current address and they were waiting for her when she came home. They caught her radio as well, of course, and a notebook in which she had written in code and in plain English every message she had ever sent. She should not have kept such a notebook, because it gave the Nazis all the codes they needed to impersonate her. But even so, they were missing her security check and of course, her fist, which should have been enough to alarm London. There were mistakes all around.

They took Noor to No. 84 Avenue Foch, a fancy building in Paris that can still be visited today. Noor had been told to expect torture, so it was disconcerting when the interrogator Ernest Vogt offered her tea, biscuits, and a good dinner. Disconcerting was Vogt’s basic technique. He quietly told her a great many details about the SOE, implying that he already knew everything anyway. What was the point in lying to him?

Noor told him nothing. But she asked for a bath. She insisted on the door being fully closed. Vogt went to the next room where he saw that Noor had climbed out the window and was balancing on a fifth-floor rain gutter that was already buckling under her weight. She meant to make it to the roof, but she could see she would not make it. Reluctantly, she allowed Vogt to talk her back inside.

Over weeks she was kept in a cell but brought out for Vogt’s questions. I am relieved to say that there is no evidence that she faced torture. And she answered nothing of importance. What she did do was tap Morse code messages through the walls to her neighbors. And together they planned Escape #2.

Her neighbor on one side got a screwdriver by way of volunteering to fix the cleaning lady’s vacuum cleaner and failing to return all the tools. The three prisoners passed it between them with a dead drop in the bathroom.

They used it to remove the bars on the skylights of their cells and one night the three of them slipped out onto the roof.

It was their bad luck that at that moment the air raid sirens went off. The Germans always checked on the prisoners when that happened, so they knew about the breakout within minutes. Desperately, Noor and the others jumped to a third-floor balcony on the next building and broke through the glass to get inside.

But it is not surprising that they were caught and marched back inside. Noor was asked for her word of honor that she would not try to escape again. Her trainers were right that she had a problem with lying, and she refused. So Vogt and his superior decided she was no longer worth their effort.

They shipped her to Germany. As an agent and a confirmed escapee, Noor was considered dangerous. So she was kept in chains and in solitary confinement. One of the wardens liked to come in to discuss music, literature, Sufism, and Indian philosophy with her. What she thought of this, we’ll never know.

The days stretched to weeks and then months. Outside the tide was turning. Hitler was beginning to lose, but Noor probably didn’t know that. Until then the Nazis had mostly kept agents alive, on the theory that they might be useful in the future. But eventually they realized there wasn’t going to be any future for Nazi leaders. Not unless maybe they could bury the evidence.

On September 11, 1944, after almost a year in prison, Noor was transferred along with three other captured agents. They took a train to Munich and then to Dachau, the original concentration camp, the place where Nazi officials came to learn how to commit mass murder. One of the women asked for a priest but was told there weren’t any. Apparently, the 1200 priests confined in barracks 26, 28, and 30 didn’t count. They spent one night there and in the morning they were shot.

Noor wasn’t a Christian. And maybe there truly wasn’t a Sufi master to comfort her. I think it’s more likely that the one she wanted was her father, perhaps remembering that he had said “Death for the spiritual soul is only a gate through which they enter into that sphere which every soul knows to be its home” (Khan, Part 3, Mysticism).

My major source for today is Arthur J. Magida’s biography Code Name Madeleine: A Sufi Spy in Nazi-Occupied Paris. On the website I have a transcript, pictures, and more sources at her half of history. com. You can find me on Facebook at Her Half of History or on Twitter @her_half. The SOE sent many women behind the lines in France. I don’t know about you, but I’ve had about as much heartbreak there as I can take. So we’ll do heartbreak somewhere else next week as we get to the infamous Ethel Rosenberg. After that I will be on break until December. Thanks!

Selected Sources

Atwood, Kathryn J. Women Heroes of World War II : 26 Stories of Espionage, Sabotage, Resistance, and Rescue. Chicago, Illinois, Chicago Review, 2013.

“BBC – Religions – Islam: Sufism.” Bbc.co.uk, 8 Sept. 2009, http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/islam/subdivisions/sufism_1.shtml.

Khan, Hazrat Inayat. Complete Works of Pir-O-Murshid Hazrat Inayat Khan. Volume VI: The Alchemy of Happiness. Available at https://wahiduddin.net/mv2/VI/VI_9.htm. Accessed 10/9/2022.

Khan, Hazrat Inayat. Complete Works of Pir-O-Murshid Hazrat Inayat Khan. Volume XI: Philosophy, Psychology and Mysticism. Available at https://wahiduddin.net/mv2/XI/XI_III_19.htm. Accessed 10/9/2022.

Magida, Arthur J. Code Name Madeleine: A Sufi Spy in Nazi-Occupied Paris. WW Norton & Company, 2020.

National Archives. “Who Was Noor Khan?” The National Archives, http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/education/resources/who-was-noor-khan/. Accessed 9 Oct. 2022.

Rose, Sarah. D-Day Girls : The Spies Who Armed the Resistance, Sabotaged the Nazis, and Helped Win World War II. London, Sphere, 2020.

3 comments

  1. Noor Inayat Khan’s was an extraordinary pacifist and secret agent whose heroism as a spy in the Second World War posthumously earned her a George Cross. If you are interested in books that feature her best look her up in Wikipedia. There is even a beguiling and beautifully staged play about her now at the Southwark Playhouse in London and that is well worth seeing if you have the time. If you like wartime stories of heroic female spies don’t miss Sara Burlington in Beyond Enkription in The Burlington Files series of novels based on the life and times of ex-spook Bill Fairclough (MI6 codename JJ) aka Edward Burlington. Sara was his mother and we’ll guarantee you will loathe her and love her by the time you get to the end of this loosely fact based espionage thriller.

    Like

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