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Most Conspicuous Courage of the Indian Princess Spy, Noor Inayat Khan

By Edited Sep 24, 2016 11 12

Dialing in . . .

A Princess Who Transcended

Women in the world of espionage have featured heavily throughout history.

Some were merely political insiders who helped sway those in power, such as Lola Montez.  She agitated enough in 19th Century Bavaria to cause a revolution but escaped before anything bad could happen to her (her paramour, King Ludwig I, was not so lucky; in the face of public scorn, he decided to abdicate).

Mata Hari, an exotic dancer and courtesan by profession, was also tangentially involved in espionage.  She was inept, and her attempts at spying on behalf of the French (with whom she identified) in World War I led to counter-charges that she was a double-agent.  She was executed by a French firing squad in 1917—today, most historians realize she was a patsy for a corrupt mid-level French bureaucrat who turned on her to protect his own interests.

Similarly, there are women in more modern times who engaged in the espionage game.  A lesser known “spy” was the American “French” chef, Julia Child.  In the 1940s, during World War II, she was an active agent for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), an “intelligence agency” active from 1942-1945. 

The OSS was the forerunner of today’s Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), but Julia (as well as most of her compatriots in the OSS) was engaged in extremely harebrained and inane propaganda schemes.

One such plan was to incite the Burmese into uprising against their WWII Japanese occupiers by dyeing the Irrawaddy, the largest river in Japanese-occupied Burma (Myanmar), a bright yellow color with a chemical.   There was an ancient Burmese prophecy stating when that particular river ran yellow the country’s enemies (in this case, the Japanese) would be driven out.  The plan was a failure—on the brink of dropping the dye into the river via aircraft, one OSS agent tested it in his bathtub and found it didn’t work.

Julia Child, part of this team of brainiacs (that included social scientist/anthropologist Margaret Mead), went on to a career, not in espionage, but as a celebrity chef on US television.

In contrast to the clownish activities of the OSS (and the above citation is only one of the many brain-damaged schemes conceived by that organization) British Intelligence was mostly very well-organized and thoughtful with its propaganda and its espionage activities, employing some of the best and brightest in the Western world during World War II.

Among the group of spies used by the British was one of the most unlikely: a legitimate Indian princess, a woman of nobility from the dark sub-continent then under British rule.

Noor Inayat Khan, Indian Princess Spy [frontispiece]

Noor Inayat Khan volunteered for an espionage mission that she hoped not only would be of value to her British handlers but would bring glory to the Indian people.

Her heroics among women spies cannot be overstated—she was discovered in France and executed by the Germans.  She was posthumously awarded the George Cross, an award that has not (before or since) been given to any Muslim woman!

Little Princess
Islam, like Christianity and almost all other religions, has its share of schisms and sub-sects (too complex historically and politically to investigate here).

Among these is a school of thought called “Sufism”, a focus on theology and Islamic philosophy that traces the roots of its adherents to the Prophet Muhammad’s cousin (and later son-in-law), Ali ibn Ali Talib.

Ali was not the inheritor of Islam upon Muhammad’s death, though—that honor went to his father-in-law (father of one of his wives, the beloved A’isha), Abu Bakr (who became the first Muslim Caliph).

The schism created by those who believed Ali should have been the successor versus those who felt Abu Bakr was the rightful heir (Muhammad had no biological sons, only daughters) led to the conflict within Islam today known as the “Shi’a” versus “Sunni” factions.

Sufism generally holds with Ali as the rightful, though displaced, successor (at least, he was upon Muhammad’s death; he later came into power).  None of that is relevant as Sufism is more about a way of living according to Islamic tenets and philosophy of religion and less about intra-religious infighting.  It strives to adhere to those earliest ideals revealed to the Prophet Muhammad during his revelatory sessions with the angel Gabriel (as the legend holds).  This is about as close to the source as one can get in Islamic thought in that sense.

Noor Inayat Khan (her full name was Noor-un-Nisa Inayat Khan) had a leg up in the world when she was born in Moscow on January 2, 1914.  Her parents came from two very different worlds, but one of them—her father—was Indian royalty at a time when such a noble position actually meant something.

Hazrat Inayat Khan, born in 1882, was of a long-standing family of Indian Muslims who had held positions of influence and power—his own hereditary title was “prince”.  Despite his royal background, he was given to pursuits of the arts and to scholarly thought.  He was also an accomplished musician.  He left India in 1910 as a touring musician, but later his junkets led to lecturing on Sufi principles.  He became an erudite Sufi Muslim scholar, and as such he had occasion to expound on Sufi tenets and theology in lectures he gave around the world.  He traveled in Europe and Asia. 

One of the other places he visited was the United States.  There, he met a gloriously beautiful young woman (with the laughably hillbilly name of Ora Ray Baker) from America’s hinterlands. 

Pirani Ameena Begum ( born Ora Ray Baker)

She had been born in the Territory of New Mexico in 1892 (New Mexico would not become a state until 1912).  Though unconfirmed, she may have been a distant relative of Mary Baker Eddy, the woman who founded the religious cult, Christian Science.

Ora Ray as a young woman was under the guardianship of Pierre Arnold Bernard, her half-brother, when she met Inayat Khan in America on one of his lecture/concert tours.

“Pierre Bernard” was a con-man and a fraud.  He was the progenitor of the practice of yoga and tantric meditations in the US, born Perry Baker in Iowa in 1875.  He claimed to have traveled to various Oriental locales to learn the practices of the Far East, but mostly the cult that grew up around him served to fulfill his own swinish sexual needs.  He opened yoga clinics in most of America’s largest cities.

He was accused in 1910 of kidnapping two young women who had joined his cult, one of whom reported being required to strip naked while he fondled her as part of her initiation.  The charges were later dropped.  Through careful cultivation of many New York socialites he grew very wealthy and received “gifts” of lands and houses from his acolytes.  He died in 1959.

Ora Ray, the beautiful girl from the American Southwest, was smitten with the mysterious Indian Sufi master, Khan, and she ran away from her guardian, Pierre, to be with him.

Baby Noor & her father, Inayat Khan (c. 1914)

The pair wed.  She changed her name to Ameena Begum (she was later given the Sufi honorific “Pirani” by her husband).  They traveled to Moscow (where Noor was born) and then onto London; Khan founded the first group of Sufi practitioners in the Western world when he went to London in late 1914 for a lecture series and to play concerts.  Three more children followed: two boys and another girl (born stair-stepped in 1916, 1917, and 1919). 

The Khan clan then moved to Paris (when Noor was 6) and settled there in a manse provided by the Sufi community.

Noor (far left) and her extended family (ca. 1920)

London Calling!

Noor and her mother, Ameena Beegum (ca. mid-to-late1920s)

Noor grew up with wealth and opportunity lavished upon her.  She was educated in French private schools.  She and her brothers and sister were steeped in a musical tradition, and she learned to play the sitar.  She and her siblings also performed together from time to time.

Her doting father died in 1927.  However, the family was well-off, and neither Noor nor her mother, brothers, and sister suffered in the wake of his death (Ameena was a respected member of the Sufi hierarchy and had embarked upon a career as a poet).  The pater’s Indian family (noble) and his connections within the Muslim and arts’ communities insured their continued wealthy lifestyle (the spacious home, “Fazal Manzil”, in which they lived in a Paris suburb had been given to them by the Sufi community in 1921). 

Noor (far lef) with her brothers and sister (ca. early 1930s)
In 1931, Noor took up the study of music, focusing on piano and harp, at an elite conservatory in Paris.  She wrote short pieces for Radio Paris and the première Parisian newspaper, Le Figaro.  She adapted several Buddhist folktales for children, and in 1939 this collection was published under the title Twenty Jataka Tales (this book is still in print).
Noor in various musical stances
Noor decided on a career in medicine, and she studied that, as well as child psychology (at the Sorbonne).  She learned several languages.  During her school years she became engaged to a fellow student, but Ameena (her mother) disapproved of this young man.  Noor broke off the engagement rather than go against her mother’s wishes.

Noor was a gifted young woman; the world was her palette for expression and personal growth, and she envisioned a future of not only being a contributor to the literary world but to the humanitarian realm of medicine as well.

Noor's British passport picture
Unfortunately for Noor and her remaining family Adolph Hitler had other plans.  When World War II started, Noor trained as a nurse for the French Red Cross.  France was officially invaded by Germany, and occupied by the Nazi regime, starting on May 10, 1940.  Ameena Begum took her children and fled first to Bordeaux, and then finally across the Channel to England, leaving their adopted, and beloved, home in France.  [One of Noor’s brothers remained behind in France with his wife.]

Establishing themselves in Britain the Khan family hunkered down and tried to make the best of things.  Some strikes were against them, however—they were Indian (except for Ameena), and therefore considered subjugates of the Crown and inferior.  They were also Muslim in a country in which the majority adhered to a hokey Protestant off-shoot of Catholicism, the Church of England.

Home Schooled
Regardless, Noor, now 26 years old, felt the sting of not only being displaced from her “homeland” of France, but she also felt the injustice of the German invasion and the resultant attacks on Britain (a second home for her and her ilk).

She wanted to do something worthwhile that would allow the British (and the world by extension) to realize that not only women, but Indian women, and furthermore Muslim Indian women could be of benefit to the British.

Having made the leap that any civil service she provided could only reflect well upon her kind, the Indian princess voluntarily enlisted in Britain’s Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) on November 19, 1940.  She spent six months in Edinburgh to learn the skills of a wireless radio operator, though this did not lead to any covert work.

Noor as a member of the British Military arm, WAAF (ca. 1940)
Britain had established a spy network to infiltrate German-occupied France.  From this network, the movements of the Nazis in France were monitored.  The methods were crude to be sure—carrier pigeons were dispatched, intelligence was smuggled in covert containers and in code.  But most importantly, wireless radio (short wave) was deployed on the ground with individuals lugging around broadcasting gear in bulky suitcases.

This group was managed by Britain’s Special Operations Executive (SOE).  And up till then they were all male.

Noor spoke several languages, and she was fluent in the most important Western European tongues.  She had also traveled extensively as a child and as a young woman (thanks to her parents) and was well-versed in the cultural norms of more than one society.  In May 1942, she took an additional five months’ training in advanced radio operations.

These skills led her, in late 1942, into the very dangerous job of being a spy in France on behalf of the British, using crude field radio gear as her means of communicating to the British any intelligence she gathered about the Nazis in Occupied France.

History tends to record that she was “recruited”.  Her ability to speak fluent French was noted early in her military career by someone in the Royal Air Force station where she was assigned; this allegedly led to her spy posting.  But it was most likely a two-pronged effort that brought her into the fold—her relentless badgering to do more for Britain in conjunction with the realization by British intelligence that, as a woman, Noor would be less suspect in the field, and that her cultural skills could be of immense benefit.

She began her spy training in February 1943.  She wore the uniform of a First Aid Nursing Yeoman, a military category specifically used as a cover for the SOE’s female agents.  She joined three other women and six men for an intensive three week assessment course.  Noor and the others were tested for fitness, their skills in both armed and unarmed combat, cross-country navigation, and wireless radio equipment operation.  During this period Noor adopted the blander sounding name “Nora Baker” as an alias while training.

Although the Indian Princess was enthusiastic about her pending role in the intelligence community she did not do well at the outset.  She needed extra physical training, which she did on her own time, but it still was not enough for her to qualify for parachute training.  She was skittish around weaponry.  Furthermore, the work of a spy involves subterfuge, lying, and outright ruthlessness when handling potential targets.  Noor’s religious and moral beliefs got in the way of this, and she made it clear that no matter what she would not do anything that went against her personal code.  She was steered deeper into the radio operations part of the job instead. 

Not much hope for her was held out at her final evaluation.  Her reviewer finalized in writing that Noor was “not over-burdened with brains”.  It was his conclusion that he doubted she was suited for field espionage work.  One of her female cohorts training with her concurred with that assessment.

The head of the division that would see to her replied back, “We don’t want them overburdened with brains”.  In effect, while acknowledging Noor’s perceived shortcomings (and the insult about her lack of intelligence was appalling as it was obvious she was very bright) the need for field radio operators was so great that anyone minimally capable or even eager to do it would be deployed.

It was from her desire to bring glory to her people (the country of India), to her sex (women), to her religion (Islam), and to her adoptive home (Britain) that she completed her training as a covert field operative for Great Britain.  Her specialty would be radio communiqués.

On June 16, 1943, she (along with two other women) was flown into France, landing at a remote airstrip in Le Mans.  From there she traveled to Paris and set up shop as an operative among a group of spies and informants known collectively by the British code name “Prosper”.

Radio Free Europe
Noor’s training required her to have a “cover” story—anyone traveling into Occupied France had better have a very good reason for being there. She was provided with a false identity.  Her name was now “Jeanne Marie Renier”.  Her identity claimed she was a governess from Blois (in France) who had moved to Paris. She was also given a fake French ration card.

The final piece of “equipment” she took from the British government, other than her radio set, was an “L” pill (the “L” stood for “lethal”).  This was given to her in the event she was captured by the Nazis and could not stand up to their “interrogation” methods (which included physical torture; as a woman this would also likely involve rape).  [Noor had not done well under mock interrogations during her training, and it was seriously doubted she would not break quickly if the Germans got hold of her.  To this day it is unclear if she retained possession of the pill and had no chance (or decided not) to use it or merely tossed it at her first opportunity.]

Her flawless command of the French language helped greatly in her blending in.  She was assigned the code name “Madeleine”, and she found lodging in various garret rooms and squats around Paris.  

The Nazis, meanwhile, were abundantly aware of French Resistance efforts to undermine Nazi operations in France.  This meant bombings by French saboteurs, ambushes, and general mayhem whenever the underground Resistance fighters could execute such acts.  The Nazis also knew there were spies in Paris, spies that were using coded radio transmissions to keep Allied transcribers informed of German activities on the ground.

As an aid to ferreting out such enemy broadcasters the Nazis had developed rolling patrols to detect radio signals of certain frequencies.  With crude electronic devices Nazi technicians were able to use triangulation methods to zero in on hot spots of clearly consistent radio communications.  Many native (pirate radio and Resistance alike) broadcasters were caught in this way.   So, too, were several of Britain’s radio intelligence spies snared.

However, in the world of espionage it wasn’t always the cleverness, diligence, or technological savvy of the Nazis that led to a “foreign” spy’s downfall.  Often, the path leading to a spy was pointed out by a French turncoat or other paid mercenary.

Early after Noor’s arrival (about a week!) in France a great number of the “Prosper” spy network were arrested by the Gestapo.  This led to the group’s believing they may have had a German spy in their midst.

Many of the remaining operatives were recalled quickly—Noor, however, refused to leave when given the option.  She wanted to keep broadcasting since she was the only wireless operator left in the group.  Her British contacts approved of her staying but told her to refrain from sending messages (a directive she would ignore in the weeks to come).

She vainly attempted to recreate the “Prosper” network, but there was no support (or available, trustworthy personnel) for the idea.  She was on her own most of the time.  Considering she had grown up in Paris Noor at least found she still had some old friends from her school days upon whom she could rely for support or shelter as needed.   She looked up her former music instructor (with whom she had studied the harp), and from there she managed to be put in touch with different helpful contacts, leapfrogging her way from shelter to shelter.  She made a point to not overstay her welcome in any one place out of fear of compromising her hosts.

And in spite of her handler’s admonition to not send out any radio reports starting in the first week of July 1943 she began routinely sending coded messages from her portable transmitter.

She moved from place to place broadcasting to her British handlers what she was able to learn about the Germans in her purview.  [In all, after the break-up of the “Prosper” group, Noor would send 20 messages to Britain while on the run from the Gestapo.] 

A dark-blond Noor Inayat Khan (early 1940s, date uncertain)

Her swarthy Indian looks had to be disguised somewhat, however.  Not much could be done in those years to alter her obviously sub-Continental appearance short of cosmetic surgery (unheard of given the time constraints).  In the way of a disguise, Noor’s luxuriant jet black hair was cut and dyed (and re-dyed) over the next couple of months.  She ended up as a blond.

Noor’s radio equipment was hauled in a beat-up suitcase—she sometimes used a makeshift antenna made of loose wires or coat hangers dangling out a third-story window to transmit.  Her transport around Paris was a bicycle, the cumbersome piece of luggage—containing her radio gear—strapped to the handlebars or to the rear fender.   Such sights were common enough in Paris in 1943; a blond woman riding a bicycle with a suitcase on it wasn’t given much notice by roaming Nazi soldiers.

Her good looks and delightful personality, though, did cause her to be noticed by a male member of her espionage contact group in Paris, a fellow French operative named France Antelme.  Noor was the first woman radio operator in this network recruited by the British, though she was not the only woman in the group.

And Antelme’s interest in Noor—while most likely paternal—was misconstrued by someone else.  Unfortunately for Noor he had a female admirer whose affections he did not return, a woman named Renée Garry (the sister of Emile Garry, Noor’s organizer in Occupied France).

And in the rank-and-file of both the French Resistance and among the remaining British intelligence operatives working in France, among whom was Noor Inayat Khan, petty human jealousy could lead to discovery.

Betrayed
Because of Nazi efforts (with devastating degrees of success) to root out subversives and foreign spies in Paris Noor had to keep on the move.  She didn’t stay long in any one dwelling for fear of drawing attention to herself.  She maintained her blond hairstyle to fit in as well as she could.

The Gestapo, though, by this time had a full description of her, but only knew her by her code name, “Madeleine” (though she sometimes used another codename, “Nurse”).  [The fact that a description of her was circulating so early in her mission tends to support the belief that there was, indeed, a Gestapo member operating within “Prosper”.]

Noor, unaware of this, continued bouncing from place to place, sending out her intelligence reports via wireless.

In August 1943, she assisted several other endangered operatives away from Paris to waiting aircraft to get them safely to England.  She, however, still refused to leave, signaling to her British handler that she was alright and that “. . . it’s grand working [with] you.  The best moment I have had yet.”  Regardless, arrangements were made on her behalf to airlift her out of France and back to the safety of England, slated for some time in October 1943.

Noor never made it out. 

SOE officer and former French Air Force pilot, Henri Déricourt (with the code name “Gilbert”) had been suspected of working as a double agent for German Intelligence (the Sicherheitsdienst, or “SD”).  It has been surmised that he may have been the betrayer of Noor. 

However, there was a more likely culprit.

Renée Garry, the jealous woman who thought Noor had been coquettishly alienating the affections of France Antelme (the man with whom Renée was enamored) is almost certainly the person who made it known to the Gestapo in Paris who Noor was and where she could be found.  This information, though, was not given freely: Renée allegedly exacted a payment of 100,000 francs from the Germans (almost $21,000 US today) in exchange for Noor’s safe house address.  [Renée’s involvement in Noor’s betrayal has never been proven but fits with the circumstances probably more than any other scenario.]

Gestapo agents watched Noor’s hiding place.  On October 13, 1943, she came out and went into a bakery below where she was staying.  One of the men on the street reported back that she had “made” him—Noor took off walking and disappeared around a corner after leaving the bakery, and she was lost to sight.

The Gestapo surveillance group believed she would be in the wind after that; regardless, they took the precaution of posting a man inside her apartment if she returned.

Noor made the supreme mistake of going back to the hideout to retrieve her radio gear that afternoon.  She was met inside by a German agent.

She never carried a gun—rather than be taken peacefully, though, she fought the man by clawing him with her nails and biting him.  It was not enough.  He managed to draw his side arm and subdue the vicious Indian princess while awaiting back-up.  Men dressed in casual civilian clothes responded, and she was hastily hustled off into a waiting car.

The headquarters for the Sicherheitsdienst was but a few hundred yards from her hideout.  Once there Noor asked if she might take a bath.  Bizarrely, the Germans allowed this and set her up in a private bathroom without supervision.  She locked the door to the room and made an immediate attempt to climb out the bathroom’s window—however, she was spotted from outside and was threatened enough that she decided it was better to retreat within.

Part of her training under the SOE program had been to attempt to withstand any “interrogation” by the enemy for at least 48 hours—this would allow other SOE agents a chance to escape before being compromised by anything any captured British agent might say.  Noor had failed miserably at being grilled during her training.

However, in the face of the “real thing” she held up admirably and divulged nothing.  Noor, perhaps calling upon her royal breeding, held her captors in contempt and refused to tell them anything of substance.  [This was confirmed in affidavits by two Nazi officers after the war who had been in attendance during her questioning.]  Anything she did bother to divulge was considered dubious at best.  [One of her German interrogators later reported they “could never rely on anything she said”.  And it is interesting to note that she lied well, flying in the face of her personal morality and in direct contrast to her original assertion during her training that she would not “do anything two-faced”.]

Noor’s meticulous nature, however, was her undoing with respect to the Nazis.  While suspected of “enemy” espionage until they caught her they had nothing except the reports of the roving patrols (searching for her radio signals) as proof of anything.  Unfortunately, they had seized her wireless set which, by itself, was incriminating enough.  Moreover, her codebook fell into their hands as well as any past messages she had sent (which she had carefully recorded in a notebook).  This notebook she carried with her, and she had been warned by those within her network about keeping such a book of messages—she felt, however, that it was invaluable (certainly to her Nazi captors it was).

She had misunderstood one of the directives in her training—she had been told to be careful with the filing of any messages she might send.  Her British handlers clearly understood this meant for her to be diligent and submit her messages on time.  Noor mistook this directive: she thought it implied she was not only to file timely transmissions but to keep records of them as well. 

The Great Escape
Noor was held captive in what had once been servants’ quarters in the building the Sicherheitsdienst set up as headquarters.  Among those imprisoned there as POWs was John Renshaw Starr.  He had been an SOE agent just like Noor, but he had bartered his continued existence as a propaganda tool by cautiously siding with his Nazi captors. 

Starr had been in Nazi hands and moved to different holding locations several times since May 1943.  He had been brutalized by torture and shot once during an escape attempt.  He had been a poster artist in his civilian life, and he provided the Nazis with diagrams of the British intelligence network (as he understood it) and told them anything they wanted to hear.  He also did drawings—portraits—of his Nazi captors to their delight.  As a result of his coöperation his life among his warders was relatively comfortable. 

While Starr himself did little to otherwise aid the Nazis his presence in-house was used to demoralize other “insurgents”.  Starr’s main Nazi contact, a man named Hans Josef Kieffer, made a point of showing Starr off to newer prisoners as a “model” of what a coöperative prisoner looked like. 

Noor was quartered in the room across from Starr.  Starr later reported that she passed the time by writing children’s stories in her cell (perhaps to relive her earlier literary efforts that led to the publication of Twenty Jataka Tales).  He also said he heard her crying on many nights.  By daybreak, however, he said her demeanor was always that of a stoic, reverting to her aloof disdain and implacable attitude.

After over a month in captivity and with daily abuses heaped upon her (she was kicked frequently and kept in chains) Noor devised an escape plan.  She enlisted the aid of the Nazi-compliant John Starr and another man, a French colonel named Léon Faye (who had worked for Britain’s MI6).

Starr managed to steal a screwdriver.  He picked a night (November 25, 1943) when he thought they could get away cleanly, and he used his smuggled tool to loosen the screws in the bars over the skylight in his cell.  He passed the screwdriver to Faye who also used it.  He, in turn, passed it on to Noor, and she was directed to do the same.

Starr climbed out of his cell and met Faye on the rooftop.  Their intent was to haul Noor up from the confines of her cell, but she had not been able to work her skylight’s bars loose with the screwdriver.  The two men struggled to get her out from above; though they succeeded the effort had cost all concerned precious time. 

The trio rigged a make-shift rappelling rope from sheets and blankets.  They got as far as a second-floor apartment in a building next door to the Sicherheitsdienst HQ where they’d been held as prisoners.

An unfortunately timed RAF air raid siren roused the guards at 3 AM on November 26 as the trio made good their escape.  Under such alarm conditions Nazi protocol required a headcount of all prisoners immediately.  A quick bed-check revealed the absence of Noor and the two men.  Starr’s Nazi “buddy”, Hans Kieffer, demanded that the whole area be secured in the wake of the alarm.

It took little time to find the sheet-and-blanket rope—and the escapees! 

Night & Fog
Léon Faye, as soon as he saw the situation, made a run for it.  He was shot and wounded in his attempt to flee.  Noor and Starr, meanwhile, stood frozen.  Though Kieffer threatened them with being shot where they stood he changed his mind.  Instead, he demanded that they promise to never attempt another escape.  Starr immediately agreed to this condition, again siding with his Nazi warders. 

Noor and the wounded Léon Faye, though, declined.   Despite attempts to “persuade” her, Noor flatly refused to sign a statement saying she would never attempt escaping again.  This stubbornness on both Noor’s and Faye’s parts led their German captors to the more drastic action of transporting both Faye and Noor into the concentration camp system in Germany. 

In late 1941 Adolph Hitler had created an obliterating policy he called “Nacht und Nebel”.  This phrase translates into English as “night and fog”.  It was a term used to describe the untraceable disposal of certain political enemies of Hitler in the early part of World War II.  Such persons were quietly shuttled to a remote camp and executed or otherwise “disappeared”, buried in unmarked or mass graves with no documentation revealing their fates.  The policy was later extended to include any and all perceived enemies or agitators of the Nazi state, even those in occupied lands, such as France.

Noor was put on a train with the clear understanding, at least to the Germans, that she was now a “night and fog” special case.  On November 27, 1943, she arrived at the Pforzheim, Germany, prison (tucked away in the southwestern corner of Germany).  She was classified as “highly dangerous” (perhaps because of her attempts at escape and by how hard she had fought to resist her initial capture). 

The local Gestapo contact knew of Noor’s status as one of those destined for “night and fog”.  He ordered the prison’s administrator, Wilhelm Krauss, to keep Noor in strict solitary confinement.  She was to stay chained (hands and feet) at all times.  She was also put on the barest minimum of rations allowable at the prison.  And, finally, she was beaten often in efforts to gain information. 

Krauss felt sorry for the Indian princess; after only a short time he removed her chains.  This was discovered during an inspection by the local Gestapo officer, and Krauss was ordered to put her chains back on her.

In January 1944, a member of the same intelligence group in which Léon Faye had worked was put in a cell near Noor.  This woman, Yolande Lagrave, would later recall that she could hear the beatings given to Noor in her cell and that Noor was abjectly miserable.  But, she never gave up any information to the Germans.  If she said anything at all, it was nothing more than fabrications.

Yolande communicated with Noor covertly by scratching messages on the backs of mess tins.  These were passed back and forth so the two women could “talk” with each other.

Fakery & Fog
While Noor had given up nothing during the multitude of interrogation sessions she endured the Nazis didn’t really need her to say much (barring identifying other intelligence network members).  They had her transmitter, her code book, and her message logs, after all.

The Germans began sending bogus messages to her British “listeners”.  While there was some doubt about the authenticity of these messages by a few people in the British intelligence community it was felt best not to overlook their content.

From those false messages several British SOE agents were baited.  In February and March 1944, based on fake missives received from Noor’s radio set (using her codes and a passing sense of her vernacular), eighteen agents over two separate missions parachuted into the waiting arms of Gestapo officers in France.  Among them was France Antelme, the man whose secret admirer (Renée Garry) had probably led to Noor’s betrayal.  [All of these agents were later executed by the Germans.]

Noor’s ordeal at Pforzheim lasted for ten months.  Her captors, despite interrogation after interrogation (which involved physical brutality), had learned nothing from the stubbornly and surprisingly tough Noor Inayat Khan.  It was evident she needed to leave the realm of “night” and move off into the “fog”.

On September 11, 1944, Noor noticed she was apparently about to be removed from Pforzheim.  She managed to get a small note to Yolande Lagrave that carried Noor’s mother’s address in London.  At the train station awaiting her train (and under guard) Noor was shocked to find that three other women from the SOE would be joining her on this last ride.  Ironically, one of the women, Yolande Beekman, had been Noor’s training partner in Britain.  The other two women (Eliane [sic] Plewman and Madeliene Damerment) had been lured along with Beekman into the Gestapo trap in early 1944 via the phony radio messages sent from Noor’s wireless by the Nazis.

None of these women knew where they were going as they boarded the rail car.  Each assumed it could not bode well wherever it was they ended up.  Their worst fears were realized when the train stopped after chugging toward Munich for most of the day.

Unknown bodies removed at Dachau (ca. 1944)

The stop was the town of Dachau, only a handful of miles outside Munich.  The women were ordered to get out, and they walked with their guards to one of the worst death camps in Germany.  Noor and her traveling companions all probably knew they would not be leaving the place alive as they passed through its gates under watchful eyes.

Because Noor and the others were considered personae non grata under Hitler’s “night and fog” policy there are no official records of what happened to these women.  Piecemeal information (some of it from Nazi sources, some from others with firsthand knowledge), however, leaves the world with a brutal final image of Noor Inayat Khan.

According to one eyewitness (who spoke only on the condition of anonymity in 1958), Yolande Beekman, Eliane Plewman, and Madeliene Damerment were taken in the early morning hours of September 12 to the camp’s crematorium and summarily shot. 

It appears Noor, however, was spared this quick execution only so that she could be tormented by a sadistic officer, Friedrich Wilhelm Ruppert (of the SS).  Perhaps thanks to Noor’s reputation as a “highly dangerous” prisoner and almost certainly in contempt for her swarthy skin (as an Aryan racist, Ruppert would have considered the dark-complected Noor as one of the “mud people” and inferior) he decided to spend most of September 12 abusing her beyond reason

Noor, as she had been in Pforzheim, was shackled.  Ruppert pummeled and kicked her mercilessly, and he almost succeeded in beating her to death.  [While it is not supported by any material evidence there is no reason to believe that Ruppert, in addition to beating Noor, also did not spend time raping her.  Considering that the Nazis kept many women of “inferior” groups in special sections of the camps—known as the “Joy Divisions”—for their sexual desires it seems unlikely Ruppert would have let slip the opportunity to ravage the Indian princess at his mercy.]

Ruppert finally relented in his abuses long enough for Noor to live out the remainder of September 12.  He shot her in the head with his sidearm on September 13, 1944.  She was a few months shy of her 31st birthday when she was murdered.

[Friedrich Ruppert would himself be executed—hanged—for war crimes on May 29, 1946.  There is also an apocryphal story of Noor's bravely facing a firing squad, uttering the word “liberté” as she was dispatched.  This is pure romance; Noor was shot in the back of the head by one man, not a squad.  And she probably had no idea the deadly act was coming until it was too late.  In her beaten and weakened condition she likely said nothing as she died from the single gunshot wound.]

The bodies of Noor and the other three women (who had arrived at Dachau with her) were burned.  The disposition of her remains is unknown.  [There is also a minor date confusion involved as well.  An eyewitness puts her death on September 13; Dachau’s plaque immortalizing the executions of the women puts them all dying on September 12.]

At the time of Noor’s death no one knew that she actually was dead—British intelligence never gave up on its missing operatives until death was confirmed.  Thus, it wasn’t until the war’s end when diligent efforts were expended to resolve the status of missing agents that her death became known.

Yolande Lagrave, the woman who’d been in Pforzheim with Noor, was able to shed some light on Noor’s whereabouts in 1946.  Yolande told what she knew about her time near Noor; from there, scanty prison records led to the transport to Dachau.  The two SS guards who had escorted Noor and the other women to Dachau filled in some details once they were run to ground.  And, strangely, Hans Kieffer (John Renshaw Starr’s Nazi “friend” in Paris) as well as the Nazi who had carried out the sending of fake wireless messages (as if he were Noor) both cooperated by talking with the British about what happened to her in Paris.

Post Mortem
The woman who most likely had betrayed Noor to the Germans over the silliness of unrequited love, Renée Garry, was acquitted of Noor’s betrayal in a French court of law for “lack of evidence”.  She was also acquitted for being complicit in the betrayal of her brother, Emile.  [That does not mean she didn’t do it, it just means she was not convicted for whatever reasons compelled the acquittal.] 

Renée’s brother, Emile Garry (Noor’s original “organizer” in France), had been captured by the Nazis only a few days after Noor.  He, too, was deported to Germany, and was executed at the Buchenwald concentration camp in September 1944.

France Antelme, the man who had taken a fatherly interest in Noor when she first started as a messenger, had been captured as a result of the fake messages the Nazis succeeded in broadcasting from Noor’s transmitter.  He was executed in July or August 1944 in a concentration camp in Poland.

Hans Kieffer, the German who oversaw Noor’s captivity in Paris, was executed for war crimes on June 26, 1947. 

John Renshaw Starr survived the war and died in 1996.  He spent most of his life battling allegations that he had collaborated with the Germans.

Noor, in death, was recognized for her bravery by her adopted countries, France and Great Britain.  The French awarded her the Cross du Guerre with a Gold Star.  And on April 5, 1949 she was awarded the British George Cross to honor her exceptional courage.  She was the third of three women in the FANY group who were given this medal for their efforts during WWII.  Noor, to date, is the only Muslim woman to hold this honor.  Noor’s mother, Ameena Begum, died on May 1, 1949, having lived long enough to see her daughter so honored.

Finally, in perhaps one of its greater public gestures Britain commissioned and erected a memorial to Noor Inayat Khan.  The bronze bust of Noor was dedicated on November 8, 2012, and stands in Gordon Square Gardens in London near where she once lived with her family.

Her brother, Hidayat (who had stayed behind in France with his wife when the Germans invaded) was 95 years old and living in the Netherlands at the time of the dedication.  Due to his advanced age he was unable to attend the ceremony, but one of his grandsons did.  The grandson read a heartfelt message from her brother:

“May the inhuman suffering of all those—who like my dear sister perished under the brutal cruelty of the oppressor—not be in vain.”  

Noor Inayat Khan memorial dedication (Nov 8, 2012)

Diana Couldn’t Do It
Noor’s involvement in such a dangerous mission was unprecedented—it would be as if the British Princess Diana had suddenly decided to become a spy for another country, risking her life in the process.  While much was made of Diana’s charitable efforts during her lifetime raising money to help those less fortunate does not carry the same weight as giving one’s life for a country not even her own (as Noor did).  Diana would never have done such a thing: it wasn’t in her character.

Such a selfless act, however, was in the character of Noor Inayat Khan, a woman whose conspicuous courage in the face of a shaky operation that could only have come to a bad end is not only admirable but worthy of remembrance.

Noor Inayat Khan--Muslim heroine
And she should be remembered.

***

Noor's book of Buddhist tales

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Comments

Mar 8, 2014 8:10pm
Moina-Arcee
Thanks for shining a light on such a brave woman. A real hero. Well done.
Mar 9, 2014 7:56am
vicdillinger
Noor's personal agenda is what I find most fascinating about her. As an Indian she was treated--by Britain--as a second-class citizen (since India at the time was still under British rule). As a woman, in those days, I'm sure she wasn't taken very seriously (that whole "not overburdened with brains" comment by one of her reviewers STILL pisses ME off!!). Finally, as a Muslim living in a Protestant country I'm sure life was no fun. Yet she still found it within her to volunteer for this mission (one of her brothers served as a catalyst for her to join the British WAAF). Thanks for appreciating this woman's sacrifice (for a country not hers), and thanks for reading!
Mar 15, 2014 9:21am
claudslewis
You're right, she had a lot going against her being Indian, Muslim and a woman. Makes her courage and sacrifice that much more incredible. Glad I read this. Thumbing and sharing.
Mar 15, 2014 1:37pm
vicdillinger
This woman--to me--is one of the greatest heroines of the 20th Century (I first learned about her in an oddball independent reading class I took in the 5th grade!). I didn't know much about Islam or her own beliefs back then I just thought she was amazing--lugging that suitcase with her radio gear around knowing she could have been nailed by Nazis at any minute. What a wonderful human being!! And thank you for reading about her.
Mar 15, 2014 10:08am
RoseWrites
Incredible documentation Vic. First of all, I believe Renée Garry was behind her betrayal (since she had a pattern with her brother Emile. Too bad it couldn't be proven). And it's a shame she kept such records of her transmissions (an understandable mistake, given her attention to detail). Damn that air raid siren and to endure 10 months of torture . . so horrible.
I was relieved to read that Friedrich Ruppert was hung on May 29, 1946 and that Noor's mother, Ameena Begum, lived to see her daughter honored.
Finally, it's touching that Britain commissioned a bronze statue of Noor on November 8th, 2012. And I especially like the inscription: “May the inhuman suffering of all those - who like my dear sister perished under the brutal cruelty of the oppressor - not be in vain.” Thumbed, shared, G+, etc.
Mar 15, 2014 1:41pm
vicdillinger
This is one of the 20th Century's most courageous, amazing, and inspiring women, and it makes me very sad indeed that not many people know of her. [And one of her brothers' grandchildren still carries on the Sufi and musical tradition of the Khan family to this day!!] Thanks for reading.
Mar 24, 2014 6:29pm
BoomerBill
Great story, very inspiring. What a courageous woman!
Mar 24, 2014 6:34pm
vicdillinger
I just look at how cushy her life was and how she decided to spend it later. Courageous doesn't even begin to describe her. Thanks for reading.
Apr 3, 2014 10:10pm
WriterJanis
What a brave and amazing woman. I have visited Dachau before and it was horrible the things that were done to people. You have honored her very well.
Apr 4, 2014 5:34am
vicdillinger
You are lucky to see the remains of places like that still on the landscape--had there been more time, they would have been completely wiped out by their builders with almost no trace (like we did here in the US relative to the interment camps we had for Japanese-Americans after we entered WWII). Thanks for reading.
Jul 21, 2015 5:10am
dedisoed
Very nice historical narratives. In Indonesia there is an equivalent female figure to them, RA Kartini alive at the time the Dutch colonial era. Who have aspirations to educate women in Indonesia.
Jul 21, 2015 7:46am
vicdillinger
Thanks for letting me know about Kartini. I'll look into her. Also, thanks for reading!
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Bibliography

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