“Liberté!” was to be the last word ever spoken by the dark-eyed woman with a dark complexion who had been classified as a highly dangerous prisoner. On the last night of her life she was totally beaten up and severely tortured in the German concentration camp Dachau. The SS officer who was to execute her pulled the trigger of his gun. Noor’s lifeless body was thrown into the incinerator.
This lady who was such a threat to the Germans, was Pirzade Noor Inayat Khan (1914-1944). She was the eldest daughter of the Indian Muslim mystic, musician, poet and philosopher Hazrat Inayat Khan and his American wife Ora Ray Baker aka Amina Begum. Noor was a descendant of a prominent Indian family immersed in interreligious mysticism, a syncretic Indian Islam and the classical Indian musical traditions whilst maintaining a broad interest in western culture.
The media are increasingly paying attention to Noor’s life story after the premiere of the documentary film Enemy of the Reich: The Noor Inayat Khan Story on 15 February 2014 in the Warner Theatre in Washington DC. Who was this young woman and why does her story appeal to the many?
Noor’s family travelled extensively in the course of international music performances and Sufi activities. So as it happened Noor was born in Moscow to later move from Paris to London with the outbreak of World War I. From London, Noor and her family moved back to France in 1920. There they finally settled in Suresnes, a western suburb of Paris. Noor was raised with spiritual idealism, pacifism and self-sacrifice as noble values as her father initiated her in the classical Indian musical traditions. Later Noor studied the harp and the piano at the local music academy plus Child Psychology at the Sorbonne. She enjoyed singing, composed songs, wrote poetry and loved to tell stories and fables from the rich Buddhist, Hindu and the (Indian) Sufi tradition. Noor also wrote stories herself, which were broadcast on French radio and appeared in French newspapers. Her (re)tellings are still available in print today.
Shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War Noor decided to enroll in nursing school in order to make herself useful in case of a calamity. The family left Paris for London when the Germans occupied Paris. Some family members stayed behind. Back in London Noor started to call herself Nora Baker, after her mother, to better fit in to her new life, and joined the WAAF (Women’s Auxiliary Air Force). She was trained as a wireless radio operator and learned to transmit encrypted messages in morse code.
Women in war
The then PM Winston Churchill had established the headquarters of the highly secretive and sensitive SOE (Special Operation Executive) at Baker Street (what’s in name!). These headquarters maintained contact with SOE’s so-called F-Section in France. This F-Section was made up of British spies who cooperated with members of the French resistance in the Prosper network in order to provide the latter with arms to fight the Germans. Communication with the resistance parties was provided by the wireless operators, whose role was therefore of utmost importance to both the British and the French. The operators transmitted information about German activities, targets and whereabouts, thus enabling the SOE-linked armed resistance in France to sabotage the Germans.
Due to a lack of skilled male employees Churchill decided in 1942 to invite women to the SOE in order to better fight the Germans. Other countries occupied by the Germans, like the Netherlands, did the same. At that point Noor had finished her training at the WAAF. Since the SOE knew she was a trained bilingual wireless operator they invited her to become an agent in the field for their French F-section. Noor accepted gratefully, provided that she would not be required to shoot or kill anyone.
Noor becomes Madeleine
Subsequently, an intensive training of three months prepared Noor for survival behind enemy lines. She learned how to handle weapons and explosives and how to deal with interrogation and torture. Part of the training involved transmitting encrypted messages by morse code, a skill Noor had already acquired at the WAAF. Despite some high-ranking officials’ doubts about Noor’s capabilities in the field, the SOE insisted on sending her on a mission as they urgently needed her skills in France. She was promoted to Assistant Section Officer before departure.
Together with another female wireless operator Noor boarded the RAF plane that would drop her off French Angers in the Loire valley in the early morning of 17 June 1943 as Jeanne-Marie Renier, code named ‘Madeleine’. She had her own signature to mark the messages she was to transmit: NURSE. Noor and her colleague were the first two female wireless operators sent by the SOE to France to join the Prosper network through SOE’s F-section. In a letter from Noor to the SOE, she marvels at her experiences in France:
“I’m awfully happy –it’s grand working for you. The best moments I have had yet.”
Acknowledgement and honours
The SOE’s F-Section employed some 300 to 350 people, of whom close to 40% lost their lives. Wireless operators transmitting from behind enemy lines had a life expectancy of only six weeks. Most members of the Prosper network joined by Noor were caught by the Gestapo within days of Noor’s arrival due to the role played by a double agent, notably the contact person who welcomed Noor and her colleague in France. Noor, though, managed to keep transmitting during a remarkable twelve weeks. The only wireless operator left in Paris, she temporarily occupied SOE’s prime and most dangerous post in Nazi-occupied France. In the end Noor’s arrest was not on account of German detective work but the result of betrayal by a female acquaintance in late September 1943.
When the Germans caught Noor she was transmitting from a house only 200 meters away from the Gestapo headquarters in Paris. Reports show that Noor’s interrogator highly respected her because of her steadfastness: she didn’t yield any information whatsoever. But when she almost escaped twice from the Gestapo headquarters he soon had to relocate her. This was to be repeated several times as Noor had become known as a highly dangerous prisoner for of her incredible integrity and attempts to escape. Finally, on 12 September 1944, Noor was sent to Dachau concentration camp. She happened to travel together with three other female SOE employees –one being the woman with whom she had arrived in France. They all faced a gruesome death two days later.
Noor was honoured with the British George Cross, one of three awarded to women after WWII. This lists Noor as a ‘Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire’. France awarded her the Croix de Guerre avec étoile de vermeil. In Suresnes a square, the Cours de la Madeleine, and a primary school were named after her to commemorate her valour. A permanent exhibition offers further insight into her inspiring life story. More recently, on 9 November 2013, British Princess Anne unveiled a bronze bust depicting Noor at Gordon Square in London. This is the first war memorial dedicated to a (partly) South Asian Muslim woman.
Welcome role model?
Noor’s particular Indian-American background and her outstanding courage in times of war make Noor a likely and perhaps welcome role model for many. But if we do not pay heed to the eclectic origins of Noor’s mindset and underlying motivations by failing to look beyond most media headlines pinpointing her especially as a Muslim we might end up in mere labelling and unseemly stereotyping.
The inspiring life story of Noor Inayat Khan shows us how a young woman chose to consciously transcend her own circumstances in order to wholeheartedly sacrifice herself to a non-violent fight for the greater cause in times of war: the welfare of others, regardless of gender, background, prestige and creed.
It is not clear yet if (and if so, where and when) Enemy of the Reich: The Noor Inayat Khan Story will be screened in Europe as well.
This post is also available in: Dutch