I have two favourite SOE ladies. One of them is Nora. Noor Inayat Khan was a phenomenally brave young woman. The daughter of a noble Indian Muslim and his American wife, Ora Ray Baker (related to Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of the Christian Science movement), Noor was technically an Indian princess. Her father was descended from the last Mughal emperor of southern India, Tipu Sultan. Because her father was a Sufi Muslim, the family were pacifist. When he died, Noor took on the responsibility of taking care of her grieving mother and younger siblings. They lived in Paris, where she made a career out of writing children’s stories and poems. Her book, Jataka Tales, was published in 1939. When the Second World War broke out the same year, France was overrun by German troops and Noor’s family fled to England.
The SOE mainly recruited from the WAAF (Women’s Auxiliary Air Force), which Noor joined in November 1940. Despite their pacifist family and upbringing, Noor and her brother decided that to do nothing to aid the war effort would surmount to ‘tacitly permitting the Third Reich to inflict its jackbooted malevolence on the innocent’ (Marc Vargo, Women of the Resistance, 86). Noor’s fiancé was Jewish, and found Nazi antisemitism fundamentally repulsive. An aircraftswoman 2nd class, she trained in the WAAF as a wireless operator, and was eventually promoted to assistant section officer. In the autumn of 1942 Noor was discreetly approached by a member of the Special Operations Executive. Her knowledge of France and her fluency in French, along with her radio skills, were seen as highly valuable commodities to this secret service.
During her SOE training, Noor (along with almost all of her female colleagues) encountered very negative attitudes from her male trainers. Colonel Frank Spooner wrote in one of her training reports that she was ‘not overburdened with brains’, and seemed ‘sensitive, jumpy and a bit unstable’. (National Archives file HS9/836/5). Noor’s superiors at SOE dismissed the comments, and I had cause to smile when I read her file in the National Archives – next to Spooner’s comments, Noor’s boss had scribbled the word ‘nonsense’. He was right.
Given a false identiy, she was re-named ‘Nora Baker’. She was flown into occupied France in June 1943, to link up with a vast Paris-based network code named PROSPER, which had been engaged in numerous activities ostensibly designed to prepare for an allied invasion. Perhaps the most famous blunder in SOE’s history was the collapse of Noor’s network. A combination of mistakes in London and traitors in France led to most of her network colleagues being arrested, tortured and killed around her. The head of F-Section in London ordered Noor to return home, but she refused to leave France, knowing that she was the only covert wireless operator left in Paris. Working alone for months, she transmitted vital information back to SOE HQ regarding possible strategic targets for RAF bombing raids and the locations of downed allied pilots, as well as engineering the delivery of explosives to the French Resistance which they used to disrupt the transference of torpedoes to German U-boats from the Parisian sewer system.
Noor’s career in Paris was lonely, wearing and extremely dangerous, but she fared well. After months of successful transmissions and covert living (bearing in mind the average life of a wireless operator in occupied France was around 6 weeks), she was betrayed by an anonymous woman. A Gestapo officer cornered her in her flat, and she resisted arrest so savagely that he had to call for help. At the Gestapo HQ in Paris, she made three escape attempts, two of which involved her climbing onto the roof.
Noor was treated especially badly by the Gestapo, most likely because of her constant defiance and dark skin colour. She was tortured and kept in solitary confinement in concentration camps and prisons, sometimes only given a sack to wear. Despite all of this, she revealed nothing of use, and on the contrary, fed the Nazis false information which confused and hindered them. In a deposition made before Noor’s superior officer, Hans Kieffer, a senior German intelligence officer in Paris, claimed under oath that Khan had been anxious above all not to betray her country, and gave away nothing of use under interrogation. Noor was shot dead after horrific treatment by the Nazis, and is recorded to have used her last breath to utter the word, ‘liberté’.
Noor’s incredible courage and selflessness proved that Colonel Spooner had been wrong about her, and her story remains one of the most inspiring I have ever encountered. Edmund Burke said that ‘the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing’. Noor proved that good women were just as important to such a cause, saving many lives with the intelligence she transmitted. Before she boarded the plane that would drop her in France by night, Noor bid her supervising officer, Vera Atkins, an excited farewell. As they hugged, she admired the older woman’s brooch – a little silver bird. Vera removed it from her jacket and handed it to Noor, who wore it always when she was in France. It is for this reason that I wear a little silver bird on a chain around my neck – to remind me to be brave, that I can make a difference, and to never give up.