Khan, Noor Inayat (1914–1944)

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Khan, Noor Inayat (1914–1944)

Courageous wireless operator, known as "Madeleine," who worked for the British Special Operations Executive in occupied France in 1943, was executed at Dachau, and earned a posthumous George Cross in 1949. Name variations: (code name) Madeleine, as well as Babuly, Nora, Jeanne-Marie Regnier, Rolande, Nora Baker, Marie-Jeanne. Pronunciation: Nur In-AY-at Cawn. Born Pir Zadi Noor-un-Nisa Inayat Khan on January 1, 1914, in the Kremlin, Moscow, Russia; died in Dachau concentration camp, Germany, on September 13, 1944; daughter of Inayat Khan (an Indian mystic and teacher of Sufism) and Ora Ray Baker; sister of Pir Vilayat Inayat-Khan (a writer and lecturer on Sufism); attended College Moderne de Filles, Suresnes, France; École Normale de Musique, Paris, France; Sorbonne Université de Paris, École des Langues Orientales of the University of Paris; never married.

Parents moved from Moscow to London (1916), then to Paris, France (1920); entered the University of Paris (1937); fled from wartime France to England (1940); enlisted in the British Women's Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF), a branch of the Royal Air Force (1940); assigned to the Air Ministry, Directorate of Air Intelligence (February 1943); dispatched as a Special Operations Executive agent into occupied France (June 1943); captured by the German Gestapo (October 1943); transported and executed at Dachau (September 1944); posthumously awarded the British George Cross and French Croix de Guerre; designated a saint by the Islamic Sufi order.

Noor Inayat Khan had evaded her Nazi pursuers for months before they captured her in Paris, France. Her behavior as a prisoner confirmed her loyalty to the British cause and enmity towards the Germans. Despite rigorous interrogations, she revealed nothing of use to her enemies, and after two unsuccessful attempts to escape, the second time with other prisoners, she refused to sign a pledge promising to curtail her escape efforts. Her angry captors shipped her to Pforzheim, Germany, where she was kept in chains and solitary confinement. When she again refused to break or cooperate, she was shipped to the infamous Dachau concentration camp. On September 13, 1944, Khan and three other female agents were forced to kneel by a wall, shot from behind, and their bodies cremated. The Germans never did discover her identity. This was the fate of Noor Inayat Khan—also known as "Madeleine"—one of the most courageous British agents operating in Nazi-occupied France. Like many of her female compatriots, her heroic story remained virtually unknown outside official circles long after the war.

Noor Inayat Khan was born on January 1, 1914, in the Kremlin, Moscow, Russia. Her father Inayat Khan was the leader of the Sufi sect of Muhammad mystics and a direct descendant of Tipu Sultan, the 18th-century sultan of the Indian state of Mysore. Impressed with Sufist mysticism, Gregori Rasputin had invited Inayat Khan to the Kremlin to instruct Tsar Nicholas II and establish a Sufi order in Moscow. Noor's mother, Ora Ray Baker , was a grandniece of Mary Baker Eddy , the founder of Christian Science. The political unrest and riots leading to the Russian Revolution forced Inayat Khan's family to flee Russia in 1916, in a sledge provided by Leon Tolstoy. They settled in London, where three more children—Vilayat, Hidayat, and Khair-un-Nisa—completed the family. In 1920, they moved to France and eventually settled in Suresnes, a suburb of Paris, in a large house called "Fazal Manzil" (the House of Blessings); they also made many sidetrips to India. In 1926, Noor's father made preparations for another trip to India and instructed his family and disciples

that he would never return. Several months later, on February 5, 1927, Inayat Khan died of pneumonia in Delhi, India. This left Noor's mother, known to the Sufist faithful as the begum, with full responsibility for the family. When her mother became ill, Noor, a student at the Lycée Saint Cloud, took over the family management.

In 1931, 17-year-old Noor left the Lycée Saint Cloud with her diploma and entered the École Normale de Musique de Paris, where her studies for the next six years would include harp and piano. In 1932, she also took a course in the psycho-biology of the child at the Sorbonne, Université de Paris. Though Khan was engaged to another music student during this period, her family's opposition successfully ended the relationship.

By 1935, her mother's health had improved to the point that Noor and her brother, Vilayat, were able to travel to Italy and Switzerland. They were still deeply absorbed in Sufism, and spoke in their native Hindustani dialect. Khan even studied the language for two years at the École des Langues Orientales in Paris in 1937–39. In 1938, she successfully passed her examinations and received her license in the psycho-biology of the child. Noor and the Baroness van Tuyll , one of her father's disciples, collaborated in writing and illustrating children's stories based on the Jataka Tales, legends about the incarnations of Buddha. At the same time, Khan wrote freelance children's articles for the Sunday Figaro and had some of her stories broadcast on French radio. The Jataka Tales by Khan and van Tuyll was published in 1939, and one of these tales, "The Fairy and the Hare," would be broadcast over the BBC during the war.

Noor's family, like most French families, saw their peaceful lives shattered by the aggression of Nazi Germany. Noor was shocked by the German persecution of the Jews, but she believed Sufism, based on the idea of love, tolerance, and non-violence, would triumph over Nazism. Anticipating the need for nurses, she undertook nursing and first-aid training with the French Red Cross. The rest of her family decided to flee to Britain as fighting neared Paris. Caught in the panic of evacuation, they finally found space on a Belgian cargo-boat, the Kasonga, in June 1940. Noor, still in Paris when the Germans invaded, escaped with the help of her London publisher.

In England, she lived for a few weeks with her mother and sister in Oxford. In September 1940, she used her French Red Cross certificate to obtain a position at Fulmer Chase Maternity Home for Officers' Wives at Slough. Unchallenged by hospital work, she tried to join the Women's Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF), a branch of the Royal Air Force (RAF). When she was turned down because she was not a British citizen, she reapplied under her "British Protected Person" passport. She was accepted and enlisted on November 19, 1940, as Nora Inayat Khan, while stating her religion to be Church of England. She was 25 years old.

That same autumn, writes William Stevenson in A Man Called Intrepid, the British had a "new medal struck to recognize the changed nature of war. It was the George Cross, valued above all orders of knighthood, awarded sparingly to civilians now drawn into front-line emergencies caused by German terror bombing, and given 'for the most conspicuous courage in circumstances of extreme danger.' The citation would become her epitaph."

I have served my country. That is my recompense.

—Noor Inayat Khan

Quick, intelligent, and dependable, Khan was posted to Harrogate for training. She and 40 other women were the first of the WAAF to be taught wireless operations. "Such women were needed as radio operators to work with small guerrilla groups," writes Stevenson. "The radio war … was not only defensive. There was a need to build up circuits of agents and networks of saboteurs and partisans, providing them with radio contacts that would integrate their efforts. Nothing like this had been attempted in the history of the war."

On December 23, the entire WAAF group was assigned to Edinburgh where the General Post Office directed their communications training. On June 10, 1941, Khan and another woman, Joan Clifton , were posted to the Royal Air Force Bomber command at Abington. At first, Khan disliked the drill and "spit-and-polish" of her new assignment but that soon gave way to boredom. Near the end of 1941, the two women applied for commissions. Clifton entered a commission course in 1942, but Khan was reassigned as a wireless operator to Compton Basset in Wiltshire. While there, she was chosen for a seven-week secret course in more sophisticated wireless training. Khan finally met the Commission Board on August 28 but was reassigned to Abington without an evaluation concerning her performance before the board. In April 1942, she received orders to attend an interview at the Victoria Hotel in London.

Khan's interview was conducted by Captain Selwin Jepson of British Special Operations Executive (SOE), a top-secret military organization. It was Jepson's responsibility to recruit people for service in enemy-controlled countries. The conversation with Khan was wide-ranging, and she talked of being somewhat rootless as a result of her Russian birth, American mother, Indian father, French childhood, and attraction to Indian philosophy. Jepson, who normally took his time with potential recruits, trusted Khan instantly and was impressed with her integrity when she candidly told him, in answer to his question, that she would struggle for India's freedom from British rule. He then explained the purpose of their interview, and Khan volunteered for SOE service on the spot.

This presented two problems. There was a regulation in the Royal Air Force preventing women from taking part in military operations, and women agents were required to wear some kind of uniform during training to prevent speculation about their duties. For this reason, Khan, like other SOE women recruits, was transferred to the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY), which did have military combat duties. While entitled to wear the FANY nurses' khaki uniform, the women agents secretly held honorary military commissions from the RAF. Khan was therefore discharged from the RAF and enrolled in FANY as she prepared for her training in the French Section of the SOE.

She remained at Abington until she was ordered in February 1943 to begin intensive training at Wanborough Manor in Surrey. Khan was later trained as a covert wireless operator, the first woman selected for that duty, at Aylesbury, and received field security training at New Forest. She was provided with a new identity, that of Jeanne-Marie Regnier, a children's nurse. The SOE French Section, known as the Baker Street Irregulars, would know her only by the code name of Madeleine. Khan received carefully forged identity papers, ration books, and a new Parisian wardrobe. Her transmitter, which was installed in a suitcase, had to be light and compact since she was a small woman at 5'3", weighing 108 pounds. Her final training included confinement to test her mental fitness. She was taught in the use of various types of pills, unarmed self-defense, and the use of knives and pistols. Code omissions to signify forced transmissions by her potential captors were also part of her training.

Although there were some doubts from instructors about Khan's stability (fellow trainees, fearful for her life, felt that she was "emotionally fragile and in many ways too innocent"), Khan and Vera Atkins , her final conducting officer, convinced director Maurice Buckmaster that she was ready. Khan was assigned to the PROSPER network, one of the largest, most important, and more hazardous secret operations in France. Headquartered in Paris, PROSPER provided weapons, explosives, and money to the French underground guerrillas. This required almost daily contact with the British covert operations group at Bletchley Park and SOE headquarters at Baker Street in London. "Its demands were insatiable," writes Stevenson. "Its rural circuits were disrupting lines of communication by sabotage. Its guerrillas were arming for the day of liberation." Khan was given the assignment because the network desperately needed a new wireless operator in Paris. Her major assets were her knowledge of French and familiarity with the environs of the city.

In preparation, Noor's cover story, writes Stevenson, "was tested by her instructors in fake Gestapo interrogations under blazing lights, accompanied with snarled commands. Her reactions were noted by a FANY conducting officer whose job was to watch for slips and continually review the trainee's mental fitness." Noor "never deviated from her story, but her conducting officer reported later that" the mock interrogators "found their task almost unbearable because of her terrified reactions."

One of her superiors' major concerns was that her elegant appearance could attract attention. She was hauntingly beautiful, with olive skin, dark eyes, and long dark hair. For most agents, continues Stevenson, "it was difficult to submit unquestioningly to the dictates of others. Madeleine had this submissive quality. Her attitude was expressed in her story of the river that reached the sea by going around obstacles instead of attacking head on. She liked and wrote about gentle animals. She meditated a great deal on metaphysical matters. Her childhood friends remembered that she peopled her garden with small figures of her own imagination and was in despair when told there was no world of small benevolent spirits. She described her philosophy as oriental. She saw action and inaction intertwined in the Buddhist circle of life."

Khan and two other female agents were flown to France aboard a Westland Lysander on the night of June 16–17, 1943. When the airplane touched down briefly near LeMans, Khan quickly scrambled out and moved away from the dangerous landing field. She walked to the railroad station in LeMans, boarded a train, and arrived at her first contact's residence at 40 rue Erlanger in the Paris suburb of Auteuil late on June 17. Khan's PROSPER sector-chief, Émile Garry, was wary at first, because he had received no notification from England concerning her arrival. After security checks, she was accepted by the PROSPER agents, and the following day they moved her to their headquarters, the École Nationale d'Agriculture at Grignon, near Versailles. Khan lived briefly with Madame Balachowsky and her husband Professor Alfred Balachowsky, the PROSPER section chief at Grignon. Two days after her landing, Khan transmitted her first message from a greenhouse on the Grignon section transmitter. A few days later, her own transmitter was delivered in another supply drop.

Khan had been dropped into a very dangerous situation. Only a week after her arrival, the Nazi Gestapo arrested the chief of PROSPER and several couriers and agents. A few days after Khan left Grignon, Professor Balachowsky was arrested. Except for a few scattered agents, the PROSPER network was in shambles. "In London, a signal was delivered to Maurice Buckmaster at Baker Street," writes Stevenson. "It reported the destruction of the PROSPER network. All the leaders and their equipment had been captured, and only one transmitter remained in operation." The message came from Madeleine. For Khan's safety, London offered to send a plane to retrieve her. But Khan argued that since she carried the only remaining transmitter in operation, she was the only source of communication for the French resistance. "Buckmaster made a hard decision," notes Stevenson. If she stayed, she would eventually be caught. "Yet the catastrophe had left her as the most important 'station' in France." Buckmaster reluctantly accepted her position but warned her not to transmit; all German efforts would be concentrated on her sole transmitter.

Khan was on her own, and the next few months of her life are difficult to reconstruct chronologically. It is known that she visited or briefly stayed with several people from her past, including former music teachers, old family friends, and even her former family doctor. In July, she made contact with French resistance members known as X, Y, and Vaudevire. Khan was known as Rolande by this group, and they met several times weekly at the Tuileries. The agents would take her by car into the Paris suburbs where she could use her aerial to transmit to London. She eventually established a safe house at 3 Boulevard Richard Wallace, Neuilly-sur-Seine, under the name Jeanne Regnier, and sometimes used the home of a family friend, Madame Prénat , near the old Inayat home "Fazal Manzil" to transmit her messages. The Prenats remember the diminutive Noor, with her hair dyed blonde, lugging around her heavy suitcase containing the transmitter. Though she continued to broadcast from several locations, she was always on the lookout for other safe places from which to transmit and tried not to compromise the safety of those who helped. Khan was beginning to wear down. Her acquaintances began to notice carelessness due to fatigue. One of them, a friend untrained in espionage, even lectured her for falling asleep and leaving her codebook lying open on the kitchen table.

Atkins, Vera (c. 1908–2000)

British officer for the SOE during World War II who recruited and trained nearly 500 secret agents and also made sure that murderers of agents were eventually brought to trial for war crimes. Name variations: Adkins. Born in Rumania around 1908; died in Hastings, England, in July 2000.

During World War II, Vera Atkins was considered the "heart and brain of the Baker Street Irregulars' French section," writes William Stevenson, in charge of reinforcing an agent's cover. Young and incredibly organized, she was a conducting officer at Orchard Court, second in command to Colonel Maurice Buckmaster, head of the British SOE (Special Operations Executive). Atkins had an eye for detail, notes Stevenson, "an encyclopedic memory for local regulations in odd corners of Europe, and subtleties of behavior that a stranger might fatally ignore." She made sure to include in the agent's gear, "tram tickets from the region where the agent was going, concert programs, crumpled French cigaret packs" and she could catch potentially fatal slips: "the way the agent poured tea or the use of improper jargon."

In August, Vaudevire introduced Noor, under the name Rolande, to Monsieur P. Viennot, a resistance member who was director of the Société Radio Electrique. A complex man whose company did work for the Germans, Viennot used his position to infiltrate the German police and Gestapo. Though impressed with Noor's courage and devotion to duty, he was concerned about her English accent, her personal appearance, and her notebook containing all of her previous transmissions. Since she refused to destroy the notebook and there was nothing to be done about her accent, Viennot took her to a professional hairdresser who changed her hair color to light-brown, eliminating the brittle, dyed look. A visit to fashionable shops provided Khan with several current and more subtle dresses, hats, scarfs, and a new coat. The group also agreed that she would use Marie-Jeanne instead of Jeanne-Marie to partly assume a new personality.

In early October, as more resistance members were being arrested, Khan's fellow agents arranged and supplied a train ticket to send her to a farmhouse in Normandy. Even though they took her to St. Lazare station, she did not go. After nearly four months in the field, her incredible operation came to an end when she was betrayed for money by the relative of a former agent. On October 13, Noor Khan, arrested in her Paris apartment, put up a fierce struggle and had to be handcuffed before she could be taken to Gestapo Headquarters at 84 Avenue Foch. "She was working with a rebuilt circuit, a group of saboteurs, when arrested," writes Stevenson. "The group had traced underground sewers in which the Germans stored torpedoes to be shipped to the U-boat pens at Brest, and Madeleine had conveyed their request to London" for new explosives. Noor was confined on the fifth floor in cells specifically reserved for important prisoners. The Germans also found her transmitter, cipher codes, and the notebook containing every message she had transmitted from France.

Khan, who refused to answer any questions at Gestapo headquarters, requested permission to take a bath. Within minutes, the Gestapo, which had permitted her some privacy, found her crawling along the fifth-story roof gutter in an effort to escape. She was quickly apprehended and afterwards watched closely by her captors. Noor was interrogated by a courteous, amicable, nonuniformed interpreter but, while she gossiped, she never provided useful information. Her interrogations are a matter of record because they were included in evidence given at war-crime trials. During her incarceration, the Germans and British played cat-and-mouse. Her captors used her codes and style of transmission to mislead the British, but the British grew increasingly suspicious of the bogus broadcasts and acted accordingly. Arguments continue about the effectiveness of both sides in this intrigue.

Khan made a second attempt to escape with two other agents, British Captain John A.R. Starr and French Major Leon Faye, in mid-November 1943. Succeeding in removing bars from their windows, they escaped to the roof of Gestapo headquarters. They then lowered themselves on blankets used as ropes and dropped in the darkness of night onto the flat roofs of adjacent buildings. Despite their careful planning, they were recaptured before they could leave the area. Gestapo Sturmbannfüher Hans Kieffer demanded that they sign declarations promising not to attempt to escape in the future. When Khan refused, Kieffer notified Berlin that she was a dangerous and desperate case. She was transported on November 26 to a prison in Pforzheim, in Germany's Black Forest.

When Khan arrived at Pforzheim at 2:30 in the afternoon of November 27, she was the first political prisoner assigned to that prison. Registered as Nora Baker, she was confined to a ground floor cell and chained like an animal in a crouching position, day and night, with her hands in handcuffs, her feet in leg-irons, and a chain from the handcuffs to the leg-irons. She was segregated from other women prisoners, and the cells on both sides of her were kept empty. "She depended on male jailers to deal with her sanitary and feeding problems," notes Stevenson. After many months, Wilhelm Krauss, the prison governor, ordered the chains removed and permitted her to walk in the courtyard a few minutes each week. She briefly established a clandestine contact with three imprisoned Frenchwomen, who later related how they were impressed with the courage and faith expressed in her secret notes.

After some ten months at Pforzheim, Khan was suddenly removed from the prison and transported to the concentration camp at Dachau. On September 13, 1944, she and three other SOE women, Yolanda Beekman , Eliane Plewman and Madeleine Damerment , were forced to face a wall and were shot at the crematorium by their guards. For her valor and sacrifice, Noor Inayat Khan was posthumously awarded France's Croix de Guerre, and, on April 5, 1949, she received the George Cross. The citation read in part:

Following her arrival the Gestapo made arrests in the Paris Resistance groups to which she had been detailed. She refused to abandon what had become the principal and most dangerous post in France, although given the opportunity to return to England. She did not wish to leave her French comrades without communications and she hoped also to rebuild her group. The Gestapo had a full description of her but knew only her code name Madeleine. They deployed considerable forces in their effort to catch her and so break the last remaining link with London. After 3½ months she was betrayed to the Gestapo and taken to their HQ in the Avenue Foch. The Gestapo had found her codes and messages and were in a position to work back to London. They asked her to co-operate, but she refused and gave them no information of any kind.

The woman codenamed Madeleine has long been a heroine in intelligence circles but only in recent years have her sacrifice and remarkable accomplishments been related to the general public.


Brown, Anthony Cave. Bodyguard of Lies. NY: Harper and Row, 1975.

Foot, M.R.D. S.O.E. in France. London: HMSO, 1966.

Fuller, Jean Overton. Madeleine: The Story of Noor Inayat Khan. London: Victor Gollancz, 1952.

Stevenson, William. A Man Called Intrepid: The Secret War. NY: Ballantine, 1976.

suggested reading:

Foot, M.R.D. S.O.E. London: British Broadcasting Corp., 1984.

Fuller, Jean Overton. Double Webs. NY: Putnam, 1958.

——. The Starr Affair. London: Victor Gollancz, 1954.

Nicholas, Elizabeth. Death Be Not Proud. London: Cresset, 1958.

Rossiter, Margaret L. Women in the Resistance. NY: Praeger, 1986.

Phillip E. Koerper , Professor of History, Jacksonville State University, Jacksonville, Alabama