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Unruly Bodies; Remarkable Lives: Noor Inayat Khan: Muslim “princess”, author and disabled spy


This is reportedly the last word Noor Inayat Khan (1914 – 1944) ever spoke, in defiance at the hands of her German captors in the heart of Dachau concentration camp. 

It was a fitting epitaph for a woman who’d spent her early years fleeing across Europe as a refugee, and eventually gave her life as one of the first female agents to be parachuted behind enemy lines in WWII.  

While I was researching this remarkable woman, I was struck by the dichotomies in her life. An ardent pacifist thanks to her father’s Sufi teachings, she nevertheless volunteered for the Women’s Auxiliary Airforce in WWII. She abhorred violence, yet found that shooting and loading a pistol helped her with “concentration and meditation”. 

And while she was determined to do her bit to help end the war, as a passionate supporter of India’s independence, she boldly told her air force recruiters that after it was over, she might be obliged to fight for India against the British. 

In that one action alone, we can see that she was a woman of principle, and those principles were forged both by her family, and her experience of displacement as a child.

The constant refugee

The early years of Noor’s life were marked by frequent movement across Europe. She was born in Russia to an American mother, the poet Pirani Ameena Begum, and the Indian musicologist and philosopher, Inayat Khan.

On her father’s side, we can trace her family lineage back to Tipu Sultan — the ruler of the kingdom of Mysore in the 18th century — which is why Noor came to be known as the Indian or Muslim Princess. 

But her famous ancestry didn’t protect her from persecution.

Not long after her birth, the Russian Revolution caused the family to flee to the relative safety of England, but their peace there didn’t last for long. While she was still very young, the British government began to regard her father’s Sufi teachings and pro-India beliefs as dangerous, and they fled again to settle in France. 

Still, Noor’s home would yet again prove to be an unsettled one, and when Germany invaded France at the start of WWII, the family escaped back to England on one of the very last boats to make the journey. 

Children’s books and secret codes

Despite the unsettled political tides that uprooted much of her childhood, before WWII, Noor led a peaceful life in Paris, where her work revolved around music and literature. There, she studied child psychology at Sorbonne University, and, following in her father’s footsteps, composition at the Conservatoire de Paris

Later, she would enjoy a successful career as a children’s author, translating and adapting the Twenty Jataka Tales, a collection of animal fables inspired by Buddhist literature. Her writing was so popular, in fact, that many were broadcast nationally by the Children’s Hour of Radio Paris, and she was a regular contributor to magazines. 

In another world, perhaps we would have had more of Noor’s stories to remember her by. But from the moment she arrived in a London that was already burning, a new path was laid out before her. 

Both Noor and her brother Vilayat were committed pacifists, but it was this that led them to volunteer for non-violent service, believing that by ending the war quickly they would save many lives.

On November 19th, 1940, Noor joined the Women’s Auxiliary Airforce and was trained as a wireless operator, before being recruited by Military Intelligence for the Special Operations Executive Branch. Little is recorded about her disability, but accounts of the severe and painful swelling in her hands, which led to a very distinctive style of tapping out Morse Code, suggest that she lived with a circulatory disorder that caused near-constant chilblains. 

This crucial detail could perhaps have saved her life, but by the time the alarm was raised it was already too late. 

A tragedy in blue

On the night of June 16th, 1943, Noor crossed the English Channel in a small Lysander plane with two other female agents. Her aim was to join a wireless circuit, transmitting information out of occupied territory and back to the Intelligence Services in Britain. But within a week of her return to Paris, every other member of her team was discovered and arrested.

Noor was advised to flee back to England, but as the only remaining radio operative in Paris, she stayed, sending information across the airwaves that ultimately helped 30 Allied airmen escape. For three months, she single-handedly ran a cell of agents across Paris, and in the end it was a heartbreaking human tragedy that led to her capture.

Pierre Viénot, a fellow resistance fighter, recounted in his private memoirs that with the Gestapo closing in, the resistance tried to hide her. They took her to a hair salon and procured a whole new wardrobe, but her love of the colour blue gave her away. Despite the disguise, it was well-known that Noor favoured blue, and her new clothes didn’t deviate from that preference. 

Despite their best efforts, she was arrested and taken to the Gestapo Headquarters, where she immediately attempted to escape out of a window and down a gutter. It was at this point the alarm was raised, when another operative noticed that although they were still receiving messages, Noor’s distinctive Morse Code style had changed. 

The warning wasn’t heeded. Noor would go on to endure 10 months of torture at the hands of the Gestapo, before she was eventually transferred to Dachau and executed — dying with liberty on her lips.

It was a sad end to a remarkable life, but Noor’s bravery has been recognised.

“I wish some Indians would win high military distinction in this war,” she once said. “If one or two could do something in the Allied service which was very brave… it would help to make a bridge between the English people and the Indians.”

Despite her ordeal, Noor never betrayed a single piece of information to her captors. In 1946 she was posthumously awarded the Croix de Guerre with Gold Star, the highest civilian honour in France. And in 1949 she received the George Cross, the highest civilian honour in Britain. 

In 2012, a bronze bust of Noor was installed in Gordon Square Gardens, London, and in 2020 she also received a Blue Plaque on the Bloomsbury home she once lived in. So many years after her death, she was still remembered warmly by her fellow servicewomen.

“Noor (Nora to us) and I were on the same wireless operator’s course in Edinburgh,” said Irene Warner, a former member of the Women’s Auxiliary Airforce. “Although she was unable to hold the Morse key properly because of severe chilblains, she persevered and passed out with the rest of us.

“She was a very brave woman.”

Further Reading and Watching

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