The Life of Noor Inayat Khan, World War II Spy Heroine

The pacifist turned spy who evaded the SS for months

Noor Inayat Khan in uniform
Noor Inayat Khan in uniform (Photo: Imperial War Museum / Wikimedia Commons).

Noor-un-Nisa Inayat Khan (January 1, 1914 –September 13, 1944), also known as Nora Inayat-Khan or Nora Baker, was a renowned British spy of Indian heritage. During one period of World War II, she handled clandestine radio traffic in occupied Paris nearly singlehandedly. Khan also broke new ground as a Muslim female operative.

Fast Facts: Noor Inayat Khan

  • Known For: Renowned spy who served as a wireless operator for the Special Operations Executive during World War II
  • Born: January 1, 1914 in Moscow, Russia
  • Died: September 13, 1944 in the Dachau concentration camp, Bavaria, Germany
  • Honors: The George Cross (1949), the Croix de Guerre (1949)

An International Childhood

Khan was born on New Year's Day 1914 in Moscow, Russia. She was the first child of Inayat Khan and Pirani Ameena Begum. On her father’s side, she was descended from Indian Muslim royalty: his family was related closely to Tipu Sultan, the famous ruler of the Kingdom of Mysore. By the time of Khan's birth, her father had settled in Europe and made a living as a musician and a teacher of the Islamic mysticism known as Sufism.

The family moved to London the same year Khan was born, just as World War I broke out. They lived there for six years before relocating to France, just outside of Paris; by that point, the family included a total of four children. Khan's father was a pacifist, as his religion and moral code dictated, and Khan absorbed many of those principles. For her part, Khan was mostly a quiet, thoughtful child with a knack for creativity.

As a young adult, Khan attended the Sorbonne to study child psychology. She also studied music with the famed instructor Nadia Boulanger. During this time, Khan produced musical compositions, as well as poetry and children’s stories. When her father died in 1927, Khan took over as the head of the family, caring for her mother and three siblings.

Joining The War Effort

In 1940, as France fell to the Nazi invaders, the Khan family fled and returned to England. Despite her own pacifist leanings, Khan and her brother Vilayat both decided to volunteer to fight for the Allies, at least partially in hopes that the heroism of a few Indian fighters might help improve British-Indian relations. Khan joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force and was trained as a radio operator.

By 1941, Khan was bored with her posting at a training camp, so she applied for a transfer. She was recruited by the Special Operations Executive, the British spy organization during the war, and specifically assigned to the sections related to the war in France. Khan trained to be a wireless operator in occupied territory—the first woman to be deployed in this capacity. Although she did not have a natural talent for espionage and failed to impress in those parts of her training, her wireless skills were excellent.

Despite these concerns, Khan impressed Vera Atkins, the intelligence officer who was her superior in “F Section." Khan was selected for a dangerous mission: to be a wireless operator in occupied France, transmitting messages and serving as a connection between agents on the ground and the base in London. Operators could not stay in one location for long, due to the likelihood of being discovered, but moving was also a risky proposition due to the bulky, easily noticed radio equipment. By the time Khan was assigned this mission, operators in this job were considered lucky to survive two months before being captured.

In June 1943, Khan, along with a few other agents, arrived in France, where they were met by Henri Dericourt, a French SOE agent. Khan was assigned to work in the sub-circuit led by Emile Garry in Paris. However, within weeks, the Paris circuit was discovered and almost all her fellow agents were swept up by the Gestapo—making Khan the only remaining operator in the region. She was offered the option to be pulled from the field, but insisted on staying and completing her mission.

Survival and Betrayal

For the next four months, Khan went on the run. Using every technique possible, from changing her looks to changing her location and more, she evaded the Nazis at every turn. Meanwhile, she determinedly continued doing the job she was sent to do, and then some. In essence, Khan was handling by herself all the spy radio traffic that would normally be handled by a full team.

Unfortunately, Khan was discovered when someone betrayed her to the Nazis. Historians disagree as to who the traitor was. There are two most likely culprits. The first is Henri Dericourt, who was revealed to be a double agent but who may have done so on orders from British intelligence MI6. The second is Renee Garry, the sister of Khan's supervising agent, who may have been paid off and who may have been been seeking revenge on Khan, believing she had stolen the affections of SOE agent France Antelme. (It is unknown if Khan was actually involved with Antelme or not).

Khan was arrested and imprisoned in October 1943. Although she consistently lied to investigators, and even attempted to escape twice, her shortened security training came back to hurt her, as the Nazis were able to find her notebooks and use the information in them to impersonate her and continue to transmit to unsuspecting London headquarters. This resulted in the captures and deaths of more SOE agents who were sent to France because their superiors either did not realize or believe that Khan's transmissions were fake.

Death and Legacy

Khan attempted escape once more, along with two other prisoners, on November 25, 1943. However, a British air raid led to their final capture. The air raid sirens triggered an unplanned check on the prisoners, which alerted the Germans to their escape. Khan was then taken to Germany and kept in solitary confinement for the next ten months.

Eventually, in 1944, Khan was transferred to Dachau, the concentration camp. She was executed on September 13, 1944. There are two differing accounts of her death. One, given by an SS officer who witnessed the execution, portrayed it very clinically: a death sentence pronounced, some sobbing, and the execution-style deaths. Another, given by a fellow prisoner who survived the camp, claimed that Khan was beaten before being executed, and that her final words were “Libertè!”

Posthumously, Khan was awarded multiple honors for her work and her bravery. In 1949, she was awarded the George Cross, the second-highest British honor for bravery, as well as the French Croix de Guerre with a silver star. Her story endured in popular culture, and in 2011, a campaign raised funds for a bronze bust of Khan in London, near her former home. Her legacy lives on as a groundbreaking heroine and as a spy who refused to abandon her post, even in the face of unprecedented demand and danger. 

Sources

  • Basu, Shrabani. Spy Princess: The Life of Noor Inayat Khan. Sutton Publishing, 2006.
  • Porath, Jason. Rejected Princesses: Tales of History's Boldest Heroines, Hellions, and Heretics. Dey Street Books, 2016.
  • Tsang, Annie. "Overlooked No More: Noor Inayat Khan, Indian Princess and British Spy." The New York Times, 28 Nov. 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/28/obituaries/noor-inayat-khan-overlooked.html