In the very early hours of 17 June 1943, a few miles south of the rural commune of Tierce, France, two Lysander airplanes touched down in the dark on a makeshift airstrip. A secret agent disembarked from the cramped passenger compartment of one plane, and two emerged from the other. The agents were all women—two couriers and a radio operator. The latter, at 29 years of age, was a woman named Noor Inayat Khan. She was said to have an air of fragility accentuated by soft features and deep, dark eyes—not exactly central casting’s first choice for a tough-as-nails spy from Great Britain’s Special Operations Executive (SOE).
SOE had been active since 1940, carrying on its mission of aiding resistance movements in the countries controlled by Nazi Germany. The organization sowed the seeds of chaos under the order of Winston Churchill to “set Europe ablaze” through sabotage, assassination, and shuttling downed Allied personnel to safety. For all the thrills of the posting, working for SOE had its drawbacks—the life expectancy of an agent in occupied France was six weeks.
After the women disembarked, other operatives boarded the planes. The exchange took no more than 20 minutes before the planes took off again, bound for England and Allied territory. As for Khan, she was destined for Paris to join a ‘circuit’—a spy network.
As with all such exchanges, the three women were not alone. A contact agent, Henri Dericourt, was present with a bicycle ready for Khan. She pedaled off to a train station near Angers, some 10 miles away. From there, she transferred to rail for Paris. The next day, she reached her destination in the city: 40 rue Erlanger, 16e.
Khan, under the impression that her contact was an old woman, was to speak the pass phrase, “I have come on behalf of your friend Antoine for news about the building company.” But when the door opened, a man answered. Khan said with some nervousness, “I think I am expected.”
The man admitted her to the apartment, and introduced himself as Emile Henri Garry. Another woman was present, whom Garry introduced as his fiancée. There were long pauses in awkwardness as Garry offered Khan cigarettes, which she accepted. Finally, the fiancée, sensing that perhaps she should leave the room, excused herself to make coffee.
Khan blurted out the pass phrase, “I have come on behalf of your friend Antoine for news about the building company!” Garry replied the correct response, “The business is in hand.”
Noor Inayat Khan was born in the Vusoko Petrovsky monastery in Moscow on New Year’s Day, 1914. Her father, Inayat Khan, was from a noble Muslim Sufi family in India; a musician of classical Indian music who was one of the key figures in bringing the pacifism of Universal Sufism to the West. He was a descendant of Tipu Sultan, the so-called “Tiger of Mysore” who had resisted British imperialism in India in the 18th century—something the family kept quiet for political purposes.
Khan’s mother, Ora Ray Baker, was American. She had met Inayat Khan at a lecture he delivered in San Francisco. They fell in love and married in 1913. Ora Ray adopted the name Amina Sharada Begum. Her family never forgave her for marrying a foreigner, and she severed all ties with them. She travelled with her new husband and his fellow musicians around the world. In addition to Noor, whom they nicknamed Babuli, “Papa’s Darling,” they had three other children.
Soon after the Treaty of Versailles ended the First World War, the Khans relocated to a home north of Paris. The family made occasional excursions abroad, and it was on one such journey in February 1927, while Inayat was on a pilgrimage to India, that he died of pneumonia. His wife Amina was devastated, and viewed Inayat’s death as a betrayal. She withdrew into herself, leaving Noor, as the eldest child, to care for the family. Noor was just thirteen years old.
Khan tended to her siblings when they grew ill, attended household chores, and ordered all provisions. But she was not resentful. She was dedicated to her family and even spent time to compose poems to her mother to pull her out of despondency.
Khan shared a creative streak with her siblings. They were all musicians, Khan playing both the harp and the piano. Besides the poetry, she also wrote children’s stories. She studied music at the prestigious Ecole Normale de Musique in Paris, and then went on to study child psychology.
During this period, Khan published children’s books, mostly adaptations of folklore and legends. She planned on starting a children’s newspaper. It seemed that she was destined to become a writer. But then World War II broke out in 1939. Khan faced a moral dilemma. She had been raised in the pacifist spirit of Universal Sufism. But she and her family loathed the Nazis’ racist ideology and murderous extremism. Her brother said:
“If an armed Nazi comes to your house and takes twenty hostages and wants to exterminate them, would you not be an accomplice in these deaths, if you had the opportunity to kill him (and thereby prevent these deaths) but did not do so because of your belief in non-violence? How can we preach spiritual morality without participating in preventive action? Can we stand by and just watch what the Nazis are doing?”
Khan thought it more true to her principles to help defeat Nazism in the most active sense. At first, she and her sister trained as nurses, but when France fell in June 1940, they fled the country for London.
Now, more than ever, Khan wanted to do all she could for the war effort. She volunteered and joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) on 19 November 1940. She used the name Nora and registered her religion as “Church of England” to avoid complications. To blend in, she even attended Anglican Church services and never talked about her family.
Khan was in the first group of WAAFs to be trained as radio operators. She became proficient, which—coupled with her French connection—brought her to the attention of Special Operations Executive. They summoned her for an interview.
SOE was in desperate need of radio operators who spoke French like a native. Khan interviewed with Captain Selwyn Jepsen on 10 November 1942, who liked her immediately. He noted Khan’s gentle nature and added that she had “an intuitive sense of what might be in my mind for her to do.” She was recruited in just one interview while most other agents required three. She officially joined SOE on 8 February 1943.
Khan began basic operations training at SOE’s facilities in Wanborough. Recruits performed 10-minute runs in the morning followed by lessons in shooting, handling grenades, and using explosives. After a grueling day of training, recruits were allowed—in fact, encouraged—to drink freely at a bar in Wanborough. Agents observed the recruits to see if they divulged information or were easily intoxicated.
Khan’s trainers were divided on her capabilities. One noted she was “pretty scared of weapons.” To counter this, the SOE commandant admitted that while she had a “timid manner,” she “would probably rise to an emergency.”
Khan’s most glowing review was by Lance Corporal Gordan, who was struck by her character:
“She is a person for whom I have the greatest admiration. Completely self-effacing and un-selfish. [sic] The last person whose absence was noticed, extremely modest, even humble and shy, always thought everyone better than herself, very polite. Has written books for children. Takes everything literally, is not quick, studious rather than clever. Extremely conscientious.”
After Khan completed the basic training, she was sent to specialist signal training. Notably, Khan was the first woman selected for the course, perhaps because SOE was plagued with shortages of field radio operatives. Of the various field agent positions, a radio operator was considered the most hazardous occupation, since operators needed to carry around their incriminating equipment with them. They reportedly had the highest casualty and capture rate among SOE agents.
Again, her trainers were divided. What one might think her greatest strength, her character, could be a liability in the world of espionage. On 19 April 1943, an instructor reported,
“She confesses that she would not like to do anything ‘two-faced,’ by which she means deliberately cultivating friendly relations with malice aforethought…. It is the emotional side of her character, coupled with a vivid imagination, which will most test her steadfastness of purpose in the later stages of her training.”
That later stage of her training was at the “Finishing School” among the ruins of a medieval abbey in Beaulieu, Hampshire. Weapons experiments, frogman training, agent avoidance, and setting up radio aerials were just some of the surreptitious work occurring there. Much of the training was practical. For example, recruits were sent out in the field and arrested to see if they could hold their cover stories. But because of the need for field agents, Khan’s training was abbreviated. There was no time to train in parachuting, lock-picking, and safe-breaking.
In some cases, Khan’s open honesty was puzzling. One instructor reported that during her training, a policeman stopped her on her bicycle and asked what she was doing. She replied, “I’m training to be an agent. Here’s my radio—want me to show it to you?”
Khan’s lowest moment came during a mock Gestapo interrogation. These were carried out by Maurice Buckmaster, the head of the French section of SOE. When the time came, Khan was pulled out of her bed and forced into an interrogation room. Bright lights blazed in her face as she faced a panel of faux “Gestapo” officers in full Nazi dress. Like others, she would have been stripped and forced to stand for hours while questions were fired at her. Khan had to repeat her cover story over and over.
Khan did not fare well. A witness to the session recalled:
“She seemed absolutely terrified. One saw that the lights hurt her, and the officer’s voice when he shouted very loudly … She was so overwhelmed, she nearly lost her voice. As it went on she became practically inaudible. Sometimes there was only a whisper. When she came out afterwards, she was trembling and quite blanched.”
Some of her trainers doubted she would hold up under pressure if she was ever captured.
The final training took place in mid-May 1943 in Bristol. Khan entered the city with a cover story to recruit contacts, organize safe drop boxes for messages, and locate an apartment from where she could transmit messages. All the while, she was trailed by SOE staff assessing her every move. She performed the tasks admirably, but had trouble with a set-up false arrest and interrogation (albeit not Gestapo style). The trainers found that Khan made mistakes during the interrogation and offered more information than she should have.
In the end, Khan’s instructors were still divided over whether she was cut out to be an agent. She seemed nervous and emotional. Some of her colleagues who would survive through the war would later say that she was far too conspicuous.
On 21 May, Colonel Frank Spooner submitted a pointed, negative evaluation of Khan:
“Not overburdened with brains but has worked hard and shown keenness, apart from some dislike of the security side of the course. She has an unstable and temperamental personality and it is very doubtful whether she is really suited to work in the field.”
Spooner later asserted that he wrote the harsh report to protect Khan. At the time, the report angered Maurice Buckmaster, who supported her. But Buckmaster also heard doubts from others. Another assessment read:
“From reports on the girl I suggest that care be taken that she be not given any task which might set up a mental conflict with her idealism. This might render her unstable from our point of view.”
On the other hand, Khan had three points strongly in her favor. She spoke French like a native, she was an excellent radio operator, and SOE desperately needed French-speaking radio operators. Buckmaster sent Khan into France.
French Resistance was organized into spy networks called circuits, which were further divided into subnetworks. After arriving in Paris and blurting out the enigmatic “building company” pass phrase to Emile Henri Garry, she found herself incorporated into his “Cinema Circuit.” Garry’s circuit was a subcircuit of the larger “Prosper” spy network. Her code name was Madeleine, and her cover name was Jeanne-Marie Renier, a student at the College of Agriculture in Grignon. In case of trouble, she was to go to a safehouse, a bookseller on Rue de Passy. If there was no other way to escape, she would be forced to abscond through Spain, whose government was purportedly neutral in the war.
At the time of Khan’s arrival, Prosper was quite a large series of networks, and influencing the direction of the war. Prosper coordinated sabotage operations on power plants, oil stockpiles, and attacks on trains. Khan’s role was to relay messages to and from Garry’s subcircuit.
Khan made her first call to London a little less than 72 hours after her arrival. This in itself was impressive, and was the fastest check-in upon arrival by any agent. Still, transmissions needed to be brief; the Germans used radio direction-finders constantly in their counter-intelligence efforts. She also met fellow agents, and due to her natural, gregarious personality, got on well with her new colleagues.
Khan, however, did show signs of carelessness. She did not always follow French customs, such as putting in milk last when making tea. When she was visiting some of her colleagues at the cover of a college, she left a portfolio containing security codes in an entrance hall. One of the French agents, a professor, gave her the papers back, warning her not to trust anybody.
Before Khan could any do real work for Cinema, everything began to unravel. On 21 June 1943, the Gestapo arrested two Canadian SOE agents. One of the agents had a distinct Canadian accent when speaking French, giving away their cover. In their possession was not just a radio, but the contact information to key members of the Prosper network. This led to arrests and infiltration. Further blundering on SOE’s part led to the complete collapse of the spy ring by early July. In the book Spy Princess, a biography of Noor Khan, the author Shrabani Basu comments that Prosper “…had grown too large, and it was inevitable that it would infiltrated.” In the commotion that followed, Khan barely escaped, and she went into hiding in Paris.
It was Khan who informed SOE of Prosper’s collapse. By late July, the last circuit members who could escape did so. Maurice Buckmaster sent a message to Khan stating that it was far too dangerous for her to remain alone in France. Khan, however, stated that she wanted to stay since she was the last radio operator in Paris, and she knew that if a new circuit was to be built, she would be a crucial ingredient. Buckmaster acquiesced, though it was virtually certain that she would be captured.
In the following months, Khan relayed data back to SOE regarding the remnants of spy circuits, and locations for where to drop supplies for the resistance. She provided information to rescue two American airmen hiding in Paris. In the same way, she also assisted in the escape of 30 other Allied airmen who had survived being shot down over France.
All this time, Khan stayed one step ahead of the Gestapo by constantly moving from place to place to transmit. She dyed her hair various colors and used assorted disguises. Once, she was cornered by two German officers on the metro. They noticed her suitcase, which carried her secret transmitter. They asked her what was in the case. “A cinematograph projector,” Khan replied. She opened the case slightly, allowing the officers to peer inside. “There are the little bulbs. Haven’t you seen one before?” Apparently, her confidence and boldness embarrassed the Germans so much that they accepted her story, and did not detain her.
But Khan’s capture was only a matter of time. The Gestapo had obtained her description and were on the lookout. SOE advised Khan to return. Again, she pleaded to stay and promised to lay low.
On approximately 13 October 1943, agents of the Nazi Sicherheitsdienst (SD) located and arrested Noor Inayat Khan and brought her to the SD Headquarters in Paris for interrogation. It is uncertain how they identified her as a spy, though historians suspect she was betrayed by Renée Garry, sister of Emile Garry, head of the Cinema circuit. Or Khan may have been outed by Henri Dericourt, an SOE officer who was later suspected as an SD double agent. By all reports Khan did not disclose her SOE connections or activities, but among her effects the German counterintelligence officers found a comprehensive written record of her clandestine messages. Apparently she had misunderstood her order “to be extremely careful with the filing of your messages,” where “filing” meant “transmission,” but Khan mistook that for record-keeping. Khan was taken prisoner. On her first night, she tried to escape through a bathroom window, but she was quickly recaptured.
The head of the Paris SD office, Major Hans Josef Kieffer, used a light touch on Khan, maintaining her in decent conditions while engaging in pleasant, seemingly innocuous conversations and interrogations. While Khan never divulged any information about SOE, she did give personal details about her family life which she thought harmless.
With these personal details and with Khan’s files, the Germans transmitted false messages in Madeleine’s name within a few weeks. Originally, it was reported to SOE that she had been captured in October, but when the Germans started transmitting in her name, Buckmaster and other SOE officers believed Khan had eluded capture once again. The SD so completely fooled SOE that Buckmaster recommended Khan for a medal on 24 February 1944, thinking she was still free. The fake transmissions led to the capture and execution of other SOE operatives, as well as the seizure of Allied monies meant to fund resistance operations.
Meanwhile, Khan and two fellow imprisoned agents attempted to escape. They managed to obtain a screwdriver, which they used to loosen their cell bars. On 25 November 1943, the three broke out and escaped to the roof. Unfortunately, an air raid sounded. The prisoners’ cells were found empty and the Germans caught them shortly thereafter. Were it not for the bad luck of the air raid siren, the prisoners may have made good on their escape.
Kieffer chose neither to execute nor torture Khan. Instead, he asked for her word of honor that she would not try to escape again. Khan refused. On 27 November, Kieffer sent her to the Pforzheim prison in Germany, categorized as a dangerous prisoner. Khan was kept as a “Nacht und Nebel” prisoner, a term which means “night and fog.” It was a phrase applied to prisoners who were considered highly dangerous, and they were therefore made to “disappear.”
At Pforzheim, Khan was kept on minimal rations in solitary confinement. No one but the German wardens spoke to her. Her arms and legs were shackled night and day with a third chain connecting her arms and feet. She also suffered beatings. But she did not divulge any secrets. The governor of the prison, taking sympathy upon the woman, ordered her unshackled, but this was countermanded by Gestapo headquarters.
Given her solitary confinement, Khan’s stay at the prison might have been lost to history, but she managed to smuggle word of her presence to other female prisoners by scratching messages on the back of a meal bowl that circulated among them. She did not give her real name, writing that it was too dangerous. Rather, she used her mother’s maiden name, identifying herself as Nora Baker, a Radio Centre Officer of the Royal Air Force.
As the months passed, Khan grew frailer. Still she would not give up any information. Often, the women in the nearby cells heard her weep herself to sleep.
On 11 September 1944, Khan was relocated with two other female prisoners to the notorious Dachau concentration camp. While there are conflicting versions as to what happened to her there, the most reasonable case is made by biographer Shrabani Basu, who had access to accounts not available in prior decades. Accoring to Basu, after Khan arrived at Dachau, she was stripped, beaten, and probably raped by a guard named Ruppert. She lay unconscious in her cell bruised and bleeding. On 13 September, she was shot in the head. Some accounts have her executed with the other two prisoners, and others have her being shot in her cell. Her last word was reported to be, “Liberté.” Khan’s body was cremated. The location of her ashes is unknown.
On 16 January 1946, Charles De Gaulle posthumously awarded Noor Khan with the French gold star—the Croix de Guerre—which cited her for courageously escaping from and fighting the enemy. Great Britain also awarded her the George Cross in 1949 for her moral and physical courage. Plaques commemorate her valor in both Britain and France. In 1952, Jean Overton Fuller wrote a biography of Noor Khan, but she remained largely forgotten by history until a new biography was written in 2007 by Shrabani Basu.
Noor Inayat Khan, a pacifist driven by war to fight and ultimately die for her idealism, still inspires admiration today. In 2018, historians and activists campaigned to feature her likeness on a new pound note. The campaign failed with the Bank of England, who preferred a scientific figure. Even so, Khan’s story persists despite her flaws—flaws that indeed made her imperfect as a spy, but also humanized her, made her relatable, and gave her the resolve not to break when it counted.