Sunday, January 01, 2006

Agent Madeleine, Princess Nora

NOOR INAYAT KHAN, a very brave woman who defied the Nazis. She would be 92 today.

Noor Inayat Khan was born on January 2, 1914 in Moscow, where her father Hasra Inayat Khan was teaching. He was a descendent of Tippu Sultan, the "Tiger of Mysore", last Mogul ruler of southern India, so Noor, or Nora as she became known in the services, could be called a princess. Hasra Inayat had travelled the world teaching Sufi philosophy and mysticism, and Noor's mother Ora Ray Baker, born in America but of British stock, was related to Mary Baker Eddy , founder of the Christian Science Church.

With this spiritual background, it was quite a decision for Noor and her brother Vilayat to volunteer for war service, as he recalled:.
"You see, Nora and I had been brought up with the policy of Gandhi's non-violence. At the outbreak of war we discussed what we would do."
"She said 'Well, I must do something but I don't want to kill anyone'. So I said, ' Well, if we are going to join the war we have to involve ourselves in the most dangerous positions, which would mean no killing'.
"Then, when we eventually got to England, I volunteered for mine-sweeping and she volunteered for SOE, and so I have always had a feeling of guilt because of what I said that day." (quoted in "A Life of Secrets", by Sarah Helm. Little Brown, 2005)

Educated at the Sorbonne, where she studied child psychology, Noor became a writer of children's books before the war, and worked on children's programmes for Radio Paris. She was also a harpist. Her peacetime accomplishments, perfect French and familiarity with Paris, together with a good ear and nimble fingers, would be a wartime asset.

Enlisted as a wireless operator in the Women's Ancillary Air Force(WAAF), Noor was interviewed by Vera Atkins at the Special Operations Executive (SOE), and sent for training in wireless, morse, and parachuting, to become the first woman to be sent into occupied France as a wireless operator. On 16 June 1943 she was flown to Le Mans, from where she made her way to Paris to join a resistance network known as "Prosper". After the network was busted by the Gestapo, those agents who remained uncaptured were told to try and escape from France and return to Britain.

But Noor, codename Madeleine, remained at her post, continuing to transmit information back to London.

When she was captured, she was taken to Gestapo headquarters where she was interrogated and held for a month, trying to escape twice. Although she would not give anything away, they found her notebooks with coded messages, and were able to send some bogus messages to London, and capture three other agents.

Noor was taken to Pforzheim prison in Germany where she was held in solitary. Then on 11 September 1944, together with three other SOE women - Yolande Beekman, Elaine Plewman and Madeleine Damerment - Noor Inayat Khan was sent to Dachau concentration camp.

A German officer recounted:
"These women were to be kept absolutely separate from other inmates of the camp. The four women were French but one of them, somewhat more swarthy in complexion, looked much like a Creole. She was considered to be a 'very dangerous' person and to be given the 'full treatment' (A Life in Secrets, p.415)

The other three women were lined up and forced to kneel, after which each was executed by a single shot to the head. Noor was shackled in chains for months and beaten until she was a bloody mess and then shot. Her last word was 'liberte' (Helm, Sarah. The Gestapo Killer Who Lived Twice. The Sunday Times Magazine, August 7, 2005, p. 9).

After the war, Vera Atkins (incidentally a Romanian Jewish woman whom Britain's security services might easily have interned as an "enemy alien") made it her business to find out what had happened to all her recuits who had been posted "Missing believed dead". Her story and that of the lost SOE agents like Noor Inayat Khan is the subject of Sarah Helm's massive work "A Life in Secrets" published by Little , Brown last year.

In 1949, Noor Inayat Khan was awarded a posthumous George Cross, the highest decoration for bravery by civilians. Iu 2004, a novel based loosely on her life entitled "The Tiger Claw" was published by Shauna Singh Baldwin. The same year French novelist Laurent Joffrin published "La princesse oubliƩe" also based on her life.

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