Noor Inayat Khan

Friday, November 16th, 2012

In September of 1944, Noor Inayat Khan was executed at the Dachau concentration camp:

Her name is not one that you would expect among a roster of concentration camp inmates in 1944. She was not Jewish, nor indeed European. Although she had been in France at the time of the German invasion of 1940, she had escaped with her family to England, and could have remained there safely for the duration of the war. Why was she in Dachau?

Noor (the name means “light of womanhood”) was the child of Hazrat Inayat Khan, a leader of the Sufi movement, and his American wife. She was a descendent of Tippu Sultan, a prince who had been one of the most effective enemies of British rule in India. Strangely, she was born in Moscow, where certain members of the Czar’s court were interested in Sufiism. After the Revolution, the family moved to a suburb of Paris. Noor is remembered as gentle, shy, musical, dreamy, and poetic. She was noted for her kindness to animals, and it was to her that neighborhood children often brought an injured kitten or puppy. She attended the Sorbonne and became a writer of children’s books and stories; she broadcast some of her stories on the radio. (Her book, Twenty Jataka Tales, is still in print.)

As World War II approached, Noor and her brother Vilayat both decided that the urgencies of the situation overrode the pacifist principles of Sufiism. She studied nursing, against the wishes of her then-fiance, with the intent of assisting the wounded in the coming war. But the collapse of the French Army took place more quickly than anyone had expected, and she escaped to England with her family. There, she enlisted in the Royal Air Force and became a radio operator, skilled in the high-speed transmission and reception of Morse code.

Wanting to contribute at a higher level, she applied for a commission. The interviewing officer asked her about her views on Indian independence, and she became very vehement on the subject — saying, in essence, that she would be loyal to the British Empire while the war against under Hitler was underway, but that afterwards she would work for Indian independence. She left the interview feeling that she had lost her temper and ruined her chances.

She never found out if she would have gotten the RAF commission or not, because she was presented with another opportunity to serve. She was contacted by the secret organization Special Operations Executive, which supported resistance operations in France and other occupied countries, and asked to come in for an interview. SOE badly needed radio operators, who were sent into occupied Europe by parachute and light aircraft. The job was, of course, a very dangerous one: the Geneva Convention afforded no protection to secret agents.

The interviewer was SOE’s principal recruiter, the writer Selwyn Jepson. He was immediately impressed with her, but was reluctant to accept her for the job…telling her that she might be of more value to humanity if she survived the war and continued writing her children’s books. She indignantly rejected the suggestion. Jepson: “..with rather more of the bleak distress which I never failed to feel at this point in these interviews, I agreed to take her on.”

Noor was sent to an SOE training school. The curriculum included shooting, hand-to-hand combat, practice sabotage missions, and mock interrogations. While the waa no question about Noor’s technical proficiency in communications, concerns were raised concerning her overall fitness for the role of a secret agent: particularly her dreamy and absent-minded nature and her striking and easily-recognizable appearance. The training organization recommended that she be removed from the program, but was overridden by Maurice Buckmaster, head of SOE “F” section, who believed in her capabilities. (“F” section was responsible for operations in occupied France.)

Certainly my first thoughts turned to the question of sending a half-Indian woman to Nazi-occupied France as a secret agent. Nothing to see here…

Anyway, keep reading.


  1. FNN says:

    Was it The Dirty Dozen where Jim Brown was sent behind enemy lines in a Nazi uniform?

  2. Borepatch says:

    There’s is a great book called Between Silk and Cyanide about these radio operators.

  3. Polish Peasant says:

    My thoughts exactly when I initially thought about her Indian father, but if you look at her photos on Google she seems like someone who could easily blend into the already cosmopolitan Parisian population of the day. Not strikingly foreign, probably easily passing as nothing more than a French person with a bit of Mediterranean background.

    Incidentally, just a few days ago the CBC had a program on the exploits of another SOE spy in France, Allyre Sirois, who later on became a judge in Saskatchewan. Possibly the only judge in history who was professionally trained in the art of break and entry.

    (In audio only.)

  4. David Foster says:

    Borepatch, I agree that the Leo Marks book, Between Silk and Cyanide, is excellent. I reviewed it here.

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