For more than half a century, myths, misconceptions and outright fantasies have crowded around the memory of Noor Inayat Khan. She was the first female radio operator sent into Nazi-occupied France by the Special Operations Executive (SOE). Through the frantic, terrifying summer of 1943, the untried 29-year-old spy found herself virtually in charge of Resistance communications in the Paris area as the Gestapo arrested cell after cell around her. The daughter of a famous Sufi mystic and musician, and an Indianised American mother, she was remembered by all as a â€œdreamyâ€, sensitive child. Yet Noor the spy became a tigress whose bravery and defiance startled – and outraged – her German jailers and torturers. A few responded differently. When told during his postwar interrogation about her death in Dachau, Hans Josef Kieffer – head of the Gestapo headquarters in Paris – apparently broke down in tears.
Controversies and rumours still abound. Noorâ€™s posthumous career as a war heroine began in earnest in 1952, when her friend and comrade Jean Overton Fuller did her best to dispel the fog of confusion and misinformation left by her death in a book, Madeleine – Noorâ€™s Resistance codename. Maurice Buckmaster, Noorâ€™s colonel in SOE, and the top cryptographer Leo Marks both recalled her in their memoirs with an intense, possessive – but rather patronising – affection that often makes for more heat than light. Marks, briefed to expect as his latest apprentice a â€œpotty princessâ€, typically begins his recollections of their first encounter by writing that â€œno one had mentioned Noorâ€™s extraordinary beautyâ€.
From her spellbound SOE trainers at Beaulieu Manor to the governor of Pforzheim jail who came almost to revere the prisoner he kept in chains, Noor left no one unmoved. Yet her quiet charisma made fancy corrupt fact. In recent years, two colourful novels have embroidered her tale with the interests and penchants of their authors: the French writer Laurent Joffrinâ€™s frankly romanticised All That I Have, and Shauna Singh Baldwinâ€™s more politically engaged The Tiger Claw.
However, the recent declassification of personal files has allowed the always-murky deeds of SOE and its â€œF Sectionâ€ agents who spied (and died) in France to emerge further into the light of history. Fresh material surfaced when, last year, Sarah Helmâ€™s A Life in Secrets traced the biography of Vera Atkins: the SOE staff officer who, plagued by remorse at the hideous fate of so many of her F Section â€œgirlsâ€, made a secret postwar enquiry into their betrayal and capture. Now, Shrabani Basu – a historian and journalist based in London as correspondent for an Indian newspaper group – has pieced together Noorâ€™s story more fully and reliably than ever before in a new biography, Spy Princess.
For Basu, â€œ60 years after the war, Noorâ€™s vision and courage are inspirationalâ€. She has proposed to English Heritage that a blue plaque should mark Noorâ€™s address at 4 Taviton Street in Bloomsbury, and a decision will be made in June. Thanks to her book, a new generation can grasp what Noor did, and how she did it, with much greater clarity. Yet the â€œwhyâ€ remains, in some sense, as elusive as ever.
Noor Inayat Khan was the great-great-great granddaughter of Tipu Sultan, the Muslim ruler of Mysore whose celebrated military prowess stalled the advance of East India Company forces at the end of the 18th century. Ever after, the British in India treated the family with the utmost suspicion. Yet Hazrat, her father, turned his back on this rebel and warrior tradition when he became a Sufi teacher and founded an order to spread – via music – his peaceful, tolerant and non-dogmatic faith to the world. A gifted singer and instrumentalist from a family of virtuosi, he met his American wife on tour in California. By the time Noor was born, in January 1914, the Inayat Khans were living and performing in Moscow, and her mother, the former Ora Ray Baker, had donned sari and veil as â€œAmina Begumâ€.
After an infancy in the chilly wartime squares of Bloomsbury, Noor grew up in the suburbs of Paris, at â€œFazal Manzilâ€: a much-loved house in Suresnes outside which a military band still plays in her honour every 14 July. The eldest child of four, seen by all as kind, vague and artistic, she suddenly had to take charge of the family when her fatherâ€™s death on a visit to India in 1927 left her mother immobilised by grief. For the first, but not the last, time, crisis turned Noor the dreamer into Noor the leader.
In the 1930s, Noor studied music (especially the harp) at the Paris conservatory, and child psychology at the Sorbonne. She also became a talented writer and broadcaster of childrenâ€™s stories. On Amazon you can find Noorâ€™s Twenty Jataka Tales (1939): charming Buddhist fables in which, eerily, animals overcome their fragility to perform feats of bravery and sacrifice. At this time, she got engaged to a pianist of Jewish origin, one aspect – together with rumours of a later, wartime engagement to a fellow British officer – of a still-mysterious emotional life.
After Germany invaded France in June 1940, Noor the Muslim Sufi pacifist – and passionate believer in Indiaâ€™s right to independence from colonial rule – made the moral choice that fixed the course of her life, and death. She and her brother Vilayet decided, in the face of Nazi aggression, that non-violence was not enough. They jointly vowed that they would work – as Vilayat told Shrabani Basu in 2003 – â€œto thwart the aggression of the tyrantâ€.
Surviving the chaos of the mass flight from Paris to Bordeaux, they made a dramatic seaborne escape to England. There, Noor volunteered for the WAAF (Womenâ€™s Auxiliary Air Force) and started on the long road of signals and wireless training that would lead her – a woman raised in France, perfectly bilingual, and with advanced radio skills – to recruitment as a secret agent in November 1942. Selwyn Jepson, the novelist-turned-spy who first interviewed her for SOE, later found himself remembering Noor with a â€œvery personal vividness… the small, still features, the dark quiet eyes, the soft voice, and the fine spirit glowing in herâ€. No one ever forgot Noor, or ever felt indifferent about her, though some SOE trainers doubted her suitability for espionage and tried to block her progress into the field.
They failed, and within days of her arrival in France in June 1943 she had proved them wrong. As the broken Prosper network of Resistance cells collapsed, Noor dodged from safe house to safe house in Paris, outwitting the Gestapo and transmitting messages with immense speed and accuracy in hostile conditions. â€œSingle-handedly,â€ according to Basu, â€œshe did the work of six radio operators.â€ In London, code-master Leo Marks noted that â€œher transmissions were flawless, with all their security checks intactâ€.
Now viewed as incorrigibly dangerous and uncooperative, Noor was sent in November 1942 to Pforzheim prison in Germany, where – bound by three chains, in solitary confinement – she endured 10 months of medieval abuse. She ranked as a Nacht und Nebel (â€œNight and Fogâ€) inmate, earmarked only for oblivion and death. Shackled, starved, beaten, she never talked. Then, in September 1944, came the transfer to Dachau along with three other female agents, and the end of her sufferings.
Knowing the whole truth – or almost the whole truth – about Noor does not make her any less paradoxical. Basu, who quashes so many myths about this â€œMuslim woman of Indian origin who made the highest sacrifice for Britainâ€, also stresses that she fervently backed the struggle for Indian liberty. Indeed, Noor shocked – and maybe rather impressed – the interview panel when she went for an WAAF commission in 1942 by arguing that, after the war, she might feel obliged to fight the British in India. That makes her – although a commissioned British officer, and a holder of the George Cross – a curious national heroine. As for her Muslim identity, the Inayat Khansâ€™ brand of all-inclusive Sufism would count as heresy or worse to the kind of hardliner who now presumes to speak for Islam in and to the West.
The key to her career may be that this child of a liberal, cultured home freely chose her fate. She chose to fight Nazism; she chose to do it alongside the British; she chose the risks of espionage; and she chose to stay in Paris when SOE ordered her home. At a memorial service in Paris, General de Gaulleâ€™s niece summed up her achievement: â€œNothing, neither her nationality, nor the traditions of her family, none of these obliged her to take her position in the war. However, she chose it. It is our fight that she chose, that she pursued with an admirable, an invincible courage.â€ When she died with â€œfreedomâ€ on her lips, it was hers. And it was ours as well.
Shrabani Basuâ€™s â€˜Spy Princess: the life of Noor Inayat Khanâ€™ is published by Sutton Publishing (Â£18.99). http://enjoyment.independent.co.uk/books/features/article346472.ece