“There was no question as to her courage and loyalty. There was as to her stability for the job.”—A. A. Hoehling
The story of Noor Inayat Khan's life would no doubt have been very different had she not lived during the confused and violent times of World War II (1939-45). A sensitive, privileged young woman, she probably would have followed the artistic pursuits for which she was talented and well suited. There is an old saying: "May you live in interesting times." But this wish can prove to be a curse; certainly it was for this courageous young woman, who gave her life for England.
Noor-un-Nisa (meaning light of womanhood) Inayat Khan was born in Moscow, Russia, in 1914. Noor's father, Inayat Khan, was a musician and mystic (who taught about religious mysteries) from India, who had a close friendship with Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy. Her mother was an American woman named Ora Ray Baker who was a relative of religious leader Mary Baker Eddy, who founded the Christian Science Church.
At the time of Khan's birth, the family was living in Russia because her father's religious superior had instructed him to make the beliefs of Sufi (a Moslem mystic religion) better known in the Western world. Just prior to the Russian Revolution (which began in 1917), Khan's father moved his family to London, England, where they remained until 1920. The family then settled north of Paris, France, while he went to Switzerland and founded the international headquarters of the Sufi movement.
While touring in Europe, Khan's father met a wealthy widow from Holland who offered to buy his family a house. Accepting her offer, Inayat Khan later moved his family to a new residence on the outskirts of Paris. He died of pneumonia in Delhi, India, in 1927, leaving his wife responsible for raising their two sons and two daughters. At age 15, young Khan was devastated by his sudden death.
Suffers nervous breakdown
During the 1930s, Khan attended a girls' college in Sursennes, France, and a music school in Paris. She then began studying at the French capital's world-famous Sorbonnes college. Her intention to earn a degree in child psychology and biology went unfulfilled when the sensitive young woman had a nervous breakdown. While recovering her health, she spent periods of time in southern France, Spain, and Italy. She then returned to Paris in 1937 and spent two years studying at a school that taught Oriental languages.
Flees to London
In 1939, Khan began writing for the children's page of the Sunday Figaro newspaper and for young people's radio programs. Her story book, Twenty Jakarta Tales, was published in 1939 in London, England. To help the children of France cope as World War II was threatening to begin at any time, she established a new children's newspaper.
Throughout the 1930s in Germany, the National Socialist German Workers' Party (Nazi for short) had grown in numbers and political power. In 1938, the Nazis marched into Austria and took over the country. The takeover of other nearby countries soon followed. The Nazis, who glorified blond, blue-eyed white people (whom they often referred to as Aryans), wanted to establish an empire in Europe and beyond. World War II started in 1939 when Great Britain declared war on Germany, after Germany had taken over the country of Poland.
Within a short time, Khan began working at a home for the pregnant wives of British officers. In November 1940, after her brother had joined the Royal Navy, she enlisted in the Woman's Auxiliary Air Force (the WAAFs). The next year she requested a job that would involve her in intelligence work (which gathered secret information about the enemy). She was selected to be trained as a radio telegraph specialist.
Becomes British agent
Not long after, Khan was invited to become an agent for the SOE, the British Secret Service operation. The SOE was initiated in Great Britain in July 1940 to disrupt enemy operations in Nazi-occupied territory. Many nations of the world participated in SOE activities, which had an important impact on the course of World War II. She accepted and began her work in February 1943. Using the cover name Jeanne-Marie Regnier, Khan landed by parachute near Le Mans, France, during the night of June 16, 1943. She found her way to Paris alone with no other supplies, only a handbag. Paris was now in the hands of the Nazis and its leader Adolf Hitler.
Arriving at the apartment where she had been instructed to go, she puzzled her new colleague by failing to say the password. (Apparently she was confused because she had been told her contact would be an elderly woman, so she thought that the woman must be away from home.)
Her behavior puts her at risk
Because of her radio experience, Khan was sent to work with a radio operator in Paris who was desperate for assistance. She became part of a group called "Prosper," named after the leader of her espionage (spy) team. She was an intelligent young woman. However, because of her inadequate training, Khan did a number of things that compromised her safety.
According to Ronald Seth, writing in the Encyclopedia of Espionage, Khan displayed a number of social customs that identified her as having an English background. Like the English, she poured her tea into her milk, rather than the other way around. In addition, wrote Seth, "She passed to another agent with whom she [met] in the Luxembourg Gardens, in the middle of Paris, a map of a site where supplies were to be picked up; and she did so in full view of the public, and of any [enemy] agent who might have been in the vicinity. She left her note-books, in which were particulars of her code and coded messages, lying about the rooms of the apartment where she was staying for anyone to pick up and read."
One colleague later criticized her, saying she was "a splendid, vague dreamy creature, far too conspicuous [to blend into her surroundings] ... and she had no sense of security; she should never have been sent to France."
Khan's colleague was associated with a group of spy networks that centered around the National School of Agriculture. Two weeks after Khan's arrival in France, the school was raided by Nazi soldiers. Although she had been told not to go to the school on the day the raid occurred, Khan had received some very urgent material from London that needed to be delivered. She arrived during the raid, and as she approached the building, she recognized a large group of Nazi soldiers. She managed to quietly escape on her bicycle.
It soon became clear that this raid was merely one small part of the largest German counterespionage (antispy) effort of World War II. Groups of suspected spies from Paris and all parts of France were rounded up and imprisoned by the Nazis. Khan was the only member from her "Prosper" group who escaped the roundup. She was told by her British superior that she would shortly be picked up by airplane and transported back to England. However, Khan decided it was her duty to stay, and for the next three months she single-handedly carried out almost all the radio work in Paris.
Apparently Khan learned quickly how to survive as a spy. She frequently changed her place of lodging as well as the sites she transmitted from. Her acquaintances during that time noticed she seemed to be always nervous and in a hurry until she was seated at her transmitter.
The decision of this timid young woman to stay in France displayed a great deal of courage. She could easily have returned at any time to the safety of London.
For the next two or three months the young woman lived with constant danger. Once she was stopped aboard a subway car by a German soldier and asked what she was carrying in her case. She lied, saying that her transmitter was part of the mechanism of a film projector. Even when he insisted on inspecting the apparatus, she told him that he must realize that she was being truthful "because of all the little bulbs." Fortunately, he believed her story.
Another time she was leaning from her window fixing a radio aerial that was mounted in a tree. A young German officer came upon her and helped her fasten the wire to the tree.
Capture and torture
The betrayal and capture of Khan by the Nazis took place in mid-October 1943. She was exposed by a French woman who lived in her apartment building and reported her to the Nazis in return for a rather small sum of money. The young spy was arrested at her apartment. During the arrest, she bit one of her captors so hard that he bled. Surrounded as she was by broadcasting equipment, any attempt to deny her activities was pointless.
Khan refused to speak after being captured, except to ask that she be shot as soon as possible. This, along with one risky attempt to escape, brought her admiration from her captors. While imprisoned, she was able to make contact with two other agents who were being kept captive in the same building. By removing skylights and making ropes from sheets and blankets, the three managed to get out of the building. Suddenly an air raid alarm sounded, and, as was the custom, the location of all prisoners was checked. The absence of the three spies was noted and they were recaptured almost immediately. Khan was now considered very dangerous, and she was transferred to a jail in Germany.
Death and honor
Khan was kept in solitary confinement at the German prison, chained to a wall, for ten months. On September 13, 1944, along with three other female prisoners, she was taken by train to Dachau concentration camp, a place where the Nazis confined people they regarded as "enemies of the state." A. A. Hoehling wrote in Women Who Spied that one morning Khan and her prison mates "were awakened early, offered lukewarm weak tea [and] breakfast rolls, and [were] led out, in pairs, across the prison courtyard, toward a wall" covered with bloodstains. The women were permitted to hold hands while Nazi soldiers shot them in the back of the neck. "The whole bizarre episode was as casual and impersonal as though the executioner was firing at clay pigeons," wrote Hoehling.
After her death, Khan received the George Cross, a prestigious award for patriotism, from the government of Great Britain. According to the accompanying citation: "Assistant Section Officer Inayat Khan displayed the most conspicuous courage, both moral and physical, over a period of more than twelve months."
- Dear, I. C. B., and M. R. D. Foot, eds. The Oxford Companion to World War II. Oxford University Press, 1995.
- Franklin, Charles. Great Spies. Hart, 1967.
- Hoehling, A. A. Women Who Spied. Dodd, Mead and Co., 1967.
- Seth, Ronald. Encyclopedia of Espionage. Doubleday and Co., 1972.