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On This Day: Remembering Noor Inayat Khan

Updated: Feb 18

September 13th, 1944: On This Day SOE operator Noor Inayat Khan was executed at Dachau concentration camp in Bavaria.


At dawn on September 13th, 1944 [1] four women were led into a yard within the camp. There they were told to kneel and their death sentences were read out. Men of the Nazi SS (‘Schutzstaffel’) stepped forward and shot each woman in the back of the neck. One of them, however, despite having been severely beaten uttered her final word ‘liberté’. Such bravery and her name, Noor Inayat Khan, should not be forgotten.


She was born in Moscow on January 1st, 1914. Shortly before the outbreak of the First World War, the family left Russia for London, living in Bloomsbury. In 1920, however, the family moved to France, settling in Suresnes near Paris. As a young girl, Noor was described as quiet, shy, sensitive, and dreamy. After the death of her father in 1927, 13-year-old Noor took on the responsibility for her grief-stricken mother of her younger siblings. She went on to study child psychology at the Sorbonne, as well as music at the Paris Conservatory under Nadia Boulanger, composing for both harp and piano.


As a young woman, Noor began a career as a writer, publishing her poetry and children's stories in English and French and becoming a regular contributor to children's magazines and French radio. In 1939, her book Twenty Jataka Tales, inspired by the Jataka tales of Buddhist tradition, was published in London by George G. Harrap and Co. The following year, to escape Nazi occupation of France, Noor’s family fled first to Bordeaux and then by sea to England, landing at Falmouth in Cornwall on June 22nd, 1940. Initially they stayed in Southampton, at the parental home of the philosopher Basil Mitchell. But in November that year, Noor joined the Women's Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) and, as an Aircraftwoman 2nd Class, was sent to be trained as a wireless operator. By June 1941 she had been assigned to a bomber training school but, finding the work somewhat boring, she applied for a commission. Eventually, Noor was recruited to join F (France) Section of the Special Operations Executive (SOE) [2], and in early February 1943 she was posted to the Air Ministry, Directorate of Air Intelligence, seconded to First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY). She was sent to Wanborough Manor, near Guildford in Surrey, before being ordered to Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, for special training as a wireless operator in occupied territory. Having had previous wireless telegraphy (W/T) training, Noor had an edge on those who were just beginning their radio training and was considered both fast and accurate. In June 1943, now assigned the codename ‘Madelaine’, Noor was inserted by a Lysander aircraft into France with a mission to support the ‘Prosper’ resistance network in Paris. She was the first woman to be sent in such a capacity as all female agents before her had been sent as couriers only.


When the network’s agents were rounded up by German forces, Noor chose to stay in France. She was to be betrayed and arrested by the Gestapo, the Nazi’s secret police, four months later. After several escape attempts and recaptures, Noor, who had steadfastly refused to reveal any information during interrogation, was sent to Dachau Concentration Camp in Bavaria alongside three other SOE operators, Madelaine Damerment, Yolande Beekman and Elaine Plewman. These four women were those executed that morning in September, their bodies being stripped and searched for jewellery.


For displaying ‘the most conspicuous courage, both moral and physical’, in 1949 Noor Inayat Khan was posthumously awarded the George Cross [3].

 

Reference:


Carr, H., (2022), Anniversaries’, BBC History Magazine September 2022, p. 19.


Endnotes:


1. Possibly September 12th.


2. SOE’s mission was to conduct espionage, sabotage, and reconnaissance in countries occupied by the Axis powers, especially those occupied by Nazi Germany. SOE operators allied themselves with resistance groups and supplied them with weapons and equipment parachuted in from the UK.


3. The George Cross (GC) is the highest award bestowed by the British government for non-operational gallantry or gallantry not in the presence of an enemy. In the British honours system, since its introduction in 1940, the George Cross has been equal in stature to the Victoria Cross, the highest military gallantry award. It is awarded ‘for acts of the greatest heroism or for most conspicuous courage in circumstance of extreme danger’, not in the presence of the enemy, to members of the British armed forces and to British civilians.

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