Noor Inayat Khan – Notable Women in History Series

Photo: The Guardian

Noor Inayat Khan, codenamed “Madeleine,” served in the WWII resistance network Prosper, as a British spy. Though she was later captured and executed in a concentration camp, she earned recognition for her efforts and bravery in the face of the Nazis.

Khan was born on New Year’s Day in 1914 in Russia to an Indian father and American mother. Her infancy was spent in London, but the family later moved to Paris, where she grew up and became fluent in French. Often referred to as the “Spy Princess,” Khan was a descendent of Tipu Sultan, the 18th century Muslim ruler of Mysore.

In France, Khan worked writing children’s stories, until war broke out in 1939, when she then trained as a nurse with the French Red Cross. The next year, just before the country fell to German tyranny, Khan, along with her mother and sister, fled to the neighboring UK.

Shortly after her arrival in the UK, Khan joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) as a wireless operator. However, she quickly caught the attention of recruiters from the elite Special Operations Executive (SOE), and agreed to work undercover in Paris as a radio operator. The national archive records show that she was the first female wireless operator sent to Nazi-occupied France during World War II.

It is said that Khan’s bravery was not out of love for Britain, but a distinct aversion to fascism and dictatorial rule. The moral code imbued by her father to value religious tolerance and non-violence prompted Khan to serve her country.

Khan successfully evaded capture for three months while aiding British efforts to win the war.  Upon capture she was imprisoned and tortured for 10 months during which time she revealed nothing to her captors. Eventually she was transferred to Dachau concentration camp, where she was shot and killed, along with 3 other female SOE agents. Her final word, uttered as the German firing squad raised their weapons, was liberté.

Khan was posthumously awarded the George Cross, as well as the Croix de Guerre in France, and later with two memorials and an annual ceremony marking her death. Though there are undoubtedly many unsung female heroes of World War II, this women’s history month, we at least are able to honor Noor Inayat Khan for her courage and service.