Five years ago, a sculpture of Noor Inayat Khan was unveiled in Gordon Square Gardens, a small green space near Euston station in London. Although she may not be a household name, the tribute to Khan was well deserved.
She was an Indian Muslim who hailed from a noble family, and she was a spy for Britain during WWII.
The memorial bust of Inayat Khan in Gordon Square Gardens, London. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Today (13 September) marks the anniversary of Khan’s execution at the hands of German Gestapo in 1944. To honour her life on this day, we’ll explore how she went from Indian nobility to a war hero dubbed the ‘Spy Princess’.
Khan was born on 1 January 1914 in Russia. Her mother was American, her father was Indian and a Sufi scholar. He instilled strong principles in his daughter, including religious tolerance and nonviolence.
Khan’s great-great-great-grandfather was Tipu Sultan, an 18th Century Muslim ruler of Mysore. According to her biographer, Shrabani Basu, Khan ‘couldn’t bear to see an occupied country’. This may have been a trait inherited from the Sultan, who was killed in battle in 1799 after refusing to submit to British rule.
Khan’s young life can best be described as international. The family moved to London soon after Khan was born. A few years later, they moved to France, where Khan attended school and became fluent in French. Clearly intelligent, the bilingual studied both medicine and music, while working as a children’s author.
When war broke out in 1939, Khan trained as a nurse with the French Red Cross. As the Nazis advanced west into France in 1940, Khan escaped by boat to England with her mother and sister.
Soon after arriving in the UK, Khan joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) as a wireless operator. Her skills were noted by the Special Operations Executive (SOE), who soon recruited her for the elite spy squad in 1942. Noor Inayat Khan, who went by Nora Baker, was now on the frontline of allied espionage.
Khan was deployed to France as part of the resistance network Prosper, which Churchill famously instructed to ‘set Europe ablaze’. Prior to the allied invasion of the Continent, Prosper (and other SOE groups) were embedded in France to aid resistance fighters in repelling Nazi advances, be it through guerilla operations, coordinated attacks or even assassinations. Whatever the case, it was extremely dangerous work, and Prosper members were gradually captured or killed by Gestapo.
Despite the risks – and her commanders demanding she return to England – Khan continued to run a cell of spies for three more months. She employed aliases and disguises, her efforts helping to weaken the occupying Nazi force.
Betrayal, Capture and Death
Historians have spent years researching the decline of Prosper and SOE. Some believe it was demolished from the inside to ensure the future success of D-Day. Seeing as Khan’s capture by Nazis was the result of an internal betrayal gives this theory some legitimate weight.
Whatever the case, Khan was sent to Pforzheim prison in Germany. Despite being tortured, beaten and kept in solitary confinement for 10 months, she refused to reveal any information about her mission. Khan even managed to briefly escape – twice – causing her captors to label the woman raised a pacifist as ‘highly dangerous’.
In September 1944, Khan was transferred to Dachau concentration camp. She was shot and killed on the 13th, along with two other female SOE agents, by the German Gestapo. She was 30 years old.
In an interview with the BBC, Khan’s biographer, Shrabani Basu, said: ‘For her to come into this world on the front line taking on the Gestapo, showed her inner strength and her courage, her immense courage and resilience. It’s very inspiring.’
‘Two and a half million Indians volunteered for the war effort and it was the largest single volunteer army. I think we must not forget their contribution. Noor was part of this.’
In 1949, Khan was posthumously awarded the George Cross for her service in WWII. Her sculpture in London, which was unveiled in 2012, is one of few memorials in Britain to a Muslim woman. It serves as a small but important symbol of her heroism, as well as her heritage.