World War II Indian “Spy Princess”

The BBC had a feature article today which I found interesting and thought I’d share. It was a profile on Noor Inayat Khan, who served as a British spy in France against the Nazis during World War II. Eventually she was captured, (and some sources say tortured, although it is unconfirmed), and executed in Dachau at the age of 30. Her final words were “Liberte!”

So often we hear negative news stories about South Asian Muslims, and rarely are heroic or strong South Asian or Muslim females featured, so I wanted to take the opportunity to point you towards her story. Additionally—the intercultural twist—her father was an Indian Sufi, and her mother was a Caucasian American, and she was born in St. Petersburg, Russia in 1914.

Noor with her American mother, Ora Meena Ray Baker

According to the BBC article (Churchill’s Asian spy princess comes out of the shadows) and the Wikipedia entry on her, she was the great great grand-daughter of Tipu Sultan, the 18th century ruler of the Kingdom of Mysore (and hence the use of the word “princess” in relation to Noor), who ironically was famous for fighting against the British.

Although Noor was “deeply influenced by the pacifist teachings of her father, she and her brother Vilayat decided to help defeat Nazi tyranny.” She was quoted as saying, “I wish some Indians would win high military distinction in this war. If one or two could do something in the Allied service which was very brave and which everybody admired it would help to make a bridge between the English people and the Indians.”

Noor in the early days

At first her Special Operations Executive trainers expressed doubt about using Noor in the field due to her “gentle and unworldly character,” however she was fluent in French and trained in wireless operation, and was ultimately selected to work as a spy in Nazi-occupied France. She was deployed in June of 1943 under the code name “Madeleine.”

A month after her deployment her spy circuit began to collapse and her commanders urged her to return to England, but she refused to abandon what had become “the principal and most dangerous post in France” because she did not want to leave her French comrades without communications.

For three months, she single-handedly ran a cell of spies across Paris, frequently changing her appearance and alias until she was eventually captured. On her arrest she fought so fiercely that the German police were afraid of her and she was thenceforth treated as an extremely dangerous prisoner (contrary to her earlier description of being too “gentle”). She attempted to escape twice during her interrogations, and according to the former head of the Gestapo in Paris, Hans Kieffer, “never gave a single piece of information to the Gestapo, but lied consistently.”

On November 25th 1943 she escaped with two fellow agents but were captured shortly thereafter during an impromptu air raid alert. She refused to sign a declaration renouncing future escape attempts so she was shipped to Germany and held in solitary confinement for ten months, classified as “highly dangerous” and was kept shackled in chains most of the time.

Noor, in the field

On September 11th 1944 Noor and three other agents were moved to Dachau Concentration Camp, and in the early hours of September 13th the four women were executed by a shot to the head. An anonymous Dutch prisoner reported in 1958 that Noor was cruelly beaten by a high-ranking SS officer named Wilhelm Ruppert before being shot in the head. Her last words were “Liberte!”

She was posthumously awarded a French Croix de Guerre and the British George Cross (Britain’s highest award for gallantry not on the battlefield).

To learn more about her, the BBC recommends Noor’s biography “The Spy Princess” by Shrabani Basu written in 2006.

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5 responses to “World War II Indian “Spy Princess”

  1. Super cool! Thanks for sharing!

  2. Her story was fictionalized in a novel by Shauna Singh Baldwin “The Tiger Claw”. Very interesting.

  3. Thanks for posting this! I learned a lot! Imagine what her mom and dad were up against in that era.

  4. Interesting story. The world does not know enough of people such as this who willingly gave up their lives for a cause they felt was greater than themselves. I wonder if any generation of any country will match up to those around the world alive at that time. I doubt very much–pessimist that I am–that my generation or the one after mine could match up to them. A generalization, sure, but I stand by it.

  5. Such an amazing story… I’m surprised that she did not receive more attention before!

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