Noor Inayat Khan defied expectations from the start. As an Indian-American who was fluent in both French and English, she wasn’t the cookie-cutter prototype of her U.K. born peers after joining the top-secret Special Operations Executive (SOE) spy agency at the height of World War II. But her fervent dedication and passion to aid the war effort more than made up for it. Noor, who would later be nicknamed, “The Spy Princess,” due to her paternal roots that traced back to Tipu Sultan, was only 28-years-old when the SOE recruited her in 1942.
By then, though, any traces of her Indian heritage had been erased by none other than Noor herself. Just six months earlier, she escaped Nazi-occupied France with her family and settled in the quaint, college town of Oxford, England. Shortly afterwards, she voluntarily enlisted in the British Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) in November of 1940. There, she listed her name as “Nora Baker,” in an ode to her mother’s maiden name of “Ora Baker.” Like anyone else starting a new chapter of their lives in a foreign land, she simply wanted to fit in. Amid the growing conservatism of 1940’s England, it was a decidedly smart move.
During Noor’s time with the WAAF, she tirelessly trained and worked as a wireless radio operator. As a former piano player, it was a natural fit for her as much of the role focused on the speed, dexterity, and accuracy of her hands as she transmitted secret, coded messages.
Meanwhile, England’s prime minister, Winston Churchill, was devising top-secret battle plans with his colleagues. In 1940, Churchill launched the SOE – short for Special Operations Executives – to, in his words, “set Europe ablaze.” It would serve as one of the country’s elite intelligence agencies in the war, using undercover, guerilla warfare techniques, among many other covert techniques, to acquire vital enemy information.
Two years after its inception in 1942, the SOE began including women in its ranks. They were in desperate need of wireless radio operators at the time, due to a growing number of male fatalities, and needed to expand their reach.
Noor, who had often longed for a more substantial role in the war effort, was eager to participate in the SOE when they recruited her in 1942. Her previous wireless radio operating experience and effortless command of the French language made her a top recruit for the agency at the time. But after her initial interview at London’s Hotel Victoria, there were doubts about her competence. In his training notes, one officer referred to her as “…not overburdened with brains.” Still, others, like Vera Watkins, who oversaw the agency’s recruits in France, saw Noor’s potential, and gave her the job.
It would launch an entirely new chapter in Noor’s life that required as much courage as it did skill. Just a few nights before she left to work undercover in France, Noor visited a friend. She head “…stars in her eyes. She wanted to go,” her friend recalled.
Her mother, though, was despondent, and pleaded with Noor to reconsider. But Noor was adamant about her decision. She wrote her mother back, and said, “…family ties are petty when winning this war is at stake.”
In mid-June of 1943, Noor lived up to her words and boarded a tiny, Lysander plane to fly into France. It was the beginning of a long, perilous journey that would later make history for centuries to come.
Born in Moscow just seven months prior to the start of World War I in 1914 on New Year’s Day, Noor Inayat Khan was the first of four children born to Hazrat and Ora Khan. Newlyweds just a year before, the pair had traveled to Russia so Hazrat – a highly sought-after Sufi teacher and musician at the time – could work on a Hindu musical he was producing with the composer, Sergei Tolstoy.
The family stayed there until the following summer, and then packed their belongings and headed west to England, where they settled in London’s Notting Hill district.
In the years that followed, her three younger siblings would arrive. First, with her two brothers Vilayat and Hidayat, and then later, her sister, Claire. It was a time of frugality and sacrifice for the family as the shadows of World War I enveloped them. They would often subsist on modest meals of rice and dal as Zeppelin planes rained bombs overhead in London, in wave after wave of attacks.
As the war raged on, her father toured England with other musicians, giving benefit concerts to aid the war effort. He sent them what little money he could, along with hand-written letters addressed individually to his wife and children. Even though the frequent distance from their father was often hard for Noor and her siblings to endure, it was a lifestyle Hazrat Khan had begun decades before, in his youth. And even with a family, touring was essential to bring in the income the family needed. So, they accepted the sacrifice, and often relished the summers, when their father would often sojourn his professional endeavors.
After World War I ended, the family decided to leave London, and start their lives over in France. They soon settled comfortably in the blue-collar town of Suresnes, just west of Paris, at a sprawling estate her father called, “Fazal Manzil” – the House of Blessings.
With 3,500 square feet of living space in their estate’s quarters, the square, stone-walled residence next to Mont Valerien felt almost like a castle at first. Its expansive grounds provided an almost idyllic childhood for Khan and her siblings – from climbing trees to playing games, there was never a shortage of fun things to do.
It was, perhaps, one of the most peaceful times in Noor’s life, that is, until her father’s untimely death in 1927. It shook her family to the core, leaving her mother in a perpetual state of mourning in the years to come. Ultimately, it forced Noor to take on a more maternal role with her siblings. This was a natural fit for her, as her nickname at the time, “Little Mother,” attests.
The 1930’s were a whirlwind of activity for Noor as she matured into adulthood while learning to balance the needs of her family with the newly discovered outside world. In 1931, after graduating from high school, she started taking classes not only at the Sorbonne in Paris, where she majored in child psychology, but also at the École Normale de Musique, where she met and fell in love with a Turkish Jew and fellow student, named Goldberg.
During that time she carved out her own niche in the world as an avid musician and writer. Noor’s innate talent for playing the harp and veena guitar, as well as writing poetry, led her to give weekly concerts for her family in the evening, after dinner, for entertainment. It soon became a cherished tradition.
In addition to pursuing her studies in Paris, she not only wrote for local papers, like the French newspaper, Le Figaro, but also managed to publish a collection of her own children’s stories. In 1939, her book, “Twenty Jakata Tales” was published in England.
Eventually, Noor’s relationship with her fiancé, Goldberg, started to unravel. Rife with stress from the start, it was never an easy relationship by any means. But Noor remained loyal to it for six whole years, despite the fact that its psychological torments would often either leave her in tears, or make her physically ill. Much to the relief of her family, she finally broke it off with Goldberg in the middle of 1939, and set her eyes firmly on her future.
But as Noor’s adult life began to take shape, the world around her started to change. A man by the name of Adolf Hitler had just begun to take over the European continent with his evil, anti-Semitic regime. Its significance would be unprecedented and sudden, sparking a match that would soon engulf everyone’s life.
WORLD WAR II BEGINS
After German forces conquered Poland in 1939, they wasted no time in upping their brutality, swiftly taking over Europe’s low countries in Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg, before invading France on June 22, 1940.
Remarkably, France’s army was thought to be one of the best in the world at the time. Even so, its defenses, as the French Premier Paul Reynaud put it, fell like “…walls of sand that a child puts up against waves on the seashore,” after the German invasion.
The skies were sunny and comfortably warm in Paris that day. But there were no frolics at the beach or carefree dates at any of the gourmet restaurants in the city. Some citizens stood in silent horror as they watched German troops march down the Champs Élysées. One man in the crowd was seen weeping, a glazed sadness over his face. Others had gathered in clusters inside their homes, crowding around tall, arched radios, as news of the German invasion swept over the airwaves.
What had once been thought an unlikely occurrence had now become reality. Just outside the city of Compiègne, German leaders met with officials from the Third French Republic. There, they signed armistice papers, giving them total and complete control over the northern half of France, as well as the country’s Atlantic coastline that boarded Spain.
World War II had begun.
As luck would have it, Noor’s family escaped France just days before on June 19th. Like countless other families who knew a German invasion was likely imminent, they packed their car to the brim, not knowing for certain if they would ever see their home again. After driving to Tours, they boarded a train headed to the small, port town of Le Verdon. From there, they boarded a freighter ship, and fled to England.
Four days later, they arrived, docking in the county of Cornall, at Falmouth. Later, they headed to Oxford, where they soon settled.
Of course, everyone was not as lucky as the Khans. Many were left behind, including the 330,000 Jews that were still living in France in 1940. Just two years later, most, if not all of them would be captured and sent to labor and extermination camps throughout Europe.
There was no question that the France Noor and her family left behind, reflected very little of the country they had grown to love. Paris, especially, had transformed itself from a city of bohemian freedom and stately elegance, into a chilled, dark, corridor where little, if any light, was still allowed to shine.
No one could have guessed that in the years to come, one of France’s own refugees would brave the war-torn, battalion skies to come back and fight for the liberty she left behind.
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“BBC Timewatch – The Princess Spy (World War II). YouTube, uploaded by History Files, 1 May 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IObZOArCm6Y
Magida, Arthur J. Code Name Madeleine: A Sufi Spy in Nazi-Occupied Paris. W. W. Norton, 2020.
Mukherjee, Dipanjana. “NV oor Inayat Khan: Britian’s First Muslim War Heroine.”STSTW Media. https://www.ststworld.com/noor-inayat-khan/
“Noor Inayat Khan: Why Was the British Spy Such an Unlikely War Hero?”, History Extra.
Tsang, Amie. “Overlooked No More: Noor Inayat Khan, Indian Princess and British Spy.”The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/28/obituaries/noor-inayat-khan-overlooked.html