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Tuesday, January 3, 2023

The Princess Spy

 The Princess Spy

by C. A. Asbrey

Noor-un-Nisa Inayat Khan

Born on January 1st 1914, Noor-un-Nisa Inayat Khan was a princess, having been born into royalty in India; a Muslim, whose father was a Sufi preacher; a writer, mainly of short stories; and a musician, who played the harp and the piano. Her American mother was born Ora Ray Baker, cousin of Mary Baker Eddy, founder of the Christian Science Church in the USA. Her father was Inayat Khan Rehmat Khan, an Indian professor of musicology, singer, exponent of the saraswati vina, poet, philosopher, and pioneer of the transmission of Sufism to the West. Her great-grandfather was known as the 'Beethoven of India', and came from a noble lineage going back thousands of years.

She was rich, beautiful, talented, intelligent, and lived a life of privilege, and when WW2 broke out, she could have stayed at home and waited it out. Nobody expected women to go to the front lines at that time, and most certainly didn't anticipate going into enemy territory on their own—but she did—and paid the ultimate price as she tried to save lives.

She was a Sufi—a Muslim sect often defined as Islamic Mysticism. Sufists are pluralists, humanitarians, and pacifists, and embrace all humanity with love. "The human being has been created with love in order to love. Mevlâna Jalâluddîn Rumi says, "All loves are a bridge to Divine love. Yet, those who have not had a taste of it do not know!". They see all human life as sacred, and love as a bridge to God. Her religion informed the way she lived her life, and how it ended.

She lived a cosmopolitan life. Born in Russia, her family moved to London in 1914 at the outbreak of WW1. They then moved to Paris, where she was educated at the Sorbonne. She was a child psychologist, a talented harpist and pianist, and wrote a series of children's books, but fled to England when France was invaded during WW2. Her pacifist brother, Vilayat, was also unwilling to fight, but willing to remove danger for others, so had volunteered for the dangerous maritime role of minesweeping. Vilayat said, "You see, Nora and I had been brought up with the policy of Gandhi's nonviolence, and at the outbreak of war we discussed what we would do", said Vilayat, who had followed his father and become a Sufi mystic. "She said, 'Well, I must do something, but I don't want to kill anyone.' So I said, 'Well, if we are going to join the war, we have to involve ourselves in the most dangerous positions, which would mean no killing.' Then, when we eventually go to England, I volunteered for minesweeping and she volunteered for SOE, and so I have always had a feeling of guilt because of what I said that day."

Noor and her brother both burned with a desire to help the in war effort, and she joined the Women's Auxiliary Air Force as a radio operative. It wasn't long before her linguistic skills brought her to the attentions of the French Section of the Special Operations Executive, where she was selected to train as a wireless operator in occupied territory. These brave people maintained a link between London and agents in the field, and arranged logistics and supplies of weapons for strategic attacks and sabotage.

It's difficult to overstate the danger of that role. The average life expectancy when she joined was around only six weeks, and the risks of betrayal were compounded by the dangers of being randomly searched as the operators had to move positions constantly, taking their equipment with them. As possession of a radio was illegal, there was no plausible deniability for an agent caught with one. They would be tortured and killed. 

Her musician's fingers made her talented at the radio work, but questions were raised about her suitability for the role due to her temperament and physical abilities. As a small woman she found it hard to keep up with reports saying, "Can run very well but otherwise clumsy. Unsuitable for jumping" "Pretty scared of weapons but tries hard to get over it." Another instructor wrote that she was "childlike" and had a gentle manner with a "lake of ruse". "She confesses that she would not like to have to do anything 'two faced", while another said she was "very feminine in character, very eager to please, very ready to adapt herself to the mood of the company; the one of the conversation, capable of strong attachments, kind hearted, emotional, imaginative." The harsh truth is that the British were generally so useless at languages that anyone proficient enough was likely to be given a chance to work in the field. Sebastian Falks, the writer of Charlotte Grey said in an article in The Times, "The prime requirement was the ability to speak the language. So poor was British language ability in general that even people who were hopeless at keeping secrets might be recruited if they were bilingual. A French-speaking woman called Noor Inayat Khan, an Indian princess, was recruited despite the fact she told her handlers she could never tell a lie.

Like all agents, she was given the chance to back out, but refused. Her handler detected she was still troubled by what she was about to undertake, so contacted her brother. Vilayat tried to dissuade her from going, but she was adamant. She was going, but she was sent in without her training being complete. 

On the night of the sixteenth or seventeenth of June, 1943, Noor, codenamed Madeleine, was dropped in occupied France. But she'd already been betrayed. By the twenty-fourth of June the Prosper network she had been sent to join was being rounded up. The British offered to bring her home, but she refused as she was the only remaining radio operator left in Paris. She was needed. Her handler agreed to this, but told her she should only receive and not transmit, as that made her easier to trace. She survived until September, when she was turned in for 100,000 Francs (about $558=just under $10,000 in today's money). The chief suspect was Renée Garry, the sister of the head of the team she was working for. After the war Renée escaped prosecution by one vote. Apparently, Noor had stolen the affections of France Antelme, another SOE agent, and Renée's one-time lover. 

 Despite being ruthlessly interrogated, Noor did not give up a single secret, and lied constantly. She did, however, appear to expose details of her general background in casual conversation. The Germans also recovered her notebooks, where contrary to protocol, she had written out all the messages she had sent and received.

On the 25th November, 1943, Noor escaped with two other agents, but only one, John Renshaw Starr, escaped. Noor and Léon Faye were quickly recaptured. It should be noted that Starr gave evidence on behalf of the SS officer who interrogated them that Joseph Kieffer did not injure or kill British prisoners. He was a lone voice in that case, as all other evidence said that Kieffer oversaw exactly that, even if he did not personally deliver it. It is possible the escape was engineered to see who the escapees contacted to bring in more prisoners. An MI5 investigation concluded that Starr may have been a double agent, but that there wasn't enough evidence for a prosecution, despite German evidence that he aided in making bogus wireless messages to London sound more British, and identified the bodies of British, French and Belgian spies. After the allies invaded Europe, he suddenly appeared in Mauthhausen Concentration Camp, just in time to be handed over to the Red Cross. He died in Switzerland in 1996, and was probably a double agent used by the British in ways not yet declassified.

Noor was sent into solitary confinement and permanently shackled hand and foot, graded as 'highly dangerous'. Kept in dreadful conditions for ten months, she was eventually sent to Dachau. The following morning Noor, and three other female prisoners were executed by a shot to the back of the head. A German officer told investigators that the women held hands as they were being executed. A Dutch prisoner later said that Noor was badly beaten by a Gestapo officer called Wilhelm Ruppert, before being shot in the back of the head. Her last word was, "Liberté."

Ruppert was hanged in 1946 for murdering numerous prisoners in similar circumstances to Noor.

Memorial bust of Inayat Khan in Gordon Square Gardens, Bloomsbury, London

And now we come to the part where you make up your own mind. Was Noor sent to her death in the interests of a bigger win? Too much doesn't add up. Were the allies really so desperate that they could send someone whose record said, "Not over-burdened with brains, but has worked hard and shown keenness apart from the security part of the course. She has an unstable and temperamental personality, and it is very doubtful whether she is really suited to work in the field." Possibly—by 1943 the allies were getting pretty desperate, but it can't be dismissed.

Yes, her training was truncated, but did anyone really need to tell her not to keep a record of all her messages? Or, was she told to do this in the knowledge that they were very likely to fall into enemy hands? Why would someone be that incompetent? It makes no sense whatsoever. It seems like the most basic tenet of spying. Would that really be the result of a shorter training course, one where wrong things were deliberately taught, or such a level of incompetence that she should never have been sent in the first place?

Why are large parts of her records still classified? She managed only a few months in the field, when other agents she worked with are not redacted in this way? What could she possibly have encountered that is so secret that we can't know it now? Could it be that the British Government didn't want other spies to know how disposable some people were?

Flight Lieutenant Henri Déricourt RAF, code name “Gilbert”, was already a double agent, and SOE had already failed to heed a warning about Gilbert by Jack Agazarian, one of the chief SOE operatives SOE agents in France. Or did they heed it, and see how to use it? Buckmaster's failure to listen to that warning cost the lives of sixty-seven men and women. British leadership does have a record of appointing people from the 'right' families over ability, but was that more than sheer incompetence? and why didn't the rest of the team pick it up. Déricourt stated in an interview with Jean Overton Fuller that he'd been inserted into the SOE by someone in MI6, and acted on instructions on someone high in London. Was that Buckmaster?

When Noor arrived in France the backup Déricourt was supposed to provide never materialised, and she miraculously made her way to Paris on her own. After her capture, Buckmaster ignored the fact that her messages were being sent without the bluff codes that established they were really sent by Noor. They were being sent by Germans using her books. This was a breach of protocol, or was that feigned ignorance used? Three more agents were captured on landing before notice was taken. It's hard to believe that spies weren't used in that way. Those men even thought of including an eyelash in a letter to see if it had been read when it got back to them. They were all about the details, but not when it came to Noor.

Churchill and his intelligence agencies were experts at disinformation around 1943. There were numerous operations based around this at the time, Operation Mincemeat being the most famous. But there was a whole department working on that stuff, and it was not the only example. It has been suggested that Noor was dropped in occupied France at a time when her arrest and earnest innocence could be not only expected, it was warned about. There was no real reason why her training should have been cut short, unless there was a need to have her in place by a certain date. What could that date be, and could it be used to feed disinformation to the Germans? Churchill began planning in May 1943 for the invasion in June 1944. Noor's mission was smack-bang in that period.

Many people have speculated that these kinds of intelligence errors would have caused the allies to lose the war unless it was a deliberately calculated tactic to send a vulnerable agent as bait. Or was it total incompetence that cost multiple innocent, and well-meaning, lives?

For the record, I don't buy that level of incompetence.

But let's not forget Noor's raw, and very real, courage. She knew she faced death. She knew she wasn't totally prepared—but she went anyway. Noor protected everyone but herself, even under torture and duress. She was a genuine hero, and is someone I've respected since my parents first told me about her in the 1960s. There is a massive network of double-dealing and counter-espionage in the files that rings down the ages, and her bosses were attached to that murky world. People were seen as collateral loss to them, and sacrifices were made in wartime for the greater good.

Noor Inayat Khan was posthumously awarded the George Cross, the French Croix de Guerre, and had a commemorative bust unveiled by the Princess Royal in 2012. A beautiful woman full of passion, empathy, idealism, and humanity, she undoubtedly helped with the war effort, but my question remains. Did she sacrifice herself, or did people make that decision for her without including her?

I am not happy with my own answer to that question.

Noor with her father and brother, Vilayat and father, Inayat Khan Rehmat Khan.




She sighed, turning to him. “Oh, Nat. What a mess. What can we do?” “Do?” 

He leaned in inches from her face, his hot breath hitting her flesh. “We have another chance. We grab it with both hands.” 

“And do what?” Her eyes glittered with inquiring intensely. 

“I still won’t be involved with a criminal. I won’t live life on the run.”

He reached out and stroked her cheek, his smile slipping so easily into the feral. “But you’d be so good at it.” 

“I’m not joking, Nat. We both know there’s something deep here, but it’s not a relationship until we move things on. Falling in love is a big enough gamble as it is without making things more dangerous.” 

He arched his brows, his face lighting. “Love? You love me?” 

“One of us had to say it, and I’m no coward.” She tilted her head proactively. “You have all the missing pieces of my soul. The question is, do I complete the puzzle and accept them?” 

“Oh, neither of us have a choice in that. It’s whether we learn to live with it or fight it.” He rolled a hand into her hair, threading it between between his fingers as he grasped the back of her head and pulled her to him. His kiss was fierce, flooding her senses and causing the world to fall away beneath her. He pulled back staring straight into her with an honesty more frightening than his lies. “Which is it?” 

Her brows met in consternation. “I just told you I love you. Is that all you have to say?” 

The lights in his eyes danced, the way only his devilment could. “Abi…of course I love you. Haven’t I told you so in every breath since we met? Love isn’t only a word. It’s what we do.” His fingers trailed lazily over her cheeks and down to her neck. He brushed her earlobe with velvet lips, moving to her neck. Her head rolled back and her lips parted involuntarily as he toyed with sweet spot on her neck. He was playing with her, making her wait for the crashing crescendo to flood her senses. His mellifluous baritone floated in her ear. “Come with me, Abi. Let me show you more.” His fingers interlaced with hers and he stood, pulling her to her feet, embracing her like a dancing partner. “Let me show how much I love you.” 

She reached out and drew him into a sensual kiss, running her hands through his thick hair. His hand dropped to her hip, moving her inexorably toward the door. It settled there and pulled her close to his hard chest. She groaned, anticipating his next move. 

She slipped one foot behind his and pushed hard. Surprise crowded his face as he tumbled backward onto the floor. “What the hell—"

Her generous lips tugged into her lopsided smile. “You think I’m going to fall into your bed? Think again, Mr. Quinn. If you want to show me love, you can think of a way out of this mess first. Do something to show you deserve me." 



  1. Love the excerpt - so gripping, and what a vital part in your story!
    I agree - Noor was treated very shabbily. Women in WW2 as spies do seem to have been considered less than their male counterparts. And there was always a strange mix of care and carelessness. What a tragic outcome for Noor and her family.

    I recently read about Virgina Hall, an American woman who spied in France during WW2. Her story, told in "A Woman of no
    Importance" by Sonia Purnell, shows the same discrimination that female spies had to put up with.

    1. Thanks so much for commenting, Lindsay. Yes, I think the 'Old Boy' network of the time was a big part of many problems, with ability not being considered unless it came with the right family connections and old school tie. I've always found her story heartbreaking, but full of astounding courage. Happy New Year!

  2. I've always found it sad that the stories of the women who did just as much if not more have had to wait so long to be recognized. That they did what they did in spite of the 'strikes' against them says more than most realize. Thank you for sharing this story. Painful to read, but necessary to know. Doris

    1. Thanks so much for commenting. I also find her story painful, but her bravery shines and shows the best of human spirit. I think that she'd want us to remember the kindness. Happy New Year.

  3. Such a sad story, but very interesting. Also sad that the important roles many women played in the WW2 effort are so rarely mentioned. Thanks for bringing this to light.

    1. I so agree, Ann. I find her courage breathtaking, and she has been a hero to me since my mother told me about her in the 60s. Happy New Year, and thanks for commenting.