Skip to comments.The truth about India`s spy princess
Posted on 07/03/2006 11:32:48 AM PDT by CarrotAndStick
Once youve seen it, you cannot forget the crematorium at Dachau, the concentration camp where thousands of people were slaughtered by the Nazis during World War Two. I saw it five decades after the war had ended. Time had done nothing to obliterate the horror of a place where everything from the cramped quarters to the furnaces had been designed to inflict suffering and death on people with an inhuman efficiency.
At that time, the legend of Noor Inayat Khan had been forgotten; the Indians who visited Dachau usually missed the plaque to her memory: A la memoire de Noor Inayat Khan, 1914-1944; Madeleine dans La Resistance, Fusillee a Dachau; Operatrice Radio du Reseau Buckmaster,Croix de Guerre 1939-1945, George Cross. After Shrabani Basus well-researched Spy Princess: The Life of Noor Inayat Khan (Lotus/ Roli Books), I suspect most Indian visitors to Dachau will pause to honour the shy, dreamy girl whose extraordinary life ended in this terrible place.
Over the years her story has been told by authors who lacked the facts, or who saw in Noor a wonderfully exotic figure, an Indian princess turned Mata Hari. Laurent Joffin wrote a trashy romance, The Forgotten Princess, in which Noor appeared as a smouldering, sensuous and not terribly bright spy.
One of the few books that set down the truth about Noor was written by a friend and associate, Jean Overton Fuller, though even Fuller was hampered by a lack of information. Last year, Shauna Singh Baldwin fictionalised Noor Inayat Khans life in The Tiger Claw. Her account was not inaccurate, but anyone who reads Baldwins book and then turns to Basus non-fiction account will realise that Noors life didnt need fictional embellishment. The most satisfying parts of Baldwins novel were the ones that drew on real life-Noors training as a wireless operator, the dangers of trying to evade discovery by the Germans, her capture just a few weeks before she was due to return to Britain, the cruel end in Dachau.
Basus book is far more interesting than The Tiger Claw. In order to tell the whole story of Noor Inayat Khans life, Basu waited until 2003, when the archive that held the personal files of SOE agents was finally opened. She went to the Sufi Headquarters in The Hague and to Dachau, visited Inayat Khans tomb in Delhi and spoke to members of the Special Forces Club. Her research is extensive, and makes up for the slightly bland style.
Noor Inayat Khan was born on New Years Day in Moscow in 1914, to the musician and Sufi preacher Hazrat Inayat Khan and his American wife, Ora Ray Baker. Hazrat Inayat Khan was descended from Tipu Sultans family and had performed at concerts of Indian music in America, Paris and Moscow. Noor grew up in London and in the small village of Tremblaye, outside Paris. She was a creative child who loved listening to her fathers lectures on Sufism, wrote sentimental poems and played the harp and the piano. As a young adult, she studied child psychology, translated the Jataka Tales into English and contributed stories to the childrens page of the Sunday Figaro. She was quite beautiful; petite, doe-eyed, with small, near-perfect features: little about her suggested a future spy.
In 1940, she and her brother Vilayat decided to go to England and join the war effort. Noor joined the SOE as a wireless operator: it was a humble job, but a dangerous one, and some of her trainers feared that she was not bright enough, or that she would crack under pressure. Selwyn Jepson, who recruited her, didnt share their fearshe felt instinctively that she was right for the job.
Noor was sent into France in June 1943, working as a radio operator under the code name Madeleine. Prosper, the group she joined, had been under surveillance by the Germans for a while, though, and her colleagues were arrested within a few days of her arrival in Paris: most of them were executed or died in concentration camps. Noor became the last radio operator in France; for several months, she managed to make her transmissions while dodging the Germans. In October, her luck ran out: she was captured and imprisoned. During the next few months, she was interrogated several times; she was shackled and had either potato peel or cabbage soup to eat, but she didnt crack. She was transferred to Dachau in September 1944. On the night of 12th September, Noor was brutally beaten and tortured before she and three other women were shot and sent to the crematorium. Seven months later, Dachau was liberated.
In England Noor Inayat Khan joined the Women's Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) and trained as a wireless operator. While working at a Royal Air Force bomber station, her ability to speak French fluently brought her to the attention of the Special Operations Executive (SOE). After being interviewed at the War Office she agreed to become a British special agent.
Given the codename "Madeleine" she was flown to Le Mans with Diana Rowden and Cecily Lefort on 16th June 1943. She travelled to Paris where she joined the Prosper Network led by Francis Suttill. Soon after arriving a large number of members of the resistance group associated with Prosper were arrested by the Gestapo. Fearing that the group had been infiltrated by a German spy, she was instructed to return home. However, she declined, arguing that she was the only wireless operator left in the group.
Noor continued to keep the Special Operations Executive in London informed by wireless what was going on in France. She also made attempts to rebuild the Prosper Network. However, it appears that the Gestapo already knew of her existence and were following her in an attempt to capture other members of the French Resistance.
After three and a half months in France Noor was arrested in October and taken to Gestapo Headquarters. She was interrogated and although she remained silent they discovered a book in her possession where she had recorded the messages she had been sending and receiving. The Gestapo were able to break her code and were able to send false information to the SOE in London and enabled them to capture three more secret agents landed in France.
Noor was taken to Nazi Germany where she was imprisoned at Karlsruhe. In the summer of 1944, Noor, and three other SOE agents, Yolande Beekman, Eliane Plewman and Madeleine Damerment, were moved to Dachau Concentration Camp. The four women were murdered by the Schutz Staffeinel (SS) on 12th September, 1944.
In 1949 Noor Inayat Khan was posthumously awarded the George Cross.
So many courageous people, so few of whom we'll ever hear about.
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