Women You Missed in History Class: Noor Inayat Khan

Noor Inayat Khan (1914-1944)

You might be pretty cool, but you’ll never be as cool as Noor Inayat Khan.  She was both an actual real-live princess and an actual real-live spy, and she gave her life fighting the Nazis.  Noor Inayat Khan was born January 2, 1914 in Moscow, Russia.  Her father, Hazrat Inayat Khan, was a Sufi master and a direct descendant of the 18th century rulers of the Kingdom of Mysore.  Her mother, Ora Ray Baker, was an American from New Mexico.  Khan’s family moved to London shortly before World War I, and she was raised in England and then France.  Their home doubled as a school for Sufi mystics, and Khan’s father was close friends with Mahatma Gandhi.  As a young girl, Khan was often described as shy, sensitive, and imaginative.  As a young adult, she became a poet and children’s book author.

When World War II broke out, Khan joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force.  Though she believed in non-violence and didn’t feel any strong allegiance to England, she felt compelled to join the fight against fascism and “couldn’t bear to see an occupied country.”  She was trained as a radio operator and recruited to join the Special Operations Executive.  She excelled in her training, and became the first female radio operator to be sent into Occupied France.  She had been in Paris barely a week when her spy operation was caught by the Gestapo.  Khan was the only member of the mission who managed to escape.  She was encouraged to return to Britain, but rejected this offer.  Instead, she continued to evade the Nazis for several more months, transmitting wireless communications back to London.  As the sole remaining radio operator, she did all the work of a six-person mission by herself and lasted much longer than the average radio operator.

In 1943, Khan was betrayed and arrested by the Gestapo.  She was interrogated at SD headquarters in Paris, but refused to give up any information, and fought back so fiercely that the SD officers were actually afraid of her.  She managed to escape custody, but was quickly recaptured.  On November 27, 1943, she was taken to Germany and imprisoned in Pforzheim prison where she was shackled and kept in solitary confinement.  She was kept in prison for 10 months and endured repeated beatings, but still refused to give up any information to the Nazis.  Her fellow inmates reported that they heard her crying at night, but during the day, she remained steadfast and endured months of torture rather than betray any of her fellow operatives.

Khan was transferred to Dachau where she was executed on September 13, 1944.  She was thirty years old.  According to other prisoners, her last word was “liberté.”  In 1949, she was posthumously awarded the George Cross, the second highest award issued in the British armed forces.  In 2012, Princess Anne unveiled a bronze bust of Khan in Gordon Square Gardens in London.  It is the only standalone war memorial of a Muslim or Asian woman in the UK.


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