“The people of all the kingdoms loved each
other, and they all lived happily ever after.”
Nothing is more devastating than making it all the way through an awesome story only to find out the protagonist dies before the ultimate victory. So here is the truth: on September 13, 1944, a woman named Noor Inayat Khan was shot in the back of the head by Nazis at Dachau concentration camp. Her last word before execution, defiant in the face of one of the evilest forces the world has ever known, was “Liberté!” But just because Noor didn’t live to a ripe old age (or live to see the memorial bust in her likeness that now resides in London) doesn’t mean that her story is any less incredible, or that we should be any less stoked about it.
Noor was truly a woman of the world. Her father was Indian royalty and her mother was an American commoner; the couple met in Russia and raised their children in France. On her father’s side, Noor’s great-great-great grandfather was Tipu Sultan, the ruler of the Indian kingdom of Mysore (and also the guy who so hated the British colonizing his country that he teamed up with Napoleon to keep them out). A century later, Noor’s father rejected the militaristic world climate and chose instead to travel the globe as a teacher and practitioner of the mystical beliefs of Sufism, an esoteric offshoot of Islam characterized by asceticism. It was on one such lecture trip to San Francisco that he met Ora Ray Baker, the woman who would become Noor’s mother. After their marriage in 1913, Noor’s mother took the name Ameena Begum and, in January 1914, gave birth to little Noor-un-Nisa (meaning “light of womanhood”) in St. Petersburg.
The family settled near Paris, in a home that would become a central meeting place of the local Sufi order. Though Noor grew up one of five siblings, she excelled in her own right. After her father died unexpectedly on a trip to India in 1927, Noor took over as head of household but still managed to earn two degrees, one in psychobiology of the child (at the Sorbonne) and one in harp (at the Paris Conservatory). Above all else, though, Noor loved children, and in 1939 she wrote an adorable illustrated children’s book called Twenty Jataka Tales (which you can read online). She infused the book with the pacifist morality she had learned from her father, with tales like “The Baby Quail and the Wood Fire,” which instructs readers how to stand up to those who would hurt your family, and “The Sarabha,” which teaches nonviolence toward living things.
So when war broke out and the Germans occupied France, Noor—being pretty keen on the whole “practice what you preach” concept—knew she couldn’t just sit around while the Nazis stormed their way across Europe. But she was conflicted; like her several-times-great grandfather before her, she was not a big fan of England because of the country’s colonization of India. Still, she reasoned that maybe, if an Indian were to perform an epic service for England, relations might improve between the two countries—or, as her brother would phrase it in 2003, “thwart the aggression of the tyrant.” “I wish some Indians would win high military distinction in this war,” said Noor. “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.” If only someone could summon the steely resolve necessary to undertake this task, Noor! Could it be…you?
In 1940 Noor bravely signed up for the British Women’s Auxiliary Air Force and was accepted under the name Nora Baker (despite telling WAAF officers that after World War II she might head to India to kick the British out of her country. They may have been afraid of her). She trained as a wireless operator, one of the most difficult wartime jobs, which she rocked thanks to her musician-y fingers. But boring ol’ Morse code wasn’t enough for Noor, and so when she saw a posting inviting personnel who could speak fluent French and were skilled at wireless to apply for “special duties,” she leapt at the chance. As you may have guessed, the special duties turned out to be service in the Special Operations Executive, aka the British double-secret-probation spy division. The SOE fake-enrolled Noor in FANY, or First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (thinking that Germans might be nicer to captured female spies if they thought the women were nurses), and shipped her all over the country to learn how to be the best wireless-operator secret agent she could possibly be.
Not surprisingly, almost all of Noor’s male supervisors underestimated her skill and talent. Some were positive: her intake officer, the novelist Selwyn Jepson, said that he had “not the slightest doubt” that Noor, with her “fine spirit,” would make a great agent; and her cryptography teacher, Leo Marks, reported that “Madeleine” (Noor’s code name) could transpose “flawless” messages in record time (he even used metaphors from Noor’s own book to help her make sense of the complicated codes). But everybody else…not so much. Her clandestinity tutor said she was “too emotional and impulsive to be suitable for employment as a secret agent” because she was “too sensitive and easily hurt.” Another called her a “vague, dreamy creature, far too conspicuous,” who was scared of weapons and was so clumsy she couldn’t even jump. The superintendent who mock-interrogated her said, “If this girl’s an agent, I’m Winston Churchill.” (That’s not even a good burn.) Noor’s Special Operations Executive finishing report called her “not over-burdened with brains” and possessed of “an unstable and temperamental personality” that made it “very doubtful whether she is really suited to work in the field.” Lesson being: even if you are the best at what you do in the entire world (and, trust, Noor was up there), some jerks will always try to make you feel bad about your abilities.
Anyway, the SOE’s military need for operatives outweighed their patriarchal desire to feel superior to this lovely Indian gal, and they sent Noor into action, making her the first female wireless operator dispatched to France. Now she was known as Jeanne-Marie Regnier, a governess from Blois, who had been given two suitcases (one containing her wireless), a broad spectrum of pills (including one that would kill her in case of capture), and a six-week life expectancy. Noor landed on a secret runway in the middle of the night with her associates (two women on her spy team, a courier and an organizer), and then headed alone to Paris. Upon arriving at her handler’s house, she told him she hadn’t eaten since leaving England because no one had taught her how to use her confusing ration book—but she had brought him carnations. Next, Jeanne-Marie convinced her Germanneighbor to help set up her wireless antenna by craftily telling him it was a clothesline.
But not everything was so simple. In addition to missing her mother (who thought her daughter was on vacation in Africa), Noor soon faced dire circumstances: within a few weeks of her arrival in Paris, the Sicherheitsdienst (or SD, the SS intelligence agency) had arrested Noor’s entire spy ring—not just the two girls she arrived with, but practically every British undercover agent in Paris. British Intelligence told Noor to lie low, but she refused to stop broadcasting and wouldn’t leave her post without a replacement. So for nearly four months, Noor was basically in charge of British secret communications in Paris. To keep the Germans off her trail, she dyed her hair and traveled from safe house to safe house. When transmitting critical encoded information back to England, she could broadcast for no longer than twenty minutes at a time lest she risk detection by the German’s sneaky mobile wireless detectors. In fact, Noor was Number 1 on the SD’s Most Wanted List, and they knew nearly everything about her, from her code name to her likeness. But they couldn’t stop a girl with a mission. Noor’s perseverance saw her through many tricky operations, including helping in the escape of thirty airmen who had been shot down.
Tragically, in October 1943 Noor was betrayed—possibly by a double agent—and captured by the Germans. During her imprisonment, she told the Gestapo nothing, not even her name (though they did find a notebook in which she had written her communications, probably because of a misunderstanding during her rushed training). Even braver, Noor twice attempted escape, first by trying to climb out a bathroom window within minutes of arriving at her first prison, and second by unscrewing the bars on her cell’s skylight, hiding the plaster damage with makeup (!), and tying together sheets and blankets to form a rope that allowed her to reach the building next door. She almost got away with it, too, but was thwarted, ironically, by the increased security brought on by a British air raid. She ended up shackled in solitary confinement as a “highly dangerous” prisoner after refusing to sign a paper saying she would never again try to flee. A year later, right before the end of the war—well, go reread the first paragraph. It didn’t end well for our Noor, but she fought until the bitter end.
In 1949, five years after her death, Noor was awarded the George Cross, Britain’s highest honor for heroism in the face of extreme danger, and was recognized in a newspaper article as “the first woman operator to be infiltrated into enemy occupied France” who “refused however to abandon what had become the principal and most dangerous post in France.” In France, where every year a military band still plays in her honor on her home street, Noor was given a similar military decoration, the Croix de Guerre with gilt star (an extra pin to mark that she had been mentioned in an official report by a superior officer). In 2011 Noor’s biographer started a campaign to raise money to erect a bronze bust of her likeness in George Square Gardens in London. A year later, Princess Anne revealed a memorial in front of hundreds of Noor’s family members and former SOE coworkers, making Noor the first Muslim or Asian woman ever to have a memorial in all of Britain.
Noor was so kind to everyone that even the Gestapo officer in charge of her imprisonment was moved by her death. When he heard the news after the war, he broke down in tears. As her brother Vilayat noted, “All those who knew her had a deep respect for her whilst being moved by some endearing feature of her being. Was it because she so deeply cared for all those she came across—even her jailers?” More than likely. We should all be so brave.