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NOOR-UN-NISA INAYAT KHAN (1914–1944)


Noor-un-nisa was a resistance fighter during World War II. Her father, Inayat Khan, was a famed Indian musician and a descendant of Tipu Sultan. Her mother was American. She was born in Moscow though the family had to flee the country shortly afterwards in the face of the growing unrest building up towards revolution. After having spent some years in London, they settled in Paris, where her father had lived when young; he had played in Mata Hari’s backing band, and may have been the source of the famous dancer and charlatan’s stories of being born in South India. He died in Paris when Noor was 13. Struggling to support her ailing mother and her young sister and brothers, she studied child psychology and began to write children’s books. Her Twenty Jataka Tales Retold was published in 1939. With the outbreak of war she and her sister Khair-un-nisa trained as nurses, though Hitler’s advancing armies forced them once more to flee to London, where one of her brothers, Vilayat, was a fighter pilot in the Royal Air Force.

Noor wished to join the war, but was repeatedly refused because of her non-Christian name, her foreign nationality, and her frankly avowed commitment to fighting for Indian Independence after the war. She knew French and she finally managed to get the British to take her on as a radio operator behind enemy lines in Paris using the code name ‘Madeleine’. Too small to wear a standard issue parachute, she was flown in on a tiny plane, but the dangerous landing proved fruitless as her contact failed to turn up. Given the option of quitting, she refused and returned again, successfully this time. In Paris she was reckless; sometimes appearing in public with her radio equipment, or leaving secret documents where others could sneak in and see them. She lived in a building that housed many German officers, but her charm and wit soon had them all eating out of her hand. Once a German soldier caught her hanging the radio aerial from a tree, yet she succeeded in convincing him it was a washing line; he actually helped her set it up. On another occasion she managed a tricky situation by explaining to a soldier that her radio was a cinema projector, confusing him with technical talk.

By the close of 1943, however, she was in trouble. Two Germans posing as Canadians had infiltrated her circle and captured many of her colleagues. She escaped to Normandy, and was told she must not return to Paris under any circumstances. She disobeyed orders and returned, hoping to be able to rebuild her group. She failed, and before she could escape a second time, the Gestapo caught her with her equipment and documents. Knowing that she could hardly escape the death penalty now, Noor asked to be shot at once, but the Germans, hoping to interrogate her, refused. She then asked to be allowed to take a bath, and made such a fuss about the soldiers watching her undress, that she was allowed to close the door and then promptly escaped out of the window, only to be captured again. She was imprisoned; the first captured British agent to be held in Germany. After 10 months in jail she was transferred to the infamous Dachau prison camp. There on 11 September, 1944 with the Allied victory just months away, Noor was shot with three other British agents. Her last word was ‘Liberté!’ She was posthumously awarded Britain’s highest civilian award for bravery, the George Cross, and the French Croix de Guerre with gold star.
 
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