Noor-un-nisa Inayat Khan was born on New Year’s Day 1914 in Moscow to an Indian Muslim father and an American Christian mother. She was a direct descendant of Tipu Sultan, the 18th century Muslim ruler of Mysore on her father’s side. Noor was a relative of Mary Eddy Baker on her mother’s side. Khan’s father was a musician and Sufi teacher. He moved his family first to London and then to Paris, where Noor was educated and later worked writing stories for children. Khan escaped to England after the fall of France and in November 1940 she joined the WAAF (Women’s Auxiliary Air Force). In late 1942, she was recruited to join SOE as a radio operator. Although some of those who trained her were unsure about her suitability, in June 1943 she was flown to France to become the radio operator for the ‘Prosper’ resistance network in Paris, with the codename ‘Madeleine’. Many members of the network were arrested shortly afterwards but she chose to remain in France and spent the summer moving from place to place, trying to send messages back to London while avoiding capture.
In October, Khan was betrayed by a Frenchwoman and arrested by the Gestapo. She had unwisely kept copies of all her secret signals and the Germans were able to use her radio to trick London into sending new agents – straight into the hands of the waiting Gestapo.
A few hours after her capture, Khan attempted to escape from her confinement in Paris, but her attempt was foiled. Where she had folded like a pack of cards during her SOE training interrogation sessions, Khan held her own and did not reveal a single piece of true information when grilled by the Gestapo.
Just a few weeks later, in November, Khan made a second unsuccessful attempt to escape from her Paris prison. On refusing to sign a declaration that she would not make any further attempts to escape, Khan was taken to Germany as a ‘Night and Fog’ (Disappearance without Trace) prisoner, to be placed in solitary confinement, beaten and fed the smallest of rations. She was kept shackled at her hands and feet for ten months. While Khan steadfastly refused to give up any information to her captors, her spirit was broken and she was often heard sobbing through the night.
In September 1944, Khan and three other female SOE agents were transferred to Dachau concentration camp where on 13 September they were shot. On 13 September 1944, Khan along with three other fellow agents was transferred to the infamous Dachau concentration camp. While the others were executed immediately upon arrival, Khan was reportedly brutally beaten and tortured yet again, before being executed via a shot in the head. Her last recorded word was ‘Liberté’ (freedom).
For her courage, Noor Khan was posthumously awarded the George Cross by the British government in 1949. In 1949, the French government awarded her a ‘Croix de Guerre’. She is also mentioned on an SOE memorial plaque at Dachau. Additionally, a primary school and a square were named after Khan’s SOE codename ‘Madeleine’ in Suresnes, France.
In November 2012, a bronze bust of Khan was unveiled at Gordon Square Gardens in London near where she used to live. Princess Anne, the only daughter of Queen Elizabeth II was the one that unveiled her statue. The statue is engraved with the last word she reportedly said before being executed at Dachau — “Liberté.” In 2014, the British Royal Mail issued a commemorative stamp in honour of Noor Inayat Khan. In February 2019, with the announcement of Khan’s wartime home in London being adorned with a ‘Blue Plaque’, Khan became the first Indian-origin woman to be accorded this rare honor.