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Noor Inayat Khan was, without a doubt, one of the bravest women to ever live. She was a British secret agent during World War II, working as a radio operator in occupied Paris. In fact, working as the only radio operator in occupied Paris. The average life span for that job was six weeks, and she lasted almost four months. She escaped the Gestapo numerous times and went out fighting. All this even though everything about her work went against her basic nature.
Noor was the least suitable person in the world to become a spy. For one thing, she was a deeply-rooted pacifist – her father was a Muslim Sufi who counted Mahatma Gandhi as a personal friend. Their family home doubled as a mystic school. She was so deeply invested in Sufism that she outright refused to lie, which, you’d think, would disqualify her for the job entirely.
On top of that, she didn’t even like Britain! She said as much in her initial interview with the British military, due to her relentless honesty. She told the interviewers that after the war, she would devote herself to obtaining India’s independence. This is almost like applying to work at a construction site and saying you plan on tearing the building down afterwards.
And she wasn’t remotely physically suited to be a spy! Prior to the war, she spent her days writing poetry, music, and childrens’ books — she was not exactly bodybuilder material. In test interrogations, she would freeze up in terror and start quietly muttering to herself. Her instructors remarked that she was clumsy and scatterbrained, and regularly left codebooks out in the open.
And above all, in the greatest sin one could have against a spy, she did not blend in, at all. Her parents were Indian and white, British and American, royalty and commoner; she was raised Muslim and Sufi; she was born in Moscow and lived in London and France. She was an actual, honest-to-god princess, descendant of Tipu Sultan. She could not have stood out more if her mother was albino and her father was a neon signpost.
She could not have stood out more if her mother was albino and her father was a neon signpost.
But something changed in her when the Nazis invaded Paris. Seeing their bombs drop on her beloved France stirred something deep inside her, and she resolved to change.
And change she did. In short order, she was placed with the British Special Operations Executive, to be trained as an undercover radio operator. She flung herself into training, becoming adept both physically and mechanically in record time. Her eccentricities shone through, though: her radio encryption code was derived from one of her poems, and her codename, Madeleine, was a character from one of her stories. Her clumsy style of Morse signaling was so peculiar that she was jokingly nicknamed “Bang Away Lulu.” But despite the misgivings of many of her superiors (most were downright patronizing in their assessments), she sped through training, and was soon sent to Paris as the first secret female radio operator.
Unfortunately, tragedy struck almost immediately. Barely a week into her Paris assignment, virtually the entire Parisian spy operation was caught in a giant sweep. Noor escaped, but by the end of it, she was the only radio operator in the entirety of Paris. London offered to extradite her, but she flat-out refused until a replacement was made available.
What happened next, no one expected: she fucking CRUSHED it. For nearly 4 months, she evaded the Gestapo, changing her location, looks, and clothes on a nearly daily basis. On more than one occasion she tricked, evaded, or just plain outran the Nazis. All the while, she did the work of six people, relaying all of the spy traffic for the entire region back to London by herself. She lasted three times as long as the average radio operator.
She was eventually caught, when a double agent betrayed her to the Nazis. She went down as you’d expect a lifelong pacifist to: by punching, kicking, and biting like a wild animal. Then, scant hours into her imprisonment, she made her first escape attempt. She did so by demanding a bath, and further that the door be closed (to protect her modesty). As soon as the door shut, she darted onto the roof, nimbly clambering across the tiles, only to be caught again.
Facing the possibility of harsh punishment, she grew outwardly compliant, as she fed the Germans lie after lie. All the while she was plotting another escape, which almost worked — except, just as she left her cell, the British made a surprise air raid. Because of that, the guards did an unscheduled check of the cells, only to find the bars on her window undone and her sprinting across the roof again.
They weren’t taking any chances with her after that. She was reclassified as extremely dangerous, shackled in chains, and kept in solitary confinement. Her interrogations changed from friendly questioning to relentless physical violence. Her new prison mates, unsure who she was, mostly knew her through her nightly weeping. And yet, this girl who failed her test interrogations so miserably never revealed a single thing. Virtually all of the information we have on her last months comes from the few survivors in the cells surrounding her. She would scratch out messages to them on the bottom of her food bowl, identifying who she was.
And then, one day, she was taken to the Dachau concentration camp along with three other spies. While her companions were shot almost immediately after arrival, Noor’s execution was prolonged, giving her an extra day that was nothing but hour upon hour of brutal beatings. According to the other prisoners, her last word, shouted at the Nazis before being shot, was “liberté.”
Noor Inayat Khan gave everything of herself. She became a pacifist that fought dirty. A klutz that climbed buildings. A Sufi that lied daily. An artist that braved torture. A captive that told nothing.
She became a pacifist that fought dirty. A klutz that climbed buildings. A Sufi that lied daily. An artist that braved torture. A captive that told nothing.
She was thirty years old.
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- That is the rooftop of 84 Ave Foch, the building she was imprisoned in. The flak going off in the background is a callback to the air raid that thwarted her escape attempt, and also is supposed to draw the eye to Noor.
- Her outfit is what she was caught in – blue dress with white trim and a gray jumper. The suitcase radio she’s using is the same model she was using in Paris. Her hand is even reaching for the Morse signaling button.
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