I was very intrigued to read that a major film is being made about the life of Noor Inayat Khan. For those who aren’t familiar with this WWII heroine, a brief synopsis, after which I’ll discuss the plans for the movie.
In September of 1944, Noor was executed at the Dachau concentration camp. Her name is not one that you would expect among a roster of concentration camp inmates in 1944. She was not Jewish, nor indeed European. Although she had been in France at the time of the German invasion of 1940, she had escaped with her family to England, and could have remained there safely for the duration of the war. Why was she in Dachau?
Noor (the name means “light of womanhood”) was the child of Hazrat Inayat Khan, a leader of the Sufi movement, and his American wife. She was a descendent of Tippu Sultan, a prince who had been one of the most effective enemies of British rule in India. Strangely, she was born in Moscow, where certain members of the Czar’s court were interested in Sufiism. After the Revolution, the family moved to a suburb of Paris. Noor is remembered as gentle, shy, musical, dreamy, and poetic. She was noted for her kindness to animals, and it was to her that neighborhood children often brought an injured kitten or puppy. She attended the Sorbonne and became a writer of children’s books and stories; she broadcast some of her stories on the radio. (Her book, Twenty Jataka Tales, is still in print.)
As World War II approached, Noor and her brother Vilayat both decided that the urgencies of the situation overrode the pacifist principles of Sufiism. She studied nursing, against the wishes of her then-fiance, with the intent of assisting the wounded in the coming war. But the collapse of the French Army took place more quickly than anyone had expected, and she escaped to England with her family. There, she enlisted in the Royal Air Force and became a radio operator, skilled in the high-speed transmission and reception of Morse code.
Wanting to contribute at a higher level, she applied for a commission. The interviewing officer asked her about her views on Indian independence, and she became very vehement on the subject–saying, in essence, that she would be loyal to the British Empire while the war against under Hitler was underway, but that afterwards she would work for Indian independence. She left the interview feeling that she had lost her temper and ruined her chances.
She never found out if she would have gotten the RAF commission or not, because she was presented with another opportunity to serve. She was contacted by the secret organization Special Operations Executive, which supported resistance operations in France and other occupied countries, and asked to come in for an interview. SOE badly needed radio operators, who were sent into occupied Europe by parachute and light aircraft. The job was, of course, a very dangerous one: the Geneva Convention afforded no protection to secret agents.
The interviewer was SOE’s principal recruiter, the writer Selwyn Jepson. He was immediately impressed with her, but was reluctant to accept her for the job…telling her that she might be of more value to humanity if she survived the war and continued writing her children’s books. She indignantly rejected the suggestion. Jepson: “..with rather more of the bleak distress which I never failed to feel at this point in these interviews, I agreed to take her on.”
Noor was sent to an SOE training school. The curriculum included shooting, hand-to-hand combat, practice sabotage missions, and mock interrogations. While there was no question about Noor’s technical proficiency in communications, concerns were raised concerning her overall fitness for the role of a secret agent: particularly her dreamy and absent-minded nature and her striking and easily-recognizable appearance. The training organization recommended that she be removed from the program, but was overridden by Maurice Buckmaster, head of SOE “F” section, who believed in her capabilities. (“F” section was responsible for operations in occupied France.)
Noor had not learned parachuting, so her route to France would be via Lysander airplane. These planes were slow, single-engine craft which had the ability to take off and land in small fields. In mid-May 1943, an attempt was made, but the reception committee was not on the ground at the destination field, so the plane had to return to England.
On June 16–the next period with appropriate moonlight–Noor went again to the airfield in Tangmere. She was accompanied by Vera Atkins, the Intelligence Officer of SOE “F” section. At the field, Noor admired a silver bird pin that Atkins was wearing. Atkins took it off and handed it to her: “I want you to have it,” she said.
The plane landed without incident in a moonlit meadow near Angers. Noor and the two other passengers (both women) got out, and several people got in. The plane took off for England again. The three agents headed in different directions. Noor, as instructed, made her way to Paris. There she hooked up with the group for which she was to serve as communicator, an organization called PROSPER after the code name of its leader.
Very soon after Noor’s arrival, PROSPER was broken by the Germans, and a large number of arrests were made–Noor herself escaped only by a fluke. She and her radio now represented a vital communications link for the remaining resistance groups in Paris, and she was constantly on the move. She had many narrow escapes–on one occasion, she was putting up her transmitting antenna (a long wire) when a German soldier asked her what she was doing. She told him it was a clothesline, and he courteously helped her put it up. On another occasion, a German insisted that she open up the suitcase which contained her radio equipment. “It’s a movie projector,” she told him. “See all the little lights?” (referring to the vacuum tubes) Fortunately, the German evidently knew nothing about either electronics or film equipment.
Her luck did not last, however. In October 1943, she was betrayed and was arrested by the Gestapo. On her first night in captivity, she escaped, but was soon recaptured. She was offered better treatment if she would promise not to attempt escape again, but refused to make such a promise. She was interrogated for five weeks and evidently was not tortured, although the psychological pressure on her was very great. Finally, concluding that they would get nothing out of her, the Gestapo sent her to the civil prison at Pforzheim in Germany. The warden was told that she was a very dangerous prisoner who was to be kept chained night and day.
Some time in September 1944, a teleprinter message from Berlin arrived at the local Gestapo office in Pforzheim. It directed that Noor, along with three other female agents being held in the prison, be taken to a “convenient” concentration camp and executed.
It’s reported that the women, not knowing where they were going but glad to be out of the prison, enjoyed their ride on the train.
At Dachau, they were locked up separately overnight. There is some evidence that Noor was brutally beaten–not for interrogation purposes at this point, but out of pure sadism. In the morning, they were led to the execution ground and were all shot.
After the war, the British government awarded Noor the George Cross, its highest civilian award for bravery. She was also awarded the French Croix de Guerre.
As popular writers and historians have studied the activities of SOE, disturbing questions have been raised about the fate of the PROSPER group to which Noor was assigned. Some have alleged that PROSPER was deliberately betrayed to the Germans by the British government as part of a higher-level disinformation plan. Others believe that the PROSPER debacle was the result of infighting between SOE and the traditional British intelligence services. It has been determined that there was a double agent in SOE France, and, after the war, some British officials seemed strangely reluctant to see him prosecuted. While the conspiracy theories seem unlikely to me, it does seem likely that PROSPER’s demise was influenced by Churchill’s decision to sharply increase the pace of SOE/resistance operations in order to deceive the Germans into thinking that invasion was coming sooner than it actually was. Many SOE records have been lost, and we shall probably never know the whole truth.
Selwyn Jepson, the man who recruited Noor into SOE, never forgot her. “…not only in the dark hours of solitude, but at unexpected moments of daytime activity, it is as though a shutter opens in a familiar wall which I know has no shutter in it, and she is there, briefly, the light filling my eyes. She does not haunt me, as do some of the others…she is simply with me, now and again, for a little moment.”
The Selwyn Jepson quotes are from the book Madeline, by Jean Overton Fuller. (“Madeline” was Noor’s SOE code name, taken, I believe, from the title of one of her stories.)
The film will be directed by Shyam Benegal, who is apparently a well-known director in India, and is based on the book Spy Princess by Shrabani Basu. It will be made available English, French, German and Hindi–I’m not sure if this will be via subtitles or via dubbing.
More about the film, and about Bengal’s other work, here.