Sunday, February 23, 2020

AN UNLIKELY SPY

by Lisa Black          

          Though Chris mentioned Noor Inayat Khan in a previous roundup of female spies, I ran across a small display of her story this past summer in DC’s The Spy Museum. Her tale is complicated, surprising, and inspiring.
Noor Khan

          Noor Khan was the daughter of an American woman from New Mexico already schooled in Sufism (Muslim mysticism) and an Indian teacher of Sufi who had descended from a famous and influential 18th century ruler. This meant Noor had royal blood as well as a foundation in nonviolence, literature, and social responsibility.

At the beginning of World War II, Noor lived with her widowed mother in France, studying child psychology and writing poetry. As Germany invaded they fled to Britain. Noor and her brother both burned to join the war effort—to fight tyranny, but also not unaware that their bravery might help foster a greater bond between Indians and Brits. Yet they were both dedicated to nonviolence so decided to compromise by volunteering for the most dangerous assignments. Her brother went into minesweeping. Noor joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force to train as a wireless operator, but shortly, still aching to do more, volunteered to work in occupied territory. Women were already there as couriers but her wireless training and fluent French put her on the fast track to be the first woman to work inside as an operator.

Dangerous? Very. Messages couldn’t be sent for more than twenty minutes or operators risked interception by the enemy, as when they needed to move the bulky transmitter to a new location. Being caught with a transmitter had no innocent explanation. The life expectancy of a wireless operators in 1943? Six weeks.

But, back up. Why do I say an ‘unlikely’ spy? Because Noor was neither a great brain or a great athlete or a great actress. She was a little clumsy, sweet, friendly and loathe to dissemble—the idea of lying, even to an enemy, didn’t sit well with her—so that her handlers thought she might not be up to the task and considered recalling her. But they quickly learned her reluctance lay in causing any worry to her mother, not from any lack of confidence or determination. Noor had determination in spades. 
Noor—code name ‘Madeleine’—was flown to France to work under Emile Garry, alongside a man named Henri Dericourt. She maintained the communications between occupied France and the Allies for four months, until someone betrayed her to the SS. It might have been Henri. It might have been Renee Garry, the sister of French hero Emile (who would be executed at Buchenwald). Both were tried after the war, and acquitted—barely.

Noor wouldn’t talk. But, perhaps as a result of her rushed training, she kept copies of all the messages she’d sent. This allowed the SS to continue sending messages, apparently from ‘Madeleine.’ Courier Sonya Olschanezky tried to warn London—but, not sufficiently familiar with her, they disregarded her information. This led to the arrests and deaths of more agents, including Sonya. 

Noor Khan escaped from SS headquarters in Paris—twice. They classified the dreamy poet as “highly dangerous” and sent her to solitary confinement in southern Germany. She spent the next ten months alone, in chains. She still didn’t tell them anything.

Finally they gave up and sent her to Dachau with three other captured agents, so that the four women were executed the following dawn. In 1949 she was posthumously awarded the George Cross, the highest civilian honor given “for acts of the greatest heroism or for most conspicuous courage in circumstance of extreme danger.”

Noor Inayat Khan might not have been totally cut out to be a champion of the Allies, of Britain, India or Islam, but she didn’t let that so much as slow her down.

Many times we surprise ourselves as well as others. What have you done lately that you weren’t likely to do? Small, big, serious, fun?

4 comments:

  1. What a fascinating history! This story of Noor's bring to mind the recent bestselling novel, THE LOST GIRLS OF PARIS, evidently based on this same scenario -- the exploits of brave young women who worked with the French resistance, often as radio operators in WWII. Thanks for telling us this factual story about a great woman.

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  2. It does! She must have been one of the many inspirations.

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  3. What an inspiring story. What a great Rogue she was! So glad to know about her. Thanks, Lisa!

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  4. It's funny how sometimes, even if you lack the skills or abilities needed, sheer will and determination can drive success. Thanks for digging deeper on Noor.

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