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Women spies of the World Wars: Noor Inayat Khan

This blog series on women working undercover during the world wars highlights a few of the stories that inspired me while writing At the Table of Wolves which deals with the anti-fascist career of Kim Tavistock in the years leading up to WWII.

In the second World War the life expectancy of radio operators in occupied Europe was six weeks. Despite the danger, a number of women applied for and were accepted by the British military for missions behind enemy lines. Among them was Nancy Wake, the first subject of my blog series, and Noor Inayat Khan.

Born in 1914, Noor Inayat Khan was the daughter of an American woman and a prominent Indian father who taught Sufism. The family settled in Britain but moved to Paris in 1920 where Inayat Khan studied music at the Paris Conservatory. At the outbreak of WWII the family fled to England where Inayat Khan cared for her siblings and her widowed mother. Despite her strong pacifist beliefs, she felt she most do something to fight the Nazis and joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force and soon, the Special Operations Executive (SOE) for work as a radio operator where her fluent French was seen as a crucial asset.

Early in the war, women had often been used as couriers, but their role as deployed radio operators was relatively new when Inayat Khan took her training and went to occupied France. Because of her quiet demeanor and modesty, Inayat Khan was discounted as a trainee and nearly cashiered. Self confidence in secret warfare was considered essential, but in addition, prejudice against Inayat Khan’s cultural background likely influenced her handlers to mistake her self-effacing style as self-doubt.

Without trained radio operators in occupied France it would have been nearly impossible to support sabotage work with supplies and military expertise. An operator could not transmit more than 20 minutes at a time since the Germans patrolled with vans listening for signals. Radio antennae were often strung up in attics or disguised as wash lines, and the operator had to constantly move to new locations to avoid detection. This Inayat Khan did with distinction.

But she did not make it to six months. After four months as a radio operator in occupied France, she was betrayed by either the sister of a French resistance operative or a SOE officer who was suspected of being a double agent of the Nazi SD, the intelligence arm of the SS. Inayat Khan was interrogated at the SD headquarters in Paris over several weeks, twice escaping only to be recaptured. She did not reveal intelligence under questioning, but her signaling notebooks were found with fatal consequences to several secret agents.

Her Nazi captors sent her to Germany and held her there in shackles for ten months before she was taken to Dachau and executed with three other women resistance fighters in November, 1944. The two French operatives held hands as they were shot, and Inayat Khan held hands with a fellow British prisoner.

Inayat Khan was posthumously awarded a French Croix de Guerre with silver star and the George Cross, Britain’s highest award for gallantry not in the face of the enemy.

Other women spies in this blog series:


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