Noor Inayat Khan, the young Muslim woman born to Indian nobility and who became a British spy in Nazi-occupied France, is among a group of extraordinary men and women whose 100th birth anniversaries will be celebrated with a new set of Royal Mail stamps.
Khan is the only foreigner on the list of ten, each of whom made a remarkable contribution to British society, and which features such giants of British history as actor Sir Alec Guinness; poet and writer Dylan Thomas; legendary footballer Joe Mercer; Economist Barbara Ward and graphic designer Abram Games, among others.
Khan’s inclusion in the ‘Remarkable Lives’ list celebrates her incredible work during World War II as a member of Britain’s famed Special Operations Executive (SOE).
What makes her work for the SOE – becoming the first female radio operator parachuted into occupied France – even more remarkable is the fact that Noor was a fierce critic of British imperialism.
Noor Inayat Khan was the great-great-great granddaughter of Tipu Sultan, the Muslim ruler of Mysore and legendary warrior who had been a thorn on the side of the East India Company in the late 18th Century.
Her father Hazrat, was a famed Sufi teacher who met singer and musician Ora Ray Baker, a Californian who later became Indianized as ‘Amina Begum’.
Noor was born in January 2014 in Moscow where the Inayat Khans lived and performed. She later spent her infancy in London, growing up near Bloomsbury Square before the family moved to Paris, living in a house named ‘Fazal Manzil’.
The eldest child of four the beautiful and artistic Noor was forced to take charge of the family on her father’s death in 1927. In the 1930s, Noor studied music at the Paris conservatory, and child psychology at the Sorbonne.
She also became a writer and broadcaster of children’s stories and became engaged to a Jewish musician. After Germany invaded France in June 1940, the Sufi pacifist and Indian independence campaigner Noor made a choice to support Britain against Nazi fascism.
After making a dramatic escape to Britain from Paris alongside her brother Vilayat, Noor volunteered for the WAAF (Women’s Auxiliary Air Force) and began training as a signals specialist leading the multi-lingual Noor being recruited as a secret agent in November 1942.
Whilst many within the SOE doubted her ability or willingness to operate as a spy, time and again Noor would prove them wrong. Within days of being parachuted into France in June 1943, the French Resistance cell which was supporting her had been compromised and Noor was forced to move from one Paris safe house to another.
She nevertheless maintained her signals transmissions to Britain, constantly outwitting the feared Gestapo. Her biographer Shrabani Basu wrote: “Single-handedly she did the work of six radio operators.”
In October 1943 Noor was betrayed by a member of a Resistance cell and was arrested and taken to a Gestapo detention centre near Paris. Her first escape attempt came within minutes of the guards shutting the doors of her cell, when she attempted to climb out of a bathroom window.
Forced by the Germans to keep up radio transmissions (the “radio game” inflicted on captured agents), Noor duly sent the agreed 18-letter signal to alert SOE about her capture.
Later during her imprisonment, Noor spearheaded a plan to make a daring escape along with several other agents. It almost succeeded – ironically, a simultaneous Royal Air Force raid on Paris prompted a sudden security check.
Viewed by the Germans as dangerous and uncooperative, Noor was sent in November 1942 to Pforzheim prison in Germany, where she endured 10 months of abuse. She was labelled a “Nacht und Nebel” (Night and Fog) prisoner for her espionage activities and earmarked for death.
Despite the abuse, the starvation, the horrendous beatings, Noor never talked.
Then, in September 1944, Noor, along with three other female agents, was transferred to the Dachau concentration camp where she died.
Her exploits became more widely known in 2006 when London-based historian and journalist Shrabani Basu penned a biography, appropriately titled, ‘Spy Princess’.
Ms Basu said: “I am delighted that Royal Mail has commemorated Noor with a stamp. It will ensure that her sacrifice and bravery will not be forgotten. ”
Ms Basu is also the Chair of the Noor Inayat Khan memorial Trust and campaigned for a memorial for Noor.
In November 2012, Princess Anne unveiled a Karen Newman-designed sculpture in Gordon Square, Britain’s first permanent memorial to a woman of South Asian Heritage.