Noor Inayat Khan was born in 1914 in Moscow to an Indian father and an American mother. She was a direct descendant of Tipu Sultan, the 18th-century Muslim ruler of Mysore.
The family moved to London and then to Paris, where Khan was educated and later wrote children’s stories. In 1940, she escaped to England after the fall of France. She was a staunch pacifist, but she and her brother Vilayat felt that it was not enough to oppose fascism passively, and felt a need to take action.
She sought to contribute to the fight against Germany without taking lives, which led her to join the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) in November 1940. In her interview for the WAAF, she shocked the panel by expressing an obligation to fight for India’s colonial independence after World War 2.
In late 1942, Khan was recruited to join the Special Operations Executive (SOE) as a radio operator. Some of her supervisors were unsure about her suitability, but on 17 June 1943, Khan became the first woman agent parachuted behind enemy lines in France (previous women had been sent as couriers).
Khan’s mission was to maintain radio contact between Britain and the ‘Prosper’ resistance network in Paris, with the codename ‘Madeleine’. Her job was incredibly dangerous and risky – radio equipment was bulky and hard to conceal, and staying on the air for more than 20 minutes at a time risked detection by the enemy. The average lifespan of a field agent was just six weeks.
Khan evaded capture for three months, but the Paris Resistance network began to disintegrate during the summer of 1943, with several members of the network arrested. In October, she was betrayed by a Frenchwoman and arrested at her Paris flat and taken to German security headquarters.
She made two immediate escape attempts but was recaptured both times. She also refused to sign an agreement with her captors ruling out a third. Regarded as an extraordinarily dangerous and uncooperative prisoner, she was kept in chains and solitary confinement in Pforzheim prison for ten months. She had unwisely kept copies of all her secret signals, and the Germans were able to use her radio to trick London into sending new agents—straight into the hands of the waiting Gestapo. Despite repeated torture at the hands of her captors, she refused to reveal any information.
In September 1944, Khan and three other female SOE agents were transferred to Dachau concentration camp, where they were executed on 13 September. She was just 30 years old.
Her last reported word was ‘Liberté’.
For her courage, Khan was posthumously awarded the George Cross in 1949, the highest civilian decoration in the UK. To this day, Khan remains the first and only Muslim woman to be honoured with a statue in Britain.