Noor Inayat Khan / Nora Baker (1914-1944) – An exceptional lady with a tragic ending
Noor Inayat Khan lived a remarkable life of self sacrifice for the cause of freedom. Brought up in the mystical Sufi tradition, Noor abhored violence but she willingly volunteered for the dangerous task of being a secret agent in occupied France. Incidentally, Noor means “light of womanhood” or “illumination”. She was the great great great granddaughter of the celebrated Muslim ruler of Mysore – Tipu Sultan, who in the 18th Century fought the British, stemming their advance into South India. Her father Inayat Khan did not pursue a political path but instead for brought the great spiritual tradition of Sufi mysticism to the West. He married an American, Ora Meena Ray Baker in Paris and settled in Russia where Noor was born 1 January 1914. After a brief spell of living in England the family relocated to France. Noor was an exceptional person who had an impact on whoever she met. She was described as being “dreamer” and “otherworldly” with a capacity for clairvoyance. On leaving school she studied music for six years, and little by little becoming more European and less oriental in her habits and dress. Her children stories were published in Figaro and a collection of traditional Indian stories, Twenty Jataka Tales, appeared in 1939. She was about to bring out a childrens newspaper in Paris when war broke out.
Noor believed in the principles of non violence but in the face of overwhelming Nazi aggression of 1939-40 she felt compelled to take an active role in the liberation of Europe. Therefore she decided to flee France and getting on one of the last boats to England, she was able to sign up in the WAAF (the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force) where she trained as a wireless operator. She was invited to join the SOE on a perilous mission as a radio operative in occupied France. She was told about the potential dangers but Noor was quite eager to participate and also working as a radio operative did not compromise her principles of non violence.
In 1943 Noor was dropped into enemy France and began sending radio messages from around Paris. She proved a good operator in the field and was said to have done her work very skillfully and conscientiously. Unfortunately the network was broken up by the Gestapo, leaving her as the one remaining wireless operator. Her superiors in England recommended she return such was the high likelihood of capture. However Noor refused to return, instead playing a vital role as the last remaining wireless operator in Paris. Noor put up quite a fight when she returned home and found a single Gestapo agent waiting for her, so much so that he had to cover her with his gun whilst he phoned for assistance in order to bring her in. They also retrieved her transmitter and the notebook containing all her messages, codes and security checks. On arrival at the Gestapo headquarters on Avenue Foch she was taken up to the fifth floor and within an hour she had made an escape attempt, climbing out of a bathroom window onto a ledge where she was spotted and brought back in.
For the next five weeks she was interrogated daily with constant and increasing pressure on her to co-operate. Some Frenchwomen sent to the prison as political prisoners managed to communicate with ‘Nora Baker’, as Noor was calling herself. The last words from her, in a shaky hand, were “I am leaving”. It was the 11th September 1944. That night, almost ten months after she had been locked up, she was taken by the Gestapo to Dachau. In the early morning she was shot from behind.
Now, Shrabani Basu – a historian and journalist based in London as correspondent for an Indian newspaper group – has pieced together Noor’s story more fully and reliably than ever before in a new biography, Spy Princess. After her death she was posthumously awarded the Croix de Guerre and the George Cross (1949). SS Trooper Wilhelm Ruppert said to have brutalized and ultimately shot her was tried for war crimes and executed by the Americans on May 29, 1946.