Honoured at last, the Indian heroine of Churchill’s spy squad
By Cahal Milmo, Chief reporter
Tuesday, 4 January 2011
On 13 September 1944, a glamorous British agent known as Madeleine was shot dead at Dachau concentration camp by her Nazi captors. Despite being tortured by the Gestapo during 10 months of imprisonment, she had revealed nothing of use to her interrogators. Her last act was to shout “Liberté!”.
Her bravery and forbearance were made all the remarkable by the fact that Madeleine’s real name was Noor Inayat Khan, and she was the daughter of an Indian Muslim preacher and a devoted supporter of independence for her ancestral homeland. She had joined Winston Churchill’s sabotage force, the Special Operations Executive (SOE), and was the first female radio operator sent into France, with the famous instruction to “set Europe ablaze”.
The role was so dangerous that Noor, like her father a Sufi Muslim, arrived in Paris with a life expectancy of just six weeks. But she lasted three months, single-handedly running a cell of spies as she traversed the city, frequently changing her appearance and alias until she was betrayed, aged 30, most likely by the jealous girlfriend of a comrade.
It is a tale of great courage which has long been recognised on the other side of the Channel, where there are two memorials and a ceremony is held each year to mark Noor’s death. But in Britain, the contribution of this Anglo-Indian heroine who gave her life to defeat Nazism has been forgotten.
That is about to change with the launch of a campaign to raise £100,000 to install a bronze bust of her in central London close to her former home. It would be the first memorial in Britain to either a Muslim or an Asian woman.
The project, which has the backing of 34 MPs and prominent British Asians, including human rights campaigner Shami Chakrabarti and film director Gurinder Chadha, is being led by the London-based biographer of Noor as part of a rekindling of interest in her story, which includes the making of a £10m biopic by a British production company.
Shrabani Basu, who spent eight years researching Noor’s history in official archives and family records, said: “I feel it is very important that what she did should not be allowed to fade from memory, particularly living in the times that we do. Here was a young Muslim woman who gave her life for this country and for the fight against those who wanted to destroy the Jewish race. She was an icon for the bond that exists between Britain and India but also between people who fought for what they believed to be right.”
Around £25,000 of the cost of the bust has been raised and permission granted to site the sculpture on land owned by the University of London in Gordon Square, close to the Bloomsbury house where Noor lived as a child in 1914, and where she returned while training for the SOE during the Second World War. New Year’s Day marked the 96th anniversary of her birth.
Born in Moscow to an American mother, educated in Paris and carrying the British passport of an imperial subject, Noor had no innate loyalty to the country for which she died. Her great-great-great-grandfather was Tipu Sultan, the renowned “Tiger of Mysore”, who refused to submit to British rule and was killed in battle in 1799.
It may have been tales of his ferocity in battle told by her father, Hazrat, which steeled Noor to carry a pistol through the streets of Paris, but she was not a natural warrior. Suffused with Sufism’s creed of non-violence, she studied child psychology at the Sorbonne and became a children’s writer in the 1930s.
But when war broke out in 1939, Noor and one of her brothers, Vilayat, decided they had to travel to London, setting aside a fervent support of Indian independence which had brought their father into contact with Mahatma Gandhi and dedicating themselves to what they saw as the greater evil of Nazi Germany.
After she was rejected by the Women’s Auxillary Air Force, her fluent French, quiet dedication and training in radio transmitting were spotted by SOE officers.
Initially, her recruiters were less than generous in their assessment. One wrote: “Not overburdened with brains but has worked hard and shown keenness, apart from some dislike of [the] security side of the course. She has an unstable and temperamental personality and it is very doubtful whether she is really suited to work in the field.”
But over time this view changed. Her commander, Maurice Buckmaster, head of the SOE’s French section, later noted: “A most brave and touchingly keen girl. She was determined to do her bit to hit the Germans and, poor girl, she has.”