When I was 16, I would spend many school lunch-times on the Science steps, huddled over the latest Cosmo magazine with my girlfriends, flicking over pages of supermodels, movie stars and sparkly celebrities who all seemed impossibly beautiful, capable, exotic and successful.
“This one’s just lost 10 kilos!” Renee would gush.
“BITCH!” we’d all gasp, insane with jealousy and unreachable standards.
“This one’s wearing Stuart Membery!” Penny would squeak.
“BITCH!” we’d shout.
“This one tongue-pashed Christopher Atkins!” Sharon would wail.
It’s a good thing Noor-un-Nisa Inayat Khan had never graced any of those full-colour, spittle-flecked pages. We would have “BITCH!”-ed our lips off, cheap gloss and all.
Noor Inayat Khan was beautiful and demure, brave and cunning, determined and accomplished.
But who Khan was, and what she did, weren’t for splashing across the pages of a magazine. What Khan did was a secret.
Born in Moscow in January 1914 to an Indian father and American mother, Noor and her family moved from Russia to London just before World War I was declared. When she was 6 the family relocated again to France, where Noor grew up and studied music and psychology, becoming a proficient composer. Later she carved out a career writing poems and stories, and was published and broadcast in France and England. Noor also looked after her mother and three younger siblings from an early age, after her father’s death in 1927.
Noor Inayat Khan wasn’t just a dish. She was a multicultural talent-salad with compassionate croutons.
Now we know how the story goes. Just when your career hits its straps, along comes Hitler and spoils everything. When World War II spilled its sausage-stuffed guts all over Western Europe, The Inayat Khans made their way hurriedly to England, arriving in June 1940 with some fairly irksome feelings toward the Third Reich. Before the year was out, irk turned to determination, and Noor signed up for the British Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, in which she was trained as a wireless operator.
By 1943, the then 29-year-old had been promoted to Assistant Section Officer and was recruited to the Special Operations Executive (SOE), a secret British espionage organisation that provided assistance to local resistance movements in Europe. There, Noor undertook a crash course in spy training, which included skills like sabotage, reconnaissance, cryptology and being very quiet. Of course, nobody’s SOE training is complete without being given an alias or two, so Noor Inayat Khan became known as “Nora Baker”.
The intelligent good-looking girl from a fancy family was now an undercover agent for the British Government.
Nora’s fluent French and mad radio skills made her perfect for a mission in occupied France, transmitting information from the French Resistance back to England. Before she could say “Oui, je porte des culottes propre!” she was plopped down in the middle of Northern France to join a resistance network of radio operators. Given the code-name ‘Nurse’, Nora worked her radio-magic along with three others known as ‘Teacher’, ‘Chaplain’ and ‘Monk’ in a covert operation with the rather clever title of ‘Teacher/Nurse/Chaplain/Monk’. Due to its secrecy, there was never a rousing wartime ditty written about ‘Teacher/Nurse/Chaplain/Monk’, but it would have gone something like this:
Teacher, Nurse, Chaplain, Monk;
Won’t give up ‘til Hitler’s sunk;
Packed an extra pair of pants
And parachuted into France.
Teacher, Nurse, Chaplain and Monk were part of a broader group of sneaky people called the Physician network. There were probably no jaunty songs written about them either, but I can’t be expected to do everything, can I?
The radio operators working in the Physician network were very proficient in two significant areas:
1. Operating radios with a view to undermining and overcoming the Nazis; and
2. Being arrested by the Nazis.
In the space of six weeks, all but one of the network had been caught by the Sicherheitsdienst – the Nazi intelligence agency. The lone agent left to continue the important work of the underground soon became the most wanted Brit in Paris, forced to move constantly, knowing that a transmission could be detected within minutes if the enemy came close enough. And who was that brave, resourceful and crafty agent? Who was the only one canny enough to evade capture where others had failed? Why, the lovely Noor Inayat Khan.
Eventually, Noor (slash Nora slash Nurse) was betrayed to the Germans, probably by a double agent. Immediately upon capture, she admitted defeat and blabbed her mouth off about everything. Or at least she would have, if she hadn’t been an absolute blumming hero. She resisted arrest, tried to escape twice and was interrogated for more than a month without breaking her silence. Unfortunately her notebooks, which contained enough information to betray her mission, were discovered by the Germans, who continued to transmit false information to the Allies. Hence, by the time England learned of her capture, things had taken a depressing turn.
After a final attempt at escape, Noor was taken to Germany in November 1943 and shackled in prison. There she stayed for ten months, still defiant in her refusal to talk.
On 13 September 1944, Noor was executed at the Dachau concentration camp near Munich. For her exemplary service and gallantry, she was posthumously awarded a George Cross by the British and a Croix de Guerre by the French. She is remembered in film, poetry, art and monument as one of the bravest women to serve in WWII.
PS. The Nazis lost.