Born on the New Year's Day 1914 in Moscow to a noble Indian Muslim man, Hazrat Inayat Khan and his American wife Ora Ray, Noor-un-Nisa Inayat Khan was a direct descendant of Tipu Sultan, the 18th century leader of the Kingdom of Mysore. Her father, a musician and Sufi teacher, moved his family first to London and then to Paris, where they settled in Suresnes, a peaceful hilltop suburb of Paris. Noor studied at the Sorbonne and music at the Paris Conservatory. Eventually, she earned a degree in child psychology and frequently contributed poems to the French radio. She was also deeply interested in music and used to play the Veena, as well as the harp. However, as a young girl, her career focused on writing poetry and children's stories.
By nature, she was a quiet, thoughtful and shy girl, who loved reading and would spend hours lost in the world of children’s stories. Her first book of children’s stories, inspired from Buddhist Jataka tales, was published when she was only 25. Eventually, she earned a degree in child psychology and frequently contributed poems to the French radio.
Unfortunately, the dream of her tranquil life was rudely shattered by the onset of the World War II and along with her mother and sister she had to escape back to England, after the fall of France in June 1940.Swearing to help take down fascism, Noor and her brother Vilayat, decided to help the Allied cause and she immediately volunteered for the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF). During her interview she frankly expressed her willingness to devote her life after the war, to the cause of Indian independence from the British rule. She opened up, despite knowing the fact that it could result in her not getting the job, or worse, being branded treasonous. However, she was trained as a wireless operator and then assigned to a bomber training school in 1941.
With her shy nature, slight built and scatterbrained way of functioning, Noor was not even remotely suited to be a secret agent and in fact, initially she would often freeze up during test interrogations and leave code books out in the open. However, her ability to speak fluent French soon caught the attention of the Special Operations group, created following the fall of France, whose undercover agents were instructed to set Europe ablaze by helping local resistance movements, spying on the enemy and sabotaging the set-up in enemy-held territories. As Noor was deeply passionate about taking down the Nazis and put her heart and soul into training, she quickly became accomplished in spying in record time and eventually she was recruited into the F (France) Section of the Special Operations Executive.
Equipped with code name Madeleine, 29-year-old Noor, the first female undercover radio operator of SOE, parachuted into Paris in June 1943 and joined the Physician network. Unfortunately, barely a month and a half after she had joined, all other radio operators in the network, along with hundreds of other resistance members, were arrested in a giant sweep by the Gestapo. Though Noor somehow managed to escape, she became the sole undercover radio operator left in Paris. Realizing her dangerous situation, the British offered her passage back to Britain, which she refused, staying behind as the only wireless operator working in Paris.
What she did during the next few months exceeded her senior’s expectations. Time and again, she evaded and outran the Gestapo, changing her location and disguise on a nearly daily basis, while continued to send important messages single-handedly from the entire region back to London.
Unfortunately, in the month of October, she was exposed by a local French woman, who discovered her identity and was caught by the Gestapo with her personal documents of secret signals and codes. However, it was not an easy task for the Germans and they needed six burly men to hold her down as the feisty princess fought her captors with punching, kicking and even biting. However, within a few hours into imprisonment, Noor made her first daring attempt to escape, when she demanded to shut the door to protect her modesty while she took a bath. She used the opportunity to escape from the bathroom window and acrobatically clamber onto the roof. But, as the noise had alerted the guards, she was caught again, while she was planning to shimmy down a drain pipe.
After she made another unsuccessful escape attempt, she was sent to Pforzheim prison in Germany in November 1943, where she was kept shackled in chains in solitary confinement and was subjected to relentless violent interrogations. However, despite repeated brutal torture, Noor refused to reveal any information. After almost a year in captivity, she was transferred to the infamous Dachau concentration camp in September 1944, along with three other spies. While her companions were executed almost immediately after arrival, Noor-un-Nisa Inayat Khan was brutally tortured yet again before being shot to death on 13 September 1944.Later, it was reported by the eyewitnesses that before being killed, she screamed ‘liberte’ or liberty, at the Nazi shooting squad.
For her incredible courage and dedication, Noor was posthumously awarded the George Cross, Britain’s highest civilian decoration, in 1949. She was also awarded the Croix se Guerre, France’s best known military decoration. She was described as a ‘modern-day Joan of Arc, by the Mayor of Paris and a tree-lined square in Suresnes was named Cours Madeleine, after her code name. Her biography, titled ‘Spy Princes’, written by Sharbani Basu was published in 2006. She also founded the Noor Memorial Trust, which installed a bust of Noor in London in 2012, which was the first stand-alone memorial to an Asian woman in UK.