Indian nobles and British Agent
The Commemoration of
Noor Inayat Khan
In the Dachau Concentration Camp
23 November 2015
It is the night of 16 June 1943, when a 29-year-old British-American-Indian ascends a small plane of the Royal Air Force. In her luggage, the young agent has a false passport, a radio and a firm resolve to take action against Hitler’s Germany. Once the Lysander aircraft from Tangmere airfield has flown to the south of London, she heads for the Nazi-occupied France. At dawn, the British have landed on a secret mission on a field near Angers in the Loire Valley. Khan’s order is clear: as part of a special unit of the British military intelligence, the fluent French speaking spy is to get behind the enemy line and to Paris to aid the Resistance and to send information to London. At first the plan goes well, but after about four months, the Indian princess is betrayed to the Gestapo, arrested and later shot in the Dachau concentration camp.
Only a few meters from the place where 71 years ago his sister was tortured and finally shot sits Hidayat Inayat-Khan, The 98-year-old composer has traveled together with his wife Aziza from Holland to commemorate the memory of his sister in the Carmel Holy Blood monastic church at the edge of Dachau. At the invitation of the Evangelical Church of Reconciliation and the Catholic chaplaincy at the Dachau concentration camp, Hidayat Inayat-Khan wants to honour his sister and the thousands who sacrificed their lives for the great ideal of freedom. He calls for a better world.
From the pointed wooden ceiling of the dimly lit chapel hang a few lights that cast conical light on the audience. In front of him is a bouquet of yellow roses, the favourite flowers of Noor-un-nisa Inayat-Khan. I knew that it would be difficult for Hidayat Inayat-Khan to come to Dachau. I am happy that he has followed this gesture of reconciliation. Angelika Eisenmann had the idea for the meeting and the memorial-speaker knows the family well.
Noor-un-nisa Inayat-Khan’s biography reads like the result of a wild night with Hollywood writers. In 1914 she was born in Moscow; the daughter of an American mother and an Indian Sufi master. The father instructed the daughter in a religious universal doctrine which is mainly characterized by its tolerant and peace-loving worldview. Noor is a descendant of Tipu Sultan, the head of the former Indian princely state of Mysore. In the 18th century Tipu Sultan fought against the British colonial power; in whose Ideal of freedom, Noor Khan selflessly follows later. This lineage gives Noor-un-nisa the title of princess.
Following the Russian Revolution, the Inayat Khan family initially traveled to live some years in London, then to Paris, where Noor experienced her youth. At the age of 13, the father dies. The mother falls into a depression and Noor is now responsible for the household . “She was our second mother. She took care of everything, and even taught us good manners,” says her brother Hidayat who speaks fluent German because his wife is originally from Berlin.
Despite her family commitments, Noor-un-nisa develops her musical talent for the harp at the Paris conservatoire and at the same time she studies child psychology at the Sorbonne. She writes children’s stories for the newspaper Le Figaro and her stories are broadcast on Paris Radio. But her career as a children’s author ends when the Germans invade France in 1940. Deeply influenced by the pacifist philosophy of her father, it is not easy for Noor-un-nisa to actively struggle against Hitler’s Nazi Germany. Later, her eldest brother felt the duty to take action: “Given the extermination of the Jews, how could one preach spiritual morality without participating actively in prevention measures?”
The family fled to London, but the youngest brother Hidayat goes to southern France.
In England, Noor-un-nisa was trained as a radio operator in the Royal Air Force. Until the end, she refused to carry a weapon. Her skills as a trained radio operator and her French language fluency made her of special interest for the British secret service. Only her openly critical attitude to the British colonial policy in India gives concern to her supervisors.
In autumn of 1942, Noorunnisa was recruited in the Sonderkommando Special Operations Executive (SOE) . This clandestine unit, as the British Prime Minister Winston Churchill said of it in secret, was to put Europe on fire.
In the shadow of the great battles, this special group was to lead the “ungentlemanly war”: commit acts of sabotage, strengthen resistance groups, paralyze power plants and derail trains. In short, to do everything to weaken the Nazis.
In June 1943, using the code name “Madeleine”, Noor is secretly sent to support an active agent in a Paris spy ring. But in the first days after her arrival, the ring is exposed. Noor takes it over and holds the only radio contact from the occupied city with London. She is now invaluable to the British but in a highly vulnerable situation. She must constantly reckon with possible discovery. For four months she manages to keep the wireless connection alive. But in October 1943 it is discovered. The exotic beauty of the agent attracts attention, but it attracts envy as well. Out of jealousy, Renée Garry, the sister of another agent, is said to have betrayed Noor-un-nisa and gave her up to the Nazis. The Gestapo arrested Noor-un-nisa and kept her for a month for questioning in Paris. But the princess stubbornly refused to divulge information. Therefore, at the end of November she is considered as a “particularly dangerous prisoner” to Germany. In Dachau Noor-un-nisa and three other British agents are ordered to be shot in the early hours of September 13, 1944 in the vicinity of the crematorium.
After Noor-un-nisa’s brother had completed his speech on Sunday evening in the monastery church, the Würzburg String Orchestra Harmonia Unitatis playing his composition “La Monotonia” that Hidayat had dedicated to his sister. The music can be described as a description of Noor-un-nisa’s sufferings: swelling and abating, sounds that are always imbued with the exotic and finally reach decisively to a powerful climax. Hidayat declared “I am deeply touched that so many people today come to remember my sister”.
He ended his speech about his sister with the same words that Noor-un-nisa had on her wounded lips before the SS officer in charge (Wilhelm Ruppert) shot her in the neck:
“VIVE LA LIBERTE’.
Posthumously, Noor-un-nisa was awarded the George Cross and MBE by England, and Croix de Guerre with gold star by France, for her bravery and service in World War Two. In 2012 a commemorative statue of Noor was unveiled in Gordon Square Gardens, London, England. Her life has been the subject of documentaries, novels, and biographies. Her brother Hidayat’s requiem to her memory, La Monotonia, Suite Symphonique op. 7, moves the hearts of all who hear it, and will continue to do so.
Noor Inayat Khan Resources:
• Twenty Jataka Tales - retold by Noor Inayat-Khan - second hand copies are available online.
• Princess Spy - The Life of Noor Inayat Khan by Shrabani Basu, Sutton Press, 2006.
• Noor Inayat-Khan by Shrabani Basu - Inayati Order Website https://inayatiorder.org/noor-un-nisa/
• Noor Inayat Khan by Gaby Halberstam.
• Noor Inayat Khan Memorial Trust
• The Tigers Claw, a novel based on the life of Noor by Shauna Singh Baldwin, Knopf Canada, 2004 was runner up for the prestigious Giller Prize for literature.
• BBC Timewatch (1/5) - The Princess Spy World War II - available on YouTube.