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She was easily flustered, scatter-brained
on 18 July 2015
Noor Inayat Khan was the daughter of an Indian Sufi mystic of royal heritage and his American wife. The family lived in Paris before the second world war broke out and Noor wrote and published children’s stories. When the Nazis invaded France Noor and her family escaped to England where she joined the WAAF. Later she was recruited by SOE as a wireless operator and returned to Paris in what was one of the most dangerous jobs of the war (average life expectancy of an undercover wireless operator was six weeks).
Noor is an utterly compelling character. While training to be an SOE agent most of her instructors were adamant she should not be used. She was easily flustered, scatter-brained, terrified of weapons. She was also beautiful and thus highly conspicuous – the obverse of ideal for a secret agent. SOE however were desperate for wireless operators. Upon arriving in France she quickly made several highly dangerous mistakes – forgetting passwords, leaving her codes lying about, preserving written versions of all the messages she sent to London which she was told to destroy. And yet, she was to become tremendously courageous and cunning and eventually was the last Wireless operator at large in Paris with the entire Paris Gestapo on her trail.
It has to be said this isn’t a great biography. This isn’t wholly the fault of the biographer (though her repeated reference to British “jets” becomes annoying as surely it’s common knowledge Britain was yet to produce a jet aircraft in 1943/44). By the nature of her work Noor was elusive. The months before her capture she was often alone or liaising with fellow agents who were to be executed by the Nazis. So there are big gaps which have to be filled in with guesswork, which is also true of periods of her captivity in Gestapo prisons.
But was Noor a pawn in a much bigger story? Events in France at this time, six months or so before the Normandy landings, are as shrouded and electric with conspiracy theories as the assassination of JFK. Shrabani Basu, the author of this biography, writes the official and probably sanitised version of Noor’s life. She believes everything’s she told and presents it as a neat and tidy tragic story. That the capture of practically the entire network Noor worked for was down to bad luck and a double agent called Henri Dericourt. It has since come to light that quite possibly Dericourt was a triple agent, secretly working for MI6. It’s more than likely that he wasn’t the only triple agent. So a theory has emerged that it was in the interests of the Allied high command that the Gestapo captured these agents and played back their radios to London allowing the British secret services to disseminate false information to the Nazis. While the Gestapo were giggling at their cunning at coaxing the British to send arms and money right into their hands the British, in what may well have been a triple bluff, were sending these arms drops to the Calais region with the implication that the landings would take place there and not Normandy. In war many difficult decisions have to be made. In that context the sacrifice of twenty or so agents to save the lives of thousands upon thousands of soldiers has a convincing logic. It’s certainly highly suspicious that SOE chose to ignore so many clear warning signs that their agents had been captured and continued to send messages to their wireless sets.
If you’re interested in the female SOE agents sent to France I recommend the brilliant A Life in Secrets by Sarah Helm
And if you’re interested in Noor there’s a very good 40 minute documentary on youtube