The Forgotten Muslim Spy Who Gave Her Life during World War II

Nora Baker was cautious when she entered her flat in Paris on October 13, 1943. It didn’t matter. Pierre Cartraud, a French man working for the Gestapo, German’s notoriously brutal secret police force, was waiting behind the door. Nora lunged at him. She knew exactly why he had come for her. She was a spy after all.

Nora Baker’s real name was Noor Inayat Khan. She was born in 1914 to Hazrat Inayat Khan, a famous Sufi leader who was descended from the Indian Sultan, and Pirani Ameena Begum, an American woman. Her childhood was idyllic. Her father used the family’s home in Paris as his headquarters to spread Sufism, a mystical branch of Islam, to the west. She studied music at the École Normale de Musique de Paris and published children’s books.

When World War II began, Noor was conflicted. Her religion preached nonviolence, but Noor knew she couldn’t stand by. She made plans to join the war effort in Britain. Her decision was even more significant because of her staunch support for Indian independence—a cause that some Indians thought should be used as leverage for their service in the war. Noor had a different strategy.

“I wish some Indians would win high military distinction in this war,” Noor reportedly once said. “If one or two could do something in the Allied service which was very brave and which everybody admired it would help to make a bridge between the English people and the Indians.”

Noor fled France and joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force in England in 1940. Despite her openness about her support for Indian independence, Noor was recruited for the Special Operations Executive (SOE), the secret organization created by Winston Churchill and instructed to “set Europe ablaze.”

The organization usually met with potential recruits 2-3 times to determine if they were trustworthy. Noor only met with her recruiter once. He knew that her knowledge of French culture and perfect French made her a strong candidate. More importantly, he recognized that she possessed an intellect and inherent trustworthiness that would make her an invaluable asset.

After several months of training, Noor (code name Madeleine) was flown to France in June 1943. When she landed, Noor became the first woman radio operator in occupied France. What she didn’t know was that her cover was already blown. The agent who met her flight, Henri Derricourt, was giving intel to the Germans. None of the agents she flew in with would make it out of the war alive.

Within weeks, Prosper—the intelligence circuit Noor was assigned to work with in Paris—began to fall apart. Most of her contacts were arrested. Soon Noor was the only wireless operator in Paris. She worked tirelessly, doing the work of six people to try and keep communication with Britain alive.

As the British agent network in Paris continued to crumble, Noor’s supervisors in England advised she return home. The risks were too high. If she continued to transmit, she would undoubtedly be captured. She repeatedly refused. She dyed her hair blonde, then red, and moved constantly to keep the Germans off the scent of her transmissions.

After evading Gestapo agents for months, she was betrayed to the Germans by a double agent and they were finally able to track down the flat where she was staying. She fought viciously when she found a Gestapo agent in her room, biting his wrists until he bled and was forced to call for back up.

Noor was taken to Gestapo headquarters in Paris where she immediately tried to escape. After hatching another, more elaborate escape attempt and refusing to sign a paper saying she would not do so again in the future, she became the first political prisoner sent to Pforzheim prison.

She was classified as highly dangerous, kept isolated, given the minimal amount of rations and chained hand to foot for months.

On September 11, 1944, she and three other female agents were transported to Dachau Concentration Camp. They arrived at midnight. The three other women were taken from their cells to a spot near the crematorium and shot in the early morning.

Noor was not so lucky. She was taken to a cell, stripped and beaten by the Germans throughout the night before being shot. Noor was eventually forced to kneel and a German placed a gun to her head. Even then her spirit was not diminished.

“Liberte,” she said. The German shot her point blank. Dachau was liberated seven months later.

It took years for the SOE to discover what happened to Agent Madeleine. When Noor’s death was confirmed she was awarded the George Cross and the Croix de Guerre.

“Noor Inayat Khan sacrificed her life in the fight against Fascism,” Shrabani Basu, author of Spy Princess: The Life of Noor Inayat Khan says. “Today…her message of peace and tolerance is even more relevant.”

Pir Zia Inayat-Khan, the son of Noor’s beloved brother Vilayat and an influential Sufi leader in the United States, has deep respect for his Aunt.

“Noor’s spirit lives on as a shining proof that pure spirits will always rise to uphold the unity of humanity against forces of division and hate,” he says.

Noor’s predictions proved accurate. Approximately two and a half million Indian soldiers volunteered during World War II—the largest volunteer force in history. India gained independence in 1947, two years after the war ended.

 

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