Pioneering Women

Princess-Turned-Spy Noor Inayat Khan Is A Forgotten Hero Of World War II

Noor Inayat Khan was a descendant of Indian royalty, but she's most revered for being the first female wireless operator sent to Nazi-occupied France during World War II. How did this Indian princess become a spy for Britain?

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Hon. Assistant Section Officer Noor Inayat Khan

Madeline, The Spy

Khan's great-great-great-grandfather was Tipu Sultan, a ruler of Mysore in the 18th century who was killed in battle after he refused to submit to British rule. That rebellious streak clearly runs in the family. Khan was born in London but was educated in Paris. When the war started in 1939, she trained as a nurse with the French Red Cross, but fled to England by boat just before the French government surrendered to Germany a year later.

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It was in the UK that Khan joined the Women's Auxiliary Air Force as a wireless operator. The elite spy squad Special Operations Executive (SOE) took notice of her, and recruited her in 1942 under the codename "Madeleine." With that, she returned to France, this time as part of the resistance network Prosper, which was famously tasked by then Prime Minister Winston Churchill to "set Europe ablaze." Through it all, writes the BBC, Khan "acted not out of a love for Britain, but out of an aversion to fascism and dictatorial rule." Tipu Sultan would have been proud.

Memorial bust of Inayat Khan in Gordon Square Gardens, London.

Give Her "Liberté"

Even after she was urged by her commanders to return to England because her team was infiltrated by a Nazi spy, Khan continued to send intercepted radio messages. Despite her compatriots being picked off by the Gestapo one by one, she managed a group of spies across Paris for three more months before she was betrayed and imprisoned. Khan endured 10 months of torture while refusing to reveal any information.

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In 1944, she was killed by firing squad at Dachau concentration camp. Her final word? Fittingly, it was "liberté." The princess-turned-war-hero was one of 2.5 million Indians who volunteered for the war effort, and hasn't been forgotten. In 2012, the British government commissioned a bust of Noor Inayat Khan, which you can now find in the University of London's Gordon Square Gardens—just a short distance from Khan's own childhood home.

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