History's HEROES? 1914 - 1944

Noor Inayat Khan

Her world
  • On the move during times of upheaval

    Invasion of PolandNoor Inayat Khan was born into a fast-changing and unstable world. There was war, economic depression and the rise of communism and fascism, all which would have an effect on her life.  She was born on 1st January 1914, seven months before World War 1 broke out. Her parents were visiting the Tsar of Russia at the time. The purpose of the visit is not known, but it is thought that royal advisors, who were aware of Noor's father's work as a faith healer, had asked him to try and heal the Crown Prince's grave illnesses.

    Rumblings of Revolution
    In Russia, millions were starving in this vast country and the workers were starting to organize themselves to try and get their conditions improved.  They organized demonstrations and strikes, which were often put down violently. Anarchists and revolutionaries were growing in number. The entire country was sliding towards the revolution that would take place just a few years later, in 1917.

    World War 1
    In the rest of Europe, the rumblings towards all-out war were coming ever nearer. It was this approaching war which led Noor's father to leave Russia and take his family to England. This country would have been the natural place for an Indian in Europe to go to seek safety in dangerous times; India was a part of the British Empire at that time, and the strong links between India and Britain would have meant that an Indian family would have had friends and acquaintances to support them.

    A Europe of Political Extremes 
    Once the war had ended, many people in Europe looked fearfully at communist Russia and feared that similar revolutions would happen in their own countries. This fear was to lead to the rise of strongly anti-communist parties in almost all European countries, such as the Fascists in Italy and Spain, and the Nazis in Germany.

    Life in Interwar France
    In 1920, Noor's family moved to a house in Suresnes, in the suburbs of Paris. Noor's father was often away, teaching. He traveled around Europe and then went again to India, where he died. Noor was 13 years old. As in other countries, the younger generation was searching for new horizons. This showed itself in various forms. Some looked towards the young movements of communism and fascism. Others chose to travel and experience exotic places. Still others, like Noor, turned to new movements in the arts and music.

    Economic Depression and Approaching War
    in 1929, the effects of the Wall Street crash were felt the world over, with the Great Depression lasting many years. Unrest in the world worsened, with the rise to power of the Nazis in Germany and the Fascists in Spain. The grinding poverty of huge numbers of people and the conflicting ideologies of communism and fascism led to demonstrations, violence and even running street battles in many towns and cities throughout Europe.  As Hitler took hold of Germany and his expansionist intent became clearer, those in France and other nearby countries watched in horror as another war approached.

    During all these years, Noor had been growing up, helping to look after the family, doing well at school and then at university, and she and her brother occasionally traveled around Europe together. They were appalled at the rise of the Nazis and at the treatment of the Jews in Germany, brought up as they had been in an atmosphere of religious and racial tolerance. 

    World War 2
    When war was declared by Great Britain and France against Germany, on 3rd September 1939, most people believed that France would easily withstand the German army, and were caught out by the speed with which the country collapsed. The decision of Noor's family to flee to England was not surprising. Travel held no terrors for them and in this way they could continue to fight against a regime they abhorred. It is said the family caught the last ship out of Bordeaux. 

    Fighting Alongside the British 
    Arriving in Britain, Noor had to decide what role, if any, she would play in the fight against the Nazis. Noor had been brough up a pacifist in a liberal, cultured home. She was also the great-great-great granddaughter of Tipu Sultan, the Muslim ruler of Mysore, whose military power stalled the advance of the East India Company forces at the end of the 18th century. He was eventually killed by the British. The question of Indian Independance was one that greatly concerned Noor Inayat Khan throughout her life. Nevetherless, despite her upbringing and history, she chose to fight the evil of Nazism and to fight alongside the British.

    Relationships between the British and Indians
    At her interview for a commission, she suprised the interview panel with her forthright support of Indian Independance, even saying that, after the war she may have to fight the British on this issue. She also, however, wanted to see better relationships between the British and Indians. At the start of World War 2, she said: "If some Indians were to win high military distinctions ... if one or two could do something in the Allied service which was very brave and which everybody admired, it would help make a bridge between the English people and the Indians." There were indeed many brave fighters from India; little did Noor know that she herself would be one of them.

  • Growing up in a house of peace and tolerance

    Noor and her fatherNoor Inayat Khan was the daughter of a well known and well respected musician and Sufi teacher, Hazrat Inayat Khan.  Her American born mother converted to Sufism when she married Inayat and so Noor was brought up in a household steeped in this gentle, almost mystic, way of life.

    What is Sufism?
    Sufism grew up in reaction against the worldliness of the rulers of the Islamic world, once they had become powerful and wealthy. Its followers adopted simple clothes and a simple way of living. Non-Muslims sometimes think that Sufism is a sect of Islam, but Sufi followers can be found in Sunni, Shi'ite and other Islamic sects. Sufis believe that it is a spiritual journey available to all Muslims.

    The Teaching of Sufism
    Sufis try to get closer to God through following the basic Islamic practices and using ritual paths that can help them to remember and love God at all times. They believe one can get closer to God in this life not just in heaven.  The path needs a Sufi teacher and helper, for the spiritual path is personal to the seeker, it cannot be learnt just through books. 

    Sufism and Hazrat Inayat Khan
    Hazrat Inayat Khan had grown up in a household of music and intellectual discussion. Because of this, his mind was very open to a wide variety of ideas and this openness remained important to him when he chose to find a teacher and become a Sufi disciple. A few years later, his teacher said to him "Fare forth into the world, my child, and harmonize the East and the West with the harmony of thy music. Spread the wisdom of Sufism abroad, for to this end art thou gifted by Allah, the most merciful and compassionate."

    Travelling and Preaching
    Two years later, Inayat embarked on a music tour of the United States.  Whilst there, he also gave lectures about Sufism to interested groups of people. He explained that he saw Sufism as a symbol of tolerance, humanity and flexibility - and it was neither dogmatic nor violent. In his opinion it was a spiritual path to God that could be undertaken by people of any religion. He was the founder of the International Sufi Movement. He made many friends and followers and also met his wife whilst travelling in the USA.

    Influence on Noor
    Sufism had a big influence on the upbringing of Noor and her brothers and sister. They grew up in an atmosphere of peace and tolerance for other people and religions.  The house in the Suresnes in which they lived whilst Noor was growing up (which was offered to Hazret by one of his friends) welcomed people of many nationalities and religions. The house became a Sufi centre with Noor's father as the teacher. When other parts of Europe were beginning to polarize, Noor and her brothers and sister were part of a culture of internationalism and tolerance, with a strong spiritual message. 

    Peace and War
    It was from this background of peace, tolerance and love that Noor and her brother, Hidayat, had to make their decisions about participating in the war against Nazi Germany. They felt that the Nazi regime was so evil it had to be opposed. Noor's upbringing meant that she was very different from many of the other recruits to the WAAF and SOE. She was sensitive, quiet, disliked weapons and was "other wordly". Some of her trainers were worried about her temperament. She was physically tiny and very pretty and others thought her exotic beauty might draw attention to her. Despite this, she was terribly strong-willed and prepared to risk her life for the cause. Her commander, and others who worked alongside her, came to greatly admire her strengths.

    After the War
    Hidayat survived the war and eventually went on to keep alight his father's teachings by becoming a Sufi teacher himself and a lynchpin in the International Sufi Movement. He died in 2004 and is followed by his son, Zia, Noor's nephew.

  • The Muslim Princess fighting for Liberty

    Noor Inayat Khan in UniformWhen Noor chose to join first the WAAF and later the SOE, she saw her fight as one of liberating Europe from the tyranny of the Nazis. Despite her very different upbringing and history she was fighting for the same cause as many of the other women who joined the war campaign voluntarily.

    The role of Women in World War 2
    The WW2 could not have been won without the work of the women. Although, at that time, they were not supposed to fight in the front line, they undertook every other role at home and in the theatres of war, some in very dangerous situations. To add to the growing ranks of volunteers, the government passed the National Service Act in 1941, calling up unmarried women between 20 and 30 for war work. This was later extended to 50 and to married women, but not pregnant women or those with young families.

    Industry & Farming
    Women worked in all the war industries, building ships, aircraft, vehicles, weaponry, munitions and other goods needed for the war effort . The Women's Land Army was set up in June 1939. The girls, known as Land Girls, were given a uniform but their life was far from glamourous. In many cases they were town girls, working far away from home, in isolated farms with quite primitive resources. They looked after the animals, ploughed and sowed the fields, harvested the crops, dug and hoed, working in all weathers. 

    Home Defence and Voluntary Work
    Many women joined the ARP (Air Raid Precautions), working alongside men, as volunteer air raid wardens, amongst other roles. They held down jobs during the days and worked three or more nights a week ensuring the blackout was in place, helping people to shelter during bombing raids, touring their area during raids to ensure everyone else was safe and helping at scenes of devastation after the raids. In addition, many thousands of older women all around the country, were involved in work for the Women's Voluntary Service, running rest centres and mobile canteens, providing support for the homeless and countless other valuable tasks.

    The Armed Forces
    The women's armed services were the WAAF (for the Air Force), the WRNS (for the Navy) and the ATS (the Auxiliary Territorial Service, for the Army).  

    • WRNS 
      In the WRNS women served as cooks, clerks, wireless telegraphists, code experts and electricians. Many women served in the Middle East and the Far East.
    • ATS
      The women in the ATS served as office, mess and telephone orderlies, drivers, postal workers, radar operators and ammunition inspectors. By 1941, some were manning the anti-aircraft defences around the cities, the searchlights and even the guns. In the withdrawal from Dunkirk in 1940, ATS telephonists were some of the last to leave. 
    • WAAF
      In the WAAF, the women performed nearly every activity carried out by men, except combat flying (they did pilot planes being ferried over the Atlantic from America to Britain - Amy Johnson was killed on one such mission). One very important task was controlling Barrage Balloons put up around cities and industrial centres to stop the Luftwaffe pilots from flying low and being able to target bombs accurately.

    Support and Secret Services

    • Support Services 
      The armed services all had their own medical wings with medical officers, orderlies and stretcher bearers etc. Additionally there were the Voluntary Aid Detachments, drawn from the Red Cross and Order of St John's, whose members were trained in first-aid and nursing.  These worked in convalescent hospitals, on hospital ships, in blood banks and as ambulance drivers.  
    • Bletchely Park
      Bletchley Park was the centre for code breaking during the war. Women made up the majority of the personnel working there and in some of the other centres needed as the operations got bigger.
    • The FANYs and SOE
      The FANYs (First Aid Nursing Yeomanry) was an organisation which provided women to the armed services in a variety of roles. The FANY was created in 1907 by Lord Kitchener. During WW1 it ran field hospitals, ambulances and troop canteens.  In 1938 it became part of Auxiliary Territorial Services (ATS).  In World War 2 they were used in a number of capacities, such as staff drivers and administrators. And some, as we know from Noor's story, were employed by the SOE. Here Noor's dexterity, intelligence and command of languages were skills much required.

  • A very secret organisation

    Noor Inayat KhanIntelligence was very important in the fight to win WW2. Each of the three armed services had its own intelligence service and there were also the secret services, MI5 (for internal security) and MI6 (for overseas intelligence). However, during World War 2, two other services became very influential, one was The Government Code and Cipher School, better known by its location, Bletchley Park. The other was The Specials Operations Executive (SOE). 

    The Role of the SOE
    The SOE was the responsibility of the Ministry of Economic Warfare. It grew to have a world-wide reach which rivalled that of MI6. Its brief was to co-operate with any group, clandestine or otherwise, which was working against the Axis powers within the occupied countries. It also worked to co-ordinate the efforts of different groups, who often hated each other almost as much as they hated the enemy occupiers, so that the damage they did to the enemy was more effective.

    A very Different Agency
    MI6 liked conditions to be normal and calm, as it was then that it could gather most information. SOE, on the other hand, liked to create as much mayhem as possible - that was its reason for existence! MI6 looked with suspicion at SOE's close collaboration with communist groups in different countries.

    SOE organisation
    Different sections within the SOE were responsible for different countries. France, because of its size and nearness to Britain, had six sections. Each of these Sections worked with different elements of the Resistance. There were also departments responsible for administration, training and research (the SOE made its own specialist equipment such as light-weight radios, silent pistols and explosives). Other departments made clothes specially tailored in order to blend into different countries, forged papers and money. The SOE's different establishments were housed in various places, mostly in country houses in the south of England - it's nickname was "Stately Homes of England". 

    The Agents
    SOE agents came from a very varied background, quite different from the traditional, Oxbridge educated gentry staffing MI6. Occasionally the agents the SOE recruited were known criminals, or even communists. Agents were chosen mainly for their knowledge of the country to which they would be sent and had to be fluent in its language. They also had to know its everyday customs and ways to fit in without being noticed. Exiled or escaped foreign nationals were, of course, ideal.

    SOE and the FANYs
    Although Noor had joined the WAAF before becoming an SOE agent, she was officially a civilian during the time that she was working as a wireless operator in occupied France. All of the women SOE agents were members of FANY (the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry), which provided a cover for their participation in illegal war-time activities. When in 1940 Hugh Dalton, Minister of Economic Warfare, established the SOE, he made contact with the Commandant of FANY and arranged with her to provide personnel for the SOE.

    Women in the SOE
    At first women were used to produce passports and other forged documents and to decode and encode messages. In April 1942, Churchill gave his permission to send women in the SOE into Europe. Women worked as ciphers, signallers and as conductors. This last group had the very dangerous job of accompanying agents to and from their pick-up points in enemy territory, often providing medical care when needed. And then there were the women who served as SOE agents (couriers or radio operators) in occupied territory, like Noor.

    Radio Operators
    Radio operators had one of the most dangerous jobs. Life expectancy was short. It took the Germans about 30 minutes to discover where a transceiver was being used. When possible, operators worked in isolated areas, ensured their transmissions were brief, made at irregular intervals, at different wavelengths and from different places. They were instructed to spell certain words incorrectly, so that if the operator and code books were captured, the SOE in London could tell if the Germans were using the radio.

    Agents were trained in all aspects of undercover work. For many, like Noor, however, their training was all too brief, because of the need in the field for suitable people. Training was capped with a practice mission. Wireless operators had to find a location from which they could transmit without being detected by an agent shadowing them. The ultimate exercise was the mock Gestapo interrogation. Noor's escorting officer found her 'mock' interrogation 'almost unbearable' and reported that 'she seemed absolutely terrified ... so overwhelmed she nearly lost her voice' and that afterwards, 'she was trembling and quite blanched'. 

    Getting to France
    Agents were taken into (or collected from) enemy territory by aircraft provided by two squadrons of the RAF. These operated Lysanders, which were used for their ability to land and take off on very short runways. Fishing boats were also used to drop agents off on the coast. Each had a well planned identity and cover story. Noor was given the cover name and identity of Jeanne-Marie Regnier, a children's nursemaid, and the code-name 'Madeleine'. 

    If Captured
    SOE agents were told that, if captured, they must try to stay silent when interrogated, for 48 hours, to give other agents time to move house and cover their tracks. As spies, the operatives had no protection under the Geneva Convention. Of the 39 women agents who were sent to France during World War 2, 12 were captured and died in concentration camps.

  • Working behind enemy lines

    Paris Railway StationRight up to the invasion of France by the Germans in May, 1940, the French were sure they could defeat Germany -  they had a much larger army and a strong military tradition. Within six weeks of the German invasion, the French government, under Marshal Petain, had surrendered. 

    Fleeing the Invasion
    The invasion caused people to flee from the towns and villages that were on the path of the German forces. More than 8 million people fled their homes, among them Noor and her family. It was a nightmare experience which traumatised millions. Marshal Petain's call to the French people, on 16th June 1940, to lay down their arms, came as a huge relief to many. North and west France was occupied by the Germans from June 1940. In November 1942, the German army moved into the whole of France.

    The Vichy Government
    The French government, set up in the town of Vichy, governed the whole of France, although, in the occupied zone, its actions had to be approved by the German chiefs. As time went by, the Vichy government became more unpopular as it became more identified with collaboration.

    Life in Occupied France
    The Germans drained France of her wealth, and living standards plummeted. By early 1942, the French were experiencing serious food shortages. By 1943, Germany was taking 40% of all French industrial output  and over half of government revenue went to meet the costs of the occupation. 600,000 young men were forced to leave France to work in very poor conditions in Germany. There were 1.6 million French soldiers in German POW camps, and 75,000 Jews of all ages were deported.  In the north, life was endangered by Allied bombing, which began in earnest in early 1943. 
    Life in Paris
    Paris became the centre of the German occupation, and the city bristled with German checkpoints and Nazi insignia. Large numbers of German soldiers were on the streets, either on patrol or relaxing. The same was true in other large towns and cities, in each of which German garrisons were based. Ordinary German soldiers were told to act properly towards their "hosts", and many endeared themselves by sharing their rations with the families on whom they were billeted. But the Gestapo rapidly made its presence felt everywhere.

    Early Resistance
    Although the German occupation at first left most people shocked and feeling powerless, resistance started almost immediately, usually with isolated acts by individuals. But soon, small organisations were springing up trying to gather and send back local intelligence to the British (at that time the only European country still at war with the Germans), and trying isolated acts of sabotage. Some of the most effective of these early resisters were senior officials within the Vichy government, who used their posts as cover to gather and pass on intelligence, or to organise groups of resisters. Such courageous officials tended to be caught quite quickly.

    Growth of the Resistance
    As time went on, more Resistance movements sprang up, from a whole variety of roots: nationalist, monarchist, Christian, socialist, and a few individual communists. The invasion of the Soviet Union by Germany in June 1941 brought the large French communist party firmly into the Resistance camp, which enabled them to use their huge nation-wide networks to good effect.  It was also the communists who mounted guerrilla warfare against the occupying forces, mostly in towns and cities. The introduction of compulsory labour service in Germany for all adult Frenchmen, in February 1943, was a trigger for the mass recruitment of young men into the Resistance. Many thousands fled into the hills and forests, and formed bands calling themselves the Maquis.

    Getting more Organised
    By this time, a committee of the leaders of various groups was bringing some co-ordination to the Resistance activities, and the British SOE was eager to help in this. The SOE had made contact with Resistance groups shortly after the fall of France; mainly groups concerned with gathering intelligence and helping downed British airmen to escape. One particularly effective group was the Resistance-fer - a network of railway workers. They were able to co-ordinate their activities over the entire country, and the SOE made sure they were well-equipped and financed. 

    Outside Assistance
    From 1942, the SOE set up, funded and armed many local Resistance networks. The SOE sent in its own agents, like Noor to assist in various ways. However the Germans had their counter spies and not everyone in the French Resistance could be trusted, making life very hazardous. Many Maquis bands were trained and equipped by SOE officers. From this time, many acts of sabotage were committed, reaching a crescendo in the weeks before the Allied landings in June 1944. This was a well-planned and co-ordinated campaign of sabotage. Railway lines, bridges, telegraph wires and power supplies were all targeted. The campaign was important in hampering the movement of German troops, after the landings, and hindering them from responding effectively to the Allied threat.

    German Retaliation
    As the Resistance grew, the Germans responded with hostage-taking, torture and executions. From 1943, whole villages were ‘punished'. At one village in northern France, 86 villagers were massacred; at another, 600 villagers were shot. In the 4 years of occupation, the Resistance lost about 90,000 members. Also, thousands more French people - men, women and children - were killed by the Germans in reprisal attacks. 

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