A young woman called Madeleine sat with her suitcase on her lap on the subway as it rumbled beneath Paris during the German occupation of World War II. Her heart pounded as two German soldiers walked up to her. They asked what was in the suitcase. “A cinematograph projector,” she said, opening the suitcase to let them peer in side. “There are the little bulbs. Haven’t you ever seen one before?” The officers strode away. Madeleine breathed a sigh of relief. The movie projector was really a radio transmitter and “Madeleine” was an agent working for Britain’s secret agency, Special Operations Executive.
SOE was an organization created by order of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill to combat the threat of Nazism that was consuming Europe. He knew that if something was not done it could overtake Britain as well. Nazism was too terrible to be allowed to spread. Churchill said the new agency would “coordinate all action by way of subversion and sabotage…to Set Europe Ablaze.” They would counter the threat of Nazism with fire of their own.
One of the brave young women who was sent into enemy territory to help the Resistance in France was “Madeleine”—Noor Inayat Khan.
Noor, whose name means “light of womanhood”, was born in Russia on New Years Day, 1914. Six months later she and her family moved to Paris. Noor grew up in a house with a large walled garden where she played with her younger sister and two brothers and made up stories and poems. Her father, a Sufi teacher, died of pneumonia in India when she was 13, and she took care of her mother and younger siblings.
At French schools Noor studied languages, music, and child psychology. “Then I wrote for children,” she said. “I was engaged by Radio Paris for children’s programmes. In particular I adapted legends and folklore.” Noor and her family fled Paris before it fell to the Germans and moved to England. She said in her SOE file, “My brother became a pilot in the RAF [Royal Air Force] and I joined the same service as a wireless operator.”
Noor saw a posting looking for radio operators who could speak French to volunteer for “special duties”. She checked into it and was soon interviewed by SOE. Her interviewer said, “as usual I stressed the extreme danger, that in the event of capture…she might not return…I had scarcely finished when she said…that she would like to undertake it.”
Noor entered French (“F”) Section of SOE. Her training officers described her as a “splendid, vague, dreamy creature, twice seen, never forgotten,” and “strong and flexible as a rapier blade”. She was small, graceful, striking, with dark eyes gazing out from an olive face, framed by long dark hair. Reports came in such as “in good physical condition”, “Can run very well”, and “pretty scared of weapons but tries hard to get over it.”
One instructor said Noor “has thrown herself heart and soul into the life of the school…she felt she had come to a dead end as a WAAF [Women’s Auxiliary Air Force] and was longing to do something more active in the prosecution of the war, something which would make more call on her capabilities, and perhaps, demand more sacrifice.” Some instructors said she was too emotional and inexperienced. The head of the “F” section, Colonel, Maurice Buckmaster, wrote “nonsense” on these reports.
Noor was given two fake names: her fake name on her papers, Jeanne Marie Renier; her field name, Madeleine. Because she was only 5’3” and 108 pounds she received light equipment, which included a transmitter that she could carry in a suitcase. She was to join the Cinema circuit within the large Prosper network, which “urgently needed a new pianist” (radio operator).
The plane rolled to a stop in France in the dark of the early morning. Madeleine walked alone to the railroad station and arrived in Paris late June 17, 1943, at her organizer Emile Garry’s home. A message came from Germans: “We know that your network has just received someone called Madeleine. We have not found her yet. We will.”
She established a post in an apartment not far from Gestapo headquarters. She had trouble hanging her radio aerial from her apartment window to a tree. A German officer who lived in the same building saw her. She asked him to help put her “clothesline” and he did!
The next week, July 1, she rode her bicycle to the town of Versailles to get messages from a secret group. When she arrived, she saw the building was filled with Germans and turned around before any of them saw her.
She transmitted messages for Garry and other agents and sent information back by plane when SOE collected and dropped off agents. She also helped thirty Allied airmen escape who had been shot down in France. In one note to SOE, she said, “It’s been grand working with you—the best moments I’ve had yet.” She constantly changed places of transmission so the Germans wouldn’t find her.
Germans raided the Prosper network and rounded up hundreds of its agents. Soon she was the last radio operator still working, and all Gestapo detection equipment was directed toward discovering her.
On August 15 the last of Prosper’s agents fled the country. A memo from Britain said, “The Gestapo knew enough to make her capture only a matter of days. She was, therefore, instructed to return to England, but pleaded to be allowed to remain and lie low for a month.”
Two months later Renee Garry, Noor’s organizer’s sister, told the Gestapo Noor’s address in exchange for money. One German officer said, “We were …near the house in question when a young girl came out through the entrance…She was wearing a blue tailored dress trimmed with white, was… slim with dark hair, about 24 years old and wearing a dark hat. Madeleine turned suddenly and saw us. She quickly disappeared round a corner and we did not see her again.”
Noor escaped only to be arrested Oct 13, 1943. As soon as she was arrested, she escaped onto the flat top of the roof through a bathroom window on the 5th floor. An alarm went off and she was recaptured.
Noor exchanged messages with a Frenchman and an Englishman. Together they planned to escape. They used a stolen screwdriver to loosen the iron bars of their cells and knotted strips of blankets to climb from the fifth floor onto the balcony of the house next door. Two minutes later there was an air raid, and like usual all the cells were checked. The alarm went off. They were recaptured.
The same day Noor was sent to Germany. She spent 10 months in several different concentration camps in solitary confinement, with little food, her hands and feet in chains. On September 12, 1944, the Gestapo moved her to the concentration camp Dachau with three other agents. They walked to the camp and reached it after midnight. They were taken from their cells the next morning and told to kneel in the sand by the wall. In pairs they held hands. An SS man came up behind and shot them.
For her sacrifice she was awarded a French Croix de Guerre with gold star in 1946. In 1949, she was awarded the English George Cross for “acts of the greatest heroism or of the most conspicuous courage in circumstances of extreme danger.” Noor, along with others in the Resistance in Europe, fought with their inner fire against the inferno of Nazism.
I read this book, which is where I got some of the info for this story:
- Born For Sacrifice by Jean Overton Fuller
© 2019 Evelyn