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Finally, honour for spy princess


On September 13, 1944, a beautiful Indian princess lay dead on the floor of the notorious Dachau concentration camp in Germany. She had been tortured by the Nazis and then shot in the head for not divulging information about her colleagues. Noor Inayat Khan, who joined Winston Churchill's sabotage force at the height of World War II, will finally be honoured with a bronze statue in London

She comes to life 67 years after her death. Noor Inayat Khan, a British secret agent of Indian origin during the Second World War, gave her life to safeguard the secrets of her colleagues. Noor will be immortalised in 2012 with her bronze bust going up in London's Gordon Square - a first for an Indian woman in Britain. The war heroine was posthumously awarded the George Cross for her extraordinary bravery by Britain in 1949 and gradually faded away in history books, while her counterparts continued to live in public memory.

Noor has the distinction of being the first female radio operator to be sent to France as a part of Winston Churchill's sabotage force, the Special Operations Executive (SOE), on what was considered the most dangerous position in France those days. She reached Nazi-occupied France in June 1943 as a secret agent named 'Madeleine' with instructions to 'set Europe ablaze. '

Despite members of the network being arrested by the Nazis Noor decided to remain in France. Her only mission was to relay messages back to London. She managed to keep her identity secret till she was betrayed by a Frenchwoman and arrested by the Gestapo, the secret Nazi police who tortured Noor for ten months before executing her in Dachau.

Noor was 30 when she was shot. Hers is a story of courage and sacrifice which crosses borders and religion. "She sacrificed her life for this country and is an icon of bravery for the young, " says Sharbani Basu, author of Noor's biography, the Spy Princess: The Life Of Noor Inayat Khan. Basu adds, "She crossed all borders of religion or country. She was a Muslim who died for the Jews, an Indian who volunteered to fight for her adopted countries of England and France. "

Noor was a direct descendent of Tipu Sultan, and, like him, she died fighting. Her father, Hazrat, was an Indian Muslim preacher and a devoted supporter of India's independence movement. Hailing from a Sufi background, she was not a supporter of war, but volunteered to help the British forces in their fight against the Nazis along with her brother Vilayat.


Noor is a celebrated war heroine in France where she was awarded with the Croix de Guerre, the military decoration in France. There are three memorials of her in France, a band plays outside her house every year on Bastille Day, the day of the French revolution and there is a street 'Cours Madeleine' named after her. Also there is a memorial of her in Dachau, but nothing in Britain.

What was it that led her to being restricted only to the pages of history books in Britain whereas the other two SEO women officers Violette Szabo and Odette Hallowes have memorials to their names and even movies have been made on them. "She was an Asian woman who volunteered in War, came from France did her work and died. Who was there to remember her, she was an outsider, the heartbroken family went back to France and slowly her story faded away, " says Basu.


Researching on her book, Basu felt that while Noor was a celebrated figure across the Channel, something needed to be done in London to mark her memory. She initially worked towards getting a 'Blue plaque' commemorated by English Heritage, which marks the buildings in which notable figures from the past lived. However, a technical glitch deprived Noor of the Blue Plaque as the officials felt that she actually did not live in the house on 4, Taviton Street, for she moved out for training.

This prompted Basu to strive for a bigger feat and install a permanent memorial in her honour in London. She started to look for support and last year after the election she approached MPs of Indian origin to garner support and also started contacting notable Asian women in Britain. An Early Day Motion was tabled in the House of Commons on June 22, 2010, by Valerie Vaz, and was signed by 34 MPs and it set the ball rolling. In September, the Vice Chancellor of the University of London gave permission for the bust to be installed in Gordon Square, near the house where Noor lived.

The Noor Inayat Khan Memorial Trust, founded by Basu, is now aiming to collect £1, 00, 000 required to build her memorial, a bronze bust, which will be erected in Gordon Square. "It's a huge amount but the response has been good and we are receiving donations ranging from £10 to £1, 000. People have been writing to us and donating through the website www. noormemorial. org, " says Basu, adding that along with the support of the Asian community, many British and Americans have shown interest and sent their donations.

Close to £25, 000 has been collected so far for the bust, which is sculpted by well-known artist Karen Newman, and support has come even from corporates. Adding yet another first to her name, Noor's statue might be the step towards filling the gap in recognising the contribution of Asian women to Britain in the fields of arts, music, literature, law, human rights and education. It will be the first memorial of an Asian woman in London, which makes it all the more significant, adding another first to Noor's name.


Nothing, neither her nationality, nor the traditions of her family, none of these obliged her to take her position in the war. However she chose it. It is our fight that she chose, that she pursued with an admirable, invincible courage

I see her very clearly, as she was that first afternoon, sitting in front of me in that dingy little room, in a hard kitchen chair on the other side of a bare wooden table. Indeed, of them all, and there were many, who did not return, I find myself constantly remembering her with a curious and very personal vividness which outshines the rest. . . the small, still features, the dark quiet eyes, the soft voice, and the fine spirit glowing in her

Noor (Nora to us) and I were on the same wireless operator's course in Edinburgh from December 1940 to 1941. Although she was unable to hold the Morse key properly because of severe chilblains, she persevered and passed out with the rest of us. She was a very brave woman and deserves this memorial IRENE WARNER, A FRIEND OF NOOR, NOW AGED 90, CURRENTLY LIVING IN TAUNTON, ENGLAND Noor Inayat Khan was the bravest of the brave, particularly in captivity. I can only stand in awe of what she endured

We should be grateful that there were heroines like Noor serving during the War

This memorial should have been erected years ago. Without people like Noor this country would have been a very different place

I believe that it is important that this memorial is built, not just to honour the remarkable young woman, but hopefully to help mitigate against the increasing mistrust between the different religions and ethnic bodies in this country

Reader's opinion (4)

anupriya singhApr 9th, 2011 at 07:03 AM

i came across her book in my college library.what Noor Inayat Khan did was a feat impossible for a women with a sufi background...someone who was not good enough during physical training became a war heroine. An amazing Iron woman. have never heard such a story before. Inspirational and unreal.

Kashmira PawaskarJan 24th, 2011 at 21:54 PM

Even Indian Books doesnot mention her...which is really very sad for our history

Dev VasudevanJan 24th, 2011 at 11:46 AM

Truth is stranger than fiction - Noor Inayat Khan's true story exemplifies this.

Bargain KittenJan 22nd, 2011 at 18:46 PM

I welcome the statue.However the SOE had many women agents who died in camps.Noor was not forgotten.She was the subject of a bestselling biography in the 1950's by Jean Overton Fuller.It should be remembered that over 75,000 French people died in concentration camps for the same cause.

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