I was at the ceremony for the unveiling, by The Princess Royal, of the memorial to SOE agent Noor Inayat Khan yesterday (November 8th). I was an interested party because Noor’s is a fascinating and tragic story, one I almost used in my novel Early One Morning, but realized it would unbalance the book (the beautiful, shy, dreamy but tenacious half-Indian, half-American daughter of the founder of Sufi mysticism, descended from Indian royalty, talented musician and writer – it was all too much for a secondary story). The short ceremony brought home once again the bravery of the men and women of Special Operations Executive who parachuted or were landed into occupied territories. I recently interviewed Cressida Cowell, author of the How to Train Your Dragon children’s books and she mentioned her ‘grandfather Alan’ had been in SOE in Albania. So I looked him up. It turned out Alan Hare was a friend of the recently deceased Patrick Leigh-Fermor and, as his obituary in The Independent confirmed, cut from the same cloth:
“Betrayed by partisans and ambushed by the Germans, Hare only escaped after a grim chase across snow-bound mountains. Ravaged by frostbite, he was the sole survivor of [the mission] to the isolated valleys of the Balkans. He remained far longer than either reason or compassion would have dictated, tending to the wounds of a fellow British officer. He was later awarded a Military Cross.”
Noor Inayat Khan, operating as a wireless operator, was also betrayed, in October 1943. Imprisoned and questioned by the Sicherheitsdienst (SD – the SS intelligence service) at its notorious Avenue Foch HQ, she escaped over the rooftops only to be re-captured during an air raid (the German routine was to head count all prisoners when the air raid alarm sounded, hence her absence was discovered). She gave nothing away during her interrogations. However, against all the security protocols of SOE (which, as MRD Foot has pointed out, were often ambiguously worded in the manuals), Noor had not destroyed her transmission notes or ciphers. The Germans were able to decode the messages and ‘turn’ her radio and, despite some suspicions at home, for several months the British believed Noor was still at large and transmitting. This led to agents beings sent to France with the SD waiting to receive them.
The fact her radio was turned should not detract from Noor’s bravery, either before and after capture – at one point she had been given the chance to pull out, but elected to stay on as the last Paris-London link. Sadly, it was an all too common an occurrence, especially in Holland. There the Germans played the devastating Englandspiel (the English Game) with captured transmitters through most of 1942-3, arresting the agents SOE sent in, the majority of whom perished.
After Avenue Foch, Noor endured months of solitary confinement in shackles in a German prison and was eventually murdered and her body burned at Dachau concentration camp in September 1944, along with fellow SOE recruits Yolande Beekman, Eliane Plewman and Madeleine Damerment (with a terrible irony, one of the agents lured to France by the SD using Noor’s radio). Noor was 30 years old. She was posthumously awarded the George Cross and the Croix de Guerre. Her memorial, a bust sculpted by Karen Newman, is located in Gordon Square Gardens, near the University of London.
Recommended books on SOE and the female agents include Sarah Helm’s A Life in Secrets (a fascinating biography of Vera Atkins, who was a lynchpin of SOE’s F – for France – Section), Flames in the Field by Rita Kramer, which traces the lives of the four girls murdered at Dachau and, the book that led directly to the memorial, The Spy Princess by Shrabani Basu.
Thanks to Martyn Cox who has created an invaluable archive of interviews with SOE, FANY (First Aid Nursing Yeomanry), escape line and ‘special duty’ RAF squadron veterans. See www.our-secret-war.org.