Noor Inayat Khan lived an incredible, albeit tragically short, life.
Many as London’s blue plaques are, an embarrassing few are dedicated to women – and an even tinier number celebrate women of colour. There’s a long way to go in redressing the balance. Still, at least one historical oversight has been fixed this week, with the unveiling of a blue plaque for Britain’s first Muslim war heroine, Noor Inayat Khan, who carved out an extraordinary career as a WW2 spy.
Khan’s storey is one worth splashing through the pages of history, and her life has been strangely underrepresented in World War II recollections (you could almost certainly go ahead and blame the patriarchy for that).
Born as the descendant of an Indian sultan in Moscow, Khan and her family fled to London and then to Paris after WW1 began.
She dropped a fledgeling career as a children’s author to join the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force somewhat unexpectedly, having escaped back to England after France’s fall in 1940.
Khan proved a determined radio operator and was eventually tapped to join Britain’s Special Operations Executive, a unit that had been formed on the orders of Winston Churchill. Dropped back into France with the codename Madeleine, she sent coded messages back to British forces whilst helping a resistance network in Paris, dodging arrest several times, until a French double agent quite literally sold her out. Handed over to the Gestapo in exchange for money, Khan’s signals were then used to trick more agents into coming to France.
Still, Khan didn’t let capture end her story, as she briefly made an escape from the hands of the Gestapo – a move which landed her in solitary confinement in Pforzheim prison upon her recapture, where she was kept as a prisoner of war so valuable that her imprisonment was a matter of complete secrecy. Weeks of torture couldn’t convince her to yield any information – the Nazi secret agent in charge would later testify that she lied consistently to protect her adopted country. And so in September 1944, she and three other female agents were sent to the notorious Dachau concentration camp, where they were executed. At the time of her death, Noor Inayat Khan was just 30 years old. Per recollections of the execution, her final word was “liberté”.
In 1949 Khan was posthumously awarded the George Cross along with the French Croix de Guerre in recognition of her brave actions during the war. A fundraising campaign allowed a bronze Khan bust to be installed back in 2012 in Bloomsbury’s Gordon Square Gardens, and a richly-merited blue plaque finally joined this memorial. This honour also makes Noor Inayat Khan the first woman of Indian origin to get a blue plaque. It is now proudly affixed to the house in Bloomsbury which she departed before returning to France: the mission from which she would not return.
It’s an appropriate memorial for an unlikely war hero – Khan was a noted pacifist who signed up only to prevent the spread of fascism – and one can only hope it’s the first of many tributes to the worthy women whom British history has previously glossed over.