Tag Archives: special operations executive

1944: Noor Inayat Khan, SOE operative

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

On either September 12 or (as we’re going with here) the early hours of September 13* in 1944, 30-year-old French spy Noor Inayat Khan (also known as Nora Baker, or by her code name Madeleine) was executed at Dachau for her activities on the behalf of the Resistance in Nazi-occupied France.

Noor, the first woman radio operator to be sent into France, came from a rather unusual background: her father was a Sufi religious leader descended from Indian royalty, and her mother an American from New Mexico.

Born in Russia, raised in England and France, Noor studied psychology and wrote poetry and a book of Buddhist-inspired short stories before the war intervened and her she and her family fled to England.

Although Noor had strong pacifist leanings, she decided to join in against Nazi Germany. Because she was fluent in French and English and was a good radio operator, they decided to send her to France. She went in June 1943.

Many of those who had trained her had grave doubts about her suitability as a spy. As part of her Sufi upbringing she had been taught that lying was the worst of all sins. Leo Marks, who taught her cryptography, later wrote his initial impressions of her in his book Between Silk and Cyanide:

She was cycling towards her ‘safe-house’ to practice transmitting when a policeman stopped her and asked what she was doing.

“I’m training to be an agent,” she said, “here’s my radio — want me to show it to you?” She then removed it from its hiding place and invited him to try it. […]

She’d been so startled by an unexpected pistol-shot that she’d gone into a Sufi-like trance for several hours, and finally emerged from it to consult a Bible.

Once in France, however, she displayed lion-like courage.

Even when the Nazis were making mass arrests of the French agents she associated with and the British forces offered to let her come home, she refused to desert her post.

After three and a half months she was betrayed, and pacifism notwithstanding she fought so furiously on arrest that her Nazi guards were afraid of her. In spite of considerable pressure (and we know what that means) she refused to provide them with any information about herself or her Resistance colleagues. On top of all that, she also made two escape attempts.

They decided to send her to Germany to better keep an eye on her.

Noor spent the rest of 1943 and most of 1944 in prison in KahrsruleKarlsruhe, subject to repeated interrogations by the Gestapo. She never gave anything away. In September 1944 she was sent to Dachau and shot to death with three other female agentsYolande Beekman, Madeleine Damerment, and Eliane Plewman — their bodies cremated.

Her last word? “Liberté.”

After her death she was awarded with the French Croix De Guerre and the British George Cross, and made a Member of the Order of the British Empire. Shrabani Basu published her biography, Spy Princess, in 2007 … and there’s a memorial in the works for her for London’s Gordon Square.

* Not everyone buys these dates or the story of these SOE agents’ execution.

1945: Denise Bloch, Lilian Rolfe and Violette Szabo

On or about this date in 1945, three women who had been caught behind German lines working for the British Special Operations Executive were shot at Ravensbruck.

Left to right: Denise Bloch, Lilian Rolfe, Violette Szabo.

Denise Bloch, Lilian Rolfe, and Violette Szabo were all fluent young Francophones who volunteered their services for Britain’s dangerous spying-and-sabotage operations in support of the French Resistance.

Bloch and Rolfe were wireless operators; Szabo, the most famous of the three, got her hands dirtier with explosives and sabotage.

One evening towards 1900 hours they were called out [of the punishment block] and taken to the courtyard by the crematorium. Camp Commandant Suhren [German Wikipedia link] made these arrangements. He read out the order for their shooting in the presence of the chief camp doctor, Dr. Trommer, SS Sergeant Zappe, SS Lance Corporal Schult, SS Corporal Schenk, and the dentist Dr. Hellinger

All three were very brave, and I was deeply moved. Suhren was also impressed by the bearing of these women. He was annoyed that the Gestapo did not themselves carry out these shootings.

Extensive and illustrated biographies on all three, as well as other SOE agents, can be found at 64 Baker Street: Bloch; Rolfe; Szabo.

Violette Szabo in particular was much written-of after the war (long out of print, the classic Carve Her Name With Pride was recently republished), and was posthumously awarded a variety of decorations by both England and France.

Szabo has what looks to be a charming museum in Herefordshire (phone ahead to Miss Rigby before visiting!); for a younger generation, she’s the inspiration behind “Violette Summers”, the protagonist of the video game Velvet Assassin.