1944: Noor Inayat Khan, SOE operative

4 comments September 13th, 2012 Meaghan

(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.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Concentration Camps,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,England,Espionage,Execution,France,Germany,Guest Writers,History,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Other Voices,Power,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Shot,Spies,Torture,Wartime Executions,Women

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1945: Denise Bloch, Lilian Rolfe and Violette Szabo

1 comment February 5th, 2010 Headsman

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.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Concentration Camps,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,England,Espionage,Execution,Famous,France,Germany,History,Jews,No Formal Charge,Shot,Soldiers,Spies,Summary Executions,Torture,Uncertain Dates,Wartime Executions,Women

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1944: Hannah Szenes, who gambled on what mattered most

2 comments November 7th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1944, Hannah Szenes was shot by the Nazis in her native city of Budapest — a city she had left five years before, and to which she had returned as a British special operative.

Hannah Szenes (alternatively, “Chana Senesh” or “Hannah Senesh”) grew up in interwar Hungary.

Reaching adulthood in a period of rising anti-semitism in the late 1930’s, she became a Zionist and emigrated to British-controlled Palestine.

But with the onset of war, she signed up with the British Special Operations Executive and was parachuted behind German lines in March 1944.

Her brief: to save both Jews and downed Allied pilots. It is often described as the only military expedition to relieve European Jewry during World War II.

And it was as dangerous as it sounds.

Hannah was nabbed crossing into Hungary on a mission that her colleagues (rightly, it seems) deemed too perilous to attempt, and withstood months of torture without divulging her codes.

By the time she went in the dock for treason, Nazi control of Hungary was collapsing and judicial administration itself was breaking down to the timpani of falling shells. Her sentencing November 4 was postponed; on November 7, an officer peremptorily informed her that she had been condemned to death. It’s believed that she was actually never formally sentenced, merely mopped up ahead of the unstoppable Red Army, which on this very day first entered Budapest’s suburbs.

A writer as well as a fighter, Szenes’ poetry survived as her monument to life — like the present-day Israeli standard “Blessed is the Match”, also the title of the documentary excerpted above; and, her “Halikha LeKesariya” (“A Walk to Caesarea”), also known as “Eli, Eli” (“My God, My God”). Here it is sung by Regina Spektor.

These lines were reportedly her last-known verses from prison:

One – two – three … eight feet long
Two strides across, the rest is dark …
Life is a fleeting question mark
One – two – three … maybe another week.
Or the next month may still find me here,
But death, I feel is very near.
I could have been 23 next July
I gambled on what mattered most, the dice were cast. I lost.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Artists,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,England,Execution,Germany,Guerrillas,History,Hungary,Jews,Martyrs,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Popular Culture,Shot,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Torture,Treason,Wartime Executions,Women

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1952: George Muldowney, for loving and killing the original Bond girl

3 comments September 30th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1952, Irish steward George Muldowney was hanged at Pentonville Prison for the rather pathetic murder of a dashing Polish spy who had survived much greater villains.

Allowing that nobody ought to die on the floor of the Shelbourne Hotel with a sheath knife stuck in their chest, Christine Granville in particular really deserved a better exit.

Before the outbreak of World War II, she was Krystyna Skarbek, daughter of a Polish aristocrat sinking into poverty. After Germany overran Poland, she went off the marriage meatmarket and on Her Majesty’s Secret Service for a stunning career as a stunning spy that still has ‘em sighing today.

Rechristened “Christine Granville” by Britain’s Special Operations Executive, she spent most of the war carrying out feats of cloak-and-dagger derring-do, with a Bond-like aplomb for extricating herself from tricky situations.

If only half the stories they tell about her are true …

  • Commuting between Hungary and Poland by skiing over the Tatra Mountains to gather intelligence and pull other agents out of harm’s way.
  • Getting herself and a fellow agent released from arrest by feigning tuberculosis by chewing her tongue until it bled.
  • Escaping capture at a checkpoint by pulling the pins on two grenades and daring the guards to shoot her.
  • Marching alone into a not-yet-liberated concentration camp to have POW’s reprieved from execution — by telling the Nazi commandante that he’d get the same treatment unless he spared them.
  • Snatching spymaster Francis Cammaerts from the Gestapo ahead of his execution.

And the love affairs! Or that’s what they say — including fellow agent Ian Fleming.

Granville earned the French Croix de Guerre, the George Medal for Special Services, the Order of the British Empire and other decorations, although merely surviving so much time in the field might have been her greatest achievement … but when the war ended, she was just another unwelcome Polish refugee, scrounging for service work in a recovering economy with no welcome waiting for her in her Soviet-dominated homeland.

From here on in, the trite and the tawdry eclipse the heroic.

A stewardess gig on a cruise ship attracted the attentions of her eventual murderer; his crush unreciprocated, and her companionship with another man jealously noticed, Muldowney stalked her and — on the very eve of Granville’s departure to reunite with a wartime confederate/lover — murdered her at her Kensington hotel.

To read the London Times‘ accounting the last moments of this woman so recently outfoxing the Nazis is to behold the face of banality triumphant.

Mr. Ian Smith, for the prosecution, said that, in a written statement at Kensington police station, Muldowney …

“describes how he waited outside the hotel and saw her go in. He went in after her and asked her for some letters he had exchanged with her. She said she had burned them. He did not believe her, and then says: ‘She told me she did not want anything to do with me and was off to the Continent and would see me in two years’ time.’

He then says: ‘Then I took the knife from the sheath which I had in my hip pocket and stabbed her in the chest, and then somebody came up.'” It was a deep stab wound up to the hilt of the knife, and penetrated the heart.

Muldowney didn’t fight the charge; he’d been planning to poison himself after the murder, and tried it when he was in custody. He declined legal aid and pleaded guilty at trial, seemingly eager to expiate his sin or join his would-be lover in death. It was less than 16 weeks after the crime that he stood on the gallows.

While Muldowney moulders in well-deserved obscurity, his victim reportedly inspired her former lover to create the character of Vesper Lynd — the original femme fatale secret agent in the original James Bond novel, Casino Royale. (And the smashing cocktail named for her in the same volume.)

She — Christine, not Vesper — is buried under a spadeful of symbolic Polish soil in St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Cemetery in London.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Notable for their Victims,Poland

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