Episode 27



Vanessa Kirby lands in Nazi-occupied France with Noor Inayat Khan, the Allied spy who risked her life to aid the Resistance. Armed with a wireless radio, Noor relayed vital intelligence to the British Special Operations Executive, right under the nose of Hitler's secret police. The average life expectancy of a radio operator was just six weeks. Could you beat the odds?
Read the transcript →

True Spies Episode 27, Codename: Madeleine

Welcome to True Spies. Week by week, mission by mission, you’ll hear the true stories behind the world’s greatest espionage operations. You’ll meet the people who navigate this secret world. What do they know? What are their skills? And what would you do in their position?

This is True Spies Episode 27, Codename: Madeleine.

NOOR INAYAT KHAN: There were no lights on the Lysander. You could only fly when the moon was full. Not even a flashlight. It was a tiny, little airplane. But all that made it hard to spot, I suppose.

NARRATOR: The moon was huge over France that night, in June 1943. Miles below, the river Loire flashed silver on its winding course through the countryside.

NOOR INAYAT KHAN: I remember thinking that it was just… heavenly. The pilot was a man called [Frank] Rymills, I remember. He was showing us all the sights, the little towns, and villages, and all of that.

NARRATOR: The single-engine Lysander didn’t offer much in the way of luxury as it cruised into the heart of war. But its cargo was precious beyond belief. Her name was Noor Inayat Khan. You might have heard of Noor. For four months in 1943, she passed on crucial intelligence to the British from the heart of Nazi-occupied France. By 1944, she was dead. In this episode of True Spies, inspired by declassified documents and a selection of Noor’s own writings, we’ve used an actor to bring her incredible story to life.

NOOR INAYAT KHAN: My brother always said that because of the way we were raised, we could not be like other children. We looked at life through ‘stained glass windows’. Those were his words.

NARRATOR: It’s true. Noor and her siblings weren’t like other children. Their father made sure of that. Descended from South-Indian royalty, Inayat Rehmat Khan was a musician and spiritual leader. His devotion to the teachings of Sufism shaped his life and the lives of his family. Khan’s interpretation of this mystical branch of Islam taught that honor and self-sacrifice were paramount. His daughter was his most faithful student.

NOOR INAYAT KHAN: I have some notes from when my father was traveling. I liked to write to remind myself of him.‘Peace is harmony. Peace is beauty. Disharmony is the curse of life.’ We learned lots of things like that from him, things like that always stayed with me.

NARRATOR: After a few years spent in Russia and the UK, the Khans settled in Suresnes, a suburb of Paris, after the First World War. By and large, they lived a life of peaceful study. Noor wrote poems and stories and went on to study child psychology at the Sorbonne. She played the harp and fell in love. Her father died. And then, on the 1st of September, 1939 Hitler marched on Poland. A year later, the Germans flooded into France. The French Army was in retreat and thousands of civilians fled in turn. As bombs pounded the capital, Noor and her brother, Vilayat, retreated to a quiet room of their late father’s mansion. They had a decision to make.

NOOR INAYAT KHAN: People have an idea about Sufism, that it’s the same as pacifism. That’s not correct. As Sufis, we definitely were against violence, that’s true, but we were French too and we knew what the Nazis were. I remember Vilayat said that, right at our door, people were being tortured and killed. How could we sit and preach morality if we just let it happen? And he was right, of course. We drew the line at killing, but we had to do something.

NARRATOR: If Noor and her brother were going to defy the Nazis, they couldn’t do it from France. They had spent time in London as children. As Europe fell, Britain offered them the best chance at a fight.

NOOR INAYAT KHAN: So we had to get out. Vilayat had a car. It was too small but it had to do.

NARRATOR: The journey ahead would not be a pleasant one. After the war, the French remembered it as l’exode - the exodus. Countless refugees streamed along cratered roads, desperately trying to put distance between their families and the advancing Germans. Noor and her family crammed themselves into Vilayat’s sporty MG Roadster, and joined the crush.

NOOR INAYAT KHAN: It’s difficult to imagine - if you weren’t there, I mean. It felt like the whole country was on the road, just grieving all at once.

NARRATOR: Eventually, they made their way to a train station which had yet to be commandeered by the Germans, some 150 miles from home. They left the car with a family friend and boarded a cramped train to the port town of Le Verdon, where fleets of small boats from Britain were evacuating refugees.

NOOR INAYAT KHAN: Vilayat had found us places on one of the last boats in the harbor. Me and my sister almost missed it. He wasn’t very happy with us.

NARRATOR: Meanwhile, the Nazis took Paris.

NOOR INAYAT KHAN: It was painful to think of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at the Arc de Triomphe because that was how we remembered the men who had died in the first war. When I thought of it being guarded by the enemy… yes, it was painful. But I spoke to people on the train, and at the harbor, and nobody was ready to just give up. And we still had a little hope.

NARRATOR: It was a hope that would take a steely resolve to maintain. When they arrived in the UK, the family parted ways. Noor’s brother would stay in London waiting to be called up to the RAF. Noor, her sister, and her mother caught a train up to Oxford where they took nursing jobs. All the while, German bombs ravaged Britain’s towns and cities.

NOOR INAYAT KHAN: I spent six weeks at the maternity hospital and then I couldn’t take it. I felt, and my sister felt, the same way. We felt useless but I wasn’t a British citizen so the military, the WAAF, kept on turning me away.

NARRATOR: But Noor was determined to play her part and she had a trick up her sleeve. She might not have been a citizen but her father had been Indian. India was still seven years away from independence from the British. This made Noor a ‘protected person’ under the rules of the Empire. In other words, she argued, she was British enough to serve. Eventually, her persistence paid off. In November of 1940, she joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, a branch of the RAF that specialized in delivering intelligence to British pilots.

NOOR INAYAT KHAN: First, they sent me to Harrogate, in Yorkshire. We watched the radar screens. If we saw a German pilot, we raised the alarm. The conditions were bad. It was up to two-dozen of us to a room sometimes. But I didn’t mind. It was good to be a part of it. Then they sent me to Edinburgh, which was being bombed very heavily also, and so cold - the coldest winter for a long time. I was given more training on the wireless set and I became quite fluent in Morse after a little while.

NARRATOR: Noor’s time in Edinburgh would give her the foundation in wireless telegraphy that, in the months to come, would make her invaluable in the field.

NOOR INAYAT KHAN: The last place they sent me was called Compton Bassett, the RAF base there. It was more of the telegraphy, more advanced though.

NARRATOR: Eventually, Noor decided that she was ready for a new challenge. She would become an officer in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force. A commission would mean more responsibility. This was how she would do her bit. The commission board agreed to accept her application but her success would hinge on an interview.

NOOR INAYAT KHAN: I borrowed a pound from Vilayat, and I got a proper hairstyle, a perm. I needed to look confident. I knew I could do the work.

NARRATOR: It certainly wouldn’t escape their notice that she was of Indian descent. In recent years, calls for Indian independence had intensified. Some Indian nationalists had even embraced the Axis forces, whom they believed would support their struggle against the British Empire.

NOOR INAYAT KHAN: They asked me... if Indian leaders decide to embarrass Britain, whose side would I be on? And it was a really hard question because I would have supported independence. And I said that, and they didn’t like it. So, I told them that as long as the war was going on I would serve Britain. But after, who knows? I got angry, to be honest.

NARRATOR: Noor left the meeting embarrassed. She’d lost control of her emotions. The last thing she needed was to give the board an excuse to turn her away.

NOOR INAYAT KHAN: I went back to Oxfordshire and tried to forget about it.

NARRATOR: Weeks passed. Noor had all but resigned herself to the board’s rejection. Then, out of the blue, she was asked to attend a meeting in London. On November the 10th, 1942 she knocked on the door of Room 238 of the Hotel Victoria. The elegant building had once played host to the capital’s smart set. In wartime, it served a very different purpose. In 1940, it had been taken over by the War Department to serve as the headquarters for a new and experimental intelligence agency. And if you’re a regular listener to this podcast, you might have an idea of what that agency was called: the Special Operations Executive.

NOOR INAYAT KHAN: So I didn’t get my commission but the board knew that I spoke French, so they had passed on my profile to the SOE instead.

NARRATOR: The Organization, as it was known to its members, was secretive even by the standards of the intelligence community - and with good reason. The men and women of the Special Operations Executive were not traditional spies. Winston Churchill had personally commissioned the SOE. Drawing on his experiences of trying and failing to crush Irish rebels in the 1920s, he knew that sabotage, propaganda, and guerilla warfare could be used to strike heavy blows against a powerful occupying force. In Nazi-occupied Europe, the SOE would do just that. Noor was about to find that out for herself.

NOOR INAYAT KHAN: I remember the room. The chair was very uncomfortable and the windows were all covered up. The man who met me was called Mr Jepson. He was very honest with me, actually.

NARRATOR: Selwyn Jepson was one of the SOE’s top recruiters. He was unusual in his field, in that he believed that women were superior agents to men. In unflinching detail, he laid out the work that Noor might be expected to perform as an agent of the Special Operations Executive.

NOOR INAYAT KHAN: He told me that he had a decision to make, that he had to decide whether he felt comfortable risking my life. And I had to make that decision too, of course, but I had already made it, I think. I was only worried about telling my mother to be honest.

NARRATOR: Noor’s mission would be one of the most dangerous that the SOE had to offer. Her background and language skills, as well as her experience with Morse code, made her an ideal candidate to operate a wireless radio in occupied France. Those who took the job had an average life expectancy of around six weeks. Jepson had made the risks clear enough, but it’s doubtful that he told her that. We don’t know if Noor would have accepted if he had. Would you? She took some time to think. Noor was very close to her family, and she knew that her mother in particular would be dead against the idea of her sweet, shy daughter returning to the country they’d fled just two years before.

NOOR INAYAT KHAN: I wrote to my mother and she really wanted me to stay where I was. But I felt as though I was wasting time, wasting myself, where I was. And so I wrote to Mr Jepson, and I told him that I would accept the position, that it would be a privilege, actually. Family ties felt just petty when winning the war was at stake.

NARRATOR: Noor’s training began in February of 1943. She was part of a class of just 10 potential agents - six men and four women - who would need to be put through their paces rigorously before they could be deployed. She arrived at Wanborough Manor, a stately home in the picturesque Surrey countryside that was famed for its hunting. When war broke out, the crack of shotguns made way for the staccato ‘pops’ of pistol fire as the SOE commandeered the estate for training purposes.

NOOR INAYAT KHAN: I enjoyed shooting. It had a lot in common with meditation, I thought. You have to focus your mind in one direction. You have a single purpose.

NARRATOR: Her training instructors weren’t overly impressed with her early attempts at fieldcraft. One particularly uncharitable officer described her as ‘not overburdened with brains’. But even her detractors came to admire her bravery, tenacity, and willingness to push herself in the name of self-sacrifice - all values her father had instilled in her since childhood. Fortunately, she was strongest in the area that mattered most. She quickly adapted to sending coded messages on the Mark II suitcase radio, the tool of choice for the SOE’s wireless operators in the field. With a range of 500 miles, it was a sophisticated piece of portable technology at the time. Well, portable-ish. The Mark II had its drawbacks. It weighed 30 pounds - almost a third of Noor’s own bodyweight - and contained a cumbersome 70-foot antenna, which an agent would have to discreetly unfurl in the field. We’ll hear more about that a little later. By summer, Noor’s training was almost at an end.

NOOR INAYAT KHAN: I would say the last part of the training was probably the most… maybe, interesting. They sent us to a facility in the New Forest, which was just beautiful. My mother was very pleased to hear that I was out in nature but, of course, I couldn’t say why. We learned disguise. Dyeing our hair with charcoal, changing the shape of our face, making invisible ink - all those things.

NARRATOR: The essentials of spycraft were one thing but, more importantly, the Special Operations Executive needed to know that their agents would be hard to break. With this in mind, they staged interrogations that were designed to mimic the techniques used by the Nazis.

NOOR INAYAT KHAN: They would storm into your quarters and take you at night, screaming in German. It was not a game. They put you in a hard chair and shone lights in your eyes, asking questions, questions, questions. It was really, truly upsetting.

NARRATOR: But Noor - timid, quiet Noor - didn’t give anything away. Yes, she was visibly shaken afterward and she almost entirely lost her voice - but she had proven that she would be a tougher nut to crack than her appearance would suggest. As Noor was completing her training, the Special Operations Executive ran into serious problems. For three years, they had been terrorizing the Nazis in occupied Europe. Bridges would explode out of nowhere, ships would sink in their ports, and German soldiers were afraid to leave the barracks alone. The success of the SOE’s sabotage operations infuriated Berlin so, in 1943, the task of apprehending the British agents was handed over to the deadly Gestapo, Hitler’s secret police. Soon, a full crackdown was underway. Wireless operators - the communications backbone of any SOE circuit - were being arrested almost as fast as the British could fly them in.

NOOR INAYAT KHAN: Things were moving very quickly. There was no time for parachute training, so the airplane would have to land in France and let me off there.

NARRATOR: Noor’s training had been grueling but relatively short. There was a lot that the SOE simply hadn’t had time to teach her. If they had, who knows? This story might have had a happier ending. Before she left England, Noor said goodbye to her family who had gathered in London to see her off.

NOOR INAYAT KHAN: I showed Vilayat, my brother, the ‘L’ pill I had been given. ‘L’ stood for ‘lethal’. Cyanide. It was in case I was captured. We were all given them, anyway. He begged me not to go - said that this was taking things too far. My little sister took me to the Underground station and she was crying too. I had to go, though.

NARRATOR: Everything had led up to that night in June 1943. Noor made her way to a quiet airfield, nestled in the Sussex countryside. There, she was issued with a pistol, a ration book, and a new identity card. Noor Inayat Khan, daughter of an Indian mystic, became Jeanne Marie Renier, a French governess.

NOOR INAYAT KHAN: Everything had to be just so. There could be nothing on our person that might suggest that we had ever left France. It was so important. We had haircuts in the French style. We wore French fashions. Even our cigarettes, if we smoked, had to be French. In training, we spoke mainly French, too.

NARRATOR: As Noor and her fellow agents prepared to board the lightweight Lysander airplane, a senior SOE officer pulled them in for some parting words: ‘Merde Alors’ Roughly translated? ‘You’re in deep shit now.’

NOOR INAYAT KHAN: There were no lights on the Lysander - you could only fly when the moon was full. Not even a flashlight. It was a tiny little airplane but all that made it hard to spot, I suppose.

NARRATOR: Under cover of darkness, the Lysander touched down in a makeshift airfield in the Loire Valley. It had been a bumpy flight. The landing was bumpier. She was met by a ragtag welcoming committee of French resistance fighters who accompanied her on the train to Paris.

NOOR INAYAT KHAN: When we had left Paris, my family were all so afraid. I was almost more afraid to go back, I think because I knew what I was going back to.

NARRATOR: Noor’s first base in the French capital was the apartment of one Emile Garry, who led his own SOE cell. He had been in desperate need of a wireless operator. When Noor arrived, he was less than impressed. Who was this terrified girl almost swamped by her own luggage? But Garry had no time to question London’s wisdom in sending her. She needed to be operational as quickly as possible.

NOOR INAYAT KHAN: I hadn’t slept in 24 hours. I passed out, right there and then, in front of Mr Garry and his wife.

NARRATOR: After she’d rested, Noor was taken to one of the SOE’s other safehouses - an agricultural college just outside Paris. It was the nexus of the most powerful resistance network in Northern France - the PROSPER circuit. There, she borrowed a radio - there had been no room to bring one in the tiny Lysander - and sent her first message from behind enemy lines. It said, simply, that she had arrived intact. A few days later, her radio was parachuted into a nearby farm.

NOOR INAYAT KHAN: The radio was fine, luckily. The other suitcase, the one with all my clothes inside, wasn’t so lucky. They spent ages and ages trying to pick them all out of a tree for me...

NARRATOR: In the short time she’d been in France, Noor had done little to dispel Emile Garry’s initial doubts about her. Her fellow agents in the PROSPER circuit echoed the criticism she’d faced during her training. She was clumsy, a little forgetful, too naive, too trusting. Nobody doubted that she was determined, or that she cared deeply about the cause, but she was, frankly, an amateur. Surely she wouldn’t last?

NOOR INAYAT KHAN: One night, I think it was a couple of weeks after I landed, maybe, I was staying with friends near the agricultural college. I called Mr Garry in Paris. I can’t remember why. Anyway, the phone rang, and then someone else picked it up. I didn’t recognize the voice.

NARRATOR: Garry and his wife had left town for a long weekend. The man who answered the phone at their apartment hadn’t shown identification at the concierge’s desk. He hadn’t needed to. Gestapo. Nobody, including the Garrys, ever went back to the compromised apartment again. They found alternative living arrangements - not that it did any good.

NOOR INAYAT KHAN: The German police had found guns and explosives on the same farm that I collected my radio from, and I don’t think it took them very long to realize that the farm and the college were linked, actually.

NARRATOR: The Germans moved quickly. They raided the college and made a number of high-profile arrests. Soon, the PROSPER network was no more. Fortunately, Noor had avoided capture - but only just.

NOOR INAYAT KHAN: I was actually cycling to the college when the Germans were questioning people. As I was getting closer, I knew something was wrong. I turned back anyway. Too lucky.

NARRATOR: Less than a month after Noor had landed, she was the only free radio operator in Northern France.

NOOR INAYAT KHAN: A few of us managed to hide ourselves away in another apartment. We couldn’t believe what had happened. Paris was so dangerous - police, Gestapo, SS, SD - they were everywhere.

NOOR INAYAT KHAN: After a few days, I sent a message to London to tell them what happened.

NARRATOR: What would be your next step? The most powerful network in half of France has just been decimated. And these were the professionals, the people who thought that you weren’t quite good enough. Would you take the hint and evacuate? Lay low until someone, anyone, came along to pull you out?

NOOR INAYAT KHAN: They wanted me to come back. I said no.

NARRATOR: Noor told the SOE that she would stay in Paris for another month, at least. She wanted to help revive the Organization’s fortunes in Paris - if not fully, then at least in part. She may have lacked the technical brilliance of some of the spies we’ve featured in this series, but very few match her for sheer courage. It was time to get to work.

NOOR INAYAT KHAN: I did what I could for the other small circuits that were working in Paris. So, I would cycle a lot of the time with my radio and collect messages from them that I could telegraph back to London.

NARRATOR: She was taking an incredible risk. Paris was swarming with Germans. Over the next few months, Noor would be instrumental in rebuilding the PROSPER circuit. She arranged for drops of operatives, money, and ammunition, as well as helping to arrange flights out of the country for those who needed to leave in a hurry. Getting agents out of France was almost as important as getting them in. If one was captured and talked, it could start the kind of domino effect that had crippled PROSPER in the first place. She carried her heavy suitcase radio with her wherever she went, afraid that if she left it at home it might be captured in a raid. It was an approach that could easily have backfired, but Noor’s life in Paris had become a constant balancing act. Risk versus reward. There were no perfect choices.

NOOR INAYAT KHAN: I remember once I was riding the Metro. I kept my head down, I had dyed my hair, changed my makeup, all of that. And I had my suitcase. And then these two men, they were both wearing Wehrmacht uniforms, looked over at me and they started walking toward me.

NARRATOR: ‘What have you got in that case, mademoiselle?’ For two ordinary German soldiers, the idea of catching an enemy agent red-handed must have been the stuff of fantasy. Even more so if it was a radio operator. The resistance couldn’t function without communications. A promotion could well be in the offing, maybe even a fat SS paycheck. It was a question well worth asking.

NOOR INAYAT KHAN: I don’t like lying. I was taught that it is one of the worst things you can do. In Sufism, truth is at the center of everything. But what could I do? So I said: ‘It’s a film projector.’

NARRATOR: The carriage was between stations. If either of the soldiers had ever even seen a picture of a film projector, Noor had nowhere to run. The soldiers squinted at the young woman. She was desperately trying to hold herself together, obviously afraid, but that didn’t necessarily mean that she was a spy. A Nazi uniform had that effect on people. Still, only one way to find out.

NOOR INAYAT KHAN: So they told me to open the case.

NARRATOR: The soldiers looked inside. A long moment passed. If the Germans knew that this was a radio transmitter, then they were very good at hiding it.

NOOR INAYAT KHAN: I thought ‘they have no idea’. So I took a risk. I said quite harshly: ‘Well you can see what it is, can’t you?’ Like they were annoying me. I showed them the vacuum tubes, and I told them that they were all the little bulbs of the projector.

NARRATOR: The Germans glanced at each other and then back at Noor. Their expressions softened. They apologized. And they let her go.

NOOR INAYAT KHAN: I was proud of myself, that I had kept my head, because in training, I could get flustered easily, lose my words. But I gambled on that soldier’s ignorance. It was a good bluff.

NARRATOR: The incident on the Metro was a wake-up call. It wasn’t sensible to be as mobile as she was, staying at different safehouses, seeing different people every day. She needed her own place, not least so she could get a good night’s sleep. Unfortunately, the lodgings she was given were less than ideal.

NOOR INAYAT KHAN: Well, my apartment was furnished, which was good. The previous tenant had gone to the unoccupied zone. They sold everything to me but the building was full of SS.

NARRATOR: The SS, Hitler’s shock troops, inspired fear wherever they went. Their reputation for mindless cruelty was unmatched, even among the other Nazi organizations. Now, Noor nodded to them in her building’s corridors. It was the neighborly thing to do and there were benefits to hiding in plain sight.

NOOR INAYAT KHAN: One night something, I can’t remember, something had happened and I needed to get a message to London very quickly. There was no time to find a safe place, so I had to do it at the apartment.

NARRATOR: This was not ideal. She knew what happened to people who ran afoul of the SS. They rarely got the chance to do it twice. She opened the door into the corridor and looked around. The coast was clear. She padded as quietly as she could to the front of the building, trailing the Mark II’s 70-foot antenna behind her. On tiptoes, she tried to hang the cable from a tree outside. If only there was someone a little taller who could look after this sort of thing. ‘Mademoiselle?’ Noor spun around. Just feet away was an officer of the SS. In her haste, she hadn’t heard him approach. He looked perplexed but he didn’t reach for his pistol.

NOOR INAYAT KHAN: It was the strangest thing. He asked if he could help me. My heart was pounding, I was scared. But I managed to stay calm enough to say: ‘Yes, thank you.’ And he helped me put it up. He said: ‘Goodnight.’ Even tipped his head toward me, like a bow, when he said goodnight. The strangest thing.

NARRATOR: She’d been lucky, again. Later, she rationalized her encounter with the SS man.

NOOR INAYAT KHAN: Nobody was allowed to use a wireless - not even for entertainment - but he probably thought that I just wanted to listen to a little music and decided to be a sport about it, I suppose.

NARRATOR: After all, what kind of spy would be so brazen as to set up her equipment that close to so many of the enemy? But Noor’s luck couldn’t last forever. While she had been darting around Paris on her bicycle, the Gestapo had made a breakthrough. A resistance leader had been betrayed, and the Germans had raided his family estate, an hour’s drive from the capital. It was one of many safehouses that Noor had visited in the course of her vital work over the past few months. There they found notes from one of her radio transmissions. Some were signed with her codename, Madeleine. The Germans knew that so many British wireless operators had been captured that Madeleine had to be one of just a few remaining agents in France. Maybe even the last one. The hunt began in earnest.

NOOR INAYAT KHAN: I think it was August, middle of August. They, London I mean, sent me a message asking me to meet two agents in a café on the Champs-Élysées, two Canadians.

NARRATOR: The two Canadian agents were well-trained, smart, and urbane but they’d made a fatal mistake. They’d kept handwritten notes about their mission tucked away in their boots. During a routine security check by German police on their route to Paris, the notes were discovered along with a brand-new radio in the trunk of their Citroen. This was a few days before Noor had received the message from London asking her to meet the Canadians. When she did, the Gestapo was listening on the captured radio. They decided that her meeting on the Champs-Élysées would go ahead as planned but the Canadians would not be in attendance.

NOOR INAYAT KHAN: I met two men in the basement of the Café Le Colisée. One spoke with an American accent. I couldn’t place the other. He said he was Resistance, anyway. They knew everything - every codename, every protocol. They gave me no reason to suspect anything at all.

NARRATOR: The man with the American accent? Karl Horst Holdorf, a German who had once worked for a US-based shipping company. The so-called ‘Resistance’ man? His name was Josef Placke. Both were on the payroll of the SS and now they knew exactly what Noor looked like. The next day, she met the so-called Canadians again. This time, she sent them to a factory owned by another Resistance operative, a prominent industrialist, who was in the process of building his own circuit. Together they made plans to bring more SOE agents into the country to assist him. This was a serious intelligence coup for the Germans. Over the next few months, they would arrest several agents and seize over 2m francs in cash ($2.2m) to funnel into the Nazi war effort. But on that day in mid-August, Noor was none-the-wiser.

NOOR INAYAT KHAN: I don’t know why they didn’t come for me then, to be honest. They could have taken me to the café, or followed me home, but they didn’t. I think they wanted to use me for as long as they could. They didn’t want to risk losing the intelligence if I spotted them following me and bolted. Anyway, this meant that I could keep sending messages to London, and some of those reports contained very complete information about the locations of the German factories and airports. And then they were bombed by the British.

NARRATOR: A month later, as Autumn fell over Paris, alarm bells finally started ringing for Noor. She had arranged to meet one of her favorite resistance contacts by the Arc De Triomphe. When she had called him, his voice had sounded strange. She couldn’t have known that the Gestapo were in the room with him, telling him what to say. She was dropped off a short distance away from the meeting point. She could see her contact sitting on a bench, waiting for her, but she saw something else, too.

NOOR INAYAT KHAN: There were two men standing behind him… dark clothes. Another two were sitting on the bench opposite. All of them were watching my contact. I watched too and just waited. I thought maybe they would go away. I couldn’t believe it was a trap.

NARRATOR: After a tense wait, Noor’s suspicions were confirmed. A black Citroen - the trademark vehicle of the Gestapo in Paris - pulled up in front of her contact. The four burly observers rushed toward it, and bundled the hapless resistante into the back seat. He had been working with the Germans, albeit under duress. They had used him as bait to catch a bigger fish. It was a very close call indeed.

NOOR INAYAT KHAN: I don’t judge him. I know he didn’t want to do it. I don’t know what they did to him. I forgive him but, of course, I was shaken by it. Very shaken. I changed everything about myself, panicking, I think... I was panicking. Dyed my hair, again. Changed all my clothes. I left my apartment, settled up the rent. I didn’t know what my contact had told the Gestapo.

NARRATOR: Noor had to get out of Paris. She had spent four months in the city, always on the move, never more than one wrong word away from capture. She had outlasted the Special Operations Executive’s grim six-week estimate of a radio operator’s lifespan. She had done what she could. It was time to go home. She spent the first week of October saying goodbye to her friends. A plane had been arranged to take her back to England. Meanwhile, in the French headquarters of the Gestapo, a telephone rang.

NOOR INAYAT KHAN: Renée Garry, she was the sister of Emile, my first friend in Paris. I don’t know why she did it. Maybe money? Maybe it was more personal than that. I don’t know.

NARRATOR: Renée Garry was a peripheral figure in the Parisian resistance movement. Because of her brother, she was always on the edges - she had even shared a flat with Noor at one point - but she was never actively involved in their activities. Maybe she resented that. Whatever the reason, Renée had just offered the Gestapo Noor’s address. In return, she asked for 100,000 francs. Little did she know, she could have asked for 10 times that amount. The Germans paid huge amounts for information that led to the capture of SOE agents and someone like Noor - who was a key part of the Resistance network’s communications infrastructure - would have been worth even more. Renée brought the Gestapo to Noor’s apartment. She wasn’t there but they saw the radio. That was proof enough.

NOOR INAYAT KHAN: There was a man called Cartaud who used to be Resistance, but he had changed sides after the Germans broke his circuit in ‘42. They sent him to my apartment to wait for me.

NARRATOR: After being captured and released by the Nazis, Pierre Cartaud had made it his mission in life to become more German than the Germans. He bought into their ideas with a convert’s zealotry and was personally responsible for the capture, torture, and death of several resistance agents. This was the man who waited in Noor’s apartment for six hours on October the 13th, 1943. This was the man who grabbed her from behind as she walked through the door.

NOOR INAYAT KHAN: I fought him. I bit him, pulled his hair, I was shouting so loudly I almost shredded my throat.

NARRATOR: Cartaud threw Noor onto the couch, clamping his hand over her mouth - anything to stop the screaming - then she bit him again.

NOOR INAYAT KHAN: And that time I drew blood. I saw his eyes go black, and he pushed me back and pulled out his revolver. I was so angry, but I thought there was a chance that I could still escape. I couldn’t do that if he shot me there and then.

NARRATOR: Training the gun on Noor’s forehead, Cartaud backed away, wincing, toward the phone that sat in the corner of the apartment. Never taking his eyes off the furious woman on the couch, he dialed a number. Moments later, the Gestapo arrived.

NOOR INAYAT KHAN: All I could think was: ‘This would happen, at the very last minute. Just a few more days, and I would have been in England with my family.’

NARRATOR: A week later, the Special Operations Executive had heard nothing from Noor. They heard rumors from their other agents that she might have been captured, but nothing concrete. Before she had deployed to France, Noor had asked the SOE not to let her mother know that she was in danger unless they were certain she was dead. Mrs. Khan was a worrier. So, in late October, they sent her a letter. It read: We are pleased to tell you that we have received good news of your daughter and that she is very well. They sent more letters like that over the next few months. Following her arrest, Noor was taken to number 84, Avenue Foch, a well-to-do street near the Arc de Triomphe. The building was earmarked specifically for the interrogation of SOE agents.

NOOR INAYAT KHAN: I don’t know how long I was there for - weeks, months. They kept prisoners on the top floors. They didn’t torture me. It was almost worse than that.

NARRATOR: The officer who was assigned to interrogate Noor was called Vogt. He took the softly-softly approach with his prisoners, preferring to convince them of the futility of resistance, rather than beating them into submission. A broken will gave up its secrets more willingly than a broken body, he found.

NOOR INAYAT KHAN: The first time I tried to escape I climbed out of a bathroom window on the fifth floor. I tried to walk along the rain gutter. I knew I would either escape or die. Vogt caught me at it. I was frozen on the ledge. He reached out his hand. I don’t know why I took it. I hated myself for being such a coward.

NARRATOR: Her escape had failed but still, she didn’t crack. She never even told them her name. Vogt pleaded with her to tell him what she knew.

NOOR INAYAT KHAN: He said: ‘Isn’t it a waste, Madeleine? If you had not accepted this terrible mission, you could have done so many interesting, valuable things.’ I told him that if I had to do it again, I would do it the same way. It was worth it to me. I had served my country and that was my reward, I said.

NARRATOR: But Noor hadn’t given up hope. There was one other way out of the house on Avenue Foch. Her cell was lit by a skylight - barred, of course. Along with two other prisoners, she plotted a midnight scramble to the rooftop above.

NOOR INAYAT KHAN: The bars were held into the ceiling by plaster - no screws. They couldn’t be taken away quietly. It took a few nights, chipping away at the ceiling. We covered the holes with the bread we were given to eat. I mixed together some of my makeup - cream and powder - and we painted that over the bread, so it would match the rest of the ceiling. I was quite pleased with it.

NARRATOR: On the night of the escape, Noor and her accomplices pulled themselves gingerly through their respective skylights. For a moment, they allowed themselves a flash of joy, hugging and kissing on the roof. It didn’t last. With the worst possible timing, an air raid siren blared. This was bad news. During raids, the Germans checked every cell to make sure that prisoners weren’t somehow signaling to the Allied pilots. That night, they found three empty cells.

NOOR INAYAT KHAN: We heard footsteps, shouting on the roof. We tried to make ourselves small. And they didn’t find us. The Germans rain straight past.

NARRATOR: Using a makeshift rope made of torn-up blankets, the three prisoners abseiled onto the fourth-floor balcony of a neighboring apartment building.

NOOR INAYAT KHAN: And then from there we jumped down onto another balcony below. We smashed the glass and went inside. We didn’t know if anyone lived there, if it had been taken over by the Germans, anything like that. We were desperate.

NARRATOR: The trio, moving as quietly as adrenaline would allow, made their way downstairs, to street level. They cracked open the front door.

NOOR INAYAT KHAN: The building that we broke into, it was at the end of a cul-de-sac. There was nowhere to go.

NARRATOR: Think about it. This is one of the most heavily guarded streets in Paris. The only way out is at the top of the cul-de-sac. Would you make a break for it? Try and commandeer a weapon? Or would you accept that the odds were stacked against you and surrender? Maybe you’d live to fight another day. The first of Noor’s accomplices decided to run. Sticking to the shadows, he made a dash for the end of the street. A shot rang out. The man fell.

NOOR INAYAT KHAN: We saw him fall down, and then we couldn’t see him because the SS surrounded him, hitting him - he was on the floor - hitting him with their revolvers. So we went back into the apartment. I just burst into tears.

NARRATOR: When German troopers charged into the apartment, there was no point in resisting. It was over. Noor was transferred to a new prison in Germany. She was the first British agent to be held on German soil. Her jailers were told that she was…

NOOR INAYAT KHAN: An important terrorist, an expert escapist. That’s not someone I recognized. I didn’t see myself like that, but I suppose I was.

NARRATOR: There would be no more escapes for Noor Inayat Khan. She languished in Germany for months, held in solitary confinement.

NOOR INAYAT KHAN: Nobody in the cell above me, nobody in the cell below me. I couldn’t talk to anyone. I couldn’t bear the loneliness.

NARRATOR: In London, the Special Operations Executive was in the process of nominating Noor for the George Cross, one of the highest honors available to members of the British Armed Forces. They cited her remarkable courage. They pointed out that she had been given the opportunity to leave and refused, that she had never broken contact with London, even when she knew that the Gestapo was closing in. The quiet twenty-something - who nobody had really believed in - had all but revived the fortunes of the SOE in France. The PROSPER circuit had been brought from the brink of total extinction. At this point, they didn’t know that it had cost her everything. The Germans were still using her radio to send messages back to London. Each radio operator had a unique way of hitting the key on their transmitter. This was known as their ‘fist’. At 84 Avenue Foch, they had learned to mimic the fists of captured agents and used them to feed false information back to the British. They called this ‘Funkspiel’ - radio games. There were a few hints that it was no longer Noor manning her radio - a few missed security phrases, some variations in the fist. But by the time the SOE could say definitively that she’d been captured, it was too late. The ruse was revealed on D-Day. The Germans sent their last message from Avenue Foch, thanking the British for their agents, their intelligence, their money, and their weapons. As the Allies approached Paris, there was no longer a need for the Nazis to keep their SOE prisoners. In the months that followed, they brought their games to a brutal end.

NOOR INAYAT KHAN: It was maybe 1 am, 1:30 am. I was brought to the warden’s office, along with three others. One I knew, I had trained with her in Surrey. We were handcuffed and then they took us to the train station.

NARRATOR: This is where we leave Noor. She was taken to the concentration camp at Dachau, north of Munich. She spent one night on the cold floor of a cell. In the morning, she was beaten and led out to a ditch. She was made to kneel. Then she was shot. A few weeks later, Noor’s mother received her last letter from the SOE. It told her that her daughter was missing. It would be some time before she learned the truth of what had happened. Years later, in 1967, a plaque was installed on the wall outside Noor’s childhood home in Suresnes. At the dedication ceremony, her brother Vilayat gave a short speech. A little crowd had gathered. "In the middle of her biggest achievements, she was afraid," he said. "This is what emboldened those who were afraid of lacking courage."

I’m Vanessa Kirby. Noor Inayat Khan was voiced by Radhika Apte, who stars as Noor in the movie A Call To Spy. We’d like to thank Arthur Magida, author of Code Name Madeleine: A Sufi Spy in Nazi-Occupied Paris, for his invaluable assistance in the making of this episode. Join us next week for another encounter with True Spies. We all have valuable spy skills, and our experts are here to help you discover yours. Get an authentic assessment of your spy skills, created by a former head of training at British intelligence, now at SPYSCAPE.com.

Guest Bio

Noor-un-Nisa Inayat Khan, aka Nora Baker, was a British resistance agent in France in World War II. She served in the Special Operations Executive.

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