NOSTALGIA: Wartime courage posthumously honoured with George Cross

Noor Inayat Khan was born in Moscow. Her father was a descendant of Tipu Sultan, the 18th-century ruler of the Kingdom of Mysore and her mother was Ora Baker, an American.

In 1914, the family left Russia for London and lived in Bloomsbury where Inayat attended a nursery in Notting Hill.

In 1920 they moved to France, living near Paris in a house that was a gift of the Sufi movement.

After the death of her father, Inayat took on the responsibility for looking after her younger siblings from her grief-stricken mother.

She studied child psychology at the Sorbonne and music at the Paris Conservatory and began a career writing poetry and children’s stories.

She became a regular contributor to children’s magazines and French radio. In 1939 her book Twenty Jataka Tales (still in print) was published in London.

Although Inayat was deeply influenced by the pacifist teachings of her father, she and her brother decided to help defeat Nazi tyranny.

In November 1940, she joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) and was sent to be trained as a wireless operator.

She applied for a commission and was subsequently promoted to assistant section officer.

In early 1943, Inayat was seconded to the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY) and recruited by the F (France) Section of the Special Operations Executive (SOE).

She was sent for training to Warnborough Manor, near Guildford and other SOE schools and adopted the name of Norma Baker.

Her trainers had mixed opinions on her suitability fro secret warfare.

Nevertheless, her fluent French and her competency in wireless operation made her suitable for service in Nazi-occupied France.

On the night of June 16/17, 1943, she arrived at Tangmere Cottage, opposite RAF Tangmere’s entrance.

Here she met her Lysander pick-up pilot, Flying Officer ‘Bunny’ Rymills.

Bunny, after the war, recounted this meeting, describing how Inayat was wearing a green oilskin coat.

He also remembered that during the flight he left his transmitter ‘on’ and broadcast his intercom messages to his two passengers over the radio to all and sundry.

The operation that night involved two Lysanders.

James ‘Mac’ McCairns landed first at the farmer’s field near Angers on the Loire, followed by Rymills.

Inayat with two of the agents made their way to Paris and joined the Physician resistance network.

Over the next six weeks all the Physician network wireless operators were arrested by the German counter-espionage organisation, the Sicherheitsdienst (SD), along with other network personnel.

Inayat rejected an offer to return to England and as the only remaining wireless operator in Paris, she continued to transmit messages to London.

The SD used wireless detection vans and Inayat could only safely transmit for 20 minutes in one place, but managed by moving from place to place to avoid capture.

However, she was eventually betrayed to the Germans by either Henri Dericourt, a double agent, or by the sister of a resistance worker who was allegedly paid 100,000 francs to inform on Inayat’s movements.

On or about October 13, she was arrested and interrogated at the SD headquarters at 84 Avenue Foch in Paris.

On her arrest,she fought so fiercely that the SD classified her as extremely dangerous.

On November 25, she escaped, but was soon captured.

She was imprisoned in Germany and for ten months was kept shackled at hands and feet.

On September 11, 1944, she, with three other female agents, was moved to Dachau concentration camp and two days later she was executed.

She was posthumously awarded the George Cross and on November 8, 2012, a bronze bust of Noor Inayat Khan was unveiled in Gordon Square Gardens, London.

:: This article, written by David Coxon, Tangmere Military Aviation Museum’s curator, is the 23rd in a series of monthly articles on the people of RAF Tangmere.

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