by Ken Shel
A British agent lands in Nazi-occupied France.
| Under a full moon, a lone Royal Air Force Westland Lysander airplane circled a meadow outside Paris in Nazi-occupied France on the night of June 16, 1943. Men carrying an assortment of hunting rifles, shotguns, and antique pistols emerged from the shadows and lit torches to guide the British aircraft to a makeshift landing field. The little vehicle said to have the ability to land on a cow pile, lived up to its legend. The plane came to a halt after a steep descent and a short approach. Members of the French resistance rushed forward to retrieve containers of weapons, explosives, and survival supplies for those men in their ranks forced by their Gestapo pursuers to live in the wild. The underground fighters tossed mailbags into the aircraft and escorted the two young women cramped in the cockpit to the woods and shadows. The aircraft departed with the same stealth and agility it demonstrated on landing. Men ruffled grass crushed by landing wheels, extinguished the landing lights, and they too faded into the darkness. The Lysander, flying low to avoid Luftwaffe patrols sped back to the English Channel and the relative safety of England. Below, the French countryside lay abandoned in the dim moonlit darkness.
The two women, Diane Rowden and Noor Inayat Khan arrived the next day at their respective assignments. Noor Inayat Khan, code-named Madeleine, occupied a safe house in Paris and began one of the great tragedies of a war marked by brutality and grief.
Before the Crimean War (1854-6), women rarely served with military units at or near the front lines. That situation changed when Florence Nightingale and her nurses shared rations with fighting men at the battle lines. By World War I, nurses, and female ambulance drivers served within the range of enemy artillery though did not yet engage in the dangerous work of combat. A revolution occurred in the role of women in war with the end of the Phony War and the German Wehrmacht rolled its blitzkrieg into France and completed its control of the country in June 1940.
Following the 1939 invasion of Poland and Winston Churchill’s rise to power, Churchill found the old SIS military intelligence agency complacent, bureaucratic, and riddled with security leaks. He created the Strategic Offices Executive (SOE) in order to bypass the men in the SIS who supported peace with, and even an alliance with, Nazi Germany. The new group came into being with only two directives: “Set Europe ablaze,” and to make the lives of men in the German military “an eternal torment.”
The SOE inserted men with language skills into Axis-occupied countries to provide weapons, organize partisans, and radio information back to London. However, the intelligence and operations services ran into a problem with agents in France. German and Vichy authorities regularly rounded up young men for forced labor in German mines, factories, and labor camps. Women freely traveled the French countryside by bus, rail, and bicycle in search of food, work, and families missing or displaced by the invasion, and as clerks and nurses for armies on the move. The new organization began a search for women fluent in French to fill the need for people to take on the dangerous work of guerilla warfare and rear-guard action.
Winston Churchill gave the unofficial approval for women in the covert operations service in April 1942, but the SIS scrapped plans for the recruitment of women before it got off the ground by pointing out that the 1929 Geneva Convention and the 1907 Hague Convention did not offer prisoner-of-war protections to women. The men who drafted those treaties had not envisioned women as warriors. Colonel Colin Gubbins, head of SOE military operations, used his connections to sidestep the legal arguments by enrolling women agents in FANY (First Aid Nursing Yeomanry). As a civilian group that acted as nurses and ambulance drivers, FANY gave women recruits a thin layer of Geneva Convention protection if captured. The women of SOE wore FANY uniforms, but their training and chain of command rested entirely within the SOE. An intensive effort to find and train agents began in 1942 and by mid-1944 over half of FANY’s numbers were in the service of the SOE.
One of the earliest of those women, Noor Inayat Khan, trained as a radio operator for the WAAF (Women’s Auxiliary Air Force). She was the daughter of Hasra Inayat Khan, a prominent Sufi mystic who traveled the world to bring Sufi thought to a troubled world. Hasra and Noor were descendants of Tupi Sultan, the Tiger of Mysore, and the last Muslim ruler of Southern India. The Khan family ancestry made Noor a princess in the royal lineage.
On a trip to America, Hasra met Ora Ray Baker, a relation of Mary Baker Eddy, founder of the Christian Science Church. They were married in France in March 1913 and traveled to Moscow where Hasra accepted a teaching assignment at the Conservatoire. Noor was born in the Kremlin on New Year’s Day 1914. Further travels had made her multi-lingual and familiar with European terrains. She studied child psychology at the Sorbonne, wrote a children’s book, Twenty Jataka Tales, and performed in a children’s radio program in Paris. Her father had returned to India where he died in 1927.
With the outbreak of war, Noor and a sister joined the French Red Cross as nurses, and on the invasion of France found themselves cut off from their unit. The Khan family regrouped in Bordeaux and escaped to England aboard a Belgian Freighter.
Though raised under Sufi doctrine, she and a brother felt that Fascism was of such a significant evil that their pacifism must be set aside in the face of the Axis threat. They joined the Royal Air Force where Noor rose in rank until she felt her talents were not used to her fullest potential. A request for greater responsibility and her fluency in French brought her to the attention of the SOE, who soon called for an interview. She left a favorable impression on her interviewer and agreed on the spot to accept training for an eventual drop into Occupied France.
In training, her instructors noted that she was “clumsy,” “otherworldly,” and “not burdened with brains.” Those handlers who did praise her efforts were often considered smitten by her dark beauty, as was Leo Marks, code master at SOE. Maurice Buckmaster, head of SOE operations, refused to accept the criticisms, as she was an excellent wireless telegraph operator whose skills the French underground desperately needed.
Following a rigorous training program, she landed in France on 16 June 1943 under a full moon. News of her pending arrival reached the French Resistance fighters—the Maquis—through the Prosper circuit under Francis Suttill and his radio operator, code-named Archambaud (Gilbert Norman). Another SOE agent, Henri Déricourt, met her on landing. He was not yet suspected of working for the Germans. The Maquis took her to Paris to meet Cinema, Henri Garry, so named for his striking resemblance to the American film star Gary Cooper, to take her assigned place as radio operator for his Cinema circuit. Soon after the meeting, London thought the name “Cinema” gave too much information to German eavesdroppers and changed the circuit name to “Phono.”
Garry took her to meet Professor Alfred Serge Balachowski and his circuit operating out of the École Nationale d’Agriculture at Grignon. Following the meeting, on 1 July, a large group of German police arrested and interrogated the director, Monsieur Vanderwynckt, but returned him when they could get no information about Resistance cells from him. They came back again to arrest Balachowski, and on 10 July, arrested Vanderwynckt.
Within days of her landing, The Gestapo arrested Francis Suttill and his radio operator, Gilbert Norman, and hundreds of Free French fighters in the Prosper circuit. The Germans forced Archambaud to continue communications with London. He had no choice but to cooperate after London failed to observe security checks that would have warned them the radioman was operating under duress. Before the collapse of the Prosper circuit, German intelligence had no knowledge of the SOE, but now, thanks to their Prosper network prisoners, knew precise details of its organization and of scheduled drops. The Gestapo knew “Madeleine” was in France; they only needed to find her.
In communications with London, the SOE offered to fly Noor back home by the next available Lysander flight. She refused to leave her French compatriots without a radio operator. The date and location for D-Day landings were a secret, but Noor was aware that every agent operating in France increased the probability of the success of the invasion. Her refusal to abandon France made her now the most important Allied agent operating in the country. With the collapse of Prosper and the arrests of Balachowski sub-circuit, Noor operated alone.
She had come on air on 22 June, just days after her arrival, and for the next month coordinated landing and pickup sites, established escape routes for airmen shot down over France and identified targets for RAF bombers. In early August, she had lunch with a fellow agent, “Octave,” and on returning to her apartment near the Bais de Boulogne in Paris, found it crawling with Gestapo. She slipped away unnoticed, and on 13 August met with “Claire” at a Paris rail station.
To avoid detection, she stayed constantly on the move with her wireless set. Two German officers in a rail car on one occasion demanded to know what was in her suitcase. She opened the case, revealing the radio inside. She told them it was a “cinematographic projector.” “See the bulbs,” she said. “Haven’t you seen one before?” The soldiers apologized and moved on. This, from a woman raised on spiritualism, who believed that telling a lie was a great sin.
In July 1943, she escaped a trap set in Grignon by the Germans by killing or wounding the agents sent after her. For her bravery, the French government in exile, headed by General Charles de Gaulle, awarded her the Croix de Guerre with Gold Star
Her movements thwarted the Sicherheistdienst (SD) wireless detection station, which had her radio traffic under observation. Her arrest came on October 13, not from triangulating her radio signals, but from a description given by an unknown double agent, possibly Déricourt, or by Noor’s landlady who betrayed her for a sum of money. Agents recognized her on the street and closed in, but Noor slipped away from them. With the information given by her betrayer, she was captured at a bakery on the ground floor of her apartment building and escorted to Gestapo interrogation cells at 84 Avenue Foch, a short distance from her apartment. A search of the flat turned up her incriminating message log. Conveniently for the Germans, Noor had proposed in her last message that she lie low for a while, giving SOE nemesis Josef Goetz time to process her logs and prepare for a game of deception with the British.
London received word of the arrest of Noor and Garry but discounted the news when her radio came back on the air. Months passed before the SOE began to suspect that her wireless set was compromised. As a result, France Anthelme with his w/t operator, Lionel Lee, and courier Madeleine Damerment parachuted into a drop zone they thought the Phono circuit controlled. The Gestapo waited for them as they fell to earth. The Germans continued their ruse, informing London on Noor’s radio that Anthelme had fractured his skull on landing. Four agents sent earlier to form the “Scientist” circuit also landed into the waiting hands of the Gestapo, and all seven met execution in extermination camps.
Noor escaped soon after her imprisonment in a fifth-floor cell at 84 Avenue Foch. She made it to the roof before her guards quickly recaptured her and returned her to her cell. In a neighboring cell, another captured SOE agent, John Starr, had achieved a trusty status; and on the other side, a Frenchman, Colonel Faye. Starr had artistic talents, and the Germans used him to draw charts and graphs for them, allowing him pencils and paper in his cell that he used to communicate with Noor. She, in turn, tapped out Morse code with Faye. She devised an escape plan that called for Starr’s help as a prison trusty. He obtained a screwdriver, and the three of them took turns with the tool to loosen the bars in overhead skylights. The guards permitted makeup for women prisoners that the escapees used to make a powder and cream plaster to conceal damage to the walls. When the time came for the escape, Noor had not yet loosened her bars, and the two men waited on the roof for two hours. When they finally hoisted her out of the skylight shaft, an air raid siren wailed, the guards checked the cells and discovered the damaged cells. Within minutes, the guards returned the three roughly to their cells.
Incredibly, their prison-keeper, SS Sturmbannfuhrer Hans Kieffer did not have them beaten and executed. Instead, he demanded they sign an oath that they would not attempt another escape. Noor and Colonel Faye refused and were sent immediately to a secure prison in Germany.
The SD placed Noor into a category known as Nacht und Nebel, prisoners who were destined to disappear into the “night and fog.” Chains bound her hands and feet and a guard stood continuous watch outside her cell. During her stay, the prison warden took pity on her and ordered her hands free, but a guard reported him to the SD. The warden received a withering reprimand, and the manacles returned. The Gestapo ordered her sent to the concentration camp at Natzweiler where she was beaten and possibly raped by a particularly sadistic guard (executed for war crimes at Nuremberg). Due to the color of her skin, the guard assumed her a Creole. He considered his treatment of her as above punishment, as “colored” and Nacht und Nebel prisoners had no protection under rules of conduct from Berlin.
Following some confusion by the camp’s commander as to how she should die, she was sent to Dachau where she was executed by a bullet to the head and burned in the ovens.
For her service to the British military and for her contributions to the French Resistance and to the success of the Allied invasion at Normandy, she received posthumously the George Cross and the Croix de Guerre with Gold Star.
Of the fifty women sent into action for the SOE, fifteen were captured and only three of those survived. The women warriors of the SOE proved women could, indeed, carry their weight in warfare. Though largely unknown in America, the freedom-loving French and British have not forgotten “Madeleine.”