country in the world needs some form of it to maintain power. In some
cases, the very existence of a country depends on the intelligence the country
is able to gather. During World War II, Hitler and the Germans appeared
posed to conquer all of Europe including not only France but England as
well. British officials realized the threat and determined espionage
and sabotage were the best ways to combat the Nazis. Winston Churchill,
acting on the advice given to him by those British officials, implemented
an organization called the Special Operations Executive, or SOE, to be in
charge of many of the espionage and sabotage acts to be done in occupied
Europe. He wanted the SOE to "Set Europe Ablaze!" The SOE was
short-lived; it was dismantled after World War II, but the organization sent
hundreds of secret agents behind enemy lines during the war. These
agents were mainly male, but women were sent on more than one occasion. One
of these female agents was Noor-un-nisa Inayat Khan.
Noor-un-nisa Inayat Khan
Noor-un-nisa Inayat Khan was an improbable secret agent. She was clumsy and careless. She frequently
made basic spying errors which could have easily betrayed her true identity
to the Germans. Yet
it was not these seeming basic flaws which made Noor an improbable agent.
There were two other major reasons which made Noor's occupation special.
The first reason Noor was special involves Noor's ancestors. Noor
was the great-great-great granddaughter of a ruler, Tipu Sultan, of the Mysore
region in southern India. Her ancestor made a big name for himself in
Indian and British history. He was called "The Tiger of Mysore" and
was known for his repeated attempts of establishing Indian independence from
Great Britain. People to this day still write about and study Tipu
Sultan. He held an important place in Indian history. So Noor,
as a descendant of this great ruler, was a princess with a royal birth.
The other reason involves Noor's beliefs. Noor's father was a Sufi
mystic named Hazrat Inayat Khan. He travelled around the world promoting
the Sufi beliefs. He founded several Sufi movements which still exist
to this day. For example, Noor's father created the Sufi order in England
and the Sufi order in Holland. Noor's brothers Vilayat and Hidayat currently
lead the International Sufi movement. One of Noor's nephews currently
leads the North American Sufi movement. Of course, one needs to know
and understand Sufism to understand the importance of this special background.
One of the main aspects of Sufism involves finding peaceful, nonviolent solutions
to problems--especially world problems. Sufi followers are typically
strongly anti-war. Sufism is hardly the type of background which produces
spies and saboteurs. Noor
clearly believed and tried to put these principles into practice because
she wrote the book Twenty Jataka Tales which stress peacefully solutions
to problems by illustrating what Buddha would do in a situation. So
Noor came from a pacifist background and as such she seems to be an improbable
These improbabilities provoke a couple important questions:
1) Why did this lady of royal birth, a princess, risk her life on
what could only be described as a suicide mission? The SOE, as part
of their training, surely emphasized the danger of the position. Several
SOE executives and fellow agents were against Noor going into France. Then
why did she go? Why did this Indian practically beg to go to France
as an undercover agent for the British?
2) What caused a pacifist, a believer who stresses non-violent solutions
to problems, to become a spy and saboteur for the British government? Were
there certain concepts such
as honor, duty, and respect which were more important to Noor than simply
pacifism and appeasement towards the Germans?
These two sets of questions lead to a third set of questions:
3) What was the value of these individuals as spies and saboteurs?
Did these World War II agents accomplish their intended goal? Did
the British gain enough for the sacrifaces of the lives of countless men
and women of the SOE? One may wonder if the end result was worth the sacriface of so
By examining the life and contributions of one SOE agent, the Indian Princess
Noor-un-nisa Inayat Khan, and by trying to answer the above listed questions
about her, then one begins to gain a better understanding of the value of
espionage during World War II. This website examines the life and contributions of the Indian
princess Noor-un-nisa Inayat Khan.
We begin by examining her ancestors.
It is worth mentioning, even before beginning this examination of Princess
Noor, that trickery and deceit are always a part of espionage. For example,
William Stevenson wrote a book entitled A Man Called Intrepid which
was about William Stephenson who served as the head of the British Security
Coordination in Canada. Stevenson wrote about how Stephenson supposely
found and recruited Noor for the SOE despite the fact that Stephenson worked
mainly in Canada and Noor joined the British SOE in England. When Jean
Overton Fuller, one of Noor's friends and biographer, learned about Stevenson's
writing, she became upset. Stevenson used many of Fuller's details in
his own book, yet he added his own emphasis on some of the 'facts' mentioned
in the story. Clearly, William Stephenson had not recruited Noor for
the SOE. At best, Stephenson had met Noor before the war, but even this
claim seems dubious after examination. Stevenson claims Stephenson met
Noor in India in 1934 when Noor
was 19. They supposedly
met on a tiger hunt, but facts and Noor's siblings dispute this claim. Noor
was enrolled at the Ecole Normale de Musique de Paris during 1934. Her
travels were limited to Spain and a brother and her sister accompanied her
on those travels. None of the siblings recall meeting William Stephenson.
Unfortunately, this was not the only error in Stevenson's book. Nigel
West points out several other inconsistencies concerning the 'Madeleine' story
which covers an entire chapter in Stevenson's book. Nigel West debunks
many of the A Man Called Intrepid claims in his book called A Thread
of Deceit, Espionage Myths of World War II. One cannot always depend
on the stories they read in published books about the SOE or Princess Noor's
story. Perhaps the most accurate source for the true story of Noor
is Jean Overton Fuller's book, Noor-un-nisa Inayat Khan (Madeleine).
Cover of Jean Overton Fuller's book
Noor-un-nisa Inayat Khan: Madeleine