Skip to main content

3 Life Lessons From Noor Inayat Khan, Fearless British Spy

Ravi loves writing within the realm of relationships, history, and the bizarre—where boundaries are blurred and possibilities are immense.

Read on to learn about the princess-turned-spy, Noor Inayat Khan, one of only three women to receive the George Cross in World War II. Also included are three life lessons that Noor's brave acts teach us.

Read on to learn about the princess-turned-spy, Noor Inayat Khan, one of only three women to receive the George Cross in World War II. Also included are three life lessons that Noor's brave acts teach us.

An Epitome of Bravery

She was a princess and a guerrilla fighter trained in bomb-making, sabotage, and secret communications. Above all, however, she was a war hero.

Indian princess-turned-spy Noor Inayat Khan is one of the most underrated figures in world history. Born to Hazrat Inayat Khan, she was the direct descendant of Tipu Sultan, a Muslim ruler in 18th-century India. Her life as a British spy during World War II is one of the greatest untold stories of our time.

Noor, who was recently suggested as the new face of the £50 note, was an unlikely candidate to engage in espionage in World War II. She was an epitome of bravery, resilience, and unfaltering willpower to achieve her goals at any cost.

Postumous George Cross for Noor Inayat Khan. Noor Inayat Khan (1914-1944) was a wartime British secret agent of Indian descent who was the first female radio operator sent into occupied France by the Special Operations Executive (SOE).

Postumous George Cross for Noor Inayat Khan. Noor Inayat Khan (1914-1944) was a wartime British secret agent of Indian descent who was the first female radio operator sent into occupied France by the Special Operations Executive (SOE).

The Untold Story of Noor Inayat Khan

While born in Moscow in 1914, Noor was raised in France and Britain. Her father was an Indian musician and an influential Sufi Muslim teacher descended from royalty. Her mother was an American, originally from Albuquerque, New Mexico, and a Sufi convert.

Noor had a very soft temperament. She was described as quiet and introverted and generally preferred staying away from controversy. While in London, she attended school at Notting Hill, and when she went to Paris, Noor attended the Sorbonne, where she studied psychology.

Since she had an inclination for music, she picked up music classes at the Paris Observatory. She wrote children’s stories and was often described by her friends as an absent-minded girl who abhorred violence of any kind.

Though it might seem strange based on this characterization, she was precisely what Britain’s military intelligence needed in 1943.

Able to speak French, she was quickly chosen to go to Paris to join the Special Operations Executive (SOE), a secret British organization set up to support resistance to the Germans from behind enemy lines through espionage and sabotage.

She joined the Woman’s Auxiliary Air Force. Her first job was that of a Wireless Operator, and she excelled at it. Since she played violin and piano, she had exemplary motor skills that helped her quite a lot. This was the first time a woman was recruited as a wireless operator. Earlier, British Intelligence recruited women only as couriers.

The job of a woman wireless operator during the Second World War was perilous, much more so than that of women couriers. In June 1943, Noor Inayat was parachuted into Paris as the SOE’s first undercover female radio operator in France. All women officers before her were sent as couriers, so this was a huge responsibility for her.

Britain's Princess Anne looks at a sculpture of India's Noor Inayat Khan after an unveiling ceremony in central London, on November 8, 2012.

Britain's Princess Anne looks at a sculpture of India's Noor Inayat Khan after an unveiling ceremony in central London, on November 8, 2012.

Tragedy Struck Barely a Week After Her Landing

The SOE placed Noor with the ‘Prosper’ network in Paris, but after only one week of being stationed, many of the SOE’s operators began to be caught by the Gestapo. For a time, Noor was the only active radio operator in Paris. Noor's superior officer extended an offer to her to be flown back to Britain, but she decided to stay in Paris.

She ended up doing the work of six radio operators. She moved constantly to evade detection and dyed her hair blonde to avoid being recognized. She knocked on the doors of old friends, asking them if she could use their homes to send messages to London from a wireless set that she carried around in a bulky suitcase.

Her work became crucial to the war effort: she helped airmen escape and aided in the safe delivery of important materials. Her transmissions became the only link between the agents around the Paris area and London.

Finally, after 3 months, the Gestapo caught her. Her capture was enabled by a possible tip from Frenchwoman Renée Garry, who was in the know about the British radio networks.

 An English Heritage Blue Plaque is seen on the former family home of Second World War British secret agent Noor Inayat Khan in London on August 28, 2020.

An English Heritage Blue Plaque is seen on the former family home of Second World War British secret agent Noor Inayat Khan in London on August 28, 2020.

Noor Goes Down Fighting

Noor did not go down quietly. She put up a tremendous fight, and it took six burly men to subdue her. She was dragged from her flat, fighting, punching, and biting.

Barely hours after her arrest, Noor decided to try and escape through the bathroom window. She was, however, caught by the guards and beaten mercilessly. Still determined to escape, Noor tried it once again but was unsuccessful—she was reprimanded and forced into solitary confinement and violent interrogations.

Still, she never broke. The Gestapo always knew her only by her code name, “Madeleine” and never discovered the fact that she was an Indian.

Finally, after almost a year in captivity, Noor was transferred to Dachau concentration camp, where she was tortured and then, along with three other female agents, shot to death by the Nazis. She was just 30 years old.

Her last word was “Liberté.”

Assistant Section Officer Inayat Khan was awarded the George Cross, Britain’s highest civilian decoration, in 1949. She was also awarded the Croix de Guerre, France’s best-known military decoration.

Noor’s indomitable bravery is emblematic of the spirit of resilience and teaches us a number of timeless lessons. The rest of this article will focus on three of the most important.

Noor did not go down quietly. She put in a big fight and it took six burly men to subdue her. She was dragged from her flat fighting, punching, and biting.

Noor did not go down quietly. She put in a big fight and it took six burly men to subdue her. She was dragged from her flat fighting, punching, and biting.

Noor Had Tremendous Resilience

During her training, Noor’s superiors believed that she was little more than average.

They recorded that, unlike spies, Khan revealed too much. She was quite amiable and told her friends too much about herself and her job. On the job, she was clumsy, and it was difficult for her to blend in with the crowds. Her clumsy style of Morse signaling was so peculiar that she was jokingly nicknamed ‘Bang Away Lulu.’

She had even left secret codes carelessly lying around her table at one point. Further, she had carelessly revealed her British background by pouring milk into cups before the tea.

As a superior officer, Col. Frank Spooner wrote the following of her in her personal file:

“Not overburdened with brains but has worked hard and shown keenness, apart from some dislike of the security side of the course. She has an unstable and temperamental personality and it is very doubtful whether she is really suited to work in the field.”

But documents from the national archive show that her superiors went ahead with her despite their misgivings because of the one powerful quality she did possess: resilience.

They saw an inner strength in her and knew that she would do her job and achieve the objectives of her mission at any cost. This gamble paid off.

Noor frustrated the Nazis while imprisoned. Facing the possibility of harsh punishment, she grew outwardly compliant as she fed the Germans lie after lie. All the while, she was plotting another escape, which almost worked—except, just as she left her cell, the British made a surprise air raid. Due to this, the guards performed an unscheduled cell check, only to find the bars on her window undone and her sprinting across the roof again.

She was reclassified as extremely dangerous, shackled in chains, and kept in solitary confinement. Her interrogations changed from friendly questioning to relentless physical violence. Her Sufi upbringing taught her to stay positive and focused on her objectives, which she did with finesse and dignity.

The girl who failed her test interrogations so miserably never revealed a single shred of useful intelligence. She proved to be almost unimaginably resilient.

Many people misread resiliency as a recovery mechanism for emotionally traumatized people. But what they don’t realize is that resilience is also a quality that can be cultivated and developed to help us be better at handling turbulent change, nonstop pressure, and life-disrupting setbacks. And Noor ticks all the boxes of resilience, as explained beautifully by Al Siebert in his book The Resiliency Advantage.

Noor was one of those people who recognized the need to cultivate resilience and used it to her ultimate advantage. We do not know much about her mental state during her imprisonment by the Nazis, but some of the techniques behind her seemingly endless resiliency can be inferred from her biographical details as written by Sharbani Basu in her classic book The Spy Princess: The Life of Noor Inayat Khan.

Noor’s indomitable bravery teaches us some life changing lessons that not only celebrate the spirit of resilience but are also timeless across generations.

Noor’s indomitable bravery teaches us some life changing lessons that not only celebrate the spirit of resilience but are also timeless across generations.

She Was Outwardly Focused on Problem Solving

Noor knew that if she was caught escaping, she would be tortured. But she also knew she would be tortured regardless. So, she tackled the problem head-on.

She fed the Germans lie after lie while plotting her escape. She would scratch out messages to her co-prisoners on the bottom of her food bowl, identifying who she was and trying to enlist help. Her objective was simple. Do something every day to make life better. Don’t sit on the problem.

In the 1960s, research psychologists began investigating people who coped well with life’s difficulties and were more stress-resistant than others. Richard Lazarus discovered that people who cope well focus outwardly to solve their difficulties.

Julian Rotter, another psychologist, found that self-motivated people who feel capable of taking effective action when threatened hold up much better than those who have a fatalistic attitude and believe their lives are controlled by forces out of their control.

The key is winning the emotional battle. Make an emotional commitment to get out of the rut and do something small every day towards betterment. Forget the goal. Just focus on the journey to achieve the goal.

She Countered Negative Experiences

They expected a quiet capture, but she fought back aggressively, biting, punching, and kicking the hell out of them. For Noor, aggression was the best defense against the negative experience of torture, and she defended herself with gusto. She was difficult. She demanded a bath and, further, that the door be closed (to protect her modesty). The Nazis were on the back foot.

The key is to look at your list of negative experiences. Pick one item and create an action plan to feel less vulnerable and more in control. Decide to find a way to decrease the negative effect it has on you.

Disengaging yourself from the negative things around you conserves your resilience and keeps you in the thinking mode to overcome and not get overwhelmed by challenges.

And the most important quality she possessed was her ability to control her emotions.

Her interrogations changed from friendly questioning to relentless physical violence. Unsure who she was, her new prison mates mostly knew her through her nightly weeping. But in front of the Nazis, she was cold, emotionless, and unbreakable. And she stayed that way even as the beatings increased in brutality.

According to psychologists Annette Stanton and Robert Franz, emotional reactions during distress are not bad in and of themselves. But they become counterproductive due to poor timing.

And resilient people like Noor control their emotional reactions in a crisis, engage the problems, then process their feelings afterward. They consider various ways to get from where they are to where they want to be, select the best choice, and take action. They observe the effects of the action to quickly learn what is working or not working. Then they modify their actions to get the best results.

Noor gives us a valuable lesson here: once you control your emotions, you control the problem. Simple as that.

In-Depth Biography of Noor Inayat Khan

Sources

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Ravi Rajan