The spy princess who crushed the Nazis.
She was a princess. A guerrilla fighter, trained in bomb-making, sabotage and secret communications. But above all, 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, and her life as a British spy during World War II is one of the greatest untold stories of our times.
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 an unfaltering will power to achieve her goals at any cost.
And here is her Story.
The Untold Story of Noor Inayat Khan.
Noor was born in Moscow in 1914 but brought up in France and Britain. Her father was Indian, a 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 being quiet, introvert and generally being away from controversy. While in London, she attended school at Notting Hill and when she went to Paris, Noor attended the Sorbonne. At this university, she studied psychology. Since she had an inclination for music, she picked up music classes at the Paris Observatory. She wrote children stories and was often described by her friends as a dreamy girl who abhorred violence of any kind.
But she was exactly 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, 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 in it. Since she played violin and piano, her skills in punching the keys helped her a lot. This was the first time that a woman was being 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 very dangerous, much more dangerous than that of women couriers.in June 1943, Noor Inayat was parachuted into Paris as SOE’s first undercover female radio operator in France. All women officers before her were sent as couriers and this was a huge responsibility for her.
But tragedy struck immediately barely a week after her landing in France.
Most of the SOE’s operators were caught by the Gestapo after a tip by one of the French pilots who were in the know-how of the British secret mission. But Noor managed to escape and refused to be extradited to Britain, fully aware of the risks if she was caught.
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 had become crucial to the war effort, helping airmen escape and allowing important deliveries to come in. Her transmissions became the only link between the agents around the Paris area and London.
Finally, after 3 months, the Gestapo caught her.
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.
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 unsuccessfully and was reprimanded into solitary confinement and violent interrogations.
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 again, and then along with three other female agents, shot to death by the Nazis. She was just 30 years old.
Her last words were “Liberté.”
Assistant Section Officer Inayat Khan was awarded the George Cross, Britain’s highest civilian decoration in 1949. She was also awarded the Croix se Guerre, France’s best known military decoration.
Noor had tremendous resilience.
Noor’s superiors had a very average opinion about her during her training.
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 melt away in the crowds. Her clumsy style of Morse signaling was so peculiar that she was jokingly nicknamed “Bang Away Lulu.”
At one point of time, she had even left secret codes carelessly lying around her table. and that she had unthinkingly revealed her British background by pouring milk into cups before the tea.
“Not overburdened with brains but has worked hard and shown keenness, apart from some dislike of the security side of the course,” a superior officer, Col. Frank Spooner, wrote in her personal file. “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 national archive show that in spite of their misgivings, her superiors went ahead with her because of the one powerful quality she had.
That was Resilience.
They saw the inner strength in her and knew that she will do her job and achieve the objectives of her mission at any cost. And their gamble paid off.
Noor frustrated the Nazis. 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. Because of that, the guards did an unscheduled check of the cells, 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 her to stay positive and focused on her objectives and she did so with finesse and dignity.
The girl who failed her test interrogations so miserably never revealed a single thing. She proved to be most resilient of all.
Most people misread resiliency as recovery mechanisms for emotionally traumatized people. But what people don’t realize is that Resilience is also a quality which can be cultivated and developed to help us be better at handling turbulent change, nonstop pressure, and life-disrupting setbacks.
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 ways in which she could stay forever resilient could be inferred from her biographical details.
She was Outward Focused on Problem Solving
Noor knew if she is caught escaping, she will be tortured. But she also knew she will be tortured anyway. 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, 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 to investigate people who coped well with life’s difficulties and were more stress resistant than others. Richard Lazarus discovered that people who cope well focus outward to problem 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 people 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 however 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 gave back to them 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 did so 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 keep you in the thinking mode to overcome and not get overwhelmed by challenges.
And the Most Important, She Controlled her Emotions
Her interrogations changed from friendly questioning to relentless physical violence. Her new prison mates, unsure who she was, mostly knew her through her nightly weeping.
But in front of the Nazis, she was cold, emotionless. 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 itself. But they become counterproductive due to poor timing.
It is poor timing, amplification of feelings, and disengagement that can make emotional reactions maladaptive. When hit by a crisis, some people disengage from the challenges at hand by amplifying their emotional reactions. It isn’t that reacting emotionally is wrong; they just do it at the worst possible time in the worst possible place. Some people react in dramatic, attention-getting ways at the slightest opportunity and often blame others for causing their feelings.
The most resilient people, in contrast, control their emotional reactions in a crisis, engage the problems, then process their feelings afterward. You consider various ways to get from where you are to where you want to be, select the best choice, and take action. You observe the effects of the action to quickly learn what is working or not working. Then you modify your actions to get the best results.
Problem-solving ability and emotion-focused coping can be mutually facilitating. When both are well done, they enhance each other. Once you control your emotions, you control the problem. Simple as that.
As Emil Dorian has rightly said.
“Strong people alone know how to organize their suffering so as to bear only the most necessary pain.”
· The Resiliency Advantage — AI Siebert
· The Spy Princess: The life of Noor Inayat Khan — Shravani Basu