book lists

Noor Inayat Khan and the SOE

Caveat to the rest of this post: I am waaay not an expert in this field. I’ve done what I would call a fair amount of amateur reading about WWII generally, and a bit about the SOE and its female agents specifically.

Wartime photo of Noor Inayat Khan, from the Imperial War Museum
Wartime photo of Noor Inayat Khan, from the Imperial War Museum

Since Code Name Verity was published in 2012, I’ve become much more aware of the history of the British WWII spy organization called the SOE. One of the main characters in Verity is an SOE agent and wireless operator, the other is a pilot in the WAAF and ATA. One of the interesting aspects of the SOE is its use of female agents, especially in France. This is, of course, a big part of Verity, but it’s also based in fact.

In following Elizabeth Wein’s blog and Twitter, I discovered that one of her inspirations for Verity was a fascinating woman named Noor Inayat Khan (who, it’s worth noting, was half-Indian and Muslim). I’ve seen several posts on Tumblr about Noor recently, and through them discovered that there was a recent documentary that aired on PBS*. The documentary is called “Enemy of the Reich” and should still be available for online viewing if you’re in the US.

Since there’s a bit of a surge of interest, I thought I would pull together a few resources for those who are interested in finding out more about Noor Inayat Khan and the SOE more generally. Again, see the caveat: if you know of resources I haven’t listed here, PLEASE let me know and I’ll add them!

Wikipedia page
2006 article from The Independent
An essay from the producer of “Enemy of the Reich”
Nice overview profile
The Imperial War Museum’s SOE page
Some more photos from various points of Noor Inayat Khan’s life
(There are also some articles in the Times (London) which I’m not linking to because they’re behind a paywall. If you have access, they’re easy to find by searching.)

A Life in Secrets: Vera Atkins and the Missing Agents of WWII by Sarah Helm (my review)**
Spy Princess: The Life of Noor Inayat Khan by Shrabani Basu
The Women Who Lived For Danger: The Women Agents of SOE in the Second World War by Marcus Binney
Churchill’s Angels by Bernard O’Connor (I started this one and somehow O’Connor manages to render his subject extremely dry)
Noor-un-nisa Inayat Khan: Madeleine by Jean Overton Fuller (a personal friend of Noor Inayat Khan in England)

In the end, it’s easy to get hung up on the romantic details of Noor Inayat Khan’s short life. But what strikes me is her bravery, her resourcefulness, and her sheer toughness in the face of conditions that would overwhelm most people.

* I thought it was quite touching and well done overall, although I believe they completely messed up on the fact that Noor was born in Moscow, not St. Petersburg! I appreciated the fact that they were able to get quite a bit of information and commentary from Noor’s family, which gave a very personal sense to the documentary. I did wish they had mentioned Vera Atkins, although I know they were trying to fit everything in an hour.

** Helm is also coming out with a book about Ravensbruck

By Maureen LaFerney

My name is Maureen. I currently work as a library assistant in a public library in the Indianapolis area, and also just so happen to be a voracious reader. I frequently end up under a cat.

9 replies on “Noor Inayat Khan and the SOE”

It is true that without Vera Atkins’ doggedly persistent detective work we would have NO IDEA what had happened to Noor Inayat Khan. I still occasionally find references to her which confuse her with Sonya Olschanezky, whom she resembled and who was working in connection with her in the SOE in France. Olschanezky had been recruited in the field and wasn’t taken seriously by London because they didn’t know who she was back in the UK. When she was captured, she was shipped to Natzweiler-Struthof with three British SOE agents and they were all executed immediately on arrival. (You’ve read about her, of course, but I’m guessing your readers may not have!) Immediately following the war, having only eye-witness accounts from other prisoners at Natzweiler, it was easy to assume that this unknown fourth SOE agent was likely to have been Noor Inayat Khan.

And then there is that amazing story of how Atkins interrogated Josef Kiefer, the Gestapo officer who’d had Noor Inayat Khan in his charge, and how he broke down in tears when Atkins told him how she’d died.

Yeah, I think what I wanted and didn’t get was a note at the end about how Vera Atkins is the reason we know basically ANYTHING about what happened to Noor Inayat Khan (and the others). And it’s probably true in a certain sense that Noor was more important to Vera than Vera was to her, or at least that’s the sense I got from Helm’s book.

I had forgotten about the Sonya Olschanezky complication, but of course that made things so much harder to uncover.

Have you ever read Leo Marks’ autobiography BETWEEN SILK AND CYANIDE? It has lots about military codes and a bit about Noor Inayat Khan – she shows up near the middle-end of the book.
(My brother and I found the book because it was in E. Wein’s bibliography at the end of Code Name Verity.)

I haven’t read that one! It was showing up on some lists, but I wasn’t sure how directly related it was. I’ll add it to the post. Thank you!

Welcome! It’s an interesting book in and of itself, too – a different side of the SOE than I’d heard much about before.

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