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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!

Websites
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.)

Books
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