Noor Inayat Khan: Laying Some Falsehoods to Rest

By Shrabani Basu

Recently, I was privileged to attend the Zenith summer camp with Pir Zia in the Swiss Alps and talk about the contribution of Noor Inayat Khan as a secret agent in WWII. I was asked a question I am often asked: about how effective she was as a secret agent, and whether her alleged carelessness had cost lives.

This was raised again following an article about Noor Inayat Khan in the Daily Mirror newspaper in Britain.

I think it is best if I explain the situation and misunderstandings that have occurred.

The issue revolves around Noor’s notebook in which she wrote down her messages and transmissions. When she was arrested this notebook was discovered in her room along with all the details of her messages. It is said that this discovery by the Gestapo helped them to play her radio back and bring in more agents to the field, who were captured on arrival and sent to their death.   

As Noor’s biographer, I have never shirked from the truth, so here is the real picture.

It is true that when Noor first arrived as a secret agent in Paris, she was often careless in houses of her friends and other ‘safe houses’, and left the notebook lying around. This was pointed out to her, and she tried to be careful after that.

It is also true that Noor’s notebook was discovered after her arrest with useful details for her captors as it contained her messages.

So, why did Noor not destroy the messages after she sent them?

The reason is that she was rushed to the field without finishing her training and because it was not explained clearly. All agents were told to be careful when ‘filing’ their messages. The instructors used the word ‘filing’ in the sense that newspaper reporters ‘file their stories’. Noor took it in a literal sense. She took it to mean ‘filing’ in a clerical sense and thought she had to maintain a ‘file’ of the messages. This is what she said to a fellow agent who asked he why she was keeping the messages.  All ambiguity could have been saved if her trainers in Britain had simply said “Destroy all messages”. This would have been crystal clear and Noor would have followed instructions.

However, the main point is that simply having the notebook, did not give the Gestapo the means to play her radio.

Noor had been given a secret code by her code-master Leo Marks. It was a code that only she and Leo would know. When she was captured, Noor did send out the secret code to London. But it was not noticed by the girls de-coding the messages in London. Though Leo Marks had told them to look out for this special code in Noor’s messages, they missed it. When Leo finally saw it, he immediately knew that Noor had been captured. He told Maurice Buckmaster, but Buckmaster did not believe him either, and thought Noor may have made a mistake. As a result of this, agents were sent in to France on the request played by the Gestapo from Noor’s radio. Noor had sent her secret code. It was not her fault that London had slipped up.

The background to the radio games also needs to be noted.  

The German secret service had been playing the radio game called Englandspiel even before Noor set foot on French soil. They had been using the captured radio sets of the English agents to play back the radio messages, thus deceiving the SOE in London.   

The SOE soon got alerted to this and started doing two sets of checks for their agents. One was a bluff check which they could reveal to their enemy under pressure and one was a true check, which they would keep to themselves. The wireless operators in London receiving the messages were mean to look out for both checks. Noor’s true check had been given by Leo Marks, and she had sent it on her capture, but this had been ignored by the operators in London.

The London office had been careless on earlier occasions too. When Gilbert Norman, a radio operator was arrested, he sent both his checks. But when Leo Marks noticed it and pointed it out to Buckmaster, he simply thought Norman had been careless. This proved expensive as two Canadian agents were sent to France on Norman’s radio (which had fallen into German hands). The agents were arrested and their wireless sets and crystals were seized.

The Gestapo then played the radio sets of the Canadians. Noor herself was instructed by London to go to a café and meet the Canadian agents. Unknown to her, the Canadians had been arrested and the two people she met were actually German agents pretending to be Canadians. For the first time the Gestapo met her face-to- face and had a full description. They did not arrest her that day as they wanted to watch her. But Noor had been sent straight into a trap.

When Noor was arrested, other agents were sent to France on her radio set. If London had noticed her ‘true check’, this would not have happened.

It was not Noor’s carelessness that caused the deaths, but that of SOE’s own incompetence in London. In the fog of war, mistakes were made. But these were expensive mistakes as lives were lost.