Noor Khan – The Noble Indian Princess Turned British Spy

Published March 13, 2018
Updated August 30, 2018

Noor Khan may have been born royal, but she proved herself an invaluable asset to World War II and went down in history as so much more than a princess.

Noor Khan

Noor Khan in her army uniform.

Noor Khan was a poet and children’s book author. She was also a princess and Britain’s first Muslim war heroine.

Born in Moscow in 1914, her father was a relative of Tipu Sultan, the ruler of the Kingdom of Mysore. Her father was also a teacher of Universal Sufism, and she was raised to be a staunch pacifist. When Khan was six years old, the family moved to France, where she studied at the Sorbonne and the Paris Conservatory and began her career as a writer.

In 1940, after the outbreak of World War II, her family fled to England, and it was there that Khan decided she wanted to do her part to help the fight against the Nazis. She joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, where she trained as a wireless radio operator. Three years later, in 1943, she was recruited to the British Special Operations Executive.

Although her superiors initially doubted she was well-suited for this kind of work, citing her small physical stature and temperamental personality, she was undoubtedly committed to the work. Having already received radio training at the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, Noor Khan sped through her courses and was an adept signaler. In June of 1943, after only four months of training, she was stationed in Paris, sending information back to Britain under the code name “Madeline.”

Unfortunately, almost immediately after she arrived in Paris, all the other radio operators were captured. Rather than be extradited, she stayed there alone for four months, relaying important spy traffic back to Britain from all over Paris, all the while evading capture by the Germans.

Noor Khan Bust

Wikimedia CommonsA bust honoring Noor Khan in the Gordon Square Gardens, London.

She was eventually betrayed by a double agent, which led to her capture by the Nazis. They held her for questioning at the SD Headquarters in Paris, but even in the face of torture, she refused to give up any information to the Nazis. Instead, she fed them false information. In addition to withstanding Nazi questioning, she also made several escape attempts.

On November 25, 1943, Noor Khan was able to successfully escape the headquarters but was soon recaptured. Because she was such a flight risk, the Nazis transferred her to Germany, where she was held at Pforzheim prison under solitary confinement for ten months.  Even while she was under solitary confinement, she was able to communicate with her fellow inmates, scratching notes into the bottom of her mess cup to let them know who she really was.

In September of 1944, she was abruptly sent to Dachau concentration camp with four other spies. On the morning of September 13, they were executed by firing squad. Khan’s last word was “liberté.

Noor Khan was posthumously awarded the French Croix de Guerre with Silver Star, and the George Cross, Britain’s highest honor for great heroism in the face of extreme danger not in presence of the enemy. A bronze bust near her former home in London commemorates her extreme courage and service to Britain.

After learning about Noor Khan, read about Ching Shih, a prostitute who became Lord of the Pirates. Then, check out the fearsome legacy of Genghis Khan’s great-great-granddaughter.

Aimee Lamoureux
Aimee Lamoureux is a writer based in New York City.
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