Churchill's Asian spy princess comes out of the shadows

Noor Inayat Khan
Image caption Britain's Asian spy Noor Inayat Khan was shot by the Nazis in 1944 after being betrayed

"Liberte!" - That was the last word spoken by the heroine of Churchill's elite spy network before being executed by her Nazi captors.

On 13 September 1944, the glamorous British agent, code named "Madeline," was shot dead at Dachau concentration camp.

Despite being tortured by the Gestapo during 10 months of imprisonment, she had revealed nothing of use to her interrogators.

Noor Inayat Khan, died aged just 30, but her story has gone down in history.

She joined Winston Churchill's sabotage force, the Special Operations Executive (SOE), and became the first female radio operator sent into France in 1943, with the famous instruction to "set Europe ablaze".

The role was so dangerous that she arrived in Paris with a life expectancy of just six weeks.

Gestapo arrests

Noor became the last essential link with London after mass arrests by the Gestapo had destroyed the SOE's spy network in Paris.

As her spy circuit collapsed, her commanders urged her to return, but she refused to abandon what had become the principal and most dangerous post in France because she did not want to leave her French comrades without communications.

For three months, she single-handedly ran a cell of spies across Paris, frequently changing her appearance and alias until she was eventually captured.

Despite having a full description of her and deploying considerable forces in their effort to break the last remaining link with London, it was only her betrayal by a French woman that led to Noor's capture by the Gestapo.

Noor's decision to stay in Paris to fight Nazism was a decision that cost her her life.

Despite carrying a passport of an imperial subject she had no innate loyalty to Britain.

Image caption Winston Churchill sent SOE agents to France in 1943 with the instruction to "set Europe ablaze"

Born in Moscow to an Indian father and an American mother, she was a direct descendant of Tipu Sultan, the renowned Tiger of Mysore, who refused to submit to British rule and was killed in battle in 1799.

Her father was a Sufi Muslim who moved his family first to London and then to Paris, where Noor was educated.

But when war broke out in 1939, Noor and one of her brothers, Vilayat, decided they had to travel to London, dedicating themselves against what they saw as the evil of Nazi Germany.

Her fluent French, quiet dedication and training in radio transmitting were quickly spotted by SOE officers.

Highest sacrifice

Noor's bravery has long been recognised in France, where there are two memorials and a ceremony held each year to mark her death.

However, in Britain, although Noor was posthumously awarded the George Cross in 1949, her courage has since been allowed to fade in history.

That is about to change with the launch of a campaign to raise £100,000 to install a bronze bust of her in London, close to her former home.

It would be the first memorial in Britain to either a Muslim or an Asian woman.

Shrabani Basu, who spent eight years researching Noor's history in official archives and family records, said: "I feel it is very important that what she did should not be allowed to fade from memory.

''Noor died for this country. She made the highest sacrifice. She didn't need to do it. She felt it was a crime to stand back.

''She was an incredibly brave woman and I think it is important that her bravery is permanently recognised in this country.''

The project, which has the backing of 34 MPs and prominent British Asians, including human rights campaigner Shami Chakrabarti and film director Gurinder Chadha, is being led by Noor's biographer, Shrabani Basu who wrote The Spy Princess in 2006.

Around £25,000 of the cost of the bust has been raised and permission granted to install the sculpture on land owned by the University of London in Gordon Square, close to the Bloomsbury house where Noor lived as a child in 1914, and where she returned while training for the SOE during World War II.

The memorial is scheduled to be completed and installed by early 2012.

Noor Inayat Khan's story will be featured on Asian Network Reports on Tuesday 11 January at 1230 and 1800 GMT and afterwards on BBC iPlayer

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