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Monday, March 01, 2021

Face of the Guerrilla

Noor Inayat Khan was only one of the many victims of the struggle between a British secret service and the Germans. They all deserved better

Written by Phillipknightley |
July 22, 2006 1:17:04 pm

IN JULY 1940, THE BRITISH govern-ment created a secret organisation called Special Operations Executive (SOE). Its task, in Churchill’s laconic phrase, was to ‘‘set Europe ablaze’’.

Churchill envisaged a ‘‘gigantic guerrilla’’, manned by the peoples of German-occupied Europe which would snap at German heels, bite its flanks, blow up its railways, slip sand into its war machinery, harry its patrols, mine its roads and kill its troops. But the theory was badly flawed and this moving and sympa-thetic book tells the story of one of its victims, an Indian princess, Noor Inayat Khan, a de-scendant of the great Tipu Sultan, the ‘Tiger of Mysore’.

The flaw was that Churchill romantically believed that every man, woman and child in Europe was just waiting for the right moment to rise and strike at the Germans. He did not understand the historic resignation with which most Europeans viewed the German occupa-tion and their determination to carry on their lives the best they could. The fact is that most people collaborated most of the time.

There were people who were prepared to sacrifice their lives and those of their families for liberation. But it soon emerged that most of these were communists and the British gov-ernment quickly recognised the danger. If SOE were to help communist resistance against the Germans in Occupied Europe, they risked opening the way for a postwar Eu-rope dominated by communism.

So the top ranks of SOE were quickly filled by public school-Oxbridge men and women. They had been brought up to believe that the British were a superior race, natural owners of an empire on which the sun never set. They took it for granted that one Englishman was worth five Germans, ten Italians and an in-calculable number of lesser breeds. They had been avid readers of John Buchan, a writer who had worked for British intelligence and whose hero, Richard Hannay, was modelled on himself and his colleagues.

Recruitment to SOE gave these Buchan fans a chance to act out their fantasies in a worthwhile cause. The moral aspect of what SOE did thus received little attention. Its at-tempts to ‘‘set Europe ablaze’’, killed not only Germans but many innocent civilians, in-cluding fervent supporters of the Allied cause. When it blew up a train in France, it may have disrupted German supplies but it also frequently killed the French train crew. It also provoked the Germans to exact terrible reprisals on the local population to deter it from helping SOE agents.

This brings us to the question at the core of this disturbing book: What on earth was a gentle, kind, well-born Indian girl, devoted to her family, raised in the Sufi style of Islam with its tradition of non-violence, doing in such an organisation and what responsibility did it carry for her early, terrible death? Shra-bani Basu, an Indian journalist based in Lon-don, approaches this section of her well-re-searched book with a cool head and a perceptive eye. In 1940, Noor and her family had fled France, where they had been living, only a few steps head of the Germans. Noor longed to be of real use in the war against Fas-cism and joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force where she was trained as a wireless op- erator. She told her superiors that as long as the war with Germany continued, she would be loyal to Britain but after the war was over, she might find that she had to support India against Britain in its fight for independence.

By now, she had come to the notice of SOE which was desperate both for French speak-ers and radio-operators, so desperate in fact that it sent her to France before she had prop-erly completed her training. Within days of her arrival, German counter-intelligence, which had proved much more efficient than SOE had ever imagined, had rounded up her group’s leaders and their equipment. This left only one transmitter in Paris—Noor’s.

SOE’s head, Maurice Buckmaster, decided it was too dangerous for her to continue and ordered her to return to London. She refused, saying that she felt it was crucial for her to re-main where she was so that London would know what was happening in Paris.

Buckmaster knew that Noor’s life was in danger and that it was only a matter of time before she was arrested… but he allowed her to remain. So the inevitable occurred. She was caught, imprisoned in Gestapo head-quarters in Paris, interrogated and tortured.

But she revealed nothing, not even her real name. Frustrated, the Germans sent her to Dachau concentration camp where she was shot on 13 September 1944. She was only 30. It is a tragic story and we will remember it because the main character was a brave, beautiful, exotic Indian woman. But she was only one of the many victims of the struggle between SOE and the Germans. They all de-served better.

The reviewer is the author of The Second Oldest Profession: Spies and Spying in the 20th century

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