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UK plans landmark tribute to Muslim war heroine

Noor Inayat Khan, who ran a network of spies across Paris during World War II before being betrayed and executed, would become the first Asian or Muslim woman to be honoured with a memorial in London.
Noor Inayat Khan was awarded the George Cross posthumously.
Noor Inayat Khan was awarded the George Cross posthumously.

LONDON // A largely forgotten wartime heroine is finally to be honoured with a bronze bust in a London square - the first time a memorial has been erected in Britain to either an Asian or Muslim woman.

Noor Inayat Khan was one of Winston Churchill's elite Special Operations Executive (SOE) secret agents. In 1943, the daughter of an Indian father and American mother became the first female radio operator sent into Nazi-occupied France in the Second World War.

She single-handedly ran a network of spies across Paris until she was betrayed by a jealous woman. She was captured by the Gestapo, who tortured her for 10 months in France and Germany, according to British military records.

"Madeleine" - her SOE code name - refused to divulge any information and was eventually executed by firing squad at Dachau concentration camp in September 1944. She was 30 years old.

Although Khan was awarded the George Cross, the UK's highest civilian honour for bravery, in 1949, her extraordinary exploits faded from the public memory in Britain.

In France, however, where she was awarded the Croix de Guerre, two memorials to her have been erected and a service in her memory is held each year on the anniversary of her execution.

Now, a fund-raising drive is under way in the UK to raise £100,000 (Dh575,000) for a bronze bust to be erected in a square close to the house in Bloomsbury where she lived. The campaign has the backing of a group of 34 members of parliament and several prominent Anglo-Asians.

The renewed interest in Khan - a dogged advocate of Indian independence and a direct descendant of Tipu Sultan, the 18th century Muslim 'Tiger of Mysore' who died in battle after refusing to submit to British rule in 1799 - is attributable to the efforts of the author Shrabani Basu.

In 2006, after eight years of research, he published her biography, Spy Princess: The Life Of Noor Inayat Khan, re-awakening the British public's interest - an interest now likely to grow with plans to produce a biopic of her life.

"I feel it is very important that what she did should not be allowed to fade from memory, particularly living in the times that we do," he told The Independent last week.

"Here was a young Muslim woman who gave her life for this country and for the fight against those who wanted to destroy the Jewish race.

"She was an icon for the bond that exists between Britain and India but also between people who fought for what they believed to be right."

Khan was the daughter of an Indian Muslim preacher and an American mother. The family lived in London before moving to Paris, where Khan learnt the fluent French that was later to prove so useful.

The family returned to London after fleeing Paris as the German army advanced. In 1940, Khan joined the Women's Auxiliary Air Force where, two years later, her language and radio transmitting skills attracted the attention of the SOE - the organisation that Churchill had instructed "to set Europe ablaze".

British agents flew her into northern France in June, 1943, and, carrying papers identifying her as Jeanne-Marie Regnier, she made her way to Paris with two other SOE operatives.

In the six weeks after her arrival, the Gestapo rounded up many of the members of the resistance groups that had been assigned to Khan.

She was urged to leave France but refused, saying that she could not leave the Paris resistance fighters without communications. Instead, she stayed to play a crucial role in rebuilding the network.

Although the Gestapo had circulated a full description of her, Khan was captured only when a jealous girlfriend of one of the resistance fighters betrayed her.

She was taken to Gestapo headquarters in Paris where she made at least two attempts to escape. She was subsequently transferred to prisons in Germany where she was kept in chains and, finally, transferred to Dachau where, immediately upon arrival, she was shot.

When Khan was awarded the George Cross citation in 1949, Maurice Buckmaster, the head of the SOE's French section, described her as "a most brave and touchingly keen girl", adding: "She was determined to do her bit to hit the Germans and, poor girl, she has."

According to Mr Basu's book, as Khan was about to be shot, her final, defiant cry echoed round the infamous death camp. "Liberté!"


Updated: January 13, 2011 04:00 AM