The Princess Spy

Listen to The Princess Spy
Noor Inayat Khan (Nora Baker) Codename: Madeleine

She was a pacifist who was born into a life of privilege. But when the Nazis invaded, she risked everything to fight back—and paid the ultimate price. I’m JP Robinson and this is Heroes & Villains.

Thank you for joining me for yet another episode of Heroes & Villains. Today we’re looking at an amazing young woman who was born a princes yet chose to serve as a spy. Let’s get right into it.

France 1940. Nora Baker stood near a window that overlooked Falmouth Harbor. Just across the English Channel, German troops had invaded France in a massive assault that had made her family a band of desperate refugees.

“I wish some Indians would win high military distinction in this war,” Nora said. “If one or two could do something in the Allied service which was very brave and which everybody admired it would help to make a bridge between the English people and the Indians.”

In just a few months, Nora would do just that.  

Nora Baker, born Noor Inayat Khan, had already done some impressive things by the time the second world war broke out in Europe. The oldest of four children, she was born in Moscow, Russia. Her father, Inayat Khan, was an Indian Muslim of royal descent. When he died, 13 year old Nora became the de-facto head of the family, working with her mother to take care of her siblings.

But she was probably the last person you’d expect to become a spy. Described as “shy” and “dreamy” Nora was a pure academic. She studied child psychology at Sorbonne University in Paris, and was a musician and a successful writer. Not only that, but Nora was an adamant pacifist.

Then Hitler’s horde invaded—and everything changed.

In November 1940, 28 year old Nora decided the time for pacifism was over. She enlisted in the British Women’s Auxiliary Air Force  and was ultimately recruited to join the SOE—a secret British military organization. She underwent special training to become a wireless operator in occupied territory.

Here, Nora was breaking serious ground. She was the first woman to be sent as a wireless operator in occupied territory. Her mission? To maintain a link between field agents and London. Her work involved sending and receiving messages about planned resistance operations and the location of weapons for the French resistance.

Fluent in French, Noor was sent to Nazi-occupied France under the codename Madeleine. It was dangerous work with an operator’s life expectancy in the field to be six weeks in 1943. Nora operated in the field until October when she was betrayed into German hands.

After 10 months of solitary confinement in Pforzheim, Germany, with her hands and feet shackled, she was executed at Dachau along with three other female agents. She was 30 years old.

A picture I took of Nora’s memorial at Dachau Concentration Camp in Germany

I first stumbled across Nora’s story while on a research trip at Dachau concentration camp. I was struck by her contributions to freedom and humanity. But what stands out the most is that, when she lost the privileges she knew, her response wasn’t to give up but to work for positive change.

And that’s a message that can speak to all of us. Sometimes our world flips on its head but, if we’re willing to work at it, we can make a difference that will set things right.

So, what’s on your list of things to change? Write and let me know.

I’m JP Robinson and thank you for tuning in. I’ll see you next Friday.

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