“Beautiful, striking and petite,” Noor Inayat Khan was “the unlikeliest of spies”.
An accomplished musician and children’s writer, described as “a daydreamer” by her friends, few would have foreseen that she would go on to earn the George Cross for her service to her country.
Now, 80 years after her first mission, the little-known Second World War heroine will have her story told in the short film Liberte, documenting her time as a British secret agent.
Actress and journalist Sam Naz, who wrote and co-produced the film, as well as playing the lead role, told Sky News: “I just couldn’t quite believe that here was a woman that looked like me, who had played such an important role during World War Two, and yet I had been taught nothing about her. And it kind of sparked something in me… I couldn’t shake her off.”
Naz, who has worked for the BBC, Radio 5 Live and currently presents for Sky News, searched out newly declassified files on Khan in the National Archives, visited the Imperial War Museum and retraced Khan’s steps around the safe house in Paris where she was held, as well as reading interviews from people who had known her.
She also visited the historic Nazis headquarters in Paris, 84 Avenue Foch, during the German occupation. This was where Khan was first held, and from where she twice tried to escape.
Naz says: “I looked at that building in awe, but it was impossible not to think of some of the horrors that happened in those makeshift cells in that building.”
At the time Khan was recruited as a spy, the allies were struggling to win the war, and Churchill was under pressure to come up with a solution.
A new spy agency – the Special Operations Executive (SOE) – was set up, and as the number of suitable men to send into key countries dwindled, women saw themselves recruited into dangerous roles for the first time.
As a fluent French speaker, and previous native of Paris (her family fled France when it fell to the Nazis), Khan was an invaluable asset to the resistance.
After first joining the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, she moved on to the SOE where she was given special training as a wireless radio operator in occupied territory and in June 1943 was sent out into the field.
She was the first woman to ever do so – all the female agents before her had been sent as couriers.
Khan’s new persona was children’s nurse, Jeanne-Marie Renier, but to her SOE colleagues, she was known simply as Madeleine.
Naz explains: “When you think of a spy and when you visualize how TV, drama and film have portrayed spies, she’s the opposite. She’s a woman of colour. She’s of Indian descent. She’s a Muslim.
“I really wanted to put her front and centre. I wanted to showcase her and highlight this remarkable woman who had played such a key role.”
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‘Unbreakable’ inner strength
At the time, the life expectancy of someone in that role was just six weeks. This was because the Nazis were able to pick up the radio signals and work out where they were being transmitted from. But that didn’t put Khan off, far from it.
She arrived on her mission, only to find that the entire network she had been sent to join – codenamed “Prosper” – had all been captured by the Nazis.
She insisted on remaining in Paris to undertake what has since been called “the most dangerous post in France” – becoming the sole British radio operator operating in the city and doing her best to help rebuild the network and bring in new agents.
But it was after being betrayed by the Gestapo and captured by the Nazis that her true grit and courage became clear.
Naz explains: “She remained as that key link to London at great risk to herself. Eventually, they caught up with her, but that kind of courage is remarkable.”
Khan was held for around 10 months, and eventually sent to Germany, but never once cracked under Nazi brutality.
Considered “a particularly dangerous and uncooperative prisoner” according to records, she was kept separate from other inmates.
Describing testimony given by her German captors after the war, Naz says: “They talk about how others came and went and some were very quick to crack… But with her, there was this inner strength that just was unbreakable.”
Her “conspicuous courage, both moral and physical” would later be praised in reports of her capture.
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It was that strength that Naz says was the most important element of the film: “Her resilience and her refusal to break under that immense pressure and turmoil that she would have gone through and being tested to the limit by the Nazis.”
‘Heart-wrenching and awe-inspiring’
Executed in the Dachau concentration camp in September 1944 along with three other female prisoners, Khan’s final word is believed to have been Liberte – the title of the film.
Five years after her death she was posthumously awarded the George Cross by the King.
With this year marking the 80th anniversary of her mission, Naz says it became more important to her than ever to keep Khan’s memory alive.
“I think drama really is powerful in doing that and bringing those people back to life for a moment on screen. And I think it just felt like the perfect medium to tell her story… I just hope I did it justice.”
Directed and co-produced by Christopher Hanvey, the film also features music composed in Khan’s memory by her late brother Hidayat Inayat. Her family has called the film “heart-wrenching and awe-inspiring”.
In 2020, Khan became the first woman of South Asian descent to have a blue plaque honouring her. It’s displayed on the wall of her wartime London home, 4 Taviton Street in Bloomsbury, London.
While Liberte may be complete, Naz isn’t quite ready to let Khan go. Her production company, Laconic Raven, is now developing the drama mini-series SOE about the Special Operations Executive which Khan was part of. The show will tell the story of five women, including Khan.
Naz says: “We’ve had SAS Rogue Heroes, which focuses on the brilliant work done by the men. But I think it’s time for the women to have their showcase too…
“It’ll blow your mind. And they’re from all backgrounds. There’s working-class women. There are young mothers who went out there. They’re incredible. And they all deserve their own time in the spotlight.”
Liberte premieres tonight on Sky History at 10.15pm and will then be available on NOW.