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From pacifist to spy: WWII’s surprising secret agent - Shrabani Basu

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In May 1940, with the German army ready to occupy Paris, Noor Inayat Khan was faced with a difficult choice: stand on the sidelines or join the Allied forces fighting the Nazis. After witnessing the devastation across Europe, she travelled to England to learn the art of espionage. Shrabani Basu details how a pacifist turned spy helped build the resistance that toppled a fascist regime.

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Meet The Creators

  • Educator Basu Shrabani
  • Director Franz Palomares
  • Narrator Bethany Cutmore-Scott
  • Producer Felipe Grosso, Odirlei Seixas, Liana Vianna
  • Art Director Ricke Ito
  • Illustrator Ricke Ito
  • Character Designer Ricke Ito
  • Animator Rafael Almeida, Leilane Krebs, Rui Almeida, Allan Dantas, Daniel Mauad, Bianca Duffeck, Thiago Bonafini, Larissa Menézio
  • Editor Edgar Costa, Daniel Freire
  • Compositor Edgar Costa, Daniel Freire
  • Senior Animator Edgar Costa
  • Music Stephen Eugene Larosa
  • Director of Production Gerta Xhelo
  • Editorial Producer Alex Rosenthal
  • Associate Producer Bethany Cutmore-Scott
  • Associate Editorial Producer Dan Kwartler
  • Script Editor Iseult Gillespie
  • Fact-Checker Eden Girma
Additional Resources for you to Explore
Noor Inayat Khan (1914-44) was the first woman radio operator to be infiltrated into occupied France during the Second World War. In the summer of 1943, she worked in one of the most dangerous areas of the field for the Special Operations Executive (SOE), a secret organisation set up directly by Winston Churchill. The SOE helped resistance movements in the occupied countries by supplying them with arms and ammunition and helping with guerrilla warfare and sabotage. While most radio operators survived for six weeks, Noor Inayat Khan survived for three months. At one stage, she was the last radio link between London and Paris. She was however, betrayed, captured and executed at Dachau Concentration camp. She was only 30. Despite brutal torture, she revealed nothing, not even her real name. She was posthumously awarded the George Cross.

Only three British women were awarded the George Cross, the highest civilian honour: they were Noor Inayat Khan, Odette Hallowes and Violette Szabo. All three were from the F-section of the SOE, the section that worked in France. Thirty-nine women agents were sent to France. Thirteen never returned.

Noor Inayat Khan’s biography Spy Princess was published in 2006.

It was written after her secret files were declassified by the British government in 2003. An earlier biography written by her friend Jean Overton Fuller called Madeleine was published in 1952.

Further details about the SOE in France can be obtained from the book SOE in France by M.R.D. Foot. Details about the codes used by the SOE can be learnt from the memoir of the SOE code-maker Leo Marks in his book Between Silk and Cyanide. Details about other women secret agents in the SOE are available from The Women Who Lived for Danger by Marcus Binney and The Heroines of SOE: F Section: Britain's Secret Women in France by Beryl E. Escott.

Read a detailed review of Spy Princess in The Independent newspaper.

Further reviews of Spy Princess and details about Noor Inayat Khan from television and radio interviews can be accessed from the author’s website.

In 2012, after a major campaign by Shrabani Basu, a bust of Noor Inayat Khan was unveiled by Princess Anne in London’s Gordon Square. Watch the video of the unveiling on the website of the Noor Inayat Khan Memorial Trust and learn more about the WWII heroine. In 2014 to mark her centenary, a special stamp was issued in her honour by Royal Mail. Her life has inspired plays, documentaries and dance performances.
Avatar for Daniel Acosta
it's a great point of view, how a pacifist, putted his grain of sand to finish the war, because Noor always wanted liberty, as she shouted before died.
08/25/2019 • 
 5 Responses
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Avatar for Matthew Abely
Matthew Abely
"Renée Garry allegedly sold Khan out because Garry suspected that she had lost the affections of SOE agent France Antelme to Inayat Khan" (Wikipedia citing 'Spy Princess'). Given the above context, Rejected Princess's entry on how others in the SOE patronized Khan, and how (according to textbooks around the world) whites in Britain, France, and America would treat black and brown people before, after, and during, the War, I don't think we can discount how much racism played a part in Garry's decision. This is ironic given how racist the Nazis were, and moreover very tragic. The Allies lost an excellent solider too soon because of their own bigotry, and we lost an author of children's books.
02/26/2020 • 
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Avatar for ELBA NATALIA COLIN TINOCO
03/09/2021 • 
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Avatar for AXEL ALFREDO MORALES ESPINOSA
What else did they do as spies
03/09/2021 • 
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Avatar for ANDREA MORENO ALBERTI
We don´t kow many stories, but there must be hundreds.
03/09/2021 • 
 1 Response
 / 1 Updates
Avatar for Montserrat Acuña
They were essential to the war because they could have access to secret information easily.
03/09/2021 • 
 1 Response
 / 1 Updates
Avatar for ATZIN CAMILA CONTRERAS CABALLERO
We have to start giving that importance to the women around the world.
03/09/2021 • 
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Avatar for ERICK ROBERTO ROJAS SAUCEDO
As we have just seen in the video, many women were trying to stop the war. Many of them were recognized as well, but not enough women received an award. I think that the researchers must focus their work on the investigation of women AND men that gave their lives to stop the war and give them the award that they deserve. This research can be possible if we use the technology we have nowadays.
03/09/2021 • 
 1 Response
 / 1 Updates
Avatar for DAVID EMILIANO ARANDA LEDESMA
I think the best way to be free is to free yourself without war and without hurting others but rather as strikes or marches.
03/09/2021 • 
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Avatar for RAUL ANTHONY JUAREZ ESPINOZA
Today I got to watching this video and think that everything that happens in that moment is to not be afraid technically almost nothing to face the army that was better I am too many people who died in that and that a woman of the stature as this has achieved such a magnitude that has managed to make fit the war is something to mark especially women that today we should as always in marking it.
03/09/2021 • 
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About TED-Ed Animations

TED-Ed Animations feature the words and ideas of educators brought to life by professional animators. Are you an educator or animator interested in creating a TED-Ed Animation? Nominate yourself here »

Meet The Creators

  • Educator Basu Shrabani
  • Director Franz Palomares
  • Narrator Bethany Cutmore-Scott
  • Producer Felipe Grosso, Odirlei Seixas, Liana Vianna
  • Art Director Ricke Ito
  • Illustrator Ricke Ito
  • Character Designer Ricke Ito
  • Animator Rafael Almeida, Leilane Krebs, Rui Almeida, Allan Dantas, Daniel Mauad, Bianca Duffeck, Thiago Bonafini, Larissa Menézio
  • Editor Edgar Costa, Daniel Freire
  • Compositor Edgar Costa, Daniel Freire
  • Senior Animator Edgar Costa
  • Music Stephen Eugene Larosa
  • Director of Production Gerta Xhelo
  • Editorial Producer Alex Rosenthal
  • Associate Producer Bethany Cutmore-Scott
  • Associate Editorial Producer Dan Kwartler
  • Script Editor Iseult Gillespie
  • Fact-Checker Eden Girma

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