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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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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.

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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

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