by Humera Afridi
On a frigid winter afternoon in February, in a western suburb of Paris, I stood outside the 17th century home of the last female survivor of the Special Operations Executive, a clandestine British organization, also known as Churchill's Secret Army, or the Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare. During World War II, the SOE plotted dazzling acts of sabotage against Hitler's war effort through espionage and propaganda. Their guerrilla campaign was critical to the outcome of the war.
Having rung the bell, I waited in a bemused trance for the 91-year old veteran, incredulous that I would meet her. In the quiet of the countryside, I discerned the faint sound of yapping dogs from beyond the high stone wall. A month earlier, an envelope with her name had slipped out of a folder amid the papers of a Dutch relative of Noor Inayat Khan, an undercover radio operator
recruited by the SOE to serve in the Resistance. A tremor went through me as I examined the handwritten chit from twenty years earlier describing the terrible torture that Noor had endured at the hands of the Gestapo at the Dachau concentration camp before she was executed along with three other SOE women on September 13, 1944.
The note was addressed to a mureed, or spiritual disciple, of the Sufi Order International— the Sufi mystical organization founded by Noor's father Hazrat Inayat Khan in Europe—who had, in turn, shared it with Noor's cousin at The Hague, whom I was visiting. I assumed that the author of this note was dead like everyone else I wished to meet who had known Noor. Days after my return to New York, as I was sitting at my dining table my eyes grazed the spine of a book, The Secret Ministry of Ag and Fish, authored by none other than Noreen Riols.
A witty memoir of her time working as a decoy in the SOE under Colonel Maurice Buckmaster, head of F (for French) section, to which Noor had belonged, the book's discovery felt nothing less than divine intervention. Riols had also worked at Beaulieu, the famous training school for secret agents that Noor attended. I was flummoxed. For the life of me, I couldn't trace how the book had arrived on my bookshelf. I scrambled to contact her publisher, relieved to discover Noreen Riols was very much alive, this woman whose first name is phonetically similar to Noor's in an uncanny assonance that seemed to further intertwine their SOE destinies.
I hold a glowing admiration for Noor: her sensitivity as a poet, author, artist and talented musician lived alongside the fierce spirit of the war heroine that she would become. Her covert and meticulous radio transmissions; her stubborn refusal to give any information to the Nazis— not even her own true name— over the course of ten months of torture and being shackled in solitary confinement; her adherence to the highest chivalrous ideals through the most frightening and ugliest of circumstances imaginable, elevated her, in my eyes, to saintly status. But, as I sat on a plush pink sofa in Mrs. Riols's handsome drawing room I sucked in my breath.
"Noor should never have been sent," piped my elegant, silver-haired host in a high-pitched tone that fully expressed her disapproval. "She disobeyed orders. Buck asked her to return. When you're in the army, you don't disobey, you listen. Look what she got herself into! She was extremely brave in the end. But she wouldn't have had to be if she'd obeyed."
On June 16, 1943, the sky bathed in the light of a full moon, Noor was flown by Lysander into a field by the banks of the Loir, southwest of Paris, the first female radio operator of the Resistance to be infiltrated into occupied France. Unbeknownst to her, she was received in the field by an infamous double agent, a charismatic man whose loyalty lay solely with himself. Noor had just barely finished her training when she was dispatched. Her evaluations by War Office officials had been wildly conflicting— "too emotional and too impulsive… too vulnerable"; "in spite of a great gentleness of manner seemed to have an intuitive sense of what might be in mind for her to do…"; "too highly strung and too nervous;" "not overburdened with brains"; "a fine spirit glowing in her." But Noor was an adroit radio operator and spoke French fluently, skills that were invaluable to the SOE's F Section.
She had been sent to France to work in the Cinema circuit, a new off-shoot of the large and influential Prosper network of secret agents headed by Major Francis Suttill who had decided, for reasons of security, to break the unwieldly reseau into smaller circuits. But days after Noor arrived, the Prosper circuit was blown. Sutthill, along with several agents, was captured by the Gestapo and the network instantly collapsed. Suddenly, Noor, as radio operator, was the sole link between Britain and the Resistance. Hers become the "principal and most dangerous post" according to Colonel Buckmaster. Refusing orders to return— feeling it her moral duty to stay and serve the cause of liberty— Noor operated for twelve weeks, tapping out messages on her portable B MK II transmitter, cycling around the city, moving locations, and dodging close calls with the Nazis.
And then: mere days before Noor was scheduled to return to London, she was betrayed by the sister of the head of her circuit. Under the watchful eyes of the Gestapo, Noor was made to transmit encrypted messages to headquarters. She did so, adding a security check meant to alert Baker Street of her capture. Colonel Buckmaster, to tragic consequences, ignored the security check.
Noor had worked without the protection of a uniform or the safeguard of the Geneva Convention, receiving a salary of £350 sterling a year, deposited quarterly to an account at Lloyds Bank, Southampton Row, Victoria House, a few minutes' walk from where her American mother lived at 4 Tavington Street, absolutely unaware that her daughter was working as an undercover agent deployed to France. The true extent of Noor's bravery was revealed well after the war as testimonies arrived from people who had met her in prison. Noor's bust in Gordon Square, London, set on a plinth of natural stone, cites her honors—M.B.E (Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire), G.C. (George Cross), and Croix de Guerre (awarded by France). Noor is just one of four women to be awarded the George Cross medal for gallantry by Britain. Plaques memorialize her at Knightsbridge, London; the Air Forces Memorial, Runnymede; Suresnes, France, and at the Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial site in Germany. The monument at Gordon Square, Bloomsbury, is particularly moving as the family lived in the neighborhood for a time between the years of 1914 to 1920.
This Remembrance Day, I am reminded of a poignant remark by Mrs. Riols. "It's often the ones who die who get the recognition. But what about the ones who come back; the ones who live?" she'd mused, her voice an alloy of rue and stoicism. "We were all ignored after the war," she stated.
Remembrance is a mission for Mrs. Riols who has played an active role in organizing an annual memorial service on May 6 at Valencay for the SOE agents of French section. "When I read out the names, I can see their faces," she said to me. "If I'd gone, perhaps my name would have been on that plaque, too." Her voice was wistful. The monument—two adjacent columns, black and white, linked by a sphere representing the moon—was unveiled in 1991 and symbolized the partnership between SOE and the Resistance. The names of 104 agents are inscribed on the memorial—39 were women, 13 of whom never returned, tortured to death or killed in concentration camps.
Major Suttill's younger son, Francis Suttill, named after his father, has made remembrance the project of his life's work. After capture, Major Suttill's fate remained unknown for decades until a filmmaker approached Suttill and told him his father was alive and at large. "It was complete nonsense I discovered," Suttill, who saw his father for the last time when he was three years old, told me. But the filmmaker's comment instigated a desire to discover the truth and after intensive travel and research, Suttill learned that his father had been executed at Sachsenhausen concentration camp in March 1945. "It was a cathartic moment; moving," he states. His book, Shadows in the Fog: The True Story of Major Suttill and the Prosper French Resistance Network, describes his findings and is "a monument to not just my father but to all in the network." Major Suttill was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Order in Britain, but has received no recognition from France. "If I can get my father recognized in France, that would be my life's work for him completed," Suttill said to me by telephone.
Mrs. Riols has not yet been decorated in her native England but has, in the last decade, received a series of awards from the French government—including the Medaille de Reconnaissance de la Nation and the Legion d'Honneur. Her husband, Jacques Riols, a Captain in the First French Army was awarded the Croix de Gueurre during the war and, this year, made a chevalier of the Legion d'Honneur.
In May, Mrs. Riols invited me to attend the memorial at Valencay. On a gusty, overcast day, I witnessed a ceremony with bagpipes, poignant speeches and old-world pomp. We sat on wooden chairs, facing the august monument situated in the middle of a roundabout. Mrs. Riols pronounced the names of the deceased; I thought about the journey to heroism that each person had set out on. I wondered, too, about survivor's guilt, disdain, envy—utterly human emotions—surely aroused on such occasions in those who'd lived, whose task had become remembrance, keeping the flame of collective effort and their colleagues' sacrifices alive, gathering year after year, in the spirit of unity.
I walked up to the roundabout and studied the names of the agents, pinned to poppies and remembrance crosses. I spotted Noor's, different from all the others—her poppy pinned to a crescent moon. I was struck by the atmosphere of vital, active remembrance among the convivial group. Time collapsed, the agents sprung back to life in the stories of derring-do shared by guests, as if they were still happening, or were on the verge of doing so. And there Noor stood: young, ambitious, dreams still unfolding, sparkling on the frontier of possibility. Noor had been considered highly dangerous by the Gestapo and was the first female SOE agent to be sent to a German prison. Even as we celebrate our heroes, one person's freedom fighter is another person's terrorist, I thought.
While some maintain Noor was unsuited to the theatre of guerilla war, the author of the tender and prescient Jataka Tales, this tiger-spirited descendant of Tipu Sultan, ruler of Mysore, will always be remembered for her unequivocal commitment to the cause of human liberty, and her chivalry in serving the nation whose bread she ate, loyal to the end to the soil of her residence.
*Humera Afridi is writing a book about the life of World War II heroine Noor Inayat Khan.