The remarkable life of the first female radio operator to be dropped behind enemy lines during the Second World War is to be celebrated with an exhibition in Tangmere.
Noor Inayat Khan was an Asian Special Operations Executive agent (SOE), whose impressive knowledge of the French language and a familiarity with Paris led to her being recruited and trained as a British Secret Agent. Still in her 20s, she set off on her highly dangerous mission across the Channel from Tangmere Airfield, which is now the site of Tangmere Military Aviation Museum. She never returned.
Exhibition organiser Neena Sohal explained that, as the situation in France grew more and more dangerous, the agents were ordered to return home but Noor refused to leave.
Her courage kept open the vital link between Paris and London as she carried out the work of six radio operators. Using the code name ‘Madeline’, Noor regularly outwitted the Gestapo by changing her appearance and transmitting from a number of locations.
Eventually she was captured after making two daring escapes. She was labelled ‘highly dangerous’ and transported to a German prison where she was kept in isolation, interrogated and tortured.
Noor’s courage never left her, though, and she revealed nothing to the enemy. Ten months later, in 1944, when she was just 30-years-old, she was taken to Dachau concentration camp and executed.
For ordinary mortals her bravery is difficult to comprehendDudley Hooley, director of Tangmere Military Aviation Museum
Her bravery was never forgotten and Noor was posthumously awarded the highest civilian honours by both Britain and France – the George Cross and the Croix de Guerre with Gold Star, respectively.
Now, more than 70 years after her death, Noor’s story is being shared by Tangmere Military Aviation Museum, in Gamecock Terrace.
Liberté – a touring exhibition of Noor’s life – is part of The Noor Inayat Khan Centenary Project, which received funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund. It will run from Saturday June 6 to Sunday June 21, from 10am-5pm – and shows there was much, much more to her life than her wartime heroism.
Noor was an Indian Princess, descended of Tipu Sultan, the legendary ruler of Mysore, South India. She was born on January 1 1914, to an American mother, Ora Ray Baker, and an Indian father, a Sufi musician and teacher, Hazrat Inayat Khan.
Her early childhood was spent living with her family in the outskirts of Paris in an atmosphere of music and meditation.
During her tragically short life, she was a student of psychology at the Sorbonne, studied music at the Paris Conservatory and published a book of children’s stories in 1939. When war broke out in Europe, she and her family fled to London, as refugees.
As well as charting her royal Indian ancestry and her Sufi spirituality, the exhibition includes a 20-minute dramatised film which was inspired by one of her short stories – Snowdrop.
Dudley Hooley, Director of Tangmere, said: “Noor was so brave in this astounding operation. Quite what she must have thought as she left from Tangmere to perform this vital task is unknown but we do know how determined she was to succeed.
“The exhibition moves to only three other venues in the UK and we are delighted to bring this display to Tangmere to highlight her life story.”
He added: “For ordinary mortals her bravery is difficult to comprehend, we can only offer our heartfelt thanks to Noor and those like her, who gave their lives that we might live in freedom today.”
Log on to www.tangmere-museum.org.uk to find out more about the museum for full details of times and prices. Children aged 16 and under need to be with an adult.
Family photos courtesy of David Ray Harper and Omega Publications.
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