A Muslim woman who became an “unlikely spy” for Britain when she was dropped into occupied France during the Second World War has been honoured with a blue plaque at the site of her family home in London.
Noor Inayat Khan, dubbed “Britain’s first Muslim war heroine in Europe”, served in the Special Operations Executive (SOE) during the conflict.
Khan was born in 1914 in Moscow, but her family quickly moved to Bloomsbury in London’s West End at the outset of the First World War.
They then moved to France, where she looked after her mother and siblings following the death of her father.
However, in 1940, the family fled occupied France to Falmouth in Cornwall, where she joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force and trained as a radio operator, despite her Sufi pacifist beliefs.
She was recruited to the SOE – which was set up by Winston Churchill – in 1943, and was then sent back to France as an undercover radio operator.
In October that year, she was arrested by the Gestapo – the secret police of Nazi Germany – after she was betrayed by a French double agent, who was reportedly paid to hand her over.
Khan was questioned by Gestapo agents, who managed to imitate her over the radio so as not to arouse suspicion, but she escaped along with other members of the SOE.
She was recaptured nearby and taken to a German prison, where she was shackled and interrogated. She refused to cooperate, and managed to scratch carvings of her address on to her bowl so other prisoners could identify her.
After 10 months she was taken to the Dachau concentration camp, where she was executed with three other women.
The English Heritage tribute will mark the London family home which Khan left for Nazi-occupied France.
Shrabani Basu, Khan’s biographer, is unveiling the plaque on Taviton Street in Bloomsbury.
“When Noor Inayat Khan left this house on her last mission, she would never have dreamed that one day she would become a symbol of bravery. She was an unlikely spy,” she said.
“As a Sufi she believed in non-violence and religious harmony. Yet when her adopted country needed her, she unhesitatingly gave her life in the fight against fascism.
“It is fitting that Noor Inayat Khan is the first woman of Indian origin to be remembered with a blue plaque. As people walk by, Noor’s story will continue to inspire future generations.
“In today’s world, her vision of unity and freedom is more important than ever.”
The plaque will be unveiled at the address that Khan etched on to her bowl while in prison, with a virtual ceremony broadcast on English Heritage’s Facebook page at 7pm on Friday.
Khan’s plaque comes after English Heritage admitted the number of women represented by the scheme is “still unacceptably low”, with only 14% of London’s 950 plaques representing women.
The charity said that “if we are to continue to see a significant increase in the number of blue plaques for women, we need more female suggestions”.