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April 6, 2010

Noor Inayat Khan executed at Dachau — fact or fiction?

Filed under: Dachau, Germany, World War II — Tags: , , , , , — furtherglory @ 1:21 pm

I would like to believe the story of Noor Inayat Khan, the brave “Spy Princess” from India who became a British SOE agent during World War II and was captured by the Gestapo in Paris.  I truly want to believe the story that Noor was tortured all night and beaten into a “bloody mess” by a high ranking SS officer at the Dachau concentration camp before he personally shot her in the head the next morning.  I want to believe it as much as the next person.  The problem is that there is no evidence whatsoever to support this story. It is pure fiction.

Noor Inayat Khan wearing British WAAF uniform

This quote about the death of Noor Inayat Khan is from Wikipedia:

On 11 September 1944 Noor Inayat Khan and three other SOE agents from Karlsruhe prison, Yolande Beekman, Eliane Plewman and Madeleine Damerment, were moved to the Dachau Concentration Camp. In the early hours of the morning, 13 September 1944, the four women were executed by a shot to the head. Their bodies were immediately burned in the crematorium. An anonymous Dutch prisoner emerging in 1958 contended that Noor Inayat Khan was cruelly beaten by a high-ranking SS officer named Wilhelm Ruppert before being shot down from behind.[9] Her last word was “Liberté”. She was 30 years old.[10][11]

9.  Basu, Shrabani. Spy Princess: The Life of Noor Inayat Khan”, Sutton Publishing, 2006, pg xx-xxi.
10.  a b Hamilton, Alan “Exotic British spy who defied Gestapo brutality to the end” in The Times, 13 May 2006, page 26

The Archives at the Dachau Memorial Site has no documentation whatsoever about the alleged execution of Noor Inayat Khan and three other British SOE women at Dachau.  Nor is there any record of these women even arriving at Dachau in September 1944. Everyone who entered the Dachau concentration camp had to stop at the gate and check in, but there is no record of any Gestapo men bringing these women into the Dachau camp in the middle of the night.

In spite of the complete lack of proof that any women were executed at Dachau, there is a plaque on the wall in the Dachau crematorium, where the bodies of the Noor Inayat Khan, Yolanda Beekman, Elaine Plewman, and Madeleine Damerment were allegedly burned.

Plaque on wall of crematorium at Dachau

The words on the plaque are:

Here in Dachau on the 12th of September,
1944, four young woman officers of the
British forces attached to Special Operations
Branch were brutally murdered and their bodies
cremated. They died as gallantly as they had
served the Resistance in France during the
common struggle for freedom from tyranny.

Notice the date, September 12, 1944.  Other sources, including the British Public Records Office, say that the date of execution was September 13, 1944.  The exact date is unknown because there are no records of the execution of these four women at Dachau or anywhere else.

Note the words “brutally murdered.”  If the four women were, in fact, executed at Dachau, it was perfectly legal under the Geneva Convention of 1929, which allowed the execution of illegal combatants.

The British SOE was a secret organization that was set up to aid and finance the French Resistance movement.  The French had signed an Armistice and promised to stop fighting.  They did stop fighting on the battlefield, but continued to fight throughout the war as illegal combatants.  That means that the British SOE, which was set up to help illegal combatants, was an illegal operation according to the rules of warfare. That’s why all the records of the SOE were kept secret for over 50 years.

The French resistance guerrilla fighters blew up bridges, derailed trains, directed the British in the bombing of German troop trains, kidnapped and killed German army officers, and ambushed German troops. They took no prisoners, but rather killed any German soldiers who surrendered to them, sometimes mutilating their bodies for good measure. The Nazis referred to them as “terrorists.” American school children are taught that the French resistance fighters, who fought illegally, were heroes.

Altogether, there were 470 agents in the French section of the British SOE, and 39 of them were women or 8% of the total. One third of the women died while in captivity or were executed. The male agents made up 92% of the total; 81 male agents, or 18% of the men, died while in prison or were executed. So why were the Nazis so mean to the women?  Why did they treat the women much worse than they treated the men?  Because that’s just the way Nazis are; they’re bad people, for no reason at all.

Twelve of the women SOE agents were allegedly executed secretly, but there were no records of these executions found after the war. All of the information about their deaths is based on hearsay testimony, or the biased testimony of male SOE agents who wanted these women to go down in history as heroines, and/or the confessions of SS men whose depositions, taken by British SOE officer Vera Atkins, were repeated in the courtroom. There is no documentation for these 12 executions whatsoever.

Altogether, there were 39 female British SOE agents who were sent to France and 13 of them never returned. Of the 13 female SOE agents who never returned, there were allegedly 4 that were executed at Natzweiler, 4 at Dachau and 4 at Ravensbrück, the women’s camp. The 13th was Muriel Byck, a Jewish agent, who died of meningitis on 23 May 1944, six weeks after she arrived in France.

The 12 SOE women who were allegedly executed had first been held in the Gestapo prison on Avenue Foch in Paris. Then all except Sonia Olschanezky and Noor Inayat Khan were sent to Fresnes, another Gestapo prison. Noor was sent to Pforzheim prison on November 27, 1943 after she attempted to escape for the second time.

Eight of the women SOE agents were gathered together at Avenue Foch and sent on May 13, 1944 to the civilian prison at Karlsruhe, including Odette Sansom who was later transferred on July 18, 1944 to Ravensbrück, where she survived; she was one of the eight SOE agents who were sent to Ravensbrück.

Four of the 8 female SOE agents, who were sent to Ravensbrück, were allegedly executed there, according to eye-witness testimony. Their names are Denise Bloch, Lilian Rolfe, Violette Szabo and Cecily Lefort.  Three of the women were allegedly shot, but Lefort was allegedly killed in the gas chamber at Ravensbrück, according to the court testimony of one of the prisoners.

Cover of book entitled “Spy Princess”

Before it became known that Noor Inayat Khan was allegedly executed at Dachau, the staff members of the Natzweiler concentration camp were put on trial by the British and charged with her murder.  When it was learned that Noor was allegedly executed at Dachau, the court transcript was changed so that one of the four women who were allegedly executed at Natzweiler was listed as “unknown.”  It was not publicly revealed that the transcript had been changed until many years later.

In January 1947, nine months after the file on Noor had been closed, British SOE officer Vera Atkins was given a letter written by Yolande Lagrave, a former French political prisoner at Pforzheim. Lagrave had been sent to Pforzheim prison in early 1944, two months after Noor had arrived; she claimed that she was the only woman prisoner to survive Pforzheim. According to Lagrave’s story, all the other women were taken out, raped and then shot; their bodies were buried on the prison grounds in a mass grave. For some unknown reason, Lagrave was kept alive and she was released when the Allies liberated the prison on May 1, 1945.

Lagrave began writing letters to Noor’s brother and others, in which she revealed that Noor Inayat Khan had left Pforzheim some time in September 1944, although the exact date was unknown.

Noor had been kept in solitary confinement at Pforzheim, far apart from the other prisoners, but they had managed to communicate with her by scratching messages on the bottom of their mess tins with knitting needles, according to Yolande Lagrave’s story. Each day, the women would look on the bottom of their mess tin at meal time to see if Noor had scratched a message when she had previously used the same mess tin.

In September 1944, Noor had scratched a message, with no date, which said that she was leaving. With this new information provided by Yolande Lagrave, it was then assumed by British SOE officer Vera Atkins that Noor had been taken from Pforzheim to Karlsruhe on September 11, where she joined three other women who were released on that date and sent to an unnamed concentration camp.   Note that the Karlsruhe records do not show where the women were sent.  They were most likely sent to the women’s camp at Ravensbrück.

On May 19, 2006 a documentary entitled The Princess Spy was shown on the BBC2 Timewatch program. In this documentary, about the life of Noor Inayat Khan, alias Nora Baker, records in the Pforzheim archives were shown with the name Nora Baker, her address in London, her birthplace in London, and the date of her transfer — September 11, 1944. Noor was actually born in Moscow, of an Indian father and an American mother. Were these alleged records faked by the British for their documentary? The mistakes on the records seem to indicate that they were fake.

The records shown in the documentary contradict the statement of Marcel Schubert, a prisoner at Pforzheim who worked as an interpreter. Schubert claimed that “the British woman’s name was never written in the prison register.” This makes sense since Noor had been classified as a Nacht und Nebel prisoner after she attempted to escape twice. The families of Nacht und Nebel prisoners were not told of their whereabouts; the purpose of this was to discourage resistance fighting.

Noor had revealed her name, and also two of her addresses, only to the other women prisoners by scratching this information on the bottom of a mess tin, according to Yolande Lagrave, who said that she had written down the addresses and sewn the paper inside the hem of her skirt. After the war, Yolande had attempted to contact Noor, but her letters were returned.

According to Sarah Helm’s book A Life in Secrets, Hans Kieffer, the man who had ordered Noor to be sent to Pforzheim prison, told Vera Atkins that he had no knowledge of her execution.  He broke down and cried when he was told that Noor had been executed at Dachau.

Here is a quote from the book entitled Spy Princess by Shrabani Basu:

The Pforzheim prison register shows that Noor was discharged from the prison at 6:15 p.m. on 11 September and driven 20 miles to Karlsruhe.  Orders had come directly from Berlin to move Noor.  She was now summoned to the office of Josef Gmeiner, head of the Karlsruhe Gestapo.

Just after 2 a.m. in Gmeiner’s office Noor met three other SOE agents, Eliane Plewman, Madeleine Damerment and Yolande Beekman.  She had known Yolande from her training days at Wanborough Manor.  All four agents were given their orders to leave for Dachau.  They were escorted by Gestapo officer Christian Ott and driven to the station in Gmeiner’s car.  At Bruchsal Junction they were joined by their second German escort Max Wassmer, and together they caught the express train for Stuttgart.  At Stuttgart they had to wait on the platform for about an hour for the train to Munich.

Josef Gmeiner said later that the orders to move Noor and her colleagues had come by teleprinter from Berlin.  One was addressed to his office at Karlsruhe and the other to the Commandant of the concentration camp.  Gmeiner’s instructions were to transfer the prisoners to the camp at Dachau.  The instruction to the Camp Commandant of Dachau ordered the execution itself.

It was midnight when they reached Dachau and they walked up to the concentration camp, where they were locked in separate cells.

The end came in the early hours of the morning.  Madeleine, Eliane and Yolande were dragged out of their cells, marched past the barracks and shot near the crematorium.

For Noor it would be a long, tortuous night.  According to two letters received by Jean Overton Fuller’s publishers after her book appeared in 1952, Noor was stripped, abused and kicked all night by her German captors. One of the letter writers was a Lieutenant Colonel Wickey, who worked for Canadian intelligence during the war and was Military Governor in Wuppertal in the British zone after the war.  Here he met a German officer who had spent time in Dachau.  This officer had been told by some camp officials that four women had been brought to Dachau from Karlsruhe.  He described the women as French but added that one had a darker complexion and “looked much like a Creole.”  The officers told the German officer that she (Noor) was considered to be a very “dangerous person” and to be given the “full treatment.”  Wickey then traced the German camp officer who had given the account and was told by him that Noor was tortured and abused in her cell by the Germans. She was stripped, kicked and finally left lying on the floor battered.

Captain A. Nicholson of the War Crimes Group of North West Europe was given the task of obtaining photocopies of the Pforzheim prison register.  He reported to Major N.G. Mott at the War Office.  From the sworn statement of the prison director, they learnt that Noor was removed from Pforzheim to Dachau in September. Major Mott then reported to Vera Atkins that Noor, along with three other specially employed women were removed to Dachau where they were executed the following morning, 13 September.

Note the date, September 13th.  The plaque on the wall of the crematorium at Dachau gives the date of execution as September 12th. It is hard to keep the dates straight when the story is based on hearsay from unnamed informants.

Noor Inayat Khan most likely died at Pforzheim prison. The other three SOE women were most likely sent to Ravensbrück, the women’s camp.  Ravensbrück was liberated by the Soviet Union and all the records from the camp were confiscated and never released to the public.  There was a typhus epidemic in Germany in the last days of the war, and the SOE women most likely died of typhus.

So why do the British keep promoting this fictional account of Noor Inayat Khan?  Well, it makes a great story.  Noor Inayat Khan was an exotic beauty with an exotic name.  The name  Noor  means “light of womanhood.” Noor’s father was Hazrat Inayat Khan, a leader of the Sufi movement, and her mother was an American.

Noor was a descendent of Tippu Sultan, a prince who had been an enemy of British rule in India. She has been described as “gentle, shy, musical, dreamy, and poetic,” and she “was noted for her kindness to animals.”  Noor attended the Sorbonne and wrote children’s books, including Twenty Jataka Tales, which is still in print.

Noor Inayat Khan

The story is that this beautiful, gentle Indian “Princess” was brutally beaten by a SS officer, who represents the stereotype of SS men as the epitome of cruelty. This is the age old story of good and evil.   The Allies fought the “good war” and defeated the evil Nazis. Noor Inayat Khan was fighting as an illegal combatant, and could have been legally executed, but she is the heroine who was “murdered”  by the evil Nazis.

You can read more about the story of Noor Inayat Khan here.

There was an announcement a couple of years ago that a film was being made, based on the book Spy Princess by Shrabani Basu.  The film was to be directed by Shyam Benegal.  I don’t know if the film has ever been released.