Vera Atkins: WWII Spy Boss
The Nettlesome Case of Noor Inayat Khan
This position may have been the most dangerous position of all for SOE agents. The wireless operator was the connection between the field circuits and London who sent and received messages about sabotage operations and where arms for resistance fighters would be sent.
Wireless operators were extremely vulnerable to detection. Helm reports, "With aerials strung up in attics or disguised as washing lines, they tapped out Morse on the keys of transmitters, often for hours and usually alone, as they waited for a signal in reply saying the messages were received. If they stayed on the air for more than twenty minutes, their signals were likely to be picked up by the enemy, and detection vans would then trace the source of these suspect signals. When the signaler moved location, the bulky transmitter had to be carried, sometime hidden in a suitcase or in a bundle of firewood."
In May 1943, Vera found that the candidate for first woman wireless operator was regarded skeptically by many SOE officials.
That candidate was Noor Inayat Khan, 29, a speedy and accurate Morse signaler. She probably possessed the most colorful background of any SOE agent. Her father, Hasra Inayat Khan, was descended from Tipu Sultan, the "Tiger of Mysore," who was the last Mogul emperor of southern India. Noor's mother, Ora Ray Baker, was an American who was related to Mary Baker Eddy, founder of Christian Science.
A teacher of mysticism and philosophy, Hasra Inayat Khan traveled the world with his wife and children accompanying him. He was teaching in Moscow when his wife gave birth to Noor.
Noor had a delicate build and high-pitched voice. Some officers worried that she might be as emotionally frail as she was physically and, therefore, unsuited to dangerous work. SOE instructors fretted that she was "childlike".
However, Noor was well suited to passing as French. She had spent most of her childhood in Paris and graduated from the Sorbonne.
Vera asked if Noor really wanted to be an SOE wireless operator in France and the woman emphatically answered, "Yes, of course."
"If you don't feel you're the type -- if for any reason whatever you don't want to go -- you only have to tell me now," Vera continued.
Noor firmly stated that she wanted the job.
Impressed by Noor's confident demeanor, Vera agreed.
Noor's cover story was that she was a children's nurse named Jeanne-Marie Renier but her SOE colleagues usually called her by the alias Madeleine.