By Arthur J Magida

W W Norton & Company 2020

ISBN-10: 0393867552;

ISBN-13: 978-0393867558;

RRP: $44.95 (HB)

By Anne Henderson

Winston Churchill called the Special Operations Executive (SOE), which he created under his minister for economic warfare Hugh Dalton in July 1940, the “Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare”.

A secret force, SOE operations behind enemy lines were to spy, collect information, undermine enemy morale, sabotage the Axis war effort by destroying communications, infrastructure or supplies, as well as to build local secret armies which would rise up to assist the liberation of their countries when Allied troops arrived. As Dalton left his late night meeting with Churchill that July, the old grand master took heart from a line by thriller writer Edgar Wallace: “’And now,’ Churchill instructed Dalton, ‘set Europe ablaze.’”

It took historians decades after the Second World War to piece together the story of the SOE. Its traces were difficult to fit together. Individual stories had to be verified and disappeared agents and their fates hard to confirm. The Nazis had a special category of extermination for condemned spies. Known as Nacht und Nebel (Fog and Night), spies, political activists, resisters were to be imprisoned, spies especially tortured, and then executed and made to disappear. These individuals would vanish, their fate never to be known.

From the late 1960s, however, the literature surrounding the SOE and its heroes and operations has grown. Author Arthur J Magida refers to it now as a veritable cottage industry. So, it is something of an achievement on Magida’s part to have produced a volume to add to this outpouring, one which distinguishes itself.

Code Name Madeleine – A Sufi Spy In Nazi Occupied Paris is every bit a thriller to read but much more. Magida mixes east and west in the figure of Noor Inayat Khan – a beautiful young woman raised to believe in non-violence in her all embracing Sufi family with its royal origins in India – who, for all that, when faced with the Nazi occupation of France, joins the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force in England and enlists in the SOE to be trained as a radio operator to work under cover in Paris from June 1943, aged 29.

From his meticulous research, Magida recreates a complex and endearing personality; her charm, her vulnerability, her effect on others who show her such loyalty, her strength of commitment alongside her occasional carelessness and lack of commitment to the rules. It is Magida’s achievement that, even with Noor’s eventual arrest, he carries the story on compellingly. Noor is a risk taker, but she is also a tragic hero who fascinates to the end.

Unusual for a non-fiction book about a British war heroine, Code Name Madeleine – A Sufi Spy In Nazi Occupied Paris begins with Noor’s early life in a family of an internationally renowned Sufi mystic. Noor’s father Hazarat Inayat Khan was a distant descendent of royalty in India, a family Magida describes as “of Muslims, Brahmins, brilliant musicians, revered holy men, and brave warriors”.

Inayat Khan’s first wife, a cousin, died a few days after their wedding in 1902 when he was just 20. Two years later, he left with two of his brothers to take Sufi music and teachings to New York. Here the brothers made their mark playing as the Royal Musicians and it was here that Inayat Khan met Ora Baker whose brother had founded a Sufi “college”. Against her brother’s wishes, Ora followed Inayat to Europe where they were married in London in March 1913. They next travelled for work to Moscow, where Noor was born on 1 January 1914, after which they moved to Paris briefly and then London for most of the war years.

With her brothers Vilayat (born 1916) and Hidayat (born 1917) and sister Claire (born 1918) adding to the need for more permanence, the family left London for France where they took up residence at a large house named Fazal Manzil in Suresnes on the Seine north west of Paris, bought for them by a wealthy Dutch disciple of Noor’s father.

Here Noor grew up happily but with a different outlook on the world. Her Sufi faith of peace and harmony was instilled in her. Her father had returned to India on a spiritual quest in 1926 and died there in 1927 of pneumonia. But his legacy remained.

Inayat Khan had always reminded his children they were of royal birth. Noor’s brother Vilayat passed on to her as much of the real world of politics as she wanted – her love was poetry. At the Sorbonne, Noor studied child psychology. And took music lessons at Ecole Normal de Musique. She later wrote children’s stories – published successfully. With her siblings she played the harp in a quartet. She taught the children of other Sufi followers. Her engagement to Elie Goldenberg – a pianist at the Ecole Normal de Musique and Jewish – was opposed by her mother.

In 1940, the Nazis occupied France and Noor, her mother and Noor’s siblings fled to London, lucky in their escape. Their experience of the exodus, the panic and brutality of the invasion would imprint on Noor’s consciousness. This ends the first part of a four-part book. Magida has made the Sufi imprint on Noor indelible, along with the images Noor encountered on leaving Paris. This will help explain much of what happens thereafter. The next time Noor set foot in France, she would arrive in a Lysander, piloted by flying ace Frank Rymills, just one of two passengers. They would land in a darkened field near Angers in the Loire Valley guided by three flashlights made by resistance operatives in an L-shape.

The SOE, alone among the British war agencies, took an unconventional mix of characters as its agents. Known homosexuals, former criminals (especially if they could pick locks), some with bad records in the armed forces, communists, anti-British nationalists were all included in the backgrounds of SOE agents. Yet, surprisingly, Noor was often regarded as a risk in assessments of her ability and usefulness in her SOE training. One SOE agent described her as “a splendid, vague, dreamy creature, far too conspicuous. Twice seen. Never forgotten”. Her simplicity and naivety at times brought outbursts of despair – the Bristol police chief after one training session opined, “If this girl’s an agent, I’m Winston Churchill.”

Magida has no firm answers for how Noor passed the test – apart from her knowledge of France and its language, she had convinced her superiors, eventually, that her courage and her strength of character gave her an edge. One of Noor’s firmest supporters was Vera Atkins, second in charge of F Section and who would spend her time after the war searching for lost agents to discover their fates. Atkins said of the group of six men and four women who went into France at the same time as Noor: “Bravery was what they had in common. You might find it in anyone. You just don’t know where to look.”

Noor spent four months undercover in Paris. Taking chances and showing grit, she survived that length of time, in spite of landing when captured agents had broken under torture to reveal contacts, captured documents had revealed some of the most senior agents to the Gestapo and their network known as Prosper was all but broken. Under her code name Madeleine, Noor set out with remaining contacts to radio invaluable information from an assortment of safe houses. Always on the move, she broke rules to not contact old Parisian or French acquaintances. This was often her means of staying safe.

Magida challenges assessments that Noor was too childlike in her approach by studying her writings. He notes:

Throughout, Noor’s prose was clear, meticulous: simple but not childlike … there was a decision to put others before self. Often fatal, this was a deliberate end of one’s physical being to help other beings.

The action told of Noor’s four months in Paris reads like a thriller made all the more dramatic by its non fiction reality. Noor insisted on carrying her radio in a small suitcase with her at all times. She could not risk her apartment being raided and the radio found. Radio operators were at the top of the Gestapo list of wanted people. Against all instructions, though, she also kept a notebook of all her vital information. A habit she was warned about and in the end would seal her fate.

Noor’s cool often came to the fore. Asked by officers to open her bag on a train, she was terrified. Fortunately, they had no idea what a radio looked like and she managed to fool them that its bulbs were part of a movie camera. On another occasion, hiding out in an apartment in a building full of Germans, she let a German officer, who appeared unexpectedly, help string her metres long radio antenna in a tree – he seemed to think she wanted to listen to a radio broadcast.

Noor’s sense of danger was acute, yet she often approached Paris as her old home town. It was very different she knew. But old habits can recur. In time, Noor headed for Suresnes not realising it was a centre heavily inhabited by Germans who had occupied many of the main houses. Her old home Fazal Mazil had become a German police headquarters. The old fort, where she and her siblings had played as children, at Mt Valerien was used during the occupation to execute over a thousand Frenchmen. Yet, Noor managed to find safety there with an old school friend’s family while those loyal to her begged her to be careful.

Magida’s intensive research has enabled him to create an almost cinematic view of Noor and her days in Paris. Mixed with the intrepid nature of her work, at times it is hard to feel the danger – all part of the strange mixture of traits in this petite woman with her tight red curls she continued to dye in different shades as part of her disguise:

Almost every day she rode her bike through the middle of Paris, doing everything she could to keep the Germans off her trail as she searched for an ideal spot for her antenna. Sometimes friends from the Resistance drove her to semi-rural suburbs – Montrouge, Levallois, Noisy-le-Sec – then parked next to a field. Hopping out, Noor threaded her antenna through the trees or through the high grass, then sent messages from the safety of the car. The resistants who helped Noor called her “Rolande”. Regardless of her name, their first impression of Noor never changed: “A little dark girl, always carrying her … [radio] with her and always out of breath.”

SOE training did not elaborate to agents the horrors of Nazi torture. Writes Magida, “If it had been too specific, Noor might have stayed in England. The Gestapo hadn’t taken torture much beyond what was practised during the Inquisition.” From the outset of the book, readers know that Noor will be captured. But waiting for it to happen is a nail biter read. When it does, it is just days before Noor’s planned escape back to England. And her betrayal comes not from any of the acquaintances she was instructed not to contact. It is from the jealous sister of her first safe contact, seeking money. By the time Noor is arrested she is top of the Gestapo’s list of wanted spies in Paris.

The story of Noor’s capture and imprisonment is one of weeks of quiet ploys to make her speak followed by months of brutal, solitary incarceration – in chains connecting her hands and feet – and eventual sordid beating and execution in Dachau extermination camp. Her end came three months after D-Day – the invasion all SOE agents were preparing for. For months, the SOE did not realise Noor had been captured. And for some time believed that the radio messages the Germans were sending on “Madeleine’s” radio were continuing to come from Noor.

At no point in this horrific ordeal did Noor reveal more than that her name was Nora Baker. She was even part of a daring but futile escape with other inmates from the Nazi interrogation centre at 84 Avenue Foch. A scriptwriter could not have created a more engrossing plot.

But this is no fiction, and its compelling ending leaves a spiritual and inspiring legacy. One Magida incorporates into Noor’s story without hyperbole. He rightly records, also, that for all its betrayals and sacrificed agents, the SOE contributed significant damage to the Nazis in France leading to D-Day. General Eisenhower credited the work of the SOE to have helped “shorten the war by nine months”. Noor was an invaluable part of that.

In a sense, Noor wrote her own script. But it took historians and people like Vera Atkins and Noor’s brother Vilayat who found out the details of her fate to make it known. There were posthumous awards for Noor and now there are memorials to her in Britain and France. Her death was her triumph. Writes Magida:

At Dachau, Noor became powder: ashes floating with the wind, darkening the clouds that hung over an already dark Germany. If we accept what Noor believed and what her father taught, her spirit was already mingling with new souls, offering them her skills and her talents, her optimism and her hope. What happened to her beyond that is not for any of us to say.

Anne Henderson is Deputy Director of The Sydney Institute and author of Menzies at War, which was shortlisted for the 2015 Prime Minister’s Award for Australian History.