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Heroines of The British Special Operations Executive

George-cross The George Cross (Photo: Wiki Commons MoD/MOD)

Polish born Krystyna Skarbek, whose mother was Jewish and father a Polish nobleman, became a successful SOE (Special Operations Executive) Agent during the Second World War. She took the name Christine Granville and although surviving daring missions behind enemy lines well worthy of a James Bond story line, she was brutally stabbed to death on the streets of London in 1952 by a jealous former lover. Last week, the highly decorated British Special Operations Executive operative, nicknamed "Churchill's favorite spy", was honored with an English Heritage Blue Plaque being affixed to the Kensington abode where she had lived prior to her murder.

Another courageous female SOE agent, Noor Inayat Khan, was also recently honored with an English Heritage Blue Plaque, placed on a Bloomsbury building where she had lived for a few years.

Both women were unbelievably brave, undoubtedly saved many lives in Europe during the Second World War and both died at the hands of murderers. The Jewish Skarbek (a.k.a. Christine Granville) was killed by a spurned obsessive British man, and the second, a Muslim, was murdered by an S.S. officer in the Dachau concentration camp.

On a pre-Covid visit to London, I once more took a stroll through the leafy streets and attractive restful garden squares of Bloomsbury, all of which are lined with attractive, uber-elegant Georgian houses and as always, I stopped to read the Who's Who of the past honored on the plethora of English Heritage Blue Plaques placed on neighborhood buildings.

Apart from taking many a walk down memory lane through the plaques, as writers, actors, soldiers, sailors, politicians, and others are once more brought to mind, the gardens and squares of Bloomsbury are adorned with many interesting sculptures and memorial busts and information boards. The boards, often also with photographs, describe the fauna and flora as well as some history about whom that particular garden square is named after.

I came across a bronze bust of Second World War British Army SOE agent and heroine Noor Inayat Khan, codenamed Madeleine and executed at Dachau in 1944, perched on a black marble pedestal in a shady corner of Bloomsbury's Gordon Square Gardens. 

Sculpture of Noor Inayat Khan in Bloomsbury, London

The sculptured memorial to the Muslim British agent Khan, who was born in Moscow in 1914 to a father, who was a prince originating from India and an American mother, is close to where Noor, who was also known as Nora Baker, had stayed during her time in England.

I was immediately drawn to the Noor sculpture asa number of wreaths of red poppies propped up at the base initially caught my eye and upon approaching, found the serious but contemplative expression on the young woman's face was quite mesmerizing.

On the rear portion of the marble stand was the inscription: "Noor Inayat Khan was an SOE agent infiltrated into occupied France. She was executed at Dachau Concentration Camp. Her last word was "LIBERTE".

In a plastic envelope under the inscription, I discovered printed pages – in both English and French – that had obviously been placed there by one of her admirers but there was no name of an individual or organization on the pages. It was here that I read about this exceptionally brave young woman, whom a Dutch witness to her murder in Dachau testified in 1958 that Noor had been cruelly beaten by an S.S. officer named Wilhelm Ruppert before being shot from behind.

With her last breath, she had defiantly yelled out, "Liberté!" the Dutch witness had also testified.

Posthumously awarded the George Cross in 1949, Noor Khan – the first female radio operator sent into Nazi-occupied France to assist the French Resistance – was betrayed by a Frenchwoman. She was arrested by the Gestapo and after interrogation and torture during which she revealed nothing, Noor was sent to Pforzheim prison in Germany, kept in chains and in solitary confinement for ten months before being transferred, together with three other female SOE agents to Dachau, where all four were murdered.

I doubt I would have ever of heard of either of these adventurous, patriotic, brave and dedicated-to-saving-others ladies – had it not been for English Heritage and the Blue Plaque project, which I have been extremely appreciative of for many years. 

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Wednesday, 20 January 2021

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