The Limping Lady and the Woman Who Couldn’t Lie
It was a bleak November in 1942, when a tall woman with striking features and a slight limp was hurriedly negotiating a Pyrenees mountain path. She was the founder and leader of the HECKLER resistance network, and she worried about leaving behind her contacts due to the German forces tightening their grip on Vichy France. Virginia Hall an American working as a secret agent for Britain’s Special Operations Executive (SOE) scrambled on exhausted, jaw set with determination and a fire born of the unique life she had already led.
A few months later in February 1943, another young woman in blue WAAF uniform hesitated outside a bleak looking building on Baker Street, London. Her proficient skills as a wireless operator (she was nicknamed ‘bang away lulu’) had led her to this strange interview. She was shy and quiet, a gentle soul but her passion to serve her adopted country was fierce. Noor Inayat Khan, a woman who refused to lie, took a few steps forward, steeled herself to the task at hand and entered the building.
Virginia was born in Baltimore in 1906 to a moderately wealthy family, she was sharply intelligent, enjoying history and having a natural flair for languages; she studied French, German and Italian at what is now Columbia University, and Economics at George Washington University. She enjoyed the outdoors, travelling and had set her heart on a life in the American Diplomatic service. For years she worked as a secretary in American embassies all over the world, yet her application to become a Diplomat was refused again and again, not because she was a woman but because she was disabled. Virginia had lost her left leg below the knee in a hunting accident in 1933. In the face of adversity this remarkably driven woman did not give in, when war was declared she put her Diplomat dreams aside to travel to France to become an ambulance driver. After the fall of France, Virginia managed to make her way Britain, where a chance encounter with an SOE operator got her an interview with the SOE.
The SOE were impressed. This fiercely intelligent woman with boundless courage was also coolly observant and produced vast amounts of information on the conditions of French and German forces and the general situation. She had a clear passion to help beleaguered France and interestingly her prosthetic wooden leg (nicknamed Cuthbert) which had been an obstacle to her entering the American Diplomatic service was not considered in the decision to train her as an SOE agent.
Virginia travelled to France by boat and train, reaching Lyon in August 1941. She established the HECKLER network by learning who to trust, who to bribe, what made the best safe houses and created ways to deliver messages to her contacts and other SOE agents. Virginia cultivated contacts in the local Police, the doctor’s surgery, a local nunnery and also enlisted the help of a Brothel owner, whose girls would get their ‘clients’ drunk and pass on information to Virginia. She was a supremely cautious agent and remarkably shrewd. In many situations she would change her style or her hair, using make up to disguise and warp her features. Virginia’s work was so successful that the Gestapo called her ‘the most dangerous spy’ while ‘the limping lady’ was put on their most wanted lists. However, after an astonishing 15 months in France, the Germans began to exert more control over Vichy France, it was time for Virginia to leave. Before her escape she signalled the SOE and stated that she hoped ‘Cuthbert’ would not trouble her, the SOE mistaking this message replied, ‘If Cuthbert troublesome, eliminate him’. And so, Virginia’s extraordinary journey with the SOE ended with her safe return to London, consequently during her escape a young Indian woman was considering a very dangerous future indeed.
Noor Inayat Khan was born in Moscow in 1914 to an American mother and an Indian Father, a musician but also a Sufi teacher (a sect of Islam). Noor could also trace her heritage to the last Mogul ruler of Mysore, she was therefore technically a princess. Noor lived in Paris and London and this allowed her to study, for she was fiercely intelligent and gained a Psychology degree from the Sorbonne, alongside musical studies at the Paris Conservatory and wrote and published children’s stories in French and English. Noor was quiet, idealistic and a gentle person, someone that did not seem suited for clandestine work.
In 1940, the family escaped to Britain and her and her older brother immediately enlisted, with Noor joining the WAAF, to become a wireless operator. Although Noor identified as a pacifist, she believed fighting the Nazi’s was to help good triumph over evil, she also wished to highlight the deeds of Indians.
‘I wish some Indians would win high military distinction in this war. If one or two could do something in the Allied service which was very brave and which everybody admired, it would help to make a bridge between the English people and the Indians.’Noor Inayat Khan as cited in Rozina Visram’s 1986 Ayahs, Lascars and Princes: The Story of Indians in Britain 1700–1947.
Noor’s language and wireless skills highlighted her as a potential agent for the SOE, she would be the first woman to deploy to France as a wireless operator. However, she did not take well to training, her instructors noted that she was too temperamental and unsuitable for fieldwork, although they did note her efforts were very admirable. A significant worry was her refusal to lie, instead she would simply say nothing. Despite these misgivings, a wireless operator was needed and after a pivotal discussion with Vera Atkins, F Sections Intelligence officer, Noor’s commitment was indisputable and she was sent in June 1943 to Angers, and her way to one of the most dangerous cities for agents; Paris.
Noor was supposed to be the new wireless operator for CINEMA, a sub network for PHYSICAN, but by the time she arrived the network had been infiltrated and arrests were ongoing. At this point she went into hiding, she was now the only wireless operator in Paris. Noor kept on the move and transmitted signals to arrange passage for fleeing agents, weapons drops and told the SOE of the fate of PHYSICIAN. Noor’s work had been integral to maintain the remnants of the networks in Paris, but by October 1943 she was tragically betrayed and arrested by Gestapo officers. During her incarceration she refused to give any information and was even labelled as ‘most dangerous’ after three failed escape attempts. After 11 months of prison where her hands and feet were shackled, she was taken with three other female agents to Dachau concentration camp where they were all executed. There are two conflicting accounts of her death, the first is that she was badly beaten in her cell and a single pistol round from her jailer killed her, while another report states all three women were forced to kneel in a courtyard and shot in the back of the head. It is said the last word Noor uttered was ‘Liberté’. The quiet, gentle, idealistic girl the SOE thought was unsuitable showed enormous courage and determination as an agent, her story is one of both success and tragedy.
Virginia Hall and Noor Inayat Khan were women of firsts; Virginia was a disabled woman who after her work with SOE would go on to work for the Officer of Strategic Services (OSS) and later the CIA. While Noor’s success as the first female wireless operator, would pave the way for others. Both have astonishing stories of valour, fierce inner strength and resilience. It seems fitting during Women’s History Month to highlight and celebrate these women, who I have had the privilege to study and who have become and remain my inspirational heroes.
By Ash Percival-Borley
Ashleigh Percival-Borley is a military and gender historian having just completed an MA in War, Culture and Society and now currently studying an MA in Military History. Ashleigh’s passion for military history derives from her 12-year service in the Royal Army Medical Corp in the British Army, of which she served overseas on conflict and humanitarian operations. Her military service allows her to take a unique perspective on lesser known topics of women’s history and its intersection with military history which she writes about in her blog The Soldier-Historian.