Khan was born in Moscow in 1914, the eldest child of an Indian father and an American mother. She could trace her royal heritage to Tipu Sultan, the 18th-century ruler of the Kingdom of Mysore.
Her parents had met while her father, Hazrat Inayat Khan, was touring America. He was a musician and teacher of Sufism and the couple eventually settled in Europe.
The family left Russia at the outbreak of World War One and soon after Khan was born and went to live in London where she attended nursery school, but in 1920 they moved again, to Suresnes in the suburbs of Paris
Khan’s father died in 1927 and she was to remain forever influenced by the pacifism of his Muslim theology. She was described as quiet, shy, sensitive, and dreamy, studied child psychology at the Sorbonne and music at the Paris Conservatory under Nadia Boulanger, composing for harp and piano.
She began a career writing poetry and children’s stories and became a regular contributor to children’s magazines and French radio. In 1939 her book, Twenty Jataka Tales, inspired by the Jātaka tales of Buddhist tradition, was published in London and is still in print today.
When Paris was overrun by the Germans in 1940, the Khan family fled to Bordeaux and from there to England, landing at Falmouth in Cornwall.
Although a pacifist, Khan was determined to combat the Nazis, saying:
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.
In November 1940, Khan joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) and trained as a wireless operator and was assigned to a bomber training school, but she found the work boring. She applied for a commission that led her eventually to join the Special Operations Executive (SOE) to train as a spy.
Her instructors had reservations about Khan’s suitability for the job of spying. She was variously described as clumsy, easily flustered and scared of weapons, but there was a shortage of agents and her fluency in French and wireless ability made her a candidate for a most hazardous mission.
Given the code name Madeleine, Khan flew by Lysander at night to Northern France in June 1943 and travelled to Paris under the code name Jeanne-Marie Regnier and with two other women she set up the ‘Prosper’ spy network.
The life expectancy for a radio operator in covert action was just six weeks and indeed the others in the cell were arrested by the Nazi intelligence service, the Sicherheitsdienst (SD). Khan turned down an offer to return to Britain and continued to transmit information and eluding capture by moving from place to place.
Ultimately she was betrayed to the Germans by a French contact working as a double-agent for the SD and she was arrested in October 1943. Despite her gentle nature, Khan resisted so fiercely that she was treated as an extremely dangerous prisoner when she was taken to the notorious SD Headquarters at 84 Avenue Foch.
Her interrogation lasted over a month and in that time she attempted to escape twice. Hans Kieffer, the former head of the SD in Paris, testified after the war that she did not give the Gestapo a single piece of information but lied consistently.
But though Khan didn’t talk about her mission, she had kept notebooks of all the messages she had sent which gave the Germans enough information to send false messages. Her handlers in London failed to spot anomalies that would have alerted them to her arrest and three agents sent to France were subsequently captured when they landed.
Khan managed to escape across the roof of the building with two other SOE agents, but an air raid at the time resulted in an immediate headcount of the prisoners and they were recaptured before they could make good their getaway.
She refused to sign an undertaking not to attempt any further escape and so was taken to Germany where she was kept imprisoned and shackled in chains in solitary confinement for ten months as a ‘Nacht und Nebel’ (condemned to ‘Disappearance without Trace’).
Despite the harsh conditions, Khan continued her refusal to cooperate and was moved to Dachau Concentration Camp. In the early hours of 13th September 1944 she was executed by a shot to the head, but only after being beaten by a high ranking SS officer. She was just thirty years old.
Khan was posthumously awarded the French Croix de Guerre with Gold Star and the British George Cross, the highest award for gallantry for members of the armed forces in actions for which purely military honours would not normally be granted.
At the beginning of 2011, a campaign was launched to raise £100,000 for a bronze bust of Khan close to her former home in central London. It was unveiled by Princess Anne on 8th November 2012 in Gordon Square Gardens and is the first memorial to an individual Muslim or Asian woman in the UK.
Below is the first part of five of the Timewatch programme that recounts Khan’s contribution to the war. Links to the other parts are beneath.