Archive for December, 2012

Sir Thomas Wyatt by Hans Holbein the Younger

Sir Thomas Wyatt (1503 – 11 October 1542)

A couple of mornings ago, I heard an omen from a solitary jay who alighted on the plum tree outside my front door and gave five sharp bugle blasts of “mean, mean, mean, mean mean.” I remembered her when I sat down to write this post, and heard the tut-tutting of my good angel who stood behind my shoulder and corroborated the jay’s message with a low “wicked,wicked.”  I felt constrained to stop for a short space to examine my soul, and my motivations for the task I had been setting for myself, but finding nothing there to fit the description of either “mean” or “wicked”, I concluded that the words had not been meant to deter me, but referred to people now long dead and buried, about whom I had been thinking.

Ever since I read Sir Thomas Wyatt’s poem “The Lover Showeth How He Is Forsaken of Such as He Sometime Enjoyed” many years ago, something about it bothered me. It felt like a badly put-together puzzle, the pieces of which did not fit, and whose picture  did not make sense. I felt compelled to try and work out why I had found its meaning as well as its construction so aggravating.
I have a few steadfast beliefs about poets and poetry, one of which is that genuine poets are closet moralists, whose morals are not toTW115 be confused with the cheap variety of conventional social and religious prescriptions but rather are the expression of a deep sense of personal integrity and a devotion to honesty in all things. The other is that to be a poet is not simply to have the knack of versifying, nor is it an avocation, or in fact a vocation. It is a matter of whole-hearted dedication to a calling.

Sir Thomas Wyatt was Ambassador to Spain, Special Envoy to France, Marshall of Calais, Sheriff of Kent, Member of Parliament, and Vice-admiral Elect of the Fleet. His patron had been Thomas Cromwell, the cunning and unscrupulous advisor who had replaced Cardinal Wolsey as counsel to Henry VIII. Wyatt was a professional  diplomat who wrote poetry – or maybe I should call it verse – for the purpose of charming and seducing women. Though he had a reputation for being handsome, the portrait of him by Hans Holbein the younger, reveals a balding, pasty-complected man with close-set puffy eyes and a limp beard, who appears much older than his years (Wyatt died at the age of 39).















Here is the Wyatt sonnet I have been looking over in the last two days.

The Lover Showeth How He Is Forsaken of Such as He Sometime Enjoyed

They flee from me that sometime did me seek               TW125
With naked foot stalking in my chamber.
I have seen them gentle tame and meek
That now are wild and do not remember
That sometime they put themselves in danger
To take bread at my hand; and now they range
Busily seeking with a continual change.
Thanked be fortune, it hath been otherwise
Twenty times better; but once in special,
In thin array after a pleasant guise,
When her loose gown from her shoulders did fall,
And she me caught in her arms long and small;
And therewithal sweetly did me kiss,
And softly said, Dear heart, how like you this?
It was no dream, I lay broad waking.
But all is turned through my gentleness
Into a strange fashion of forsaking;
And I have leave to go of her goodness
And she also to use newfangledness.
But since that I so kindely am served,
I fain would know what she hath deserved.


This sonnet leaves its most lingering impression in the potent erotic image which runs like a broken thread throughout its warp, that of a slender, beautiful, bare-footed young girl, diaphanously and negligently clad, who enters the bedchamber of a paramour to slip off her silk chemise and offer herself up to who knows what, with a kiss and a lubricious invitation.











Rendered in prose it reads something like this:
They run away from me now, who formerly pursued me, even coming to my bedroom half naked, those women who used to be so TW114submissive and tractable.  Now they have reverted to wildness, and forget the risks they took in order to ‘take bread’ from me. Now they busily look elsewhere. Thank goodness twenty times over it wasn’t always like this. One woman in particular came scantily clad in a charming negligee and slipped it off her shoulder, addressed me with an endearment, and  putting her arms around me, kissed me and asked me how I liked it. Honestly, I wasn’t just dreaming, but wide awake when this happened! But now, because of my kind forbearance everything is changed into a kind of rejection, when I have been given permission to leave, and she is free to be as capricious as she would wish. Since now I am the victim of such mistreatment, I would like to know if she has received her just deserts.

Seldom does a poem disclose its flaws so early, so thoroughly and so completely as does Sir Thomas Wyatt’s poem, better known by its first line “They flee from me that sometime did me seek”, and seldom has such extravagant ineptitude and knavery as has been expressed in it been put to such a subtle purpose. The first hint comes of course with the very first word, “they”, followed by  a shamefully unworthy expression of rancour and self-pity.  From there things could only get worse.

C-4266As I see it, a dejected Tom Wyatt is bemoaning his fate at having to forego the ‘favours’ of the women he had formerly been accustomed to enjoy. Since the poem is not dated, it cannot be known for certain whether it covertly refers to Anne Boleyn, but if so, she would have been amply justified in fleeing from him. Wyatt’s patron Thomas Cromwell was Anne’s nemesis. Cromwell’s machinations in bringing trumped-up charges of adultery and incest against Anne and several others were instrumental in her being found guilty of treason. Anne was executed by decapitation. Wyatt, who was a great deal luckier, was released after a few months imprisonment in the Tower of London.

Wyatt begins his poem with the lines They flee from me that sometime did me seek/ With naked foot stalking in my chamber. The unfortunate and inept placement of the word ‘stalking’ close to ‘foot’ shows a singular disregard for the faculty of hearing. I can see how this infelicity occurred. Wyatt must have begun: “….. with stockinged foot entering my chamber.” but then he had the impulse to substitute the more suggestive and evocative “naked” for “stockinged.” So far so good. He then had the idea to change the verb to something more surreptitious; then he realized that he could change “stocking” to “stalking,”  Though why a woman would have to stalk him in his own chamber is a little difficult to imagine. He must have hesitated a bit at the word. Perhaps he thought he might suggest that, as he TW118went about his business brushing his hair, folding his clothes and putting on his nightgown,  some interloper was stepping ever closer to him even as he failed to notice what she was about.  He must have sensed that the inappropriateness of the word might be overlooked in light of the novel suggestion that he, the passive male prey, was pursued and caught by a sexually avid female.  It seems quite clear that from the word “foot” which came shod with “naked” and “stalking” had managed to create an image of predator and prey in the context of an illicit assignation, and so it seems that the single word ‘foot’ wound up  dictating the course of the entire sonnet.

Having committed himself to the ‘wild thing’ conceit, he finds himself stalled in the doldrums for a moment.  How to reverse the image of  male prey and female predator he has already established? He puts down his quill and looks idly around him; his eye falls on a dusty copy of his schoolboy Chaucer.  He picks it up, and leafing through it, stops at “The Squire’s Tale.”  He happens on the lines….
*That ‘Everything, returning to its kind,                     A127
Gladdens itself’; thus men say, as I guess;
Men love, and naturally, newfangledness,
As do these birds that men in cages feed.
For though you night and day take of them heed,
And fairly strew their cage as soft as silk,
And give them sugar, honey, bread, and milk,
Yet on the instant when the door is up,
They with their feet will spurn their feeding cup,
And to the wood will fly and worms will eat;
So are they all newfangled of their meat,
And love all novelties of their own kind:
Nor nobleness of blood may ever bind.

…and suddenly he feels the riffle of a welcome breeze pushing against his sails. He has been able to move forward by making a connection between “stalking” and “wild” with Chaucer to kindly show him how. He hopes that with the the pretty image of some wild creature picking crumbs from his outstretched hand, he has somehow painted over the previous image of himself being stalked.

Perhaps it is no great sin to filch from Chaucer, even Shakespeare did it, (in Two Gentlemen of Verona) and from this very tale, butTW132 Wyatt is not content  simply to  borrow. He distills twelve whole lines from Chaucer, thanks to whom he is out of the doldrums, and halfway through his poem. This in turn gives him the inspiration to think about birds gone wild, and meek women who easily divest themselves of their veneer of civilisation and revert to their crude worm-eating in preference to ‘bread at his hand’. Fleeing birds and flighty women – that’s close enough. He hopes that we might have forgotten that the formerly wild woman who stalked him like an animal is now being compared to a caged bird.  No matter that Chaucer’s point was that even pampered birds prefer rough freedom to luxurious bondage, and remain ever vigilant for the chance to flee their cages. In Wyatt’s mind this idea is distorted, and the point he chooses to make is that women are ungrateful, and unmindful of the men from whom they have ‘taken bread.’

Next he lights on ‘newfangledness’ as suitable polysyllabic filler and filches that as well. Now what? Perhaps an exclamation with a TW138time-muddling indeterminate tense will do the trick: something along the lines of ‘thank goodness!’ Thus we have thanked be fortune if it had been, would it have been or should it have turned out differently, (hath means both had and has) and “Thanked be fortune, it hath been otherwise, Twenty times better;”.
Having already come up with the adjective of ‘naked’ for foot, and a concupiscent note having been struck, he decides to employ the details of one of his assignations. He forges ahead with…

….but once in special,
In thin array after a pleasant guise,
When her loose gown from her shoulders did fall,
And she me caught in her arms long and small;
And therewithal sweetly did me kiss,
And softly said, Dear heart, how like you this?

This works well for a few lines. But once again he grinds to a halt. Where can he go from here? Obviously not to whatever actionsTW147 followed the kiss – that would make too much of a good thing – so he hastens to assure us that this incident was not the result of one of those unfortunate dreams of a shameful origin, but a real-life happening, but his demure “it was no dream” tends to give him away. His very asseveration serves to convince me that it was indeed no more than a dream, which he has chosen to enlarge into a boast. But now what? Where is he to go from here? He plugs the gap with two lines of uncertain meaning:

But all is turned through my gentleness, Into a strange fashion of forsaking;
by which he hopes he might persuade us to think of him as resigned and passive and hard-done-by. He entertains the hope that we his readers would not as yet have emerged form the fog of erotic befuddlement cast by lines 9 – 13.

Finally, he has only four lines left to finish, and he begins to wind up his sonnet. Rather unexpectedly he decides in the next two lines, to tell the  obvious truth in however confused a manner: He has been cut loose, by the ‘she’ (which used to be’ they‘) who has so unkindly chosen to go her own way. “And I have leave to go of her goodness, And she also to use newfangledness.”  But this is an untenable situation, and to be deplored – it is against nature for women to decide….

TW141He cannot resist a spurt of sarcasm and rancour and the chance to insert himself and his own agency as being the source of considerable magnanimity. “But since that I so kindely am served, I fain would know what she hath deserved.”

I read it as ironic: ‘since I am so kindly (irony for badly) served, I wonder (actually, I know) what  ought to happen to her. Since she was so unkind to me, I hope something unpleasant happened to her’.

I  think I see him smirk on the word “kindely”. Perhaps he has heard of the swordsman sent for from France to sever Anne’s neck, which also aptly fits the description of “long and small”  which he has earlier applied to a woman’s arms.

Wyatt must have felt some considerable satisfaction at having managed to shepherd his sonnet from its unpromising inception to a passably neat conclusion. He is aware of having nimbly sidestepped a potentially dangerous pitfall presented by the clumping of foot and naked and stocking and stalking, and turned them to his advantage. It was a lucky thing too, happening  in a pinch upon Chaucer’s Squire, and using two sly slippages of meaning  and confusions of tense and reversals in imagery in order to add some depth of suggestion.

He has managed to subtly smear the reputation of a woman some will identify as Anne Boleyn, whom he had previously lusted after,TW111 by craftily suggesting that he has been the recipient of her unsolicited sexual favors. He implies that she had been in some manner kept (‘taken bread’) by him. However, he can plausibly claim that the word “they” implies that no particular woman is being referred to.  Wyatt is well aware that he owes his life to the fact that he had first taken care to shield himself from his sovereign Henry VIII’s paranoid jealousy, having warned him (prior to Henry’s marriage) that Anne  Boleyn would not make a suitable wife.

It matters not whether the “she” of his sonnet was a woman wild or tame, or wild pretending to be tame, or wild then tame and then reverted to wildness. Was she even human, and not merely a passager who refused to be hooded, but drew down her nictitating membrane when she elected not to see him, and at a time when he would have preferred she had. He has kissed and told, and done a great deal better than if he had openly boasted of sexual conquests in a tavern, but done so nonetheless, with great pretense at refinement. He supposes he has enmeshed his readers in an erotically TW116charged fantasy, carefully contrived to infect their minds with an image that is  lubricious and suggestive, that he evidently wishes them to dwell on. As he laid down his pen, Wyatt may have slyly moistened his lips, contemplating the insidious way in which he had managed to enmesh his readers’ imaginations.

The absence of love, the salacious note, the whining tone, the lack of sincerity, the arrant denigration implicit in his derisive plural ‘they’ (later slyly modified to ‘she’), the inability to decide if the woman in his poem was the predator or the prey and stick to it, all bespeak shamelessness, falsity and clumsiness. Even the title sounds more like an expression of discontent over loss of privilege than either regret or a lament for lost love. At any rate, he might have thought, he has managed to write a sonnet, and that must count for something. And so, with the initial dejection he felt when he began his poem satisfactorily ameliorated, this non-poet probably put down his quill and blew out his candle for the night.




When probed for its weak spots and with the unnecessary allusion to Chaucer removed, Wyatt’s sonnet might be be made to read thus….

Wyatt somewhat redeemed.

She flees from me that sometime did me seek                 TW113
With stockinged foot entering my chamber
I have seen her gentle, tame and meek
Who now is wild, refusing to remember
That in the past she placed herself in danger
To take my hand, though now far does she range.
Heaven be thanked it was not always so
But in more pleasant times she came to me
Clad thinly in her silks in beauteous guise
Slipped her loose gown which from her shoulders fell
Clasped in her slender arms I heard her tell
Me softly whispering, as we did  kiss
Dear heart, tell me, do you like this – and this?TW117
It was no dream from which I durstn’t waken
And all that I was helpless to prevent
Being lost is lost and now I am forsaken
As she has left me here and flown away.
Now she is willful and intransigent
And so, since I have been thus cruelly served
I wonder if she found what she deserved.


*Chaucer’s original, which of course is what Wyatt would have read:

That `alle thyng, repeirynge to his kynde,                 C-5039
Gladeth hymself;’ thus seyn men, as I gesse.
Men loven of propre kynde newefangelnesse,
As briddes doon that men in cages fede.
For though thou nyght and day take of hem hede,
And strawe hir cage faire and softe as silk,
And yeve hem sugre, hony, breed and milk,
Yet right anon as that his dore is uppe
He with his feet wol spurne adoun his cuppe,
And to the wode he wole and wormes ete;
So newefangel been they of hire mete,
And loven novelries of propre kynde,
No gentillesse of blood ne may hem bynde.

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Noor Inayat Khan January 4 1914 – September 14 1944

Noor Inayat Khan January 4 1914 – September 14 1944

A month ago, in a section of Bloomsbury known as Gordon Square, a modest memorial to an almost forgotten hero was unveiled by Princess Anne. The memorial was dedicated to a young woman who went by the name of Nora Baker, who was without a doubt the most unlikely spy of WWII. Her given name was Noor Inayat Khan.

At the time I began writing this post a couple of months ago, Noor Inayat Khan had already become a fixture of my imagination, but had not captured it, so to speak. Though I had completed the ‘factual’ part of the post, I feared I would not be able to put it up, because  it was clear to me that mere facts could not reveal the person they were about.

Despite all that is now known about her, this woman remained, and remains shimmeringly elusive, and all the facts used by those who admire, and indeed revere, her fail to get at the heart of who she really was. I myself had to let my post lie fallow until the thread I needed to unravel her personality gently glided into my hand.

Many of us are strangely fascinated by stories about spies. Reading about their dangerous adventures compensates us in some vicarious measure for our dull and uneventful lives. We imagine spies to be masters of intrigue and deception, seducers and seductresses of exceptional talent, who take dangerous risks, complete their missions and live to tell the tale. Spies belong to a species of people with flexible identities, elastic morals and what has been referred to by some as situational ethics, who covertly serve their governments, and do not hesitate to kill in the service of their countries.

With one qualified exception Khan was none of these things. The exception was that England was not her country. But it was the country of her adoption, and one she unswervingly served, and for which she sacrificed her life. A more idealistic person would be hard to imagine; she had been brought up in the mystical Sufi tradition and had internalised all the lofty principles of this great surviving branch of an ancient spiritual practice predating  both Islam (with which it is associated) and Christianity.

To call someone a saint is to encumber her with a whole constellation of associations which are usually tainted with religious beliefs. Yet, when a seemingly ordinary human beingmadeleine-soe-file-photo2 manages to live a life of extraordinary goodness  and unselfishness, despite extraordinary hardship and without in the least compromising that goodness, what other description can be found to serve? Khan’s whole character, from her childhood on, shimmers with a deeply human and completely unpretentious sanctity. She seems to have discharged all her self-chosen duties in a spirit of intense love and sacrifice.

In 1940 the British Government conceived of a plan of espionage, reconnaissance and sabotage to be conducted by ‘civilian personnel’ in Axis occupied countries. The scheme was enthusiastically approved by the cabinet (though not the military), and in time a group of volunteers was assembled and trained, and sent forth, in Churchill’s grandiloquent phrase, to “set Europe ablaze.” The secret organisation formed to carry out this mission was the Special Operations Executive, or the SOE, and this was the organisation which recruited Noor Inayat Khan.

The SOE was active from July 22nd 1940 to January of 1946  and numbered  around 13000 agents. By April of 1942, when Churchill tacitly agreed to admit women into the SOE, over 3,200 agents, or nearly a quarter of the total number, were women. In a statement given by Captain Selwyn Jepson, an SOE senior recruiting officer, when interviewed by the Imperial War Museum for its sound archive, he stated:“I was responsible for recruiting women for the work, in the face of a good deal of opposition, I may say, from the powers that be. In my view, women were very much better than men for the work. Women, as you must know, have a far greater capacity for cool and lonely courage than men. Men usually want a mate with them. Men don’t work alone, their lives tend to be always in company with other men. There was opposition from most quarters until it went up to Churchill, whom I had met before the war. He growled at me, Maurice Guy Buckmaster“What are you doing?” I told him and he said, “I see you are using women to do this,” and I said, “Yes, don’t you think it is a very sensible thing to do?” and he said, “Yes, good luck to you'” That was my authority!”

In an excerpt from the book They Fought Alone, by Maurice Buckmaster the chief of the SOE and published in 1959, Buckmaster states “Often I would go down together with others from headquarters and would cross-question recruits, taking on the roles of Gestapo men, in order to try and break their cover-stories. By this means the story itself would become ingrained in their minds and they themselves would gain some small idea of the rigours of interrogation. If they survived without cracking, their confidence would be greatly increased and they could face the thought of genuine German interrogation in the knowledge that they had already withstood a similar grilling successfully. These rehearsals were grim affairs and we spared the recruits nothing. They were stripped and made to stand for hours in the light of bright lamps and though, of course, we never used any physical violence on them, they certainly knew what it was to go through it by the time we had finished. If they cracked badly under the strain, it was tolerably sure that we would not send them, for it was clear that a man who caved in when questioned by H.Q. staff, in however realistic conditions, would be only too likely to wilt in the face of the Boches. A minor slip would not be held against a man, but too general a collapse most certainly would; we derived no pleasure, I need hardly say, from those occasions when our cruel jibes, our reiterated and shouted questions and our implacable persistence broke a man’s spirit, but we could console ourselves with the fact that his cracking at a rehearsal might well have saved his life –  and others  – by preventing the possibility of his doing the same thing with the enemy. We were not playing a game.

One of the SOE’s most notable recruits, Khan was born in Moscow, Russia, on the second of January 1914. She lived first in France and later in England. Although English was her motherKhan, Womens Auxiliary Airforce photo tongue, she spoke fluent French, and this was the main reason she came to the attention of and was recruited by the SOE while she was a member of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force. She had joined the WAAF under the name of Nora Baker, shortly after arriving in Britain after escaping the German invasion of France on May 10th of 1940. Khan and her family reached Falmouth on June 27th 1940. Her mother, Ora Ray Baker, was an American, a cousin of Mary Baker Eddy, founder of the Christian Science movement. Her father Inayat Khan, was an Indian belonging to the Sufi sect of Islam, a sect long persecuted by mainstream Muslims. She was an accomplished musician, who, prior to the German invasion, was studying music in the Paris conservatory under Nadia Boulanger, and child psychology in the Sorbonne. When she volunteered with the WAAF she had just published a book of Buddhist stories (Jataka Katha) for children, a book which is still in print.

Khan’s life was interwoven with all manner of complexities, religious, national, ethnic, philosophical, and ethical. She was a British subject who believed in independence for India, a confirmed pacifist engaged in covert operations in WWII, and a woman in a largely male-dominated network. The SOE officers  entrusted with Khan’s training were probably quite uncomprehending of Khan’s’s pacifist philosophy.  Leo Marks recollects that the sound of a gunshot once sent her into a trance from which she took hours to emerge.  The S.O.E swept aside the ethical reservations  voiced by other military agencies, notably the  Royal Air Force,  about dropping civilian agents behind enemy lines and requiring them to carry out military operations, sabotage and the arming of underground movements. They therefore provided their agents with weapons. But Khan refused to carry a gun, because she was resolved to never take a life.The Imperial War Museum has the weapon issued to Khan, which she left behind, in accordance with her pacifist principles. The S.O.E also issued cyanide capsules to its agents, but Khan chose not to take hers with her on her mission.

British National Archives file

British National Archives file

The first three months of Khan’s training  with the SOE, included wireless operations and resistance of interrogation. She had already trained as a nurse with the Red Cross when she volunteered with WAAF on November 19th 1940. At the time of her recruitment by the SOE she had been an Assistant Section Officer in the WAAF with a salary of £300.00 per year, and it was at this time that she received her initial training as a wireless operator. Khan was one of 39 women out of a total of about 400 agents who would be dropped behind enemy lines in occupied France by the S.O.E.  Khan was given the cover name Jeanne Marie Regnier and the code name Madeleine. During her training with the S.O.E. Khan was derided for her aversion to (described as ‘fear of’) weapons. The weapons developed by the SOE for use in sabotage operations were truly ingenious and formidable, and many of them are still in use today. Agents were trained in the use of lethal weapons which included garrotes, specially designed knives, firearms and explosives. Not for the squeamish, this was real training in hands-on murder. She was also trained in methods of ‘resisting interrogation.’ Her instructions were to remain silent under interrogation for 48 hours. Killing and being killed were considerations the  300 to 400 operatives in Buckmaster’s F (French) section could not ignore, since their own casualty rates were between 30 and 40%.

Sebastian Faulks, author of Charlotte Grey, a novel about a Scotswoman who joined the French underground in WWII, was asked  in an interview whether his fictitious character was based on the real-life agent Nancy Wake. Faulks stated unequivocally that she was not. He then referred to an article he had written in the Times about Wake, who had died in 2011, in which he states “The prime requirement was the ability to speak the language. So poor was British language ability in general that even people who were hopeless at keeping secrets might be recruited if  they were bilingual. A French-speaking woman called Noor Inayat Khan, an Indian princess, was recruited despite the fact she told her handlers she could never tell a lie.” There is an interesting anecdote about Khan in the book Between Silk and Cyanide written by her SOE cryptography instructor Leo Marks, who states that “She wasA Lysander Aircraft cycling towards her ‘safe-house’ to practice transmitting when a policeman stopped her and asked what she was doing.’I’m training to be an agent,’ she said, ‘here’s my radio — want me to show it to you?’ She then removed it from its hiding place and invited him to try it.”

Despite these indications of her probable inappropriateness for the kind of mission intended for their agents, the SOE chose Khan. The remarkable fact is that ultimately she proved to be valiant and invaluable. Official records claim that Khan was one of the most gallant agents ever recruited by the S.O.E and one of only three women to be awarded the George Cross citation for ‘conspicuous courage moral and physical’ in WWII. She was also awarded the Croix de Guerre  with Gold Star by France. General Sir Colin Gubbins, who the was ‘the prime mover’ of the of SOE, said that she occupied “the principal and most dangerous post in France”.

Khan’s insertion in France as an SOE agent  took place three years after her family escaped to England in the wake of the German occupation. The drop off, which took place at very short notice June 17th 1943, was by special Westland Lysander aircraft because Khan could not be parachuted in due to the fact that  no harness could be found that would be small enough to fit her 5’3″ 108 lb. frame. In France, the BBC French Service broadcast a message from their headquarters in Bush House, to say that ‘Madeleine’ (referred to as ‘Nurse’) was about to be inserted. She was met on that full moon night at the drop-off site in Le Vieux Briollay in the Angers district of France by Flight Lieutenant Henri Déricourt RAF, code name “Gilbert”, who was a member of the French Resistance, but was also a double agent in the pay of the Gestapo. (Whether the SOE knew at that time that Déricourt was a double agent  and a traitor and had already been in contact with German Intelligence for six weeks, is uncertain, but I believe it may well be the case.)  Khans’s mission was compromised from the start due to Déricourt’s treachery. Khan was supposed to join the Prosper Network, a group of operatives headed by Francis Suttill.  SOE chief Maurice Buckmaster had been warned by Jack Agazarian, one of the  chief SOE operatives SOE agent equipmentin France, about the threat to Prosper posed by the SOE operative Henri Déricourt, a former pilot in the French Air Force. Buckmaster’s failure to heed this warning resulted in compromising the 67 drops of SOE operatives in France. In consequence, it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that far more than Déricourt, it is Buckmaster himself who bears direct responsibility for the deaths of all the SOE operatives who were subsequently delivered into the hands of the Gestapo, including  Jack Agazarian and Noor Inayat Khan. Long after the war, in an interview with the writer Jean Overton Fuller, Déricout claimed that when he had given information to the Gestapo he had been acting on instructions given to him from a ‘higher authourity’ in London. It has been suggested that Déricourt had been inserted in the SOE by MI6, the British Special Intelligence Service, but it seems much more likely that Déricourt might have been acting under the orders of Buckmaster himself.

When Khan landed in France, the backup Déricourt was responsible for providing did not materialise.The next day, on Thursday June 17th, Khan arrived at the apartment of Emile Henri Garry. Carrying her wireless equipment, she next made her way to Paris on her own. She had remarkable luck: stopped by the Gestapo as she cycled with her radio, she no doubt refused to lie, but somehow allowed them to believe that  it was a cine projector. Khan was left alone to transmit information, and she remained on the run until her capture by the Gestapo five months later in November of 1943. During this time she had to carry her wireless equipment, which weighed over 32 lbs., in a suitcase. When she would get ready to transmit she had to set up her transceivers and the over 21 metres of aerial it needed to transmit.  It had been estimated that the Germans would be able to detect the source of transmissions within 30 minutes of their being sent. This placed her in extreme danger for the entire duration of her Francis Suttil (Prosper)mission. Within one week of landing behind enemy lines, almost all the members of the Prosper Network Khan had been sent to join had been arrested by the Gestapo.  The Gestapo had captured  seven other S.O.E wireless operators, and now they only had to focus on tracking the last one: Khan. Even so, she managed to elude the Gestapo sweeps for two months.  Buckmaster later claimed that he had offered Khan an escape, but, knowing that she was the only operator left and so was of vital importance to the S.O.E, she had refused. Her position was described by the S.O.E as being “the principal and most dangerous post in France.”

When Khan was finally captured by paid informants of the Gestapo sometime near the beginning of October 1943, it was not because of any lapse or carelessness on her part, but because she was betrayed.  Renée Garry, the sister of that same member of the Resistance (Émile Henri Garry) who had first harbored her, is thought to have been jealous of Khan’s role as an SOE agent. Renée Garry had applied to join the the Prosper Network, but had been refused. She then approached the Gestapo and offered to give Khan up. Renée Garry received 100,000 French Francs (£500) for her vindictive act of treachery in revealing the location of Khan’s wireless equipment to a German agent by the name of Ernst Vogt. Though Khan was caught by surprise when she arrived at the Garry residence a few metres  away from the Gestapo Headquarters, she resisted strongly and put up a fierce fight. She was  restrained only when Pierre Cartaud, who accompanied Ernst Vogt, threatened to shoot her.  Khan was then removed to the Gestapo headquarters on Avenue Foch and held captive on the fifth floor in what before the war used to be the servants’ quarters.

As far as can reliably be ascertained by sifting through various and at times contradictory accounts, Khan was  removed from the Gestapo Headquarters at 84 Avenue Foch in Paris and transported by train to the civilian prison in Karlsruhe, Germany. One account has her being transported with four other women to Natzweiler concentration camp and executed there. Initially, after the war, the British put the staff at the Natzweiler concentration camps on trial and charged them with the murders of Khan and four other women agents. Later the court transcript was altered to read Dachau, perhaps because  German records indicate that Khan was taken to Pforzheim camp where she was detained for over eleven months, and finally to Dachau, where she was executed. However there are no records in the Dachau prison archives which indicate that Khan was taken to Dachau. Khan is documented in the Pforzheim records under the name of Nora Baker. There, probably due to her repeated efforts to escape  from Avenue Foch, she received extraordinarily rough treatment (she was kept in chains in a cell of minute proportions  for the entire period of her imprisonment). However, it is unlikely that Khan was tortured in order to extract information – there was no reason to do that because for the ten months since her capture in November of 1943, the Gestapo already had all the records of all wireless communications  between Khan and the SOE.  The  information purported to have been extracted from her in Pforzheim was incorrect. For example, the record states she was born in London, when in fact Khan was born in Moscow. This has led to speculation that the Pforzheim records had been faked by the SOE, but I think it is rather more likely that Khan was continuing to resist by providing false information to the Germans. This latter supposition is consistent with her character as revealed by testimony from the officer who captured Khan and the rest of the operatives in Paris, and who was in charge of  interrogations at the Gestapo headquarters in Paris at the time of Khan’s apprehension, Hans  Josef Kieffer.  After the war when Kieffer was tried for war crimes by the British Military, he testified that he had been able to get nothing from Khan, that she never broke under interrogation, and did not reveal any information pertinent to her mission.

There were two versions of what ultimately befell Khan. The first was that she and three other French agents, Madeleine Damerment, Elaine Plewman and Yolande Beekman,George Cross were  executed by a gunshot to the back of the head by Friedrich Wilhelm Ruppert in Dachau in September of 1944. This testimony was presented  on April 29th 1945 at the American Military Tribunal, by Rudolph Wolf, who was a prisoner in Dachau from September of 1942 until the camp was liberated on April 29th of 1945. Wolf had been paid  by the British for his uncorroborated testimony.

Another version of events  surfaced fourteen years later in 1958, when Jean Overton Fuller, who had published a biography of Khan in 1952, was contacted by a Dutchman with the initials A.F. who told Overton that he had been a prisoner in Dachau and had witnessed Khan’s execution. He stated that the English prisoner, undoubtedly Khan, had been picked out from the other prisoners and stripped and beaten until she was a bloody mess, and then shot.

The dates of the execution have been variously given as September 11th, September 12th, September 13th and September 15th of 1944. It seems most likely that the four prisoners were brought to Dachau on the morning of September 11th and executed a day or two later. Although the uncorroborated eyewitness testimony of Rudolph Wolf places the execution on the morning of September 13th, the plaque in the Dachau crematorium gives the date of the execution of the four women as September 12th.

Henri_DéricourtTo learn the truth of all this, it would surely be useful and informative to examine the H.S.9 reports (personnel files) in the British National Archives The BNA states: This series contains personnel files of SOE agents and staff. The files may contain papers dealing with the service records of individuals, including medical reports, appraisals of performance and suitability for particular roles, as well as passport-style photographs of the subject and reports of their activities. The contents in any individual’s file can vary considerably however, and some files only contain a very brief note indicating that an individual was considered for service in SOE, but rejected. Some papers in many of the files are damaged or mutilated to some extent: many have been partly burnt; some names have been removed by being cut out from papers at some time in the past. The files also include papers in many different languages, according to the work performed by the individual concerned. Some extracts continue to be retained by the Department under section 3(4) of the Public Records Act and there are dummy sheets in place to indicate where this has happened. Many files contain passport-style photographs of the agents.

I came across various claims stating that Khan’s file is reported to have been declassified, but when I searched for her H.S 9 report I found that the access conditions were described as “subject to closure for periods of up to 85 years”,  and an opening date of January 2025 had been appended. The H.S 9/836  file was designated as a “closed or retained document,” and it was additionally stated that “This document is closed and cannot be viewed or re-opened as a digital or printed copy.”  It would have been possible for me to submit a paid request for information contained in Khan’s SOE files, which would then have been subjected to a review by the appropriate government agencies, but  given all these already admitted restrictions there was little to suggest either that the decision would fall in my favor or that, should permission be granted, there would be anything of substantial interest and value revealed. Under such uncertainty it seemed to me pointless to submit a request –  particularly since it now seemed, at least to me, reasonable to assume that the SOE had something to hide.

One scenario this otherwise hard to understand secrecy suggests is that  the SOE was completely incompetent. But there is  a more sinister possibility: that the sacrifice of KhanFreidrich Wilhelm  Ruppert was in full accord with intentions of the SOE.

Khan’s story has to be examined in the light of the plans the Allies, and more particularly the British, were making for the future D-Day invasion of France. For obvious reasons these plans had to be kept unassailably secret, and the location of the planned invasion had to be carefully guarded if the allied assault was not to be met with stiff German resistance. Great pains were taken to throw Hitler off the scent, and induce him to deploy his heavily armoured panzer divisions on the Seine to the North-East of Pas-de-Calais where they would be the least helpful to him and where they would be least capable of  inflicting damage on the allies.

One of the most reliable ways for the Allies to assure that the Germans were confused and misled would have been through disinformation. With telephone lines being cut in advance of the D-Day plans, one of the only reliable means left for achieving this disinformation would have been to have available someone such as Khan–someone inept and expendable who, when she was inevitably captured, would have naturally left the Germans  assuming that they were the beneficiaries of a stroke of good luck in being able to eavesdrop on the  communications  between the British and their covert agents in France.  This would have taken long range planning – this fortuitous placement of someone who would seem (to the Germans)  to compromise the lines of communication of the SOE.

There are many seemingly unrelated facts about Khan’s mission which do not lead to any clear conclusion by themselves, but which taken together point in the direction of  a cynical – if not sinister – plan–a plan on the part of the very organization she risked (and lost) her life to serve: the SOE. Here are some of those provocative facts:

Hans Josef Kieffer1.That Khan was selected for her mission is surprising, given the SOE’s extremely derogatory views about her temperament and her unsuitability for the task to which she was being assigned. One evaluation of Khan said she was“Not over-burdened with brains, but has worked hard and shown keenness apart from the security part of the course. She has an unstable and temperamental personality, and it is very doubtful whether she is really suited to work in the field.

2.That she was given instructions to carefully keep with her all her communications was another glaring inconsistency. No self-respecting spy agency on earth would require an agent to retain copies of highly incriminating documents, particularly if the possession of such documents not only would make the spy agency transparent and vulnerable to the enemy, but also would place the spy at risk of torture and execution.

3.The SOE ignored the warnings of one of its own agents in France, Jack Agazarian, regarding suspicions about Henri Déricourt

4.The chief of the SOE, Maurice Buckmaster, repeatedly ignored the the vital fact that the communications received from France and thought to be Khan’s did not contain the bluff security codes which would have proved that they were sent by an SOE agent and not someone outside the agency . The absence of bluff codes was a clear and unequivocal indication that the wireless transmissions the SOE were receiving did not come from Khan.

5. On October 2nd 1943, French Resistance agent Sonia Olschanesky  cabled the SOE: “Madeleine had serious accident and in hospital need to confirm on contact if genuine or Gestapo will try to find more information.”  Buckmaster chose to ignore this message.

6. Neither the nature nor the specific information – or disinformation –  sent back to France, ostensibly to the  SOE agents but in reality to the Gestapo, has ever beenRenèe Garry disclosed.

7. The eyewitness accounts of Khan’s ultimate fate were never corroborated, and such hearsay accounts as we have contradict each other in material detail.

8. The SOE files on Khan have never been completely declassified, and I suspect they never will be, because the information they contain will doubtless completely undermine the confidence of future agents regarding the trustworthiness of their commanding officers and the commitment of those officers to safeguarding the lives of  non-uniformed agents in the field.

The facts suggest that the SOE had a reason for wanting Khan to remain in German hands. Could it be that the SOE intended that with Khan, her code books, her wireless equipment and records of all prior clandestine communications in the hands of the Gestapo, they (the SOE) would be perfectly situated to feed disinformation to the Germans?  Churchill  had begun planning for the allied invasion of France as early as May of 1942. The invasion took place in June of 1944, and  between the time of inserting these agents, and the time of the invasion, the SOE could have hoped to have passed an enormous amount of disinformation on to the Germans. This expedient would have proved extremely helpful to the allies. It would also have served as cover for the planned invasion. If indeed it was employed, this strategy was, as croix-de-guerrethe Allied victory attests, successful. But one wonders at the extent to which the SOE was capable of making decisions dependent on a cynical and reprehensible willingness to deceive and sacrifice their own agents.

While these may seem to be  merely my own speculations, they are supported in part by the failure of the British Government to declassify Khan’s files. The only information that has trickled out piecemeal and that has been put forward by former agents, supports the SOE version of the Khan mission, a version which seems to be cunningly contrived to serve as a cover for  either one of the most spectacular failures in the history of spying, or else a cynical attempt to disguise the fact that the SOE sent its most vulnerable recruits as expendable bait in order to trap the Nazis into committing the kinds of intelligence errors that would lead to them lose the war. That the officers in charge were never reprimanded or disciplined, let alone tried for their  gross negligence and incompetence, and that this was permitted to continue unchecked is one of the unexplained mysteries of WWII, unless this was not a case of incompetence, but rather of design.  If so, in this, it must be admitted, the British effort was a marked success. But the price paid for that success remains  at best questionable, and at worst unforgivable. For there is a vast difference between making the choice to sacrifice oneself for one’s country, and being sacrificed by one’s superiours. The former we may laud; the latter we must, as honourable and ethical beings, condemn.





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Renée Garry, who betrayed Noor Inayat Khan to the Gestapo for the sum of £500 and led them directly to her, was acquitted for ‘lack of evidence’. She defended herself on the grounds that  the British authorities had awarded her a testimonial.  She was also acquitted of  the crime of betraying her brother (who was executed by the Germans in Buchenwald in 1944), on grounds of insufficient evidence.

Hans Josef Kieffer, SS Oberbersturmbanführer, was tried and found guilty of war crimes in the British Military Court in Wuppertal. He was interrogated by Vera Atkins. He was executed in Hameln prison on June 26th 1947.

Friedrich Wilhelm Ruppert, the sadistic officer in charge of executing condemned prisoners in Dachau, was tried by the American Occupying forces and executed on May 29th 1946.

Henri Déricourt of the French Resistance was arrested by the French Authourities. Despite evidence provided by the Abwehr and the Gestapo during his trial that he had betrayed his SOE colleagues in the Prosper and other networks and provided information which had led to their arrests and subsequent executions, he was acquitted.noor4

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