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Sherwood Anderson (September 13, 1876 – March 8, 1941)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For a year now I have been thinking of writing a certain book. “Well, tomorrow I’ll get at it,” I’ve been saying to myself. Every night whenUnder the elevated railway, Chicago,Il I get into bed I think about the book. The people that are to be put between its covers dance before my eyes. I live in the city of Chicago and at night motor trucks go rumbling along the roadway outside my house. Not so very far away there is an elevated railroad and after twelve o’clock at night trains pass at pretty long intervals. Before it began I went to sleep during one of the quieter intervals but now that the idea of writing this book has got into me I lie awake and think.
For one thing it is hard to get the whole idea of the book fixed in the setting of the city I live in now. I wonder if you, who do not try to write books, perhaps will understand what I mean. Maybe you will, maybe you won’t. It is a little hard to explain. You see, it’s something like this.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           SA190

You as a reader will, some evening or some afternoon, be reading in my book and then you will grow tired of reading and put it down. You will go out of your house and into the street. The sun is shining and you meet people you know. There are certain facts of your life just the same as of mine. If you are a man, you go from your house to an office and sit at a desk where you pick up a telephone and begin to talk about some matter of business with a client or a customer of your house. If you are an honest housewife, the ice man has come or there drifts into your mind the thought that yesterday you forgot to remember some detail concerned with running your house. Little outside thoughts come and go in your mind, and it is so with me too. For example when I have written the above sentence, I wonder why I have written the words “honest housewife.” A housewife I suppose can be as dishonest as I can. What I am trying to make clear is that, as a writer, I am up against the same things that confront you, as a reader.
What I want to do is to express in my book a sense of the strangeness that has gradually, since I was a boy, been creeping more and more into my feeling about everyday life. It would all be very simple if I could write of life in an interior city of China or in an African forest. A man I know has recently told me of another man who, wanting to write a book about Parisian life and having no money to go to Paris to study the life there, went instead to the city of New Orleans. He had heard that many people livedSA237 in New Orleans whose ancestors were French. “They will have retained enough of the flavor of Parisian life for me to get the feeling,” he said to himself. The man told me that the book turned out to be very successful and that the city of Paris read with delight a translation of his work as a study of French life, and I am only sorry I can’t find as simple a way out of my own job. The whole point with me is that my wish to write this book springs from a somewhat different notion. “If I can write everything out plainly, perhaps I will myself understand better what has happened,” I say to myself and smile. During these days I spend a good deal of time smiling at nothing. It bothers people. “What are you smiling about now?” they ask, and I am up against as hard a job trying to answer as I am trying to get underway with my book.
Sometimes in the morning I sit down at my desk and begin writing, taking as my subject a scene from my own boyhood.
Very well, I am coming home from school. The town in which I was born and raised was a dreary, lonely little place in the far western section of the state of Nebraska, and I imagine myself walking along one of its streets. Sitting upon a curbing before a store is a sheep herder who has left his flock many miles away in the foothills at the base of the western mountains and has come into our town, for what purpose he himself does not seem to know. He is a bearded man without a hat and sits with his mouth slightly open, staring up and down the street. There is a half-wild uncertain look in his eyes SA181and his eyes have awakened a creepy feeling in me. I hurry away with a kind of dread of some unknown thing eating at my vital organs.  Old men are great talkers. It may be that only kids know the real terror of loneliness.
I have tried, you see, to start my book at that particular point in my own life. “If I can catch exactly the feeling of that afternoon of my boyhood, I can give the reader the key to my character,” I tell myself.
The plan won’t work. When I have written five, ten, fifteen hundred words, I stop writing and look out at my window. A man is driving a team of horses hitched to a wagon-load of coal along my street and is swearing at another man who drives a Ford. They have both stopped and are cursing each other.
The coal wagon driver’s face is black with coal dust but anger has reddened his cheeks and the red and black have produced
a dusky brown like the skin of a Negro. I have got up from my typewriter and walk up and down in my room smoking cigarettes. My fingers pick up little things on my desk and then put them down.
I am nervous like the race horses I used to be with at one period of my boyhood. Before a race and when they had been brought out onSA228 the tracks before all the people and before the race started, their legs quivered. Sometimes there was a horse got into such a state that when the race started he would do nothing. “Look at him. He can’t untrack himself,” we said.
Right now I am in that state about my book. I run to the typewriter, write for a time, and then walk nervously about. I smoke a whole package of cigarettes during the morning.
And then suddenly I have again torn up all I have written. “It won’t do,” I have told myself. In this book I am not intending to try to give you the story of my life. “What of life, any man’s life?—forked radishes running about, writing declarations of independence, telling themselves little lies, having dreams, getting puffed up now and then with what is called greatness. Life begins, runs its course and ends,” a man I once knew told me one evening, and it is true. Even as I write these words a hearse is going through my street. Two young girls, who are going off with two young men to walk I suppose in the fields where the city ends, stop laughing for a moment and look up at the hearse. It will be a moment before they forget the passing hearse and begin laughing again.
“A life is like that, it passes like that,” I say to myself as I tear up my sheets and begin again walking and smoking the cigarettes. If you think I am sad, having these thoughts about the brevity and insignificance of a life, you are mistaken. In the state I am in such things do not matter. “Certain things last,” I say to myself. “One might make things a little clear. One might even imagine a man, say a Negro, going along a SA143city street and humming a song. It catches the ear of another man who repeats it on the next day. A thin strand of song, like a tiny stream far up in some hill, begins to flow down into the wide plains. It waters the fields. It freshens the air above a hot stuffy city.”
Now I have got myself worked up into a state. I am always doing that these days. I write again and again tear up my words.
I go out of my room and walk about.
I have been with a woman I have found and who loves me. It has happened that I am a man who has not been loved by women and have all my life been awkward and a little mixed up when in their presence. Perhaps I have had too much respect for them, have wanted them too much. That may be. Anyway I am not so rattled in her presence.
She, I think, has a certain control over herself and that is helpful to me. When I am with her I keep smiling to myself and thinking, “It would be rather a joke all around if she found me out.”
When she is looking in another direction I study her a little. That she should seem to like me so much surprises me and I am sore at my own surprise. I grow humble and do not like my humbleness either. “What is she up to? She is very lovely. Why is she wasting her time with me?”
I shall remember always certain hours when I have been with her. Late on a certain Sunday afternoon I remember I sat in a chair in aSA188 room in her apartment. I sat with my hand against my cheek, leaning a little forward. I had dressed myself carefully because I was going to see her, had put on my best suit of clothes. My hair was carefully combed and my glasses carefully balanced on my rather large nose. And there I was, in her apartment in a certain city, in a chair in a rather dark corner, with my hand against my cheek, looking as solemn as an old owl. We had been walking about and had come into the house and she had gone away leaving me sitting there, as I have said. The apartment was in a part of the city where many foreign people live and from my chair I could, by turning my head a little, look down into a street filled with Italians.
It was growing dark outside and I could just see the people in the street. If I cannot remember facts about my own and other people’s lives, I can always remember every feeling that has gone through me, or that I have thought went through anyone about me. The men going along the street below the window all had dark swarthy faces and nearly all of them wore, somewhere about them, a spot of color. The younger men, who walked with a certain swagger, all had on flaming red ties. The street was dark but far down the street there was a spot where a streak of sunlight still managed to find its way in between two tall buildings and fell sharp against the face of a smaller red-brick building. It pleased my fancy to imagine the street had also put on a red necktie, perhaps because there would be lovemaking along the street before Monday morning.
SA219Anyway I sat there looking and thinking such thoughts as came to me. The women who went along the street nearly all had dark colored shawls drawn up about their faces. The road-way was filled with children whose voices made a sharp tinkling sound.
My fancy went out of my body in a way of speaking, I suppose, and I began thinking of myself as being at that moment in a city in Italy. Americans like myself who have not traveled are always doing that. I suppose the people of another nation would not understand how doing it is almost necessity in our lives, but any American will understand. The American, particularly a middle-American, sits as I was doing at that moment, dreaming you understand, and suddenly he is in Italy or in a Spanish town where a dark-looking man is riding a bony horse along a street, or he is being driven over the Russian steppes in a sled by a man whose face is all covered with whiskers. It is an idea of the Russians got from looking at cartoons in newspapers but it answers the purpose. In the distance a pack ofSA241 wolves are following the sled.A fellow I once knew told me that Americans are always up to such tricks because all of our old stories and dreams have come to us from over the sea and because we have no old stories and dreams of our own. Of that I can’t say. I am not putting myself forward as a thinker on the subject of the causes of the characteristics of the American people or any other monstrous or important matter of that kind. But anyway, there I was, sitting, as I have told you, in the Italian section of an American city and dreaming of myself being in Italy.
To be sure I wasn’t alone. Such a fellow as myself never is alone in his dreams. And as I sat having my dream, the woman with whom I had been spending the afternoon, and with whom I am no doubt what is called “in love,” passed between me and the window through which I had been looking. She had on a dress of some soft clinging stuff and her slender figure made a very lovely line across the light. Well, she was like a young tree you might see on a hill, in a windstorm perhaps.
What I did, as you may have supposed, was to take her with me into Italy.
The woman became at once, and in my dream, a very beautiful princess in a strange land I have never visited. It may be that when I was a boy in my western town some traveler came SA140there to lecture on life in Italian cities before a club that met at the Presbyterian church and to which my mother belonged, or perhaps later I read some novel the name of which I can’t remember. And so my princess had come down to me along a path out of a green wooded hill where her castle was located. She had walked under blossoming trees in the uncertain evening light and some blossoms had fallen on her black hair. The perfume of Italian nights was in her hair. That notion came into my head. That’s what I mean.
What really happened was that she saw me sitting there lost in my dream and, coming to me, rumpled my hair and upset the glasses perched on my big nose and, having done that, went laughing out of the room.
I speak of all this because later, on that same evening, I lost all notion of the book I am now writing and sat until three in the morning writing on another book, making the woman the central figure. “It will be a story of old times, filled with moons and stars and the fragrance of half-decayed trees in an oldSA131 land,” I told myself, but when I had written many pages I tore them up too.
“Something has happened to me or I should not be filled with the idea of writing this book at all,” I told myself going to my window to look out at the night. “At a certain hour of a certain day and in a certain place, something happened that has changed the whole current of my life. “The thing to be done,” I then told myself, “is to begin writing my book by telling as clearly as I can the adventures of that certain moment.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
SA243A task one hopes to complete and yet defers because it cannot be begun is perfectly expressed by the the word the Romans thought they heard in the cry of the raven – “cras, cras,” meaning “tomorrow, tomorrow” – and which symbolises  hope as well as procrastination. This seems to aptly echo the predicament adumbrated by Sherwood Anderson in this essay “Certain Things Last”, which he wrote sometime in the twenties, and which was found among his papers and published only in 1992.

We do not know if it was ever intended for publication; indeed, we cannot even know for certain if he completed the piece. All writers feel this way at times about the things they write, because they know what a devilishly difficult job the task of writing can present. Noah’s raven, and the first to be released from the ark, (unlike his second envoy the docile dove) never returned. We may wonder what happened to it, and how it was reunited with its mate who presumably was released after the flood subsided. But reunited they must have been, on some hopeful ‘tomorrow,’ for the world veritably teems with ravens and their ilk.

Anderson’s ‘tomorrow,’ after a difficult boyhood and adolescence in the small and typically claustrophobic town of Clyde, Ohio, led to the occupation of writer. By his own account, his best known work, a compilation of 22 stories published under the title of Winesburg, Ohio, came to him all in a rush.SA142  

“…it was a late fall night and raining…I was there naked in the bed and I sprang up. I went to my typewriter and began to write. It was there, under those circumstances, myself sitting near an open window, the rain occasionally blowing in and wetting my bare back, that I did my first writing…I wrote it, as I wrote them all, complete in the one sitting…The rest of the stories in the book came out of me on succeeding evenings, and sometimes during the day while I worked in the advertising office…”

But “Some Things Last” seems to tell a different story. As the cry of the raven suggests, the exercise of writing requires the disordering of time. Anderson’s writing career commenced after a mental breakdown, shortly after which he abandoned his family. Four days after he ‘disappeared’, he was found  thirty miles away in Cleveland, having walked that distance. He never went back home.

In order to make its way into writing, the past must be recollected, relived and recreated. It must sometimes be artificially rearranged and reordered before it can be placed in front of a reader, and if that weren’t enough cause for dismay, past and present, these two parallel and simultaneously unfolding tracks must be made to seem to come seamlessly together.

SA128The task set for himself here by Anderson, that of trying to grasp at the flickering pattern cast by scattered thoughts and  then to collect them for an arrangement to set on the page, is the perennial bane and delight of the writer. I don’t know if this is a task which may be better accomplished by a woman writer; certainly women like Virginia Woolf excelled at it, but Anderson shows us how a virtue may be made of stumbling. He conveys the slipperiness of the the whole process  so vividly that even to  someone who doesn’t think much about writing, the feeling of helplessness and unease comes wholly through. The hopeless feeling of being unable to ferry a thought from the having to the expressing of it is particularly acute when the ability to do it remains lost somewhere that is not amenable to recall.  It is like floating in dark water and trying to remember how to move one’s arms and legs. I think this is in part because the language of recall is not strictly speaking ‘language’ but a kind of code conveyed in images.

“Some Things Last” is writing thrice removed: it is writing that shows how a writer writes about writing. There is self-revelation in it, but only so much. Anderson is willing to reveal that he smokes somewhat to excess, but not that he drinks, though drink he did. His death in 1941 at the age of 64 – while  he and his fourth wife Eleanor Copenhaver were on a cruise to South America – was caused by peritonitis following the accidental ingestion of a toothpick from either a martini or an hors d’ oeuvre, though I rather think it was the former  than the latter.

Whether lubricated by alcohol or  driven by digressiveness or restlessness, Anderson’s mind, resorts to narratives of flowing images,SA216 even as he anxiously attempts to impose order and structure on his wayward thoughts in order to secure an outcome. He in turn surrenders and attempts to control in order to impose a shape or a structure or even an account of something written. Indeed one cannot be certain if this piece of writing was guided to its intended conclusion, or if it simply petered out at an impasse or a cul de sac with nowhere else to go and no way to turn back. “What is the point?” we wonder. Is it only to show that the writing of a book is a difficult enterprise, and that someone  who sets him- or herself to the task must contend with endless distractions, diversions and detours on the way to getting the job done? Or is it to reveal the unruly nature of the process, how the very thoughts that must make up the content turn out to be perturbations, which as they move away from their point of origin, take one further and further away from the goal? Writers  must learn to negotiate these obstacles, for they can never quite be overcome.

It would seem that a solution to the writer’s dilemma must be found in a skillful compromise. The kind of aimless undirected dreamy musings, the fragile repositories of vivid and detailed imagery, must be permitted to go on unimpeded SA132even as some agent of the thinking self stands by to take notes. And it seems that Anderson possessed a good note-taker, since it was he who wrote “She had on a dress of some clinging stuff and her slender figure made a very lovely line across the light” and  “she was like a young tree you might see on a hill  in a windstorm perhaps…..”    

One of the chief difficulties of writing is that what is written about, the sights, smells and sensations of it, come almost always from a different time and place from when the writing takes place. They are imported from another world, which has to be recalled and recreated in the mind at the moment of writing. The writer has to recall them from when, like a traveller, he or she  had to keep track of that place in the country, that path,  and the details  observed while on it, and the objects which were chosen to bring back from the journey.  Then, as now, there were problems to be solved – what could properly  be packed – what carried – and how these things would look when placed in the writer’s parlour or on the mantel. Would they bring back the sights and smells they seemed to be imbued  with  at the first encounter? Or would they become lifeless and incongruous when removed from their proper context, when forced to inhabit an unnatural place? Should the suggestion of the princess who lives in the castle at the end of the path along the green, wooded hill, be permitted to intrude? Yes, perhaps because it seems to echo the diffident insecurity this writer felt about his woman friend. And the blossoming trees, the evening light and the flowers in her dark hair must come along too. Then of course, blackSA151 hair and Italian nights, which are shadowy counterparts of each other, must gain admittance as well. If in the next moments one ‘goes to his window to look out at the night,’ one might see, instead of the spark-sprinkled darkness of a sleeping city, “the moon and stars, and half-decayed trees in an old land.’

The thoughts and images we carry away from our inward travels seem to undergo a change when made to enter the outside world. They are like poems which resist being translated into a different language. The greatest care must be taken so that they do not become mere representations of what they truly are in their own voice and  tongue. The difference between the inner and outer life is not always bridgeable, something most writers simultaneously accept and struggle mightily against.

The task of moving words from mind to paper, of trapping moments vivid with life and fixing them on the page, can seem daunting at times. The troublesomeness and difficulty of committing to memory the elusive phenomena of fleeting suggestions of thoughts and brief flares of barely glimpsed images as they pass through the mind SA244seem at times quite hopeless, and recollecting them seems like gathering leaves blown by the wind. Time too is not durable. It warps and bends in the attempt to draw it through the lens of memory.  Are these what Anderson refers to as ‘the adventures of that certain moment?’ Are they fit to be the chosen subject of a piece of writing?  Or should they be consigned to some vague designation of questionable value, to occupy the limbo between something which used to be either sustaining or memorable but is no longer, but is now discarded and stale as an old torn photograph or a half-eaten meal left neglected to grow cold on the kitchen table? Are these some things that last? Are they?

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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.

 

 

 

 

WAAF memorial

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Postscript

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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