On 17 June 1943 Noor-un-nisa Inayat Khan, Diana Rowden and Cecily Lefort left for France in a small plane. All three women were trained Special Operations Executive agents setting off on their separate missions for the British against the German occupiers. None of them returned.
Britain set up the Special Operations Executive (SOE) in 1940 to run sabotage missions in occupied Europe. By 1942, SOE had successfully made the case for employing women and began to recruit and train women who were fluent in French for the French section.
Wireless operations and courier missions
Noor Inayat Khan and her family were living in France in 1940 when Germany invaded. They fled back to England, where she had grown up. When Khan joined SOE in 1943 from the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force she already had wireless training so became the first woman trained as a radio operator. She was to join a group in Paris. Wireless was the most risky of the roles. Every minute an operator was on air, sending or waiting for signals, added to the chances they would be tracked down by detection vans.
Khan reached Paris and operated for four months, even as other agents and French resistance members were captured. She refused to leave despite knowing the German security forces were keen to find the last SOE radio operator in Paris. Ultimately, she was betrayed and arrested. Khan was interrogated at an SS building in Paris, almost escaping at least once before she was moved to Germany in late 1943. She was a ‘night and fog’ prisoner, condemned to disappear without a trace.
Diana Rowden had also been living in France when Germany invaded in 1940 and volunteered for the Red Cross’s ambulance service. She escaped over the Pyrenees in 1941 and made her way back to Britain. She joined SOE, and was trained as a courier. Her role was to carry messages between agents and resistance cells. She helped receive parachuted drops of weapons and supplies. The local resistance, the maquis, described her as without fear. After her network was infiltrated, Rowden went into hiding but was arrested in November 1943. She was held in Paris until May 1944 when she was moved to a prison in Germany.
Cecily Lefort was also in France when Germany invaded, living with her French husband in Brittany where they had a house and a private cove on the coast. Before they fled for England, they arranged for their house to be used by the maquis and it became part of an escape line. She returned to France in 1943 as a courier, working in south eastern France for several months. She was arrested in September 1943, held in Paris and then transferred to Germany.
Deaths and honours
Rowden was moved from a German prison to Natzweiler-Struthof concentration camp in France in July 1944 along with three other female SOE agents. Within hours they were each taken separately to the crematorium, stripped, injected with phenol and pushed into the oven. Khan was moved to Dachau concentration camp in September 1944 where she was shot in the back of the neck at dawn alongside three other women of the SOE. Lefort was sent to Ravensbrück concentration camp in early 1944 where she was given hard labour until she became too weak to work. She died in the camp’s gas chamber in February 1945.
All three women received the French Croix de Guerre for their work, and Khan also received the British George Cross. They are listed on the SOE memorial in Valencay, France. Khan is also commemorated with a bust in Gordon Square Gardens, London. All three are listed on the Tempsford memorial in Bedfordshire, England, close to the airfield they had left together in June 1943.