India in WWII

Compiled by S. Davis & J. Adams – Contributions to WWI & II

Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka are countries that are referred to, as the Indian Sub-Continent; during the course of both World Wars 5,000,000 troops from India and surrounding countries served and defended the British Empire.

Thousands of Indian men served in the British merchant navy, putting their lives at risk carrying vital cargo and supplies across the sea to where they were needed. 

Over 1300 women from India and Ceylon (Sri- Lanka) joined the Women’s Auxiliary Force. To support the navy, in 1944 the Woman’s Royal Naval Indian Service was formed.

The Royal Indian Navy (R.I.N) played a key role in patrols in the Mediterranean Sea and Atlantic Ocean.

Three and a half years into the war, it was noted that, the people of India had given over £6.5 million towards the war effort.

The fight to regain Burma from the Japanese was vital for the Allied. 200,000 Indian troops were engaged in this campaign. Indian troops also fought in East Africa (against the Italians in Somaliland, Eritrea and Abyssinia), in West Africa, South East Asia and southern Europe.

Before October 1939 only British subjects of European descent could join the RAF. After this date, all Commonwealth citizens became eligible. 25,000 recruits served in the Royal Indian Air Force.

The civilian population faced the same hardships as people in Britain. They too faced air raids, extreme shortages of food and general supplies. As the war progressed, poor administration plus crop failure led to a state of severe famine in which millions died.  

World War II

Royal Indian Army Service Corps – England, July 1942

Indian Servicemen outside Brighton Pavilion

More Medals for India

The Victoria and George Cross are medals that are given to individuals for acts of bravery.

At the roll call of honours in 1995 (fifty years after the Second World War) the astonishing fact came to light, as recipients of these medals Indian servicemen out numbered the British.

Politics and War

War can unite a nation; it can also divide a nation.

After the fall of France to Germany, the Vichy* Government was installed. This was a body of French officials who openly supported the Nazis.

Those who were opposed to this government became known as the France Libre et les Forces françaises libres – The Free France movement or Free France.

In India there was a similar divide. In general, most Indian leaders expressed their concerns at the rise of Fascism and Nazism and supported the English cause. However, there was another group, The Indian National Congress (INC), who were opposed to British rule and thought that they could appease Adolph Hitler. The argument put forwards by the INC in its vehement stance against Britain was; there was a blatant contradiction, in the British argument of going to war with Nazi Germany over freedom, when they (the people of India) were not free.

* Vichy – A health resort in central France, famous for its mineral springs. During WWII, the area was the seat of the French government who joined forces with the Germans. 

Noor Inayat Khan – The Forgotten Heroine of WW2

By S. Davis/J. Adams

Noorunisa Inayat Khan is sometimes described as the Indian princess who became a British secret agent. 

Noor was of mixed heritage. Her father was from India of noble birth, her mother, an American. For a time the young family lived in Russia at the Kremlin at the extended invitation of the Tsar. This is where Noor was born on New Years day 1914.

The political scene around the time of Noor’s birth was very unsettled.   All over Europe diplomatic talks were taking place. There was much talk and indications that war might break out, because of this Noor’s father moved his family to England.

On reaching England the family fell upon hard times. Against the background and hardships of WW1, Noor’s family faced poverty and prejudice. With the birth of a second child, a son, Noor’s father, who was also called Inayat, came to the decision that they should move to France.

Noor loved music and she could play the harp.  After leaving school, she took a degree in child psychology. An accomplished writer Noor wrote articles and stories for newspapers and magazines. Some of her work was broadcast on the French radio. As well as this she could speak several different languages.

In 1939, the world was again at war. It was clear that the Nazis would capture France and make it occupied territory.  In 1940 Noor Inayat Khan was 26 years old, the family had returned to England with the intention of assisting the war effort. Noor’s brother joined the navy, Noor and her younger sister both trained as Red Cross Nurses. However, Noor was not happy doing this, so she applied to join the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force. (WAAF) Noor’s first application to the WAAF was turned down but her second application was accepted.

As Aircraftwoman 2nd class Noor was trained as a wireless (radio) operator. She was amongst the first group of women to be trained in this area of work. In 1941 she was selected for further specialised technical training in signals transmission. 

In order that our intelligence service should be constantly informed about the various movements and secret operations of the enemy, Winston Churchill, the Prime Minister realised that there was a need to have more special agents working behind the enemy’s line. As well as this recruits with additional skills were also needed to work alongside organised resistant groups. As an additional section to the secret service, the Special Operational Executive (SOE) was established by the Prime Minister for this purpose.

Wireless (radio) operators were vital to this area of work. Noor’s training in radio and signal work made her an ideal candidate.  However, the job as a radio operator in the enemy field was a very dangerous assignment.  Radio operators risked their lives every time they went on air, as transmitted signals could easily be picked up and traced back to the source.  The length of time most operators lasted in the field before detection, on average, was six weeks.

Noor like all the other SOE recruits received additional security training.  Noor did not do very well in this area. Her instructors thought she was unsuitable for the job and stated this in their reports. The words that were used to describe her were, “Not overburdened with brains, clumsy and easily flustered.” As a pacifist Noor did not like handling weapons, and later she would leave behind the small handgun that was issued as a part of her survival kit.  

There was an acute shortage of experienced radio operatives.  Given her poor performance we are left to wonder, had this not been so, would Noor have been chosen?

It was the summer of 1943, three years after leaving France; Noor was back again with the given code name, Madeline. As an agent in the field, Noor was assigned to ‘F’ section of Prosper SOE network. Along with three other special agents, she arrived in the early hours of the morning on Thursday 17th June.

Unbeknown to the British, there was a double agent working for them and feeding confidential information to the Gestapo. Henri De’ricout was the man who met the special agents as they arrived on French soil. He was also responsible for handling the mail. Henri was the double agent.

Within days of Noor’s arrival in Paris many of our SOE agents had been caught. Realising that she was one of the last still in operation, to avoid detection, Noor had to keep on the move. Noor was small and petite in frame, the radio transmitter a ‘B Mark 2’ that she carried disguised as a suitcase weighed around 33lbs.

Throughout the summer months until early October, Noor moved around Paris and the surrounding area transmitting her signals whenever she could. This was twice as long as was the expected, ‘field life’ for a radio operative. She was on borrowed time.


Nobody knows for sure the full details of the ending of Noor’s Life. What is known came to light and was pieced together after the war had ended.

Knowing that Henri De’ricout was a double agent, it would be reasonable to think that he had some part in Noor’s capture. But this is not so.  A woman betrayed her. Jealousy appears to be the motive.

Early in October 1943, here in Britain at the SOE headquarters a message saying “Madeline was in hospital” was received. This was a special code that meant that either Noor had been captured or that she was in danger. The message had come from a locally recruited French agent who was not known personally to any of the officers at the SOE HQ, and so the message was ignored.

When captured, Noor put up such a fight that the arresting Officer threatened to shoot her. Held as a prisoner at the Gestapo Headquarters in Paris, twice she tried to escape, but was caught. On one occasion, Noor escaped from a bathroom window on the fifth floor and got up onto the roof. When interrogated, Noor   did not tell her captors any important secrets or other information other than the name Noor Baker. Considering that during the course of her training her superiors had thought she was poor SOE material, now Noor displayed extreme valour.

At British HQ, Noor was not missed. Each SOE operator had their own special security code. This was called a bluff code and should have been included on all transmissions. Two weeks after the initial information was received saying Madeline was in hospital, other messages were again being transmitted by ‘her’. The fact that the bluff code was omitted and it was not Noor but the Germans, who were using Noor’s transmitter to send fake messages, raised no concern.

Because of her attempts of escape, and the fact that she had not broken down during integration, Noor was classified as “a very dangerous prisoner”. In November 1943 she was moved from Paris to a prison deep within the boarders of Germany. Here the woman who called herself Noor Baker was kept in solitary confinement and bound in chains, she was secured in such a way, that she was unable to feed or wash herself. There is some indication that she was brutally tortured.

In September 1944, almost ten months after she was first arrested, Noor Baker was taken to another prison. From there, along with three other women, these too were ‘F’ Section agents; the small group of prisoners were sent on to the Dacheu Concentration Camp.  The day after they arrived, they were shot.

Hans Kieffer was the head of the Gestapo. At the Paris HQ he had tried to get Noor to confess to being a spy. After the war Kieffer made a sworn statement, confirming that “Madeline, after her capture showed great courage and we got no information whatsoever from her. I am sure that she also lied to us. We could never rely on anything she said.”

In 1949 Noor was posthumously awarded the George Cross (Britain’s highest award given for acts of gallantry),  It was one of only three that were awarded to women in World War II, for their bravery and courage.

(Note, relating to Noor’s brother military service – some sources give this as being the RAF and others, the Navy.)


BBC Timewatch

‘The Princess who would be Spy‘ World War II SOE Agent – Princess Noor Inayat Khan 1 January 1914 – 13 September 1944 by Andy Forbes

Noor Inyat Khan on the BBC  

Image at the top: India Quetta Platoon – These women were the first to enlist in the British Indian Army. Around 11,500 women worked as typists, drivers, switchboard operators, cipher works and general services, such as ferrying supplies for the troops. They would travel with the soldiers working behind the front lines. They were devoted, fearless yet unsung. Source Apne Desh Ko Jano