History is everywhere in our popular culture. But the truth is harder to find.
On the Record is a podcast by The National Archives that takes a closer look at the stories you think you know. At The National Archives, we are the guardians of more than 11 million historical government and public records spanning a thousand years of British history. These original documents hold incredible stories…if you know where to look.
Join us for our first three-part series: a closer look at famous spies in British history. With the help of historians and record experts at The National Archives, we are going to use personnel files, secret government reports, and declassified correspondence to uncover the true stories of famous spies from King Alfred the Great to the Cambridge Five.
Episode 1: Archetype of a Spy
Right now, as you read this description, a spy is gathering intelligence, reading classified information, and hiding in plain sight. But what do spies actually look like? What do they do? What motivates them to enter such a secretive profession? In this episode, we use the documents in our collection and expert insight to go beyond the popular image of spies, explore the history of intelligence in Britain, and tell the Second World War story of a courageous Muslim woman who defied all expectations in order to carry out a dangerous spy mission in Nazi-occupied territory.
Episode 1: Archetype of a Spy
Matt Norman (Scripted): Right now, as you listen to this podcast, a spy is gathering intelligence, reading classified information, and hiding in plain sight.
James Bond, George Smiley, Eve and Villanelle, Lawrence of Arabia, Ethan Hunt, Mata Hari, and the Cambridge Five….
Spies, their targets, and the shadowy organizations behind them are everywhere in our popular culture. They’ve infiltrated our films, television shows, and novels and given us an appetite for sensationalized retellings of true espionage tales.
Why does espionage have such a powerful hold on our collective imagination? And what do we really know about the men and women who have covertly gathered intelligence for our government and our enemies over the last century? Would you recognize a spy in your midst?
You’re listening to On the Record, a podcast by The National Archives that takes a closer look at the stories you think you know. I’m Matt Norman. Here at The National Archives, we are the guardians of more than 11 million historical government and public records spanning a thousand years of British history. These original documents have some incredible stories to tell about spies in our midst…if you know where to look.
In this three-part series, you and I, with the help of historians and record experts at The National Archives, are going to use personnel files, secret government reports, and declassified correspondence to uncover the true stories of famous spies from King Alfred the Great to the Cambridge Five.
This is episode 1: Archetype of a Spy.
What do spies look like? What do they actually do? What qualities do you need to be a good spy? Are the spies we know about representative of the real field of intelligence?
Before visiting our archives to see what the documents reveal about famous spies we think we know, I wanted a basic profile to help me understand the role of the spy. I thought I’d begin with the most iconic spy of all time….Bond. James Bond.
To find out whether Ian Fleming’s famous Agent 007 character is representative of real intelligence agents and try to understand why Bond is such a powerful franchise, I talked to an espionage expert embedded right here in The National Archives.
Mark Dunton: I’m Mark Dunton. I’m the principal contemporary specialist here at The National Archives.
That franchise, it’s been incredibly popular, both the novels and the films. The essential appeal of Bond is because for many people, he’s sort playing out their fantasies, you know, he has got maximum autonomy. Even though he is working as a secret agent for the security service, he seems to act with his license to kill and his license to be attractive to women I guess. He seems to stride the world causing havoc. And I think in many ways, you know, people are fascinated by that, his degree of autonomy.
Matt Norman: Thinking about the James Bond character, and I think as well the Jason Bourne character in those Bourne Identity films. And Tom Cruise’s character in the Mission Impossible. I’m thinking of these very macho, suave characters. How would you summarise popular culture’s perception of what makes the perfect secret agent?
Mark Dunton: I think the perfect secret agent is somebody that doesn’t give things away, you know, that remains impenetrable. You’ve got to be really sharp, really intelligent, have a certain amount of brute strength. But you’ve also got to keep your sense of values as well. I think this is something about Bond again; Bond essentially is a bit like a crusader. However brutally he acts at times, you kind of trust him as the viewer because you know he’s guided by some sense of right versus wrong. And another thought that’s occurred to me, I think in terms of qualities needed to be a good spy, I think you probably need to be quite detached as well. You probably need to be able to compartmentalise your feelings, and not take your work home with you too much. You need to have a sense of detachment because if your actions could affect the fates of others, you need to just have a very careful grip on the whole way you operate, I would think.
Matt Norman: And it seems to me in those popular depictions, one of the contrasts I would guess with the reality is that you have these very suave, very cool men who seemed to be able to hold a room and roam the world, leaving destruction in their wake being extremely conspicuous. The reality, I would imagine, is quite the opposite. The best kind of intelligence agents need to blend, need to be inconspicuous, and no one would suspect them.
Mark Dunton: Bond, in reality, probably he wouldn’t make a good agent really, because you know, because of the reasons that you’ve outlined, actually. I think that’s really true.
Matt Norman (Scripted): It turns out, James Bond tells us more about our national obsession with spies than actual espionage itself.
Perhaps, I realized, it makes sense to start our inquiry, not with profiles of individual intelligence agents, but with the history of espionage itself. And for that, I needed to enlist Dr. Stephen Twigge, another expert on intelligence, working here at our facilities in Kew, London. Stephen met me in the basement of The National Archives, in our reading room, which is where our staff can examine our precious historical records and documents.
Later in this episode, I’ll tell you about a lesser-known spy who managed to embody many traits of the classic spy archetype while at the same time being quite the opposite in every way of figures like James Bond. Knowing it would likely cost her life, she volunteered for one of the most dangerous spy operations in the Second World War because she believed the evils of the Nazi regime had to be stopped.
But first, here’s my conversation with Dr. Stephen Twigge in the bowels of the Archives:
Dr. Stephen Twigge: Good afternoon. I’m Stephen Twigge, a record specialist here at The National Archives.
Matt Norman: My conception of a spy is someone that goes undercover to find out intelligence on behalf of, shall we say, a rival government. Would you say that’s an accurate description or what is a spy?
Dr. Stephen Twigge: There’s many definitions. One of the most, obviously is an agent that poses as an individual that’s not himself or herself, who then somehow manages to get themselves into an organization or in a position of power and influence by which they can then get information and give it back to their original paymasters. That was and still is a perception of what spying is. But over the years it’s become a lot more technical. We have overflight spy satellites, hacking, code breakers. All of this is technical and doesn’t necessarily need people going behind enemy lines and essentially putting their lives at risk. So you’ve got a broad spectrum of different types of spying.
I think the earliest reference is in the Bible, we have Joshua telling his men to go out and spy upon the land. One of the first references in British history comes from the Anglo Saxon Chronicles. And this relates to an event in 865 when a large army of Vikings, which was commanded by the Danish chieftain Guthrum landed in East Anglia, and they eventually captured the city of York, and the only resistance to them came from Alfred, who was King of Wessex. And as part of his battle plan, Alfred disguised himself as a minstrel and successfully gained entry into Gurthrum’s camp. Once inside, he then went to the main tent where he then sat outside, played his lute, and listened to the various secret discussions that were going on inside the tent. He was able to overhear the Viking high command as they plotted a military campaign. This proved decisive at the battle of Edington in 878 where Alfred was able to use the information he’d gained during his foray into the enemy camp disguised as a minstrel, and what we would now call a military intelligence, and use that to his advantage. So there’s a long lineage of the history of intelligence stretching back, certainly in the British case, over a thousand years.
Matt Norman: Although obviously the historical context was completely different to today, it sounds to a large extent, like the central principles of spying and intelligence work haven’t really changed. You’re essentially putting someone in enemy territory and getting them to find out stuff that you otherwise wouldn’t be able to find out.
Dr. Stephen Twigge: Certainly human intelligence remains pretty much the same. Human intelligence being the ability of individuals to penetrate foreign states and somehow, by using their own initiative, bring back information. It tended to appeal, I suppose, in the early days to the more swashbuckling types. We’ve got a wonderful report here in The National Archives about an individual who was working with the Duke of Wellington during the Napoleonic campaigns called Colquhoun Grant. Now he was one of the individuals who was then, in a sense, moved behind enemy lines. He was tasked to find out information on Napoleon and his movements, so he dressed as a French soldier, went behind enemy lines, was then captured by the French. He was then interrogated and then moved to a jail in southern France where Grant, he then managed to escape. He then traveled to Paris, and once there, he made contact with agents within Paris, found out certainly more information about Napoleon’s movements when in Paris. He then was nearly caught again and managed to escape dressed as an American soldier, an American sailor in this instance, and managed to get back to Britain. And you know, this is the perception that we sometimes have of spies working behind enemy lines: disguise, special codes. And I suppose in this instance, because he later was promoted and became in charge of the army’s intelligence department, so in many ways, he exemplifies that early perception of a spy being a sort of a swashbuckler, working behind enemy lines in disguises, getting caught escaping from prison, or this sort of James Bond type approach that we would expect from a modern day spy.
Matt Norman: That was prior to the British setting up specific intelligence services, is that right?
Dr. Stephen Twigge: That’s largely right. The Navy had its own intelligence division, and the Army had its own intelligence division, but it wasn’t until the early part of the 19th century that the idea of having a proper intelligence service first emerged, and that was the Secret Service Bureau which had a foreign arm which later became MI6 and it had a home arm that later became MI5, so it’s only at the beginning of the 20th century that we get the professional intelligence organizations. That was followed by the creation of the Government Code and Cipher School, which was the forerunner of GCHQ. So we get the various elements of what the modern day intelligence network and the intelligent structures that everyone knows…only really came into fruition and the early part of the 20th century, and it was only in the 1930s that we get the Joint Intelligence Committee, which was a coordinating body to make sure that all these various elements were working to a similar aim and not cutting across each other or somehow, as often happened in the past actually, arresting each of other’s agents, which wasn’t really clever. So the idea of having a coordinating committee to do this seemed to make great sense. And so it really only in the thirties and forties, during the Second World War, where all of this really comes together.
Matt Norman: And so now you’ve got this professional intelligence service and so you’ve got a network of employed intelligence agents and spies. Would you say there is a particular type that is recruited to do this kind of work? Do the intelligence services look for personality types? How does it work?
Dr. Stephen Twigge: It depends on which are the agencies are doing the recruiting in the first place. If you’re working with GCHQ, for example you’d need to be a good linguist or a mathematician or somebody who can work with different codes and ciphers and computers. If you’re working for MI5 and the domestic intelligence service, one of the primary requirements is to blend into your background, so you wouldn’t necessarily want someone who is outgoing. You’re actually looking for someone who is possibly reserved and could go about their business unnoticed. And with the foreign intelligence service, you’d be someone who could recruit agents. So you need someone with a personality who can befriend people and put them at ease and be able to, in a sense, go from different environments without causing too much of an issue and blend in again. So you want someone who is not necessarily outgoing. We get away from these sort of swashbuckling types. They tend to be probably in the military and the special forces, I suppose these days, and for a professional intelligence officer, you’d want someone who was able to control their emotions but be able to cultivate sources and go about business largely unnoticed.
Matt Norman (Scripted): Now that we’ve set the stage for espionage in the first half of the 1900s, I owe you a spy story, a story about a courageous woman who many thought was terribly suited for her work, but who nevertheless persisted and performed brilliantly under the constant threat of danger while working in enemy territory….a woman who didn’t break or reveal even one shred of information after her capture and interrogation by the Gestapo, the infamous secret police of the Nazi regime.
Noor Inayat Khan was born on New Year’s Day 1914 in Moscow, Russia to an Indian father and an American mother. Her mother was a writer, and her father was a well known teacher of Sufism, the ancient practice of Islamic mysticism. They met at one of his lectures in the US. After Noor was born, her family moved to London for four years and then onto Paris, where she would grow up speaking French, a skill that would make her an ideal spy in Nazi-occupied France during the Second World War.
Noor and her four younger siblings grew up surrounded by creativity and the spirituality of Sufism. While her brother Vilayat rose through the ranks of the Sufi Order International, eventually becoming its head, Noor studied child psychology at the Sorbonne and composed music for the harp and piano at the Paris Conservatory. In the years leading up to the Second World War, she began writing children’s stories for magazines and even published a children’s book inspired by the Buddhist holy texts. She is described as having a fervent imagination and being quite sensitive and emotional.
Going off of the popular image of a spy, Noor Khan does not seem like an obvious candidate for a film-worthy mission into the heart of enemy territory. In order to get a more nuanced picture of her service and find out how such an ostensibly meek and mild person was able to show incredible bravery in the face of danger and certain death, Rosie Morris, Education Web Officer here at The National Archives, interviewed one of our in-house experts, Hannah Carter. One of Hannah’s jobs here at The National Archives is teaching students how to research history by using original documents. We asked her to show us Noor Khan’s personnel file, which was released to The National Archives in 2003, and help us understand what it tells us about the real Noor Khan, a pacifist children’s author and musician turned spy.
Hannah Carter: Hello, my name’s Hannah Carter. I’m an Education Officer here at The National Archives.
She so significant…I think she’s come to be known as a really important figure in British history because of the fact she was Muslim, she was a woman, and she actually became the first wireless operator that was a women to be sent to Paris, and it was an incredibly dangerous role. She is known for her bravery, but also there’s a lot of differing opinions, especially from her training years about how effective she was as an agent. So it’s really interesting to explore this story through the documents.
So she begins by working in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force. As war breaks out, the family moved from Paris to London, and she joins the Special Operations Executive in 1942. She has an interview which goes well, and she knows partly what she’s getting herself into. The recruitment was done in secret. So none of her friends or family knew what she was doing. And the criteria were quite interesting for Noor, because you had to be fluent in French, which she was, obviously. And you couldn’t have the slightest trace of a British accent. So she fit that role really effectively.
She is very ideologically driven, despite probably having quite pacifist ideas. She seems to be driven by real sense of what was right and a lot of the reports talk about her, her being very emotional and, at a number of stages in her story, it seems that she is very determined to do what is right, and she feels that working in this way for the British against the kind of Nazi ideal is the right thing to do. So she remains in the field even after she’s given advice from London to say that she really should come back because it’s so dangerous.
Matt Norman (Scripted): Noor had signed up to be a Wireless Operator. Now, that may not sound like such an important role from our perspective today, but at the time it was critical to the outcome of the war. Wireless operators were *the* method of communication between British intelligence and their agents behind enemy lines. Paris was occupied by Nazi German forces from 1940 until 1944, and without the wireless operators keeping a line open, it would have been nearly impossible to coordinate a resistance strategy. Once lines were open, operators were at great risk of being discovered by the enemy, so they had to constantly move their bulky radio equipment from one safe location to another to avoid detection. The average lifespan for a wireless operator in France in 1943, the year Noor Khan was deployed, was about 6 weeks. It was that dangerous. Noor was the first woman to be sent into occupied France as an operator. She transmitted vital messages for nearly four months before she was betrayed by a double agent.
Hannah Carter: So in front of us, we’ve got her file, which is very exciting. And I’ll just describe it a little bit for people. So it’s a really large cardboard box, and inside, as I open it up, it’s got a secret stamp in red on the front of it and “Archives” in bold black lettering at the top. And one of the first reports from her training–it’s called a preliminary report–it says that in her physical training–they were made to run before breakfast, it was a very physical process–it says she can run very well but otherwise clumsy and unsuitable for jumping, and that’s referring to parachute jumping, so jumping from a plane. And she’s described as being clumsy, which is actually a word that comes up quite repeatedly in her training reports. And then later on in her training, so this is from the second of April 1943, we have a really interesting document which has different speeds for Morse code. So her Morse speed she was sending at 16 words per minute and receiving at 19 words per minute. And this was actually the fastest of any training operator at that time.
One of the most interesting things that we get from the documents here at The National Archives are the different accounts of Noor Khan from her training reports. So she’s described as being emotional and imaginative, but she’s also suggested that she doesn’t have the kind of strength to cope with the missions that she’s going to undertake later on. And it said in one of the reports on her that this is going to test her in the latter stages of her training and a historian, Shrabani Basu, has suggested that this kind of shows how interested the SOE were in the background and the psychological makeup of their trainees. Also, there are very different opinions because Maurice Buckmaster, who was the head of her division, he was very impressed by her. So we get some quite gendered language. So in her finishing report, for instance, she is described as being “not overburdened with brains.” So this is on the 21st of May, 1943. And she was the first female wireless operator to be sent to France. So you can, I suppose we can wonder whether this was quite gendered language, but scrawled over this document, this account that says she’s not overburdened with brains. Maurice Buckmaster, he’s said “nonsense” next to it and “makes me cross” at the bottom. So it’s a good example of our documents showing those conflicting reports about her.
So she had a very short training mission, which was in Bristol. It was her final mission to see whether she could be sent out into the field. And she impressed, apart from during the interrogation, where she gave away crucial information, but it was still decided because they were very short staffed to send her away on this mission, and she was very highly qualified. So her mission was to be sent to Paris and her cover name was Jean Marie Renee, she was a children’s nurse, but her agent code name that we can see from the documents was Madeleine. And this was actually a character from one of her children’s stories. So she requested Paris because she knew it really well because she’d lived there, but that also made it dangerous because people might have been able to recognize her from her past. And also Paris was dangerous because you could be out and about, you will be on the metro and the Gestapo had many, many offices there.
I think she knew Paris so well and she was able to navigate it really effectively, and actually within just a few weeks of her being in Paris, she had a huge challenge because the main circuit, Prosper, was actually discovered by the Gestapo and she had to break the news to Buckmaster that it had been broken up. She was left as the only wireless transmitter in Paris at that stage and she continued sending and receiving transmissions after that. She actually sent, between July and October 1943, she sent 20 messages from different locations at great risk. So she was without a doubt, an incredibly brave and adept wireless operator and coder.
So eventually it became really clear that it was getting increasingly dangerous. She had quite a few close scrapes with the Gestapo and therefore it was decided that she would return home on the 14th of October, 1943. However, the day before she was supposed to return home, the Gestapo arrested her and we know about this stage because we have reports from the head of the Gestapo in Paris after the war had finished, which talk about her attempting to escape the place she was being held two times. It was after that second attempt to escape that she was transported to Pforzheim prison in Germany. However, we don’t know that from our records. That’s actually because of work done after the war through the Pforzheim Prison records that we know that, because actually in her personnel file, we get a different story of what happened to her after the war. They weren’t sure what had happened to her, and they had had assumed this story.
We’ve managed to piece together the story because we have a voluntary statement that was made by the head of the Paris Gestapo, Hans Kiefer. He talks about Madeleine, as he calls her, that’s her code name, and “her great courage” he refers to and the fact that they didn’t manage to get any information out of her when she was being held in captivity in Paris. After that we know less, but we do have a report from a prisoner that managed to speak to her while they were in prison together. And so that’s how we know that she was housed at Pforzheim prison.
So prison records show that she was discharged at 6:14 PM on 11th of September, 1944, and this was due to direct instruction from Berlin. She was transported to Dachau concentration camp, and according to reports that were received after the war, she unfortunately suffered quite a great deal before she died, and she was actually shot in her cell on the morning after she arrived.
Matt Norman (Scripted): Noor Khan was only 30 when she died, alone, in a Nazi concentration camp, giving her life to fight fascism. In addition to being the first female wireless operator sent to occupied France, she is one of the most famous British Muslims to have joined the war effort.
In the end, Noor Khan’s personality and education, which at first glance make her seem like a poor candidate to be a spy, are actually the exact attributes that enabled her to be so effective and to continue completing missions when no one else could. Her French and time studying in the heart of Paris gave her an insider knowledge of enemy territory. As a harpist, her fingers were dexterous and gave her a natural advantage in typing out Morse messages. As a woman of great ideals and passion, her belief in the importance of her mission gave her the strength to make two unsuccessful escape attempts and, when all hope of escape was gone, to remain silent during what was likely a brutal interrogation, even when her life was on the line.
In the Bond franchise, James is conveniently an orphan, but more often than not, agents who are killed or go missing in the line of duty leave behind devastated loved ones.
Hannah Carter: Her family don’t get the news about what’s really happened to her for several years after the war. The real story only comes out in 1947, so it must have been incredibly traumatic for her family. Her family thought that she was going overseas but to do another role in the war, so it must have had a very big impact on her family.
We have some really moving documents that are letters to her family. So we have one from the 22nd of December, 1945 that talks about her magnificent work, and they try and reassure her family by saying that they know that she wasn’t ill-treated. But by this stage they’ve practically abandoned hope that she will be found safe. There’s some hope that she’ll be found after liberation, but this starts to fade away.
Matt Norman (Scripted): The spies of popular culture often seem to operate as lone wolves who only care about their assignment and are willing to do anything to get the information we need. Like Mark Dunton hypothesized at the beginning of this episode, our favorite spies from film and fiction live lives we can fantasize about. We can imagine the rush of disguise and surprise, the glamor of the high life, and freedom from the predictability of everyday routine. But as the life of Noor Khan and the records in our archive show us, the reality of espionage is, if not less exciting, perhaps more sombre and serious than we might imagine.
A bust of Noor Khan, the first monument in the UK to an Asian woman, was installed in London’s Gordon Square Gardens in 2012. A speech written for the occasion by her brother Hidayat, then 95 years old, was read at the dedication ceremony by his grandson, Noor’s great nephew.
Clip from Noor Khan statue dedication ceremony, Noor’s great nephew reading a letter from her brother Hidayat: May the inhumane suffering of all those who, like my dear sister, have perished under the brutal cruelty of the oppressor not be in vain. Let us keep at heart the great ideal of harmony, which is so much needed in this troubled world today, where the concept of human rights has not yet been understood by all as being the only truest guarantee for an everlasting peace among nations. May the loving sympathy of all those present reach onwards as an example of appreciation for the sacrifices offered by all the heroic souls whose memory should never be forgotten.
Matt Norman (Scripted): Frozen in time, Noor’s face is serious, her eyes staring straight ahead, focused on her mission. An inscription reads: Her last word…was Liberté.
In the next episode of On the Record, we’re going to travel to the Middle East, where the work of two intelligence officers during and after the First World War led to new nations, failed dreams of independence, and powerful kings.
Thanks for listening to On the Record, a production of The National Archives at Kew.
If you like this podcast, please subscribe and leave a review. To find out more about the show and The National Archives, follow the link from the episode description in your podcast listening app or visit www.nationalarchives.gov.uk
Thank you to all the experts who contributed to the episode and to Hannah Hethmon of H. Hethmon Consulting for executive producing the show.