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  • That Was Genius Team

Episode 57 - Stealing Toilet Roll for the Revolution (Spies Week)

Updated: Apr 17, 2020

Sam's Episode Notes: Noor Inayat Khan. The Indian Princess turned French resistance spy who gave her all despite nerves, pacifist beliefs... And a heap of workplace bullying.

Today, I'm talking about a rather extraordinary woman who's been on my radar for months, in fact I hinted at her in one of our episodes before Christmas. Her name is Nora Baker, and it's an awesome day to be able to talk about her because just yesterday it was announced she is getting a Blue Plaque at her former home in London. And that makes her the first Indian woman to get one.

For anyone who isn't familiar with British History, blue plaques are big iron plates that get fixed to buildings where important historical figures lived – authors, scientists, politicians etc.

So, you may have noticed Tom that Nora Baker isn't an especially Indian sounding name, and that's because in true spy style it's just a cunning pseudonym.

Her full name was Noor-un-Nissa Inayat Khan. And she wasn't just a spy, she was an actual, full blooded princess. Her father was Indian aristocracy and her mother was descended from the ruling family of the Kingdom of Mysore, which is towards the South of the country.

Her mother, despite her Indian heritage, was actually an American citizen, born Ora Ray Baker of Albuquerque New Mexico, and her Dad was working as a sufi mystic and touring musician. And she had a pretty hippy upbringing, as you might expect – the family moved and toured around the world from the USA to Russia, fleeing Moscow at the start of WW1 for London just after Noor was born, and then moving to France in 1920.

And she wasn't exactly a natural James Bond. Shy and softly spoken, she worked as a children's author and child psychologist, and became a virtuoso harp player. A skill which would help her escape the nazis in later life. Only joking, though I do like the idea of a harp with laser beams. Or an exploding childrens book that sprays chocolate pudding and upturned lego bricks everywhere, blinding your captors.

When the Germans invaded France in 1940, the Khan's fled to Cornwall, where despite their pacifist ideals, Noor and her younger brother Vilayat decided to do their bit in an effort to bridge the gap between Britain and India.

So she joined the Women's Auxiliary Airforce, where she was pretty quickly picked up as someone who spoke fluent French, English and Russian by the Special Operations Executive, known by the awesome nickname of the Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare, and began to be trained as a French resistance radio operator. Of course, you need a cover story if you're being trained to be dropped into France, and so she was seconded to the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry, which I only mention because their acronym is FANY.

It's lucky she hadn't picked up more of her American heritage from her mother's side, otherwise she'd have been dropped into France under cover of darkness in brightly coloured cargo shorts and started taking flash photographs and shouting about how old and quaint everything was here.

Anyway, she'd already been trained as a radio operator by the air force, so she was leagues ahead of her classmates at spy school, which got her selected as the first woman to be dropped into France as a radio operator. However, whilst she was very good at the radio part, as a spy... Not quite so successful. Her training finished with a mock Gestapo interrogation in which she was so terrified she literally lost her voice and was nearly sick, and her handling agent almost left the room to cry they felt so bad for her.

In fact, she did get a bit of a hard time of it at spy school, she was a bit of a victim of what we'd call workplace bullying today. Years after the war, her personell file was uncovered, and read: "Not overburdened with brains but has worked hard and shown keenness, apart from some dislike of the security side 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." Next to this comment, Maurice Buckmaster, the head of F Section or the France section of the SOE, wrote: “Nonsense"and that "We don't want them overburdened with brains."

But they did have some very serious issues with her performance. Firstly, she had what they described as a childlike sense of innocence and was incapable of lying. In fact she admitted that she'd, quote: “hate to have to do anything two faced”. As a spy. Secondly, she was constantly terrified. Thirdly, she was quite obviously Indian and therefore not the hardest person to pick out in a crowd, especially in Nazi occupied Europe.

Another of her instructors wrote in the margins of the report: "Tends to give far too much information. Came here without the foggiest idea what she was being trained for."

When it came to the physical aspect of her training, she didn't get much better reviews: "Can run very well but otherwise clumsy. Unsuitable for jumping" "Pretty scared of weapons but tries hard to get over it.”

She was, on the other hand, a very, very good radio operator – if a little heavy handed – she'd been given the pretty cruel nickname Bang Away Lulu, and so when a vacancy arose in Paris, as they frequently did, the life expectancy of a resistance radio operator being measured in days, she was fast-tracked through the rest of the training.

She herself found the job pretty tough as she realised that she was butting up against her own morals – she'd pledged nonviolence as a follower of Ghandi and now found that she was going to be put in a situation where men with guns would be chasing her down, and there was a pretty good chance that even if she didn't shoot back, her actions would get people on both sides killed. She was actually taken out for dinner by the head of intelligence for the French section and given the opportunity to back out gracefully, as her handlers were worried she was spiralling into depression about the whole thing.

But she carried on, and in June 1943 was landed by small plane into a field around 190 miles from Paris, met by the resistance, and began to find her way to Paris.

Unfortunately, as predicted, she didn't last long – she was quickly betrayed by either a resistance double agent, or possibly a resistance fighter who was offended that her love interest became immediately smitten with Khan. Which is a very French reaction.

Either way, within four months she was captured by the Gestapo in Paris and interrogated. Although she never gave away any secrets, she did apparently accidentally become friends with a rather charming off duty officer, giving away enough that they could reveal her true identity.

She had also mistakenly been writing down all her messages in a notebook – because she'd been rushed through training too quickly for anyone to tell her that wasn't a good idea – and so by cross comparing the transmissions to the notes, the Germans were able to start imitating her signals and heavy handed style. Less bang bang Lulu, more bang bang Ludwig. These fake broadcasts, in combination with several other double agents and intercepted transmissions, meant that several other radio operators were captured shortly after being dropped into France and executed.

Khan herself attempted to escape twice, breaking out of jail during an air raid and escaping across the roof, but was pretty quickly captured and after the second attempt was shipped off to Germany where she was brutally interrogated and kept in solitary confinement for several months, before being shot at Dacahu concentration camp in September 1944. So a pretty horrible end, but a pretty awesome woman who beat the odds, and her instructors, and became the first pacifist, Indian, woman radio operator in Paris.

She was given the George Cross and Croix de Guerre from France for her actions.

Tom's notes:

Espionage, or as the French say, Espionage.

I’ve got a slightly more light-hearted topic this week. Not quite as depressing as genocide and the abuse of corpses.

My topic is a document from 1944 called Simple Sabotage from the CIA! (POLICEMAN VOICE).

· Hi, I’m officer Porky Sausage from the CIA, which you may know stands for the Coconut Ignition Authority. We supervise and monitor the igniting of all coconuts, and other tropical drupes, in the United States of America. Our motto; dedication to desiccation through decimation.

· Okay, less silliness.

· Hi, I’m officer Hank Wankington from the CIA, which you may know stands for the Chilly Iguana Association. We supervise and monitor the warmth of all iguanas, and other herbivorous amphibians, in the United States of America. Our motto; all Shivered Lizards Considered in Blizzards.

· No, seriously, it stands for the Central Intelligence Agency.

o Hahahaha, no really, the organisation responsible for the Bay of Pigs cock up is called the Central Intelligence Agency.

So, the Simple Sabotage Field Manual has been declassified and can be viewed by anyone on the CIA website (they’re tracking you!).

And please note, “the contents of this Manual should be carefully considered and should not be allowed to come into unauthorised hands”.

· And you’ll soon see why, because by god this stuff is just genius. Stuff that only the incredibly intelligent people at the CIA could have come up with.

It’s 31 pages long and let me describe it to you.

This document, as you would expect from the title, is a guide to every-day sabotage. This document is concerned with individuals sympathetic to Western values in a country ruled by people we don’t like. You know, the dirty Cubans, governments in the Soviet Bloc, or the SMP. It’s about getting those sympathetic individuals to perform small acts of resistance, that when multiplied by thousands and thousands, become an effective form of resistance (death by a thousand paper cuts).

It will go on to discuss direct acts of sabotage using easy to come by things, and also how to behave in an uncooperative manner (think, 3 year old at bedtime).

So, how do you motivate a potential saboteur Tom? Well I’m glad you asked. Quote “purposeful stupidity is contrary to human nature”. I’d disagree with you there CIA, this podcast comes very naturally to me. Anyway, so it is recommended that you highlight to people that small acts can lead to big things when done regularly by large numbers of people. And these ‘big things’ can be a change in the leadership of your country and/or a change in the political structure of your country.

Slightly patronisingly “abstract verbalisations about personal liberty, freedom of press, and so on, will not be convincing in most parts of the world. In many areas they will not even be comprehensible”.

Here are some tips for keeping your activities low risk:

· Try to commit acts for which large numbers of people could be responsible. Using a Macdonald’s employee analogy, you could throw chips all over the floor of the restaurant, or not wash so that your BO stinks out the kitchen, or not wash your face so that the grease drips down on to the burger buns. You know, stuff that every Macdonald’s employee does.

· Here’s a great tip: “frequently you can get away with such acts under the cover of pretending stupidity” – Durrrrr, I didn’t realise that rifle barrels needed to be straight”

· “After you have committed an act of easy sabotage, resist any temptation to wait around and see what happens. Loiterers arouse suspicion”

o Shit in the muesli and run folks.

Here are some “specific suggestions for simple sabotage”, and it’s the sort of stuff that only the super intelligent people of the CIA could have come up with.

· Buildings: “they are extremely susceptible to damage, especially by fire”… “fires can be started wherever there is an accumulation of inflammable material”

o FRENCH Damn it! That is where we have been going wrong! We have been trying to blow the building down with our hair dryers!

· Here’s a cracker that we all need to try when we leave the workplace:

o Forget to provide paper in toilets; put tightly rolled paper, hair and other obstructions in the WC. Saturate a sponge with think starch or sugar solution. Squeeze it tightly into a ball, wrap it with string and dry. Remove the string when fully dried. The sponge will be in the form of a tight hard ball. Flush down the WC or otherwise introduce into a sewer line. The sponge will gradually expand it’s normal size and plug the sewage system”. Join us next week on Blue Peter when we’ll be making Tracey Island.

· There is a very long list of simple thing in this section

o Blunt your tools

o Bend saws

o Put small amounts of crap in cooling systems

o With anything that requires grease to work properly, put crap in the grease.

· Now despite being written in the 1940s, this document was well ahead of it’s time: “In all types of transformers, block the ventilation by putting debris around the transformer” Optimus Prime is notoriously OCD when it comes to tidiness.

· “Derail mine cars by putting obstructions on the rails and in switch points. If possible, pick a gallery where coal cars have to pass each other, so that traffic will be snarled up”

o Little known fact, one of the props men on the second Indiana Jones Film was a simple saboteur who had a read this document.

· Here’s another very good one for railways

o “Make train travel as inconvenient as possible for enemy personnel… issue two tickets for the same seat in the train, so that an interesting argument will result”

o I’ll leave you to make the joke here.

o Other tips involve being excessively noisey during the night “tickets please!” and putting luggage on the wrong train.

· Bus drivers can drive past stops where the enemy want to get off

· Turn on lights in parked cars

· Taxi drivers; take longer routes

· Barge captains; give wrong directions for slower routes

· “Hamper official and especially military business by making at least one telephone call a day to an enemy headquarters, when you get them, tell them you have the wrong number”

o My name is Mr Burns!

· Here’s a really rather odd one “Anyone can break up a showing of an enemy propaganda film by putting two or three dozen large moths in a paper bag. Take the bag to the movies with you, put it on the floor in an empty section of the theatre as you go in and leave it open. The moths will fly out and climb into the projector beam, so that the film will be obscured by fluttering shadows”.

o Similarly, I imagine you could put a large number of skunks in a small bag and take them to a Nazi rally, release them surreptitiously

o Or take a large rucksack of gerbils to a restaurant, put them in the buffet area, and watch as chaos ensues

· I’d like to finish with my favourite section of them all. It is called “General interference with organisations and production”. I’ve not even taken notes on this section; there’s so much gold I’m just going to go straight to the source. For anyone who has worked in a large business, you’ll be listening to this thinking “what’s new pussy cat?”

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