A Call to Spy Note of Correction By Tarana Jobin

Sarah Megan Thomas surely has done a service by bringing attention to the lives of three women who served in World War II. The movie A Call to Spy is mostly well done, though a crucial detail about Noor is, unfortunately, the opposite of the truth. It is quite possible that Thomas and the scriptwriters simply did not know that the version of events they present has been disproved. There are disclaimers in the credits saying that it is a work of historical fiction, but since it undoubtedly and admirably intends to be based on fact, let us set the record straight:

The movie puts the blame squarely on Noor’s shoulders for the fact that her set was played back to London by the Germans, with unfortunate consequences. This is incorrect, as explained by Shrabani Basu, author of the biography Spy Princess: The Life of Noor Inayat Khan, on pages 159-160:

“Kieffer had the help of a radio specialist, Josef Goetz, who played a dangerous radio game with London called Englandspiel. Once the Germans had captured the wireless sets they could easily use them to transmit back to London. All the sets came with their own special crystals which were tuned to a certain frequency to contact London for incoming and outgoing messages. Goetz studied the style of transmission of the operators and successfully imitated it, coming on the airwaves on the same frequency and giving London the impression that the agent was transmitting from the field. . . . Goetz now tried to work on Noor. He took Noor down to his office trying to get her to reveal her security checks and some of the technical side of her work. Once again he faced a wall of silence. True to her word, Noor said nothing.

Goetz, however, had Noor’s past codes from her diary and her radio set and crystals. He used this to transmit to London and started a radio game called Operation Diana. He even imitated her particular style of transmission. On 17 October, the Germans sent a message on Poste Madeleine: ‘My cachette unsafe. New address Belliard. Hundred and Fifty Seven rue Vercingetorix, Paris, Password de la part de monsieur du Rual. This perfectly safe. Good bye.’ [see first footnote below]

At the receiving station at Glendon, the signals operator noted that the true security check was present but the bluff check had been omitted. Though Noor had not returned on the full-moon mid-October Lysander, London was not alarmed. They replied that they had received the new cachette address. Leo Marks had always taken a special interest in Noor, and followed her messages closely. Up till the end of September he had noticed that her transmissions were flawless, with all the security checks intact, and was secretly very proud of her.  He had told the operators at Grendon that he had given Noor a special security check and they should watch her wireless traffic very closely and look out for it. But the girls at Station 53a had not noticed.

Noor, however, had remembered her extended briefing with Marks in London and what he had told her about her special security check. He had told her not to use a key phrase containing eighteen letters. If she ever did so, he would know she had been captured. In her first message through Goetz, Noor had sent a transposition-key eighteen letters long.  Later, Marks saw the message and noticed Noor’s cry for help. He immediately took it to Buckmaster and said he thought Noor was a prisoner, but Buckmaster did not believe him. He said he intended to continue the two-way traffic. [see second footnote below] This decision would lead to further fatalities for F-section agents.”

First footnote: Noor’s personal file, HS9/836/5, National Archives, Kew.

Second footnote:  Leo Marks, Between Silk and Cyanide, p. 399 and Foot, SOE in France, p. 301. Conversation between Marks and Foot.

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