Jewish World Review August 27, 2001 / 8 Elul, 5761
Look not just at its glittering roster of past worshipers, which includes the Duke of Wellington. When the widow Lady Randolph Churchill remarried in 1900 (to a man 21 years her junior; there was talk), witnesses who signed the register included her 25-year-old son Winston.
Look mostly at two modest plaques on the church's outside north wall. One, "In memory of old boys of St. Paul's School who gave their lives for freedom, honor and right 1914-1918," contains 37 names. Three Hawkins boys. Three pairs of boys with the same names. Incalculable heartache.
The other plaque commemorates 52 women who lost their lives in the Second World War, for which the Great War -- in 1914-1918 it was unimaginable to call that the First World War -- was prologue. The women were members of the Women's Transport Service, aka FANY -- First Aid Nursing Yeomanry, which during the war was headquartered in the vicarage. Thirteen of the 52 died in German prison camps, including the woman listed on the plaque as "N. Inyat-Khan G.C."
The G.C. stands for George Cross. Awarded for gallantry, it is the civilian equivalent of the highest military honor, the Victoria Cross. Princess Noor Inyat-Khan earned it en route to death, in September 1944, by a bullet fired by an SS man into the back of her skull as she knelt on the sandy, blood-spattered soil of Dachau concentration camp.
The great-great-granddaughter of a Muslim ruler who died resisting Britain's conquest of India, she also was related, on her mother's side, to Mary Baker Eddy, founder of Christian Science. Her parents moved to London shortly before the outbreak of war in 1914, then to Paris. She received a degree from the Sorbonne and became an author of children's stories.
Fleeing to England when France fell in 1940, she received training as an operator of wireless radios, which brought her to the attention of the SOE (Special Operations Executive). Having been duly warned about the risk of capture, torture and execution, she and two other women stepped from a plane on a French meadow before dawn on June 17, 1943. By that evening she was in Paris. Within a week the Gestapo had arrested so many British agents that her radio was one of the few still operating -- intermittently, as she was dodging German direction-finding trucks.
Refusing repeated offers of evacuation to England, she lived for a while in an apartment house largely occupied by German officers. She was perhaps unsuited to such work. One of her tutors in the clandestine arts called her "a splendid, vague, dreamy creature, far too conspicuous -- twice seen, never forgotten." Various habits, such as putting the milk in her cup before the tea, revealed her English origins, and she was careless with her cipher book.
When an informer betrayed her to the Gestapo, Noor was living near the Gestapo's Avenue Foch headquarters. The Germans continued for months to impersonate her, using her set to send misleading messages to England.
The Gestapo did not treat her harshly until she made two escape attempts. Soon she was in a German prison, in solitary confinement, her hands and feet chained, and a chain connecting her hands and feet. After the war, the prison warden told a British interrogator that he thought "the tranquility did her good."
In "Bodyguard of Lies," his history of "the clandestine war of deception" between the Allies and the Axis, Anthony Cave Brown writes, "These men and women had volunteered for operations in the lonely, gray outer marches of the war. . . . It was in the very nature of their work that their lives must be considered forfeit the moment they left the shores of England." Noor's was just one life sacrificed in the last century so that we could live in this one, oblivious of such sacrifices.
The guns of August 1914 devoured the generation to which "the old boys of St. Paul's School" belonged. Twenty-five Augusts later Europe was in the final days of its slide into the war that swept Noor into its vortex. All is quiet this August. The wall of St. Paul's Church, in Knightsbridge, records a small portion of the pain that purchased this