Spies of WWII commemorated with blue plaques

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Two spies who worked for Britain during the Second World War have been honoured with blue plaques outside their London homes.

Noor Inayat Khan and Christine Granville both came to Britain immediately before the war broke out and served in their adopted home country’s Special Operations Executive (SOE).

Noor Inayat Khan
Noor Inayat Khan

The unveilings, which took place earlier this year, are the result of an effort to increase diversity within the memorial scheme, which is run by English Heritage. Of around 950 such plaques throughout the United Kingdom, only 14% commemorate women, and fewer still those of an ethnic minority background.

Khan was born in Russia in 1914 to an Indian father and American mother but spent most of her life in France. When the country fell to the Nazis in 1940, she and her family fled to Britain. Eager to assist the war effort, Khan was sent by the SOE to Paris, where she worked as a radio operator.

Christine Granville, whose birthname was Krystyna Skarbek, was raised in Poland before escaping to Britain in 1939. Adopting one of her numerous aliases, Granville’s secret work with the SOE involved smuggling a microfilm across Europe that contained evidence of Hitler’s plan to invade the Soviet Union.

The agency’s first and longest-serving female agent, Granville’s many activities led Churchill to call her his ‘favourite spy’. However, both women suffered tragic fates. Khan was betrayed and captured by the Gestapo, and was executed in Dachau on 13 September 1944, aged 30. France posthumously awarded her the Croix de Guerre.

Christine Granville
Christine Granville

Granville, although she survived the war, lived in semi-poverty in London’s Shelbourne Hotel in Kensington, which was run by the Polish Relief Society. This recipient of both a George Medal and an OBE was murdered by a stalker in 1952.

Granville’s blue plaque adorns the former hotel, now 1 Lexham Gardens Hotel, while Khan’s is displayed outside her family home in Bloomsbury.

With the memorials, Khan and Granville join Violette Szabo, who died working for the French Resistance and was awarded a plaque outside her one-time London home in 1981. Meanwhile, Khan’s life has recently been depicted in a new film, A Call to Spy, in which she is played by Indian actress Radhika Apte.

English Heritage’s ‘plaques for women’ campaign, which was launched in 2016, relies entirely on public nominations. Other figures recently honoured include the artist Barbara Hepworth.

This is an article from the December 2020/January 2021 issue of Military History Matters. To find out more about the magazine and how to subscribe, click here.

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