Put Noor Inayat Khan GC, Violette Szabo GC and Odette Hallowes GC on new £50

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The Bank of England is redesigning the £50 note. Apart from the Queen, only three other women have ever featured on bank notes. None of these notes have ever featured an ethnic minority. None of these notes have ever featured a member of the armed forces. We would like for this to change, especially as this year is the centenary of World War I, Royal Air Force and women’s right to vote.

We, the undersigned, would like the “faces” of the new £50 note to be Noor Inayat Khan GC, Violette Szabó GC and Odette Hallowes GC.  The current £50 bank note has been the first to have two people: engineer and scientist James Watt and industrialist and entrepreneur Matthew Boulton. So why not three?

These three war heroines served during World War II in the Special Operations Executive (SOE), a special unit set up by Winston Churchill “to set Europe ablaze”. They were each awarded the highest civilian gallantry honour, the George Cross. Two of the women, Noor and Violette, received it posthumously.

Let us honour their incredible bravery and sacrifice, and by doing so, honour all the women of the SOE. In all, 50 SOE women agents were landed in France during World War II. Fifteen of them were captured by the Nazis, two escaped and Odette returned, the lone survivor. 

Remembrance Sunday will soon be upon us. It is important that we remember our history. We need to remember that the SOE came from all backgrounds and stood up to fight the evil of Nazism that was threatening freedom everywhere. Resistance against tyranny can come in many forms and from the least expected place. We must never forget. Let us use this campaign to educate and inspire young people.

Key Petition Support:

Tom Tugendhat MP, Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee; Sir Nicholas Soames MP and grandson of Sir Winston Churchill; The First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (Princess Royal's Volunteer Corps); The Royal British Legion Women's Section; The Noor Inayat Khan Memorial Trust; The Violette Szabó Museum; Rory Stewart MP, Minister for Prisons and a former diplomat; Baroness Sayeeda Warsi; The APPG for British Muslims; Lord Tariq Ahmad, Minister for the Commonwealth and United Nations at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office; Nusrat Ghani MP, Transport and Maritime Minister; Afzal Khan MP, Shadow Immigration Minister; Historians Dan Snow, Tom Holland and Kate Williams; Journalists Helena Horton, Cathy Newman, Ayesha Hazarika and Mya Khan; organisations such as Tell Mama and the Bahu Trust; Odette's Tearoom; Ant Middleton, Veteran and Chief Instructor for Channel 4's "SAS: Who Dares Wins"; Leo Docherty MP for Aldershot; Shashi Thahroor, MP for Thiruvananthapuram constituency in India, Chairman of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on External Affairs and former UN Under Secretary-General; British businessman and the founder of Sun Mark, Rami Ranger CBE.

Who was Noor Inayat Khan GC?

Noor was born to an Indian father and American mother, and started her career as a children’s writer in Paris. When World War II broke out, her family moved to the UK and she joined the Women's Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF), and two years later was recruited by the SOE.

In February 1943 she was posted to the Air Ministry, Directorate of Air Intelligence and seconded to First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY) after which she was sent for special training as a wireless operator in occupied territory. Noor became the first female radio operator to be infiltrated into enemy occupied France in 1943 aged just 29. It was one of the most dangerous jobs: in 1943, an operator's life expectancy was six weeks.

Mass arrests by the Gestapo destroyed the SOE's French spy network. However, Noor refused to abandon her French comrades without communications and decided to remain in France. For three months, she single-handedly ran a cell of agents across Paris. Noor’s actions saved the lives of countless people in Europe.

Noor was eventually betrayed and captured by the Nazis. Despite repeated torture, she refused to reveal any information. In September 1944, Ms Khan and three other female SOE agents were transferred to Dachau concentration camp. Noor was brutally interrogated and kept in chains, before she was executed. Her apparent final word, after a savage beating, was “Liberte". She was 30.

  • Originally, this petition's author, Zehra Zaidi, had suggested Noor Inayat Khan for the £50 note as she was a personal heroine. Both Zehra’s grandparents served in the Imperial Indian army. Two and a half million Indian soldiers fought under British command against the Axis powers and over 87,000 Indian soldiers died in World War II. It would be an appropriate way in which to mark the sacrifice of Indian (and Commonwealth) soldiers. Further, Noor would also serve as a positive Muslim role model in a time when we see a rise in antisemitism, anti-Muslim hatred and intolerance. Never has there been more of a need to find commonalities and bring communities together. Finally, how powerful would it be for a post-Brexit global Britain to have an Indian heroine on a banknote; a sign of lasting friendship and shared values? 
  • However, overnight the petition grew to thousands and garnered immense media interest, both in the UK and abroad. Veterans and those who deeply respected the bravery of the SOE requested that the petition be widened. We agreed that this was the right thing to do - especially as it demonstrated how the women of the SOE truly came from all walks of life.

Who was Violette Szabo GC?

Violette Bushell was the daughter of an English father and French mother who was born in France but moved to live in England when she was twelve years of age. Aged 19 in 1940, Violette met and married a French Officer Etienne Szabo, an officer of the French Foreign Legion. In June 1942, she had a daughter Tania and in October that year, she heard of Etienne’s death in service at El Alamein.

Violette was left devastated and joined firstly the Auxiliary Territorial Service and then the SOE. Her knowledge of French and evident courage made her the ideal agent to work as a courier liaising between resistance groups in France. She had to learn morse code and secret codes.

Violette set off on her first mission to France in April 1944. Her task was to travel alone to Rouen and Le Havre to establish the fate of a resistance group thought to have been infiltrated by the Germans. Over the next fortnight, working under incredibly dangerous conditions, Violette established that 96 members of the resistance had been arrested and gathered valuable information about factories. She was arrested twice but her cover story held. 

On 8 June 1944 - two days after the D-Day landings, Violette was parachuted back into France on another mission to coordinate the French Resistance fighters near Limoges. Two days later the car she was travelling in ran into a German roadblock. Told to run for it by her companion, she instead conducted a fighting retreat firing her Sten gun. Eventually, wounded, she told him to leave and carried on fighting, until she ran out of ammunition and was captured. Violette was handed over to the Gestapo in Paris to be interrogated. Despite the horrific treatment she received, she never told the Nazis anything.

In the months that followed, she underwent terrible torture but remained typically defiant and carved her name on the wall of one prison cell. On one occasion whilst on a prison train being attacked by Allied aircraft, she crawled along a corridor to fellow prisoners with a jug of water. She was eventually transferred to the Ravensbrück Concentration Camp. There she was known to have danced and sang ‘The Lambeth Walk’ to the fury of her SS guards. It was at Ravensbrück that she was murdered by the Germans with a shot to the back of the neck in late January 1945. She was only 23.

Her story is told by the film, “Carve Her Name With Pride”. It is a measure of Violette’s standing that Odette Hallowes later said: “She was the bravest of us all”.

Who was Odette Hallowes GC?

Odette Hallowes was born Odette Brailly in France. She met a visiting Englishman, Roy Sansom and they were married in 1931 and moved to London. They had three daughters. When World War II began, in 1939, Odette’s husband enlisted and she moved down to Somerset.

In 1942, after the British evacuation of Dunkirk, the War Office had made a radio appeal to the public for pictures of the French coast to help their planning. Odette had written in and her letter was picked up by the French section of the SOE who had been looking for recruits.

After receiving basic training, she was taken to France by boat in October 1942. She went ashore near Antibes on her way to Auxerre, in Burgundy, which she did not reach. The circuit that received her was run by Peter Churchill. On 11 November, the Germans invaded southern France and Churchill persuaded his superiors that Odette was too useful to be sent to Burgundy. 

Churchill was summoned back to London and Odette and their wireless operator, Adolphe Rabinovitch, stayed in a hotel near Annecy. There, she was approached by a German Colonel who only gave his first name - Henri – and who indicated that he was an anti-Nazi. When Churchill parachuted back on 14/15 April, Henri arrested him and Odette. Colonel Henri turned out to be Sergeant Bleicher of the Abwehr.

Odette was horrendously tortured. She had her toe-nails torn out and her spine branded by a hot iron. However, she did not reveal any information or betray Rabinovitch or Francis Cammaerts (who was eventually one of the SOE’s most distinguished agents). She ended up in the Ravensbrück Concentration Camp where she suffered brutal treatment including solitary confinement. However, as she claimed to be the wife of Peter Churchill, and the Germans were not sure of his relationship with Winston Churchill (there was none), they were reluctant to kill her. Eventually the camp was overrun, and she won her freedom as the Camp commandant attempted to use her as a hostage. 

After a brief rest in hospital, she was reunited with her children. She divorced her husband and was briefly married to Peter Churchill. Her third marriage was to Geoffrey Hallowes, another SOE veteran.

She was awarded the George Cross in 1946 and France's Legion of Honor in 1950. Odette took a prominent part in the work of the VC and GC Association and always stated that her GC had been given as the representative of other SOE women. On 16 December 1946, Major Stephen Stewart called Odette Sansom as a witness for the prosecution at the War Crimes Court at Hamburg. She wore her FANY uniform and the blue ribbon and silver miniature of the George Cross.

She died in 1995 aged 82.


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