Wartime women who vanished

The actors in a tragic story

Deborah Clair is a local published playwright, actor and theatre producer and she has written a play about second world war Special Operations Executive (SOE) women Vera Atkins and Noor Inayat Khan, which will be touring the south east and which has two final special performances in Winchelsea on June 24 and 25 – and it is an important and timely story about these two women, essentially refugees, who fled war-torn Europe to fight for Britain and for freedom.

Deborah shared her particular interest in Vera and Noor when I met her at rehearsals in Hastings. “Vera was an intelligence officer for SOE who was responsible for the final checks and preparations before agents in her care (mostly women) were sent into occupied France. It was whilst reading about Vera that I discovered Noor Inayat Khan’s tragic story. Noor was a wireless operator who became London’s last line of communication with occupied Paris until she was captured, imprisoned and eventually killed by the Gestapo.

“After the war, Vera made it her mission to search for ‘her girls’, the twelve missing women agents, and Noor was one of them. The play emerged from a desire to tell these stories and to highlight the largely unknown and vitally important roles these women played. The tour will be in their memory, but the final performances in Winchelsea will equally be a celebration of their lives. We hope to get the audience doing a little jive dancing at the end and we’ll be inviting them to come in 1940s dress, if they wish!”

The Special Operations Executive was tasked with sabotage, espionage, and reconnaissance in Europe in the second world war. Women were regularly recruited and sent behind enemy lines. As a wireless operator, their life expectancy was six weeks.

Tracked by the Gestapo

“Madeleine” was the codename for one such agent. Flown by moonlight to occupied France in 1943, her job was to keep her circuit of agents connected with London. She could not trust anyone. Josef Kieffer, a major in the Gestapo, played by Tim Marriott, was on her trail and the net was closing fast.

Once the war was over Vera Atkins, played by Deborah Clair, was on a quest to find the truth. Of all the cases of her twelve missing women agents, the one that haunted her the most was that of “Madeleine” – the Indian princess, Noor Inayat Khan, played by Natasha Jayahendry.

This intriguing, moving drama places two remarkable women at the centre of the action. The rehearsals were fascinating to watch and the tension was palpable. The play is directed by Dominique Gerrard and produced by Nicholas Collett.

The two performances in Winchelsea acknowledge that Vera lived there from 1962 until her death in 2000. It is a wonderful story which captures the spirit of these two amazing women who played a vital role in keeping Britain British. We owe them and their counterparts immense gratitude.

Image Credits: Kt Bruce .


  1. This looks great but I can’t see title of the play or where it will be performed or the timing of performance.


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