A Life in Secrets: Vera Atkins and the Lost Agents of SOE

Much has been written about the activities of the Special Operations Executive in France, and it is not always easy to separate truth from legend. But the role of the enigmatic figure of Vera Atkins has until now never been adequately scrutinized. Sarah Helm's absorbing and fascinating book provides not only an account of Vera Atkins' career during and immediately after the Second World War but also the most balanced assessment so far of the extraordinary mixture of bravery, incompetence and betrayal which characterized SOE's brief history.

Vera Atkins was born in Romania in 1908 and died in 2000. Her father, Max Rosenberg, was a German-Jewish businessman. Her mother's family were of East European Jewish origin who had emigrated via London to South Africa. Vera herself grew up in a prosperous cosmopolitan world with friends, both German and British, in the diplomatic and business community of Bucharest. She escaped in 1937 to London, where she had previously attended a secretarial college, and changed her surname to that of her mother (though Atkins had originally been Etkin). As an alien she was initially refused permission to work. But in 1941, probably through contacts from her time in Romania, she was recruited as a secretary in SOE.

She rapidly found a niche for herself in F (France) Section, as assistant to Maurice Buckmaster, its Head, and later as Intelligence Officer and Senior Staff Officer. By the time F Section ceased operations in 1944 she was in effect in charge. She was never sent on a mission and, like Buckmaster, had no field experience. Her particular job was to look after SOE's female agents: to assess them for recruitment; to arrange their personal affairs and effects; and to accompany them to the airfields from where the Lysander aircraft would despatch them on their missions to occupied France. She was assiduous in helping and caring for her girls. But as part of F Section's management she was also complicit in the extraordinary complacency and arrogance which allowed security signals from captured wireless operators to be ignored and evidence of treachery by one of SOE's officers to be discounted. As a result of this, twenty-seven SOE agents were betrayed and arrested immediately on landing in France.

But Vera Atkins' most notable contribution to SOE came after it was disbanded. Alone, and against the initial opposition of the Foreign Office, MI6 and the War Office, she sought to discover what had happened to the over 100 SOE agents who were still missing. They included sixteen women, twelve of whom Vera Atkins had herself escorted to the airfield before they left for France. Attached to the British War Crimes Investigation Team she interviewed their fellow prisoners, prison guards, camp commandants and interrogators. She doggedly traced their journeys from capture through imprisonment at the Gestapo's Paris headquarters in Avenue Foch to their eventual ghastly deaths, raped and burned alive in one case, in the concentration camps of Natzweiler, Buchenwald, Ravensbruck and Dachau. And having established their fates she ensured that they were remembered and recognized.

Sarah Helm's book is meticulously researched and documented. It is based on access to Vera Atkins' personal papers and to those of members of her family, as well as on official sources. Her judgement of Vera's character is dispassionate. She notes that many of her contemporaries regarded Vera as a sinister and unlikeable person, and that Vera's refusal ever to admit that she was wrong led her to behave badly in a number of cases: for example, her refusal to testify at the treason trial of Henri Dericourt (had she done so he would almost certainly not have been acquitted); her failure to disclose the full content of her interview, before his execution, with Hans Kieffer, the German Security Services' counter-intelligence chief in Paris, which would have shed light on the extent to which the head of the Prosper circuit, Francis Suttill, sought to save his own life and those of other captured SOE agents by betraying information; and her lack of candour in dealing with some victims' relatives.

The book examines some of the conspiracy theories about Vera that were put about by her detractors – that she was either a German or a Soviet spy – but concludes that there is no evidence to support them. It does, however, show that Vera consistently sought to conceal her background: for example, the fact that she was only naturalized as a British subject in 1944. And it provides plausible evidence, even if not conclusive proof, that Vera visited the Netherlands after the outbreak of the Second World War and that the purpose of her visit was to transfer money through a company controlled by a member of the Abwehr (the German Military Intelligence Service) as a bribe to buy passports for her cousin and his wife in Budapest who were Abwehr contacts.

Sarah Helm is a distinguished journalist and she writes in a compelling and evocative style. Her book is not only an elegant and well-judged account of the life of a secretive and complex figure. It offers vivid glimpses, too, of the vanished world of the Bukovina in the 1930s, with its country estates and relaxed but feudal life-style. She also recounts her own experiences seventy years later in delving into Vera's past – an enterprise which took her across the Romanian-Ukrainian border to rediscover the house where Vera Atkins spent her childhood, and which involved meetings with the families of SOE agents, of those who shared prisons with them, and of those who imprisoned and interrogated them as well as, two years before her death, with Vera Atkins herself, who remained circumspect to the end. Purist historians may disapprove of the ‘author in search of’ technique. But in this case it works well and gives the book a human dimension to complement the brutality of some of the events which it describes. It also serves to bring to light the British Government's extraordinary decision to fake the death of, and give a new identity to, Horst Kopkow, the senior counter-intelligence officer in the Reich Security Office in Berlin who bore more responsibility than his other Gestapo colleagues for the torture and murder of British agents.

Above all, though, the book provides a unique insight into the tight-knit world of SOE itself. It confirms the by now well-established picture of Maurice Buckmaster as an incompetent, self-promoting fantasist. It notes that the best known of SOE's names, such as Odette Sansom and Peter Churchill, were not always the most effective. And it reminds us of the extraordinary courage of Noor Inayat Khan, the gentle writer of children's stories, whose last word, as she was battered and shot to death at Dachau, was ‘liberté’. Vera Atkins may have covered up her own past and tried to do the same for some of SOE's failures. But she ensured that a small band of exceptionally brave women were not forgotten. For that she deserves a biography as good as this.

Sir Paul Lever
Chairman of RUSI; Chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee (1994-1996)

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