Much has been written about the activities of the Special Operations Executive in
Vera Atkins was born in
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
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
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
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)