A Life in Secrets

Title:                      A Life in Secrets

Author:                  Sarah Helm

Helm, Sarah (2005). A Life in Secrets: The Story of Vera Atkins And The Lost Agents of SOE. London : Little, Brown

LCCN:    2005056870

D810.S8 A86 2005

Variant title

  • Vera Atkins and the missing agents of WWII

Subjects

Notes

  • Originally published: London: Little, Brown, 2005.

Date Updated:  April 11, 2017

The Special Operations Executive (SOE) for Britain was Churchill’s baby. Never in modern times has an organization be so poorly led and achieved so little. The totally unnecessary loss of lives of the SOE agents remains a stain on British intelligence.

When Britain’s Special Operations Executive was closed down at the end of World War II, there were many questions left unanswered. The organization, created by Churchill and famously charged to “set Europe ablaze,” had infiltrated agents into the Nazi-occupied countries of Europe to organize, arm, and train resistance groups to rise up when the anticipated cross-Channel invasion took place. In the end, it left an ambiguous record, particularly in France. Some effective leaders in the French Section succeeded in holding up German reinforcements to the Normandy D-Day beachhead. Less well-organized or less careful agents were captured and sent to the infamous camps as Nacht und Nebel prisoners—meant to disappear without trace.

The haste with which officials put an end to the existence of SOE at war’s end kept the degree and nature of its failures from the public until well into the 1950s, when it became known that women had been sent into the field as couriers and radio operators, and that some had not returned. There were heroines like Odette, celebrated in biographies and films, but investigations began to uncover uglier stories about some of the other thirteen who, out of the thirty-nine women who had been landed or parachuted into France, never returned.

Their fates had in fact been established immediately after the war, although not made public until later, by the woman who had worked most closely with them in preparing them for their missions and seeing them off when they boarded the planes that would take them into the unknown darkness of Fortress Europe.

It was generally acknowledged that Vera Atkins, the intelligence officer of French Section, was more astute than her immediate superior, the head of F Section, Colonel Maurice Buckmaster, and that her loyalty to him, as to “her” agents, was boundless. But almost nothing was known during her lifetime about Vera Atkins’s past. When she died in 2000 her family commissioned journalist Sarah Helm to write a biography, making available letters and other documents hidden away for years. Helm put her background as an investigative reporter to good use as she traced Vera Atkins’s journey from an assimilated German Jewish family living a privileged life in Romania to her highly sensitive position in the London headquarters of the French section of SOE, where she impressed colleagues as “English to the bone” with her dignified demeanor and Mayfair accent.

Her foreign roots were not the only surprise. Following the trail established by Vera Atkins’s letters and extensive interviews with those who had known her in years gone by, her biographer uncovered the answer to the mystery that had intrigued historians, journalists, former SOE agents and authors of a stream of books since the war’s end. How could it have happened that despite repeated messages from radio operators indicating they had been caught, French Section went on sending agents directly into waiting German hands? How could they have responded to an agent omitting his security check with a nanny-like tut-tut (“You have forgotten your security check. Be more careful next time.” As one infuriated agent put it, “What did they think the security check was for?”) Over the years, authors of the growing number of books about F Section put forth answers ranging from the inevitable muddle of wartime pressure to various byzantine conspiracy theories.

The answer revealed by Sarah Helms’s researches has to do in part with Vera Atkins’s unsuspected background. She would never have been allowed to secure or continue in a position involving such secret activities of the government had it been known that she was not a British subject but technically an enemy alien. Her hopes rested on Buckmaster’s support of her petition to become a British subject, and she was consequently reluctant to cross him or question his judgment. And it was Buckmaster’s decision to send some unsuitable young women into the field as he turned a blind eye.

The agents were recruited with the warning that the chances of their coming back was about 50-50, and, overall, that was about right. Certainly in the Netherlands, the Germans were onto SOE from the beginning, and captured the first agent and forced him to use his radio to mislead London. The Germans were aware of every agent to be flown in, and were waiting for them. The ruse lasted until the RAF finally realized that night bombing raids were encountering night fighters where they should not be and that drop zones were too well demarked.

It is a sad fact of intelligence that people put in charge are often amateurs with hidden agendas. This was an operation that could have worked, had it not been for the incredible incompetence of Buckmaster and company.

Reviewed by William Grimes[1]

In 1941, with its back against the wall, Britain was ready to try just about anything to avoid defeat at the hands of Nazi Germany. And so it happened that, to her surprise, a 33-year-old woman named Vera Atkins was recruited by a top-secret agency, the Special Operations Executive, where she ended up overseeing a network of British spies operating in France. Like many of the people around her, Miss Atkins was an amateur. Unlike them, she hid a past so mysterious that it took decades to unravel. Her extraordinary life, pieced together in a stupendous job of reporting by the British journalist Sarah Helm, is the subject of A Life in Secrets.

Ms. Helm, a longtime reporter for The Sunday Times of London and The Independent, met her subject only once, in 1998, but that was enough. Nearing 90, Miss Atkins, who died in 2000, remained an intimidating figure, a heavy smoker with a chilly, even haughty demeanor, a precise upper-class accent and a remarkable ability to summon up certain historical details and evade others.

This was recognizably the striking, self-possessed woman described by the Nazi spy catcher Hugo Bleicher, who was interrogated by Miss Atkins just after the war. “She turned out to have more aplomb than all the other officers put together,” he wrote in his memoirs.[2] “She boxed me in with astonishing ease and consummate tactics.” As one of her colleagues put it, “she had a very manly brain.”

Miss Atkins, by the time she caught up with Bleicher, was a woman on a mission. Of the 400 agents sent to France by F Section, the French division of the Special Operations Executive, more than a hundred were still missing three months after D-Day, and Miss Atkins, who had personally seen many of them off from airfields in Britain, was determined to learn their fate. For the next several years, she would crisscross France and Germany to get answers. Of special concern to her were the 12 women she had sent over as couriers and wireless operators, above all the gentle, almost childlike Noor Inayat Khan, a 29-year-old of Indian descent who volunteered for hazardous duty but declared herself incapable of lying.

Ms. Helm describes the workings of F Section in fascinating detail, including the fact that in 1943 it was betrayed by a French pilot, who flew agents from Britain to France. As a result, many of its operatives walked directly into the waiting arms of the Nazis, who took their radios and began requesting more agents, money and arms, which F Section duly sent.

The history of F Section, and the Special Operations Executive, blends heroism and ineptitude, with top honors for incompetence going to Miss Atkins’s superior, Maurice Buckmaster. A genial bumbler, Buckmaster refused to believe that his operations had gone awry until the Germans, on orders from Hitler, sent taunting messages thanking F Section for the cash and the guns.

Miss Atkins was a cipher to her colleagues and remained one for most of her life. To uncover the truth, Ms. Helm traveled thousands of miles, from Romania to Canada, to pore over documents and photographs in family records, photo albums and state archives. Detail by detail, she squeezed the story out of surviving relatives and wartime colleagues.

Some readers will find this tedious and overly scrupulous. Ms. Helm turns over every last stone. For long stretches, her reporting becomes the story. And F Section was, after all, a small cog in the British war machine. Yet her obsessions and those of her subject mesh in a compelling way. The long trek across war-ravaged Germany and France in search of Miss Atkins and her spies yields enough material to generate a dozen Len Deighton novels.

Miss Atkins, despite her posh English accent and her adoration of all things upper class and British, was a Romanian Jew with the family name Rosenberg. The family, with roots in Germany, South Africa and Britain, ran a successful timber business. Vera grew up speaking multiple languages and attended finishing school in Switzerland.

Ms. Helms discovered that Miss Atkins probably began supplying information to British intelligence while working as a secretary for an oil company in Bucharest. After making her way to Britain in 1937, she was recruited for F Section, an ideal candidate considering her fluent French and German.

In other ways, she was less than ideal. As a Jew, she encountered prejudice from the sort of upper-class Englishmen she so admired. More seriously, and unknown to anyone until Ms. Helm unearthed the facts, she had secretly traveled to Antwerp in 1940 to pay $150,000 to a Nazi intelligence agent to secure a passport for a family member, who agreed in return to supply intelligence to the Nazis.

The search for the missing agents provides Ms. Helm with her most gripping pages, as Miss Atkins, racing against time, tracks down and interrogates Nazi officers, prison-camp workers and former prisoners. Some of the missing returned. Brian Stonehouse, a Jewish agent, miraculously survived four concentration camps. Odette Sansom, a courier, survived Ravensbrück by pretending to be the wife of her spy partner, who happened to be named Churchill. This ruse earned her special consideration, although her Churchill was no relation to the prime minister.

Most of the female agents were sent on doomed missions that led them, eventually, to concentration camps and execution. Noor Khan, considered emotionally frail, turned out to be fierce and courageous when captured. She refused to cooperate with the Germans, showed them nothing but contempt, and in the instant before her death, after she had been tortured and beaten to a bloody pulp, spoke but a single French word, “liberté.”

Miss Atkins may have been too secretive for her own good. In later years she was suspected of being either a German or a Soviet spy. One former colleague, writing to her in the 1960s, faulted her for being discreet, “so discreet indeed as to seem mysterious, if you are not mysterious.”

She was mysterious, with a lot to be mysterious about. Ms. Helm, to her great credit, digs to the very bottom of it and lays it out for the world to see.

[1] William Grimes, “Woman on a Hunt for Spies Who Didn’t Come Home,” New York Times (August 30, 2006). Downloaded April 11, 2017. A version of this review appears in print on , on Page E6 of the New York edition with the headline: “Woman on a Hunt for Spies Who Didn’t Come Home.”

[2] Bleicher, Hugo (1954), Ian Colvin, ed. Colonel Henri’s Story: The War Memoirs of Hugo Bleicher, Former German Secret Agent. London: William Kimber

 

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2 Responses to A Life in Secrets

  1. Pingback: The CIA and the Cult of Intelligence | Intelligence Analysis and Reporting

  2. Pingback: More Cloak Than Dagger | Intelligence Analysis and Reporting

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