Vera Atkins, WWII SOE agents, and a life of secrets….

The continued wanderings of a newly minted librarian

Helm, S. (2005). A life in secrets: Vera Atkins and the missing agents of WWII. New York: Nan A. Talese / Doubleday.

This is the story of Vera Atkins and the Special Operations Executive (SOE) agents who operated in France during WWII. In 1940 the SOE was formed separate fromMI5 and MI6 to operate agents in Europe. SOE’s mission was to infiltrate occupied countries and set up networks of partisans and freedom fighters. They were to be the guerilla warriors, along with the French Resistance, who would engage in sabotage and help from behind the lines when D-Day occurred.

A Life in Secrets focuses on F section- those involved in France. In examining the life of Vera Atkins, this take describes her duty in sending agents over into France, particularly her duties to the many female agents sent. Female agents were in a peculiar position because if they were part of a military branch (such as WAAF- Women’s Auxiliary Air Force) they were forbidden to engage in combat. In order to fulfill their duties for the SOE they had to be classified as civilians and many were made to join the civilian group FANY (acronym of First Aid Nursing Yeomanry). Unfortunately, being classified as a civilian, they could not claim to be a soldier if they were captured (unlike their male counterparts). Even under the Geneva Convention, spies, unlike soldiers, could be executed upon capture.

While Vera was not very high up in the SOE organization, she played a prominent role in F section that grew with time. After the war she made her real contributions. She was the one who insisted on going into Germany and trying to trace what had happened to the agents—especially the female agents—who never came home. It is a tragic story of espionage, betrayal, mistakes, horrible prisons, concentration camps, and agonizing cruel death.

Vera herself was something of an enigma which Sara Helm seems to have cleared up as much as possible. Vera’s father was German, mother English—both Jewish but they seemed to have hidden that fact. Vera was born in Romania where the family owned timber plants and mills. While Vera was in the SOE she was technically an enemy alien. Before joining the SOE Vera made a very risky journey into Holland and Belgium to pay a bribe to the Abwehr (German intelligence organization) to secure a new passport for her cousin Fritz Rosenberg (Vera’s father’s name was Rosenberg, she changed it to Atkins –her mother’s maiden name, later). This enabled Fritz and his wife Karen and their small child to escape the Nazis who had overrun Romania (Fritz’s German passport was stamped with a big red J for Jew and the bribe got him a passport without the stamp). Vera was caught behind enemy lines when the Nazis took over the Low Countries and barely escaped herself. Yet this story was something she hid for her whole life because if it was discovered that Karen Rosenberg made deals with the German intelligence to get her husband out, and Vera herself had paid a bribe to them, she would never have been allowed in the SOE. Because of this secrecy, Vera distanced herself from Fritz’s family and appeared very cold to their children out of fear that the story of what she had done for them would somehow be revealed.

This is an amazing, convoluted story of naivety and sad mistakes made by the SOE which resulted in agents being dropped directly into Gestapo hands. From there they ended up in Karlesrule prison and then many were sent on to concentration camps: Mauthausen, Dachau, Buchenwald, Natzweiler, and Ravensbruck. It is the tale of Vera’s unrelenting pursuit of what happened to “her girls”. But it is also a story of information Vera hid, how she shut herself off from the world and appeared to many as quite cold (especially to some of the children of agents who had perished). When one thinks about how much she was still hiding and her fears that her secrets would be discovered, this begins to make more sense.

–A wonderful story about a horrible time in history and what people did to survive.