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Life in Secrets: Vera Atkins and the Missing Agents of WWIIby Sarah Helm
As the head of the French Section of the British Special Operations Executive, Vera Atkins recruited, trained, and mentored special operatives whose job was to organize and arm the resistance in
From an award-winning journalist comes this real-life cloak-and-dagger tale of Vera Atkins, one of Britain’s premiere secret agents during World War II.
As the head of the French Section of the British Special Operations Executive, Vera Atkins recruited, trained, and mentored special operatives whose job was to organize and arm the resistance in Nazi-occupied France. After the war, Atkins courageously committed herself to a dangerous search for twelve of her most cherished women spies who had gone missing in action. Drawing on previously unavailable sources, Sarah Helm chronicles Atkins’s extraordinary life and her singular journey through the chaos of post-war Europe. Brimming with intrigue, heroics, honor, and the horrors of war, A Life in Secrets is the story of a grand, elusive woman and a tour de force of investigative journalism.
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“Fascinating. . . . Compelling. . . . Gripping. . . . A stupendous job of reporting.” —The New York Times
“Helm's account is a chilling reminder of the ghastliness of WWII.” —Entertainment Weekly
“A Life in Secrets is a work of history that is at once a compelling thriller, an intriguing mystery, and a biography of bravery. . . . Better than CSI because it is all true and inspiring.” —Tina Brown
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Vera Atkins did not, as a rule, take too much notice of the opinions of others. When it was a question of judging the character of a particular agent, especially a woman agent, she liked to make up her own mind in her own time—which was usually within a few moments of their entering the room where she first met them, at Orchard Court.
The flat in Orchard Court, just off Baker Street in London’s West End, was a base used by SOE’s French Section, or F Section, where headquarters staff could meet new recruits and also brief those departing on missions. Agents were never allowed into SOE’s HQ in Baker Street in case they heard or saw something they did not need to know.
By the spring of 1943, when recruitment to F Section was fast picking up, a steady stream of young men and women would arrive at Orchard Court. The drill for new arrivals was by now well established. First, Park the doorman, in dark suit and tie, would lead the way (never asking names but always knowing exactly who a new arrival was) through the gilded gates of the lift and on up to the second floor. In perfect English or French, whichever they preferred, Park would then usher them into the flat and straight into a bathroom, because there was no space for a waiting room. “Back in the bathroom, please, sir [or madam],” he would say if they wandered out, and here the agents sat on the side of a deep, jet-black bath, or on the onyx bidet, surrounded by black and white tiles, while they waited to see what would happen next.
Park would then lead the agent to meet Maurice Buckmaster, the head of F Section. A tall, slender, athletic figure (he once captained Eton at soccer) with angular facial features and fair, thinning hair, Buckmaster would shake the agent’s hand vigourously, then, perching momentarily on his desk, legs swinging, make a few warm welcoming remarks. To any recruit who seemed inquisitive he would say, “We don’t ask questions,” firmly stressing the need for secrecy at all times. He would then stride off with the recruit down the hallway and, opening another door, say, “And this is Miss Atkins.”
Nodding towards Vera, Buckmaster would then explain, “Miss Atkins will be looking after you from now on,” and as the door closed the new arrival’s eyes would fall on a woman seated at a table, who produced a smile—remote but welcoming. Vera then rose, tall and trim, in twinset or tweed suit, her fair hair rolled up at the nape of her neck. This mature woman in her midthirties, most recruits assumed, must be a woman of senior rank, though exactly what rank was not at all clear as there was no uniform and she was only ever called “Madam” or “Miss Atkins.”
After proffering a hand, Vera settled herself again behind a small table, showing off nicely turned ankles and smart court shoes that looked expensive but probably were not. She then slowly lit a cigarette, and her blue-grey eyes fixed upon the new recruit.
Vera appeared to know everything about the new arrival, and without referring to any piece of paper she could talk to them about their country of origin, about their family, and about their special knowledge in any field—for example, she knew if they could fire a gun, fly an aeroplane, read a map, or ski.
And Vera knew exactly where the new recruit was living, and if they needed accommodation, she would offer to arrange it. She knew of their financial circumstances as well and could offer cash advances on request up to a limited amount each month. All this was very reassuring, because until they met Miss Atkins many of these men and women had felt somewhat disoriented by the experience of “special employment,” as their new work was called.
Some of the women had, just days earlier, been mopping floors at Royal Air Force (RAF) stations. Many recruits were civilians, spotted by SOE scouts, while some had just escaped across the Channel from France and had never been to England before. Few knew exactly why they had been picked out for this secret work, though it was almost certainly for little other reason than that they spoke native, or near native, French. Some were French, many had at least one French parent, and most had a cosmopolitan background.
They had been invited first for a selection interview, perhaps with a Mr. Potter, in a small, bare room numbered 055a, in the basement of the War Office. But Mr. Potter would have said little about what exactly they would be doing. Once the MI5 search into their background had safely come back indicating “no trace,” they had been whisked off to sign the Official Secrets Act. But still they had no idea what it was they would be keeping secret.
Then the women went to Lilywhites to be measured for stiff new khaki serge uniforms and found themselves transformed into members of the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry. The FANY, as it was known, was an organisation of ladies of a certain social standing (and in many cases with fathers or husbands in the officer corps) who volunteered for military work, driving perhaps or packing parachutes. All women agents joining SOE were obliged to join the FANY to give them “cover” while in secret training, but none yet knew anything of what that training would be.
So when the door had closed behind them and they were alone, and when Miss Atkins began to talk a little about why they had been chosen from so many others for this special work, things started to make more sense. Those recruits who had clandestine experience, such as working on resistance escape lines in France, felt that Vera had some direct knowledge of what they had been through. The less experienced felt flattered that somebody as impressive and courteous as Miss Atkins was now taking time with them. It helped, for example, to be told exactly how they should explain their new position to friends and family.
A young woman recruit named Nora Inayat Khan, seconded to SOE from the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, or WAAF, had expressed particular anxiety from the start about what to tell her mother about her new secret work. Miss Atkins suggested phrases Nora might begin to use— vague hints about going away—so that her mother, to whom she was evidently close, would get used to the ties between them loosening.
And as Vera went on to explain the setup in some detail, saying how their care and training would be arranged and how she would be following their progress day by day, the agents’ confidence grew.
If before the meeting closed Miss Atkins should suggest a change in their address, their appearance, or perhaps their name, naturally they did not demur. Nora Inayat Khan took the name of Nora Baker to disguise her Indian origins. Above all else the new recruits left Vera’s office with an impression that Miss Atkins was in control. Some now were even excited and eager to begin. They probably felt they had learned far more about their new work than in fact they later found they had. They had certainly learnt nothing about Miss Atkins. All they knew was that she would be looking after them from now on.
More than fifty years later I discovered that those young men and women interviewed at Orchard Court still knew nothing about “Miss Atkins.”
“My deaa booay,” said the former French agent Bob Maloubier, mimicking Vera’s accent. “For me everything about her was English.” “Benenden and Kensington,” said another, asked to guess her background. “I knew Atkins wasn’t her real name,” said a third. How? “I once saw something on her file.”
One former staff officer, though, had caught a unique glimpse of Vera in her very earliest days. He had met her at a bridge party at exactly the time she joined SOE. “Now let’s see,” said Peter Lee, reading through his diary for 1941. “When was it exactly? The tenth of March. Ha! ‘Played bridge—Blitz—Boodles hit—windows out of Brooks— shaking like a jelly.’ I think it was round about then. It was at Elizabeth Norman’s house in Thurloe Square.” Elizabeth, he explained, was the SOE secretary assigned to Room 055a, where SOE candidates were first interviewed. “The room had two tables, two chairs, and a skylight.”
Peter explained that he had befriended Elizabeth because he wanted a job with SOE. “I had heard that her people were into cloak-and-dagger stuff and had the prettiest secretaries.” Elizabeth often held bridge parties at her home, and on one occasion a mutual friend brought Vera along to make up a four. “None of us knew who she was. But I remember she played a very good hand at bridge, probably because she carried everything in her head.”
Elizabeth Norman (now FitzGerald) recalled Vera at the bridge party as “mysterious in some way.” She added: “Or rather she covered herself in mystery. And she was gracious—rather too gracious in a way that none of us really were. I think a friend of mine had met her on an ARP [Air Raid Precautions] patrol and just brought her along when we were short of a fourth person. She seemed to have come from nowhere. You see, she was so much older than us other girls. She had no context at all that I discovered. And we didn’t ask—one didn’t then. We had a sort of code, you know.”
Elizabeth herself had started as a “snagger,” a filing clerk, in MI5, which was the Eton or Roedean of Whitehall. She then moved to SOE and recalled that F Section was considered “not quite top notch,” “a mixed bunch, mostly City,” whereas the Balkan Section had the really “smart,” wealthy types, brought in from Hambros or Courtaulds.
One of Elizabeth’s jobs was to tick off recruits as they arrived for interview in 055a—“they were all told it was life and death, but it didn’t seem to bother them.” Often she was called over to Orchard Court to help out, usually by chatting to agents and drinking cocoa with them to set them at ease before their departure. In the early days some agents were landed in France by boat, but later most were dropped by parachute or landed in small planes. The infiltrations were always done at night during the full moon. “I remember feeding éclairs to Odette as we waited for the moon to come up in the right place,” said Elizabeth, referring to the agent Odette Sansom, who in October 1942 was whisked from Orchard Court to the French Riviera and landed by felucca, a small sailing boat. “And they also got their cyanide pills then.”
The atmosphere in Orchard Court was deliberately informal, with women smoking and handsome men always passing through and breaking into French, and nobody ever knew who anyone was as they all had aliases. Elizabeth herself had three aliases when she worked in the interview room. “They would ring up and say, ‘You have an interview with so and so,’ and I would have to know the alias and whether that was an alias for somebody else. Then we picked up the green phone and said, ‘Shall we scramble?’ ” At this she started to laugh.
If there was an opportunity, Elizabeth and friends would nip down to the bar on the corner to relax, “but if any non-SOE people came in, we all had to shut up like clams.” There were a lot of “bedtime stories,” she said, “and Gubbins was a lech,” she added, referring to Colin Gubbins, who became executive director of SOE in September 1943.
I said I could not imagine how Vera could have fitted into the world Elizabeth described. “In many ways she didn’t,” she answered, looking up as if she were trying to picture Vera in her mind’s eye. “I often thought she seemed quite lonely.”
At weekends Elizabeth frequently used to go to Lady Townsend’s tea parties at the Grosvenor House Hotel in Park Lane. “It was all done so the men in town could meet a pretty girl.” The girls all had to be introduced by another girl.
“Would you have taken Vera?”
“Oh no, she was much too old. Most of her age group were at that time off in the country looking after their children.”
Later Elizabeth moved to other work in the Cabinet Office, but she observed from afar as Vera “reinvented herself” as she progressed through SOE and seemed, by the end of the war, to have virtually taken over F Section.
After meeting Vera and other F Section officers at Orchard Court, recruits left for an initial three weeks of assessment and training at Wanborough Manor, near Guildford, and then on to intensive paramilitary work—explosives, stalking, and silent killing—for up to five weeks in the Western Highlands of Scotland. It was here that demolition training was also done and where agents—or so they claimed— became as familiar with plastic explosives as they were with butter. Then came parachute training at Ringway airfield, near Manchester.
Throughout their early instruction the agents were told they were undergoing straightforward commando training, and many still had little concept of what lay ahead. Then at Beaulieu, in the New Forest, where the agents at last began to learn the craft of clandestinity—using cutouts (innocent intermediaries), boîtes-aux- lettres (“letterboxes,” places where messages could safely be left), and basic Morse code—the reality of their likely missions became clearer.
Though she rarely visited the training schools, Vera received regular reports from instructors as the agents progressed, and she became quite used to sceptical, if not downright damning, comments that came back to her about the women she was responsible for. The male staff at the schools appeared awestruck by the “feminine” qualities of the women, who were “painstaking,” “lacking in guile,” and “innocent.” What these young male officers really meant, in Vera’s opinion, was that women should not be serving behind the lines at all.
It was in early 1942 that Colin Gubbins had first secured authority, albeit unofficially, to send women behind the lines. Colonel Colin McVean Gubbins, a wiry Scots Highlander, at the time was “M,” or head of military operations in SOE, and as such was eager to draw in the best recruits. A brilliant and high-spirited professional soldier, who won a Military Cross in the First World War, Gubbins was known by colleagues as “a whole hogger,” and he saw no reason why women could not do the job of secret agent as well as many of the men.
An influential band of lawyers seconded to SOE (mostly in a batch from the City firm of Slaughter and May) were utterly opposed, as were officials at the highest levels of Whitehall. Although SOE already employed scores of women—mostly as typists, drivers, and clerks—women in the Army, Navy, and Royal Air Force were barred from any armed combat. The statutes of the three services simply did not envisage women bearing arms, and therefore there was no legal authority for servicewomen to carry out the kind of guerrilla work SOE had in mind. Furthermore, protested the lawyers, though all SOE’s agents would be without uniforms and therefore liable to be shot as spies, women agents would have even less legal protection in the field than men. The 1929 Geneva Convention and the 1907 Hague Convention on Land Warfare, the main legal instruments offering protection to prisoners of war, made no provision at all for protecting women, as women were not envisaged as combatants.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
Meet the Author
SARAH HELM has been a journalist for more than twenty years. She was a reporter and feature writer on the Sunday Times before becoming a founding member of the Independent in 1986. She was the Independent's Diplomatic Editor and later became the Middle East and then European Correspondent for the same paper. Sarah Helm is the recipient of the British Press Award of Specialist Writer of the Year and was awarded the Laurence Stern Fellowship by the Washington Post. She lives in London, England.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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Pretty good book, has many facts and is somewhat disturbing as a result
A little known true tale of WWll. I recommend it.
After a life in research, I envy Sarah Helm for her chronicle of the troubled, contradictory Vera Atkins. First, for her reconstruction of Atkins' painstaking post-war search for the spies she sent over to France (few of whom were able to survive the malfeasance of Atkins' boss, and Atkins herself), and second, for her recreation of how Atkins painstakingly covered up many threads of her own research, to rewrite history - in her own favor. 'A woman who always wanted to be right.' Indeed. Bravo.