A Life in Secrets: Vera Atkins and the Missing Agents of WWII
by Sarah Helm
More than 15 years ago, at the beginning of our marriage, my husband and I read William Stevenson’s A Man Called Intrepid together. It was a fascinating story – the true tale of a secret WWII intelligence alliance between Churchill and FDR, and how that alliance gave rise to the two nations’ modern-day intelligence and counter-intelligence organizations.
On the periphery of that story was a group called the Special Operations Executive, or SOE. Formed in the early days of the war, the SOE recruited, trained, equipped, and supported resistance networks in Nazi-occupied countries. Its agents were sometimes British, sometimes deeply connected (through birth, parentage, or long-time residency) to the countries where they were deployed. They intercepted Nazi communications and committed acts of espionage that Churchill later said helped to shorten the war by “many months.”
The SOE was divided into sections by country, with F Section responsible for activities in France. Sarah Helm’s A Life in Secrets tells the story of F Section, its iron-willed intelligence officer Vera Atkins, and Atkins’ post-war effort to learn the fates of missing F Section agents.
I picked up the book thinking Atkins would be an inspiring figure for this blog, but I ended up feeling conflicted. The SOE, it turns out, badly bungled a lot of its work – many agents, especially in France and the Low Countries, fell into Nazi hands through clumsy lapses in security or the treachery of double agents. Despite numerous clear warnings of breaches, SOE continued to send new agents to connect with broken networks. In a number of cases, these courageous men and women literally parachuted straight into German hands.
At the center of this heartbreaking failure was Atkins, who saw the signs but never spoke up to persuade her boss that they were sending agents into near-certain death. Helm convincingly theorizes that this was a matter of self-preservation. Before joining SOE, Atkins had traveled to the Continent and paid a massive bribe to the Nazis to secure a Jewish cousin’s safe passage out of Europe. Atkins was afraid, Helm argues, that speaking against the SOE status quo would draw unwanted attention to her own past, which was already the matter of gossip because of her Jewish roots.
After the war, however, Atkins attempted to make something like amends. At a time when much of Continental Europe was still in ruins, she crossed the Channel to uncover the fate of SOE’s betrayed F Section agents. She was particularly determined to trace the women agents, who had been in her special care as they prepared to leave for their missions. In the process, she became a key war-crimes investigator and helped bring a number of Nazi leaders to justice.
For the rest of her life, Atkins was a study in contradictions. On the one hand, she refused to assist with efforts to uncover the root of the SOE’s failures, even though she had plenty of useful information. And she was famous among acquaintances for hiding her own mistakes and giving a confusingly cold shoulder to some of the descendants of fallen SOE agents. At the same time, however, she was equally dogged about obtaining deserved recognition for “her girls.” Many of the Continent’s memorials to SOE agents are there because Atkins advocated for them, even assisting with funding and designs.
What I did not feel conflicted about were the women SOE agents Helm profiles. Noor Inayat Khan, Denise Bloch, Violette Szabo, Yolande Beekman, and many others acted with tremendous courage at a time when their culture didn’t believe them capable of it. Their participation in SOE’s mission was technically illegal. Because the British military would be unwilling to admit culpability if they were discovered, they were told they would not receive even the assistance or protection that might be given to a male agent who was taken prisoner.
Yet they went anyway and proved themselves incredibly capable. Parachuted into occupied countries, they carried out espionage missions, rescued downed airmen, and served as radio operators and couriers under incredible danger. As for those who were captured, sent to concentration camps, and executed, eyewitnesses later told Atkins that they conducted themselves with tremendous dignity. For anyone reading A Life in Secrets, their stories are proof that women are capable of just as much heroism as men. Nobility of spirit doesn’t know a gender.
As for Atkins, perhaps there is something to learn from her story as well. Despite her disappointing choices, she was a rock in the storm for many of the women agents and their surviving loved ones. As Helm points out, she provided both emotional and financial support to some of these individuals until she died. And without her tenacity, the captured women agents would simply have been disavowed and their fates ignored. Instead, there are books written about them and stone memorials inscribed with their names.
Atkins’ position was a hard one. Because of the time in which she lived, she could not – or believed she could not – show any vulnerability. Though her choices were certainly her choices, they were also heavily influenced by the prejudices of her time and the treatment she received because she was seen as an intruder into a boys’ club. Her story, to me, is a reminder that we need to look for the good in others and cultivate it, encourage their strengths even if they don’t fit the profile we want. If someone had done that for Atkins, who knows how inspiring she might have turned out to be?