A Life in Secret: Vera Atkins and the Missing Agents of WWII, Sarah Helm, 2005
This is the thoroughly researched biography of a most secretive woman. Vera Atkins was the number two ranking member of the British Special Operations Executive (SOE)’s French section, the clandestine guerrilla insurgency group sent to France to disrupt the Nazi occupation by blowing up trains, bridges, etc. during WWII. Atkins seems an unlikely choice for a high position British special operations officer; she is a woman, a Jew, and a foreign national (Romanian). But as we read we see why she was the perfect choice.
For generations Vera’s Jewish family tried to assimilate into whatever society they found themselves. Her mother from South Africa identified strongly with the British and kept British nannies throughout Vera’s childhood. Her English was posh and so perfect few knew she was not English by birth. Her father from Russian roots identified with Germany and he fought with Germany in WWI, winning an iron cross. During WWI Vera’s family stayed with relatives in Cologne Germany where Vera, a young child, perfected her high German which she could speak like a native. In Romania, French was taught to all children of socially prominent families and Vera as a teenager was sent to a Lausanne Switzerland finishing school for girls and then to a Sorbonne University program for society women. She also spoke French like a native. As a young woman she studied shorthand and typing in London.
Back in Romania, she worked for an American oil company and provided information as a paid stringer for British intelligence. Her extended family was also prominent in Danube River shipping, a source of additional vital information. She was socially active in Romania and met several later prominent British spies. She and her mother left Romania in 1937 for England. Vera did not marry the apparant love of her life Dick Ketton-Cremer because she was not acceptable to his family. Dick, a womanizer, was killed in the war, leaving Vera 500 pounds. He left another woman 1000 pounds.
In addition to the secrets of her Jewishness and place of birth, in 1940, before joining the SOE, Vera had traveled secretly to the Netherlands and Belgium to pay a cash bribe worth $150,000 today to a German Abwehr officer to provide a passport for her cousin Fritz Rosenberg to allow him to leave Romania. Helm speculates that Vera’s family ties to the diamond trade was the reason to travel to Belgium for this transaction. In addition to the bribe, Fritz and his German wife Karen had to agree to spy for Germany in Istanbul and later Israel. Uncovering this remarkable story was a brilliant piece of research and luck by Helm, triggered by the appearance at Vera’s funeral in 2000 of a mysterious Belgian woman (actually two women) who Helm managed to track down. They said that they had helped Vera to escape capture in the Netherlands and Belgium and enabled her to return safely to England in 1940. Vera herself was careful to destroy any evidence of this trip including her Romanian passport. She knew that if this story came out it could cost her any hope of a career in England. She kept the secret the rest of her life.
In 1940 Vera was recruited by her intelligence contacts and became secretary in the newly formed SOE. Her own intelligence and phenomenal memory and instincts soon led to promotions and many believed she actually ran the French section. Her memory and penchant for secrecy certainly made her indispensable. Throughout SOE’s existence and until her death, Vera retained more information in her head than existed in any file. Most files were purged after the war and Vera took most of her secrets to the grave.
After the war most British intelligence wanted to forget about the clandestine SOE. Vera was most persistent, wanting to discover the fates of her many missing agents. The Berlin high command early on established a policy of Nacht and Nebel “Night and Fog” which meant that any captured SOE agents were to disappear (secret execution and cremation). After the war she spent the better part of two years in France and Germany, interviewing witnesses and SS personnel, and looking for documents. Her work was used in the prosecution of a number of war criminals.
Vera misidentified one woman agent, a local French recruit Sonia Olschanesky , for one of her own agents Nora Inayat Khan. Upon discovering her error, she meticulously corrected all file copies of the misidentification in an attempt to cover her error. The family of Olschanesky was never notified of the details of her murder by the Nazis.
After the war, reconstructing Germany and the emerging Cold War soon turned attention away from the war criminal investigations and trials. Horst Kopkow, senior counterintelligence officer with the Reich Security Head Office in Berlin is widely believed to have ordered the execution of the SOE agents. Kopkow himself blamed Heinrich Himmler for the murder orders. In 1948 MI6 arranged to fake the death of Kopkow so that he would not be tried. In exchange Kopkow became an MI6 cold war spy under a new identity.
Even stranger after the war was the failure of SOE personnel to help the French in their trial of Henri Dericourt, the SOE double agent who aided the Nazis and caused the capture of many SOE agents. British intelligence clearly wanted to forget and bury this whole affair. Dericourt was freed at his trial.
During the early cold war years, many conspiracy theories arose claiming that SOE deliberately sent agents to certain German capture in order to be able to continue feeding radio misinformation to Germans posing as SOE agents. The author dismisses these conspiracy theories attributing the problem to incompetence.
This book focuses on Vera’s research into the fate of her captured agents particularly the women and the role of agents in helping the Germans use captured radios to impersonate agents to acquire money and supplies and to capture further agents. One of the most important realities of SOE operations is that despite German penetration of many SOE networks, the time and place of D day remained a secret. This emphasis makes it look like SOE was a failure run by incompetents, but 3 out of 4 agents returned after the war and the damage and disruption to German activities, particularly around D day, resulted in special commendations from Eisenhower for SOE’s role in the D day success.
Another often neglected aspect of British MI6 intelligence in WWII was the extent to which they hid the extent, purpose and even the existence of the 300 or so German camps. Churchill and a few others knew of these camps but it was kept even from other sections of the intelligence community such as the SOE. It required Patton to stumble into Buchenwald and then invite reporters and photographers to the camp before the secret was finally revealed. This secrecy greatly hampered Vera’s attempts to locate her captured agents. Below are images of Dachau where SOE agents were murdered and cremated and Natzweiler-Struthof the only concentration camp built in France where SOE agents were imprisoned awaiting their murder.
Dachau Camp Crematorium
Natzweiler – Struthof Gate
Many books and films have been made about Vera’s SOE agents in France and about the fate of agents at the hands of the Nazis, most recently, the fictional Charlotte Gray which the last SOE survivors didn’t seem to care for.