Once rumored to have been the inspiration for Ian Fleming’s Miss Moneypenny, Vera Atkins climbed her way to the top in the Special Operations Executive, or SOE: Britain’s secret service created to help build up, organize, and arm the resistance in the Nazi-occupied countries. Throughout the war, Atkins recruited, trained, and mentored the agents for the SOE’s French Section, which sent more than four hundred young men and women into occupied France—at least one hundred of whom never returned and were reported “Missing Presumed Dead” after the war. Twelve of these were women and among Atkins’s most cherished spies. When the war ended in 1945, she made it her personal mission to find out what happened to them and the other agents lost behind enemy lines, tracing rigorously their horrific final journeys. But as the woman who carried out this astonishing search appeared quintessentially English, Atkins was nothing of the sort. As we follow her through the devastation of postwar Germany, we learn Atkins herself covered her life in mystery so that even her closest family knew almost nothing of her past.
In A Life in Secrets Sarah Helm has stripped away Vera Atkins’s many veils. Drawing on recently released sixty-year-old government files and her unprecedented access to the private papers of the Atkins family, Helm vividly reconstructs a complex and extraordinary life.
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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. A LIFE IN SECRETS is her first book. She lives in London, England.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
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 som...
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Descripción Little, Brown Book Group, 2006. Estado de conservación: New. 2006. New Ed. Paperback. The definitive account of an absorbing double mystery: the fates of the missing female SOE agents and the truth about the woman who searched for them Num Pages: 496 pages, Section: 16, b/w. BIC Classification: 1DBK; 1DDF; HBJD; HBWQ; JWKF. Category: (G) General (US: Trade). Dimension: 198 x 126 x 33. Weight in Grams: 344. . . . . . . Nº de ref. de la librería V9780349119366
Descripción Little, Brown Book Group. Estado de conservación: New. 2006. New Ed. Paperback. The definitive account of an absorbing double mystery: the fates of the missing female SOE agents and the truth about the woman who searched for them Num Pages: 496 pages, Section: 16, b/w. BIC Classification: 1DBK; 1DDF; HBJD; HBWQ; JWKF. Category: (G) General (US: Trade). Dimension: 198 x 126 x 33. Weight in Grams: 344. . . . . . Books ship from the US and Ireland. Nº de ref. de la librería V9780349119366
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Descripción Little, Brown Book Group. Paperback. Estado de conservación: new. BRAND NEW, A Life in Secrets: Vera Atkins and the Lost Agents of SOE, Sarah Helm, During World War Two the Special Operation Executive's French Section sent more than 400 agents into Occupied France -- at least 100 never returned and were reported 'Missing Believed Dead' after the war. Twelve of these were women who died in German concentration camps -- some were tortured, some were shot, and some died in the gas chambers. Vera Atkins had helped prepare these women for their missions, and when the war was over she went out to Germany to find out what happened to them and the other agents lost behind enemy lines. But while the woman who carried out this extraordinary mission appeared quintessentially English, she was nothing of the sort. Vera Atkins, who never married, covered her life in mystery so that even her closest family knew almost nothing of her past. In A LIFE IN SECRETS Sarah Helm has stripped away Vera's many veils and -- with unprecedented access to official and private papers, and the cooperation of Vera's relatives -- vividly reconstructed an extraordinary life. Nº de ref. de la librería B9780349119366
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