Pursuing the harrowing themes of Nazism, concentration camps, and memory,  I’ve been most impressed by
- Sarah Helm, A life in secrets: the story of Vera Atkins and the lost agents of SOE (2005)
—just as brilliant and distressing as her later book on Ravensbrück.
Apart from the story of the SOE itself, with many mysteries surrounding the life of Vera Atkins (1908–2000) (the wiki article, using Helm’s research, makes a rather fine introduction), the book is also a psychological portrait of a most inscrutable woman. The story may be divided into three main periods: the murky last two years of the war itself; Vera’s efforts in the immediate post-war period to unearth the fates of the victims; and then the continuing search for the truth, still ongoing. A fourth topic, Vera’s early years before she joined the SOE, is just as enigmatic
Utterly compelling, like Philippe Sands’ A Nazi legacy and The Ratline, Helm’s painstaking research presents the complexities as a detective story, with constant twists and revelations as she delves ever deeper. Just as Vera was determined to uncover the fates of those she had sent to their death, Helm is no less tireless, tracking down survivors, relatives, and witnesses, unraveling scant clues in notes and postcards, amidst continuing official obfuscation.
In 1941, amidst the panic caused by Hitler’s invasion of west Europe, Vera was invited to join the F (French) section of the Special Operations Executive (SOE), formed in order to organize the resistance in Nazi-occupied territories.
Romanian, and Jewish, by birth, she had come to live in England in the 1930s, where she soon came to sound, and look, quintessentially English. She never worked in the field, but masterminded the dropping of over 400 secret agents into France—among whom she identified particularly with the women agents, who were usually trained as couriers and wireless operators. The British authorities were resistant to the idea of employing women in such dangerous clandestine roles behind enemy lines, yet it was clear that they could often infiltrate more effectively than men.
Even as the D-Day landings and the invasion of Italy were opening up western Europe to the Allies, most of the resistance groups which the SOE agents joined were being infiltrated and rounded up by the Germans.
Though an inner circle in the British government had been aware of a network of German concentration camps since early in the war, it was only towards the end of 1944 that Vera learned of the camp at Ravensbrück, where several of her agents were to be murdered. Gradually the names of more camps such as Buchenwald began to surface, though their true horrors were unimaginable until the liberation in 1945. However tense the “normal world” of espionage in Nazi-occupied France had been, the arbitary brutality of the camps came as a hellish shock for those deported there.
It was now that Vera went to great lengths—largely as a private initiative—to discover the fates of her agents and track down the Germans who had captured, tortured, and murdered them. The assumption that women in war would receive better treatment than men proved naive; within Britain too the status of the female agents remained anomalous. After the SOE was closed down in 1946, it was intended that the files would remain secret indefinitely.
Among many sites that Vera visited soon after the war in search of clues was Avenue Foch, notorious Gestapo headquarters in Paris.
At this point, keeping us in suspense in the best tradition of thriller writers, Helm breaks off to explore Vera’s early life in Romania, whose high society (bridge, tennis, picnics, dances) recalls Patrick Leigh Fermor’s romantic explorations of the region. Seeking clues in Vera’s childhood home in northern Bukovina (now in Ukraine—cf. Anne Applebaum), Helm manages to unearth memories from people whom the Communist era had taught to forget. She learns of a wartime massacre that turns out to have been committed not by the Germans but by Romanian fascists. Moving on to Bucharest, as Vera had done, she discovers the increasing vulnerability of Vera’s family. By this time Vera would already have come into contact with the world of espionage.
And then, in October 1937, she made her home in London—where, still a Romanian citizen, she soon gained an Alien Registration Certificate. And, somehow, in March 1941 she was recruited to the SOE. In 1944 her second application for naturalization as a British citizen was successful.
Helm now resumes the story of Vera’s searches in devastated post-war Germany. She follows up leads to Natzweiler in Alsace, the only German concentration camp on French soil, where several of Vera’s female agents seemed to have been killed in 1944.
Vera took part in the Natzweiler trial of 1946, and in November she was asked to join the prosecution team at the Ravensbrück trial. Among her agents were Odette Sansom—one of very few who managed to escape from Ravensbrück—and Violette Szabo, who was murdered there in 1945. Vera also followed the Dachau and Sachsenhausen trials closely.
Clearly, both Vera Atkins and Sarah Helm were especially moved by the tragic fate of Noor Inayat Khan—to whom I devote a separate tribute. In November 1946 Vera received a letter from a survivor that provided convincing evidence that Noor (known as Nora) had been in prison in Pforzheim in September 1944, and therefore could not have been murdered in Natzweiler three months earlier. Through a further series of interviews (whose reliability both Vera and Holm constantly reassess) it eventually transpires that Nora had been held in Pforzheim for ten months, her hands and feet shackled, before being transferred to Dachau on 12th September 1944 and executed the following morning.
Indefatigable as Vera was in tracing these stories, she went to great lengths to ensure that no-one ever knew she was wrong; even while seeking the truth, she was trying to obscure aspects of it for posterity. And all the time that she was trying to unravel the French spy networks, she was ensnared in a murky male establishment which had its own secrets.
Amidst media publicity, Vera remained busy after returning to England. But she now began to lose control over the story. By the 1950s, as the Cold War escalated, conspiracy theories emerged, and Vera was ever anxious that her status as an alien until 1944 might be exposed.
Late in the book Holm reveals another surprise when she learns of two “Belgian ladies” who attended Vera’s funeral in 2000. They provide a tantalising clue to Vera’s activities in the lacuna of the early war years before she joined the SOE—helping us to understand Vera’s need to keep her past concealed.
When Helm learns that Vera received another letter from Canada in 1975 corroborating Noor’s fate in Dachau, she is prompted to talk again with Noor’s brother Vilayat Inayat Khan. Still distraught, Vilayat is nonetheless instructive and perceptive—although subscribing to the conspiracy theories.
* * *
Brilliantly written, Helm’s study is admirably balanced. Vera’s inexperienced young agents had been warned that their chances of survival were about evens; indeed, despite the prompt disruption of resistance networks, around three in four survived, and it was largely thanks to Vera’s great sense of responsibility that those who did lose their lives were commemorated. Yet her responses to the survivors and families of the dead seem uncomfortable. Helm shows how Vera’s coldness and self-interest served to suppress her own emotion and sense of guilt; and she needed to keep aspects of her own story concealed.
All these stories, largely kept buried for over half a century by traumatised, now elderly people around the world…
 See under Europe: cultures and politics, and Life behind the Iron Curtain—notably Sachsenhausen, Les Parisiennes, Trauma: music, art, objects, Sachsenhausen, The psychology of evil, and Forgotten victims. All this might also lead on to famine, trauma, and memory in Maoist China: some posts are collected here.
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