A Life in Secrets : Vera Atkins and the Lost Agents of SOE, Paperback Book

A Life in Secrets : Vera Atkins and the Lost Agents of SOE Paperback

4.5 out of 5 (2 ratings)


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.


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I came across this book by coincidence—I was looking for books that were part of Waterstoness sale, and saw the mention of the SOE (Special Operations Executive). A quick browse showed that the book dealt with F Section, responsible for agents in France. As I had read (and enjoyed) Tim Powers’s alternative history novel Declare, which is about an SOE agent sent to France, Kim Philby, and some stranger ideas, I was interested in the real history of the organization and eagerly added the book to my collection.Later on that trip, we visited an air museum at Tangmere, which turned out to have been one of the main airfields the SOE used to fly agents into France on Lysander planes.---Vera Atkins, neé Rosenberg, was a Romanian-born Jew whose German parents had done quite well for themselves. They hobnobbed with the German ambassador, owned a large and successful lumber factory, and were well on their way to leaving their Jewish heritage behind them.Then came the Nazis, and with them local anti-Semitic and pro-Nazi parties. The Rosenbergs lost everything and had to flee. Vera ended up in England, and was drawn into the Special Operations Executive, a branch of British intelligence run by “amateurs” and dedicated to infiltrating agents into Nazi-occupied Europe.Vera worked with F Section, which ran the SOE’s operations in France. One of SOE’s more controversial aspects was its practice of sending women into harm’s way, a policy that was most definitely not supported by the more established intelligence agencies (MI6, et al.) or by the military, both of which claimed that there was no legal authority allowing the use of women as spies or combatants. But SOE persisted, and many of their women agents were very successful, leading groups of resistance fighters against the German occupiers, funneling intelligence back to England, and coordinating weapons drops.But there were many losses, as well. The Germans were able to penetrate many of SOE’s “circuits” throughout Europe, and conducted a number of funkspiel (“radio game”) operations in which German agents pretended to be SOE radio operators, sending false intelligence and collecting arms caches—and agents.The captured agents were interrogated. Some cooperated, some refused and were tortured, and, eventually sent away to various concentration camps for imprisonment or execution, including many of the women agents.After the war, the established intelligence agencies closed ranks and pushed for SOE’s closure and the sealing of its files. Vera Atkins felt that her agents, and, especially, “her girls”, deserved credit for their accomplishments, and that those who had disappeared were owed a reckoning. She fought to go to Europe and worked as a war-crimes investigator, interrogating captured Nazis, tracking down and interviewing civilian officials, discovering the horrible fates of many of the SOEs agents, and testifying in the trials of some of the worst Nazi perpetrators.But who was Vera, really? She kept her past under a tight seal, and Sarah Helm manages to find out at least some of her secrets, presenting a picture of her life that, if not complete, is consistent.

Review by

A Life in Secrets…The story of Vera Atkins and the Lost Agents of SOE by Sarah Helm(An account of the role of Special Operations Executive agents during the Second World War). The book, A Life in Secrets, reveals the utter disregard for human lives through British incompetence and German savagery. On one hand, it highlights the naïve stupidity, the stubborn prejudices and inherent righteousness of the Allies, whilst condemning the evil brutality, the blind faith and the rigid obedience of the German war machine. Failures and malpractice on both sides led to the unnecessary torture and deaths of individuals who had been led like ‘lambs to the slaughter’ for the sake of the ideological ambitions of those in power.The book is a gripping exposé of the worst traits of humanity. Sometimes difficult to follow, but reads like a detective story, uncovering clue after clue in addition to false trails. A work of thorough painstaking investigation, providing compelling reading about little known ‘murky’ aspects of the Second World War.