Vera Atkins was born in Bucharest, Romania, on 16th June, 1908. The family moved to England in 1933 but after a couple of years returned to mainland Europe to study modern languages at the Sorbonne.
Atkins returned to England when France was invaded by the German Army in May 1940. She joined the French section of the Special Operations Executive (SOE) in February 1941, and served as assistant to Maurice Buckmaster, the head of the French Section.
Her work at the SOE included interviewing recruits, organizing their training and planning the reception in France. One of her major tasks was to create cover stories for all the special agents who were about to be sent into territory occupied by Nazi Germany. During the Second World War she sent 470 agents into France including 39 women.
After the war Atkins spent a year interrogating German officials and guards who worked at the concentration camps to discover what had happened to the 118 special agents that had not returned to Britain. This included Yolande Beekman, Andrée Borrel, Madeleine Damerment, Vera Leigh, Gilbert Norman, Sonya Olschanezky, Eliane Plewman, Diana Rowden, Francis Suttill and Violette Szabo,
Atkins, who retired to Winchelsea, Sussex, never wrote her memoirs but gave numerous interviews to those writing about the history of the Special Operations Executive. Vera Atkins died on 24th June, 2000.
Vera Atkins, the heart and brain of the Baker Street Irregulars' French Section, was a young and highly organized woman with a misleadingly innocent smile and an eagle eye for detail. She had an encyclopedic memory for local regulations in odd comers of Europe and subtleties of behavior that a stranger might fatally ignore. She had private sources of "bits of theater" that reinforced an agent's cover; tram tickets from the region where the agent was going, concert programs, crumpled French cigarette packs. She checked the agent in these last remaining days, at meals, in conversation, at work, and even while sleeping. A slip in the pouring of tea, the wrong use of jargon, a sudden reaction to the sound of the agent's real name-these she caught. Like other COs, she nursed the agent through final briefings in a cozy apartment at Orchard Court, near Baker Street.
I was responsible for recruiting women for the work, in the face of a good deal of opposition, I may say, from the powers that be. In my view, women were very much better than men for the work. Women, as you must know, have a far greater capacity for cool and lonely courage than men. Men usually want a mate with them. Men don't work alone, their lives tend to be always in company with other men. There was opposition from most quarters until it went up to Churchill, whom I had met before the war. He growled at me, "What are you doing?" I told him and he said, "I see you are using women to do this," and I said, "Yes, don't you think it is a very sensible thing to do?" and he said, "Yes, good luck to you'" That was my authority!
Atkins's remarkable efficiency and intelligence was accompanied by deep humanity and sense of responsibility to those whom she was sending to possible death. She was often businesslike and even severe - "immaculate, every hair in place" with a "detached and seraphic smile" as one agent put it. Sometimes she was mocking: one agent who admitted that he had fallen in love produced the riposte "oh the bloody English... We never have this sort of bother with the French... They copulate and that is that".
But there was no doubting her loyalty to, and fondness for, her agents. She saw them all off in person, and as she recalled years later: "the burden of stress was probably on the person who was seeing them off. The realization that they were going out on a very dangerous mission, and this was probably the last glimpse they would have of the lovely countryside through which you were travelling with them, while you remained quite safely at the end. There was a considerable strain on one at this time. I think I must have been extraordinarily tough - I was extremely exhausted by it."
It has long been known that SOE was interested in woman-power as well as man-power. In accordance with the body's usual principle - go straight for the objective, across any social or military conventions that may get in the way-ample military use was made of women, both on the staff and in the field. The bulk of the base cipher operators were girls in their late teens, who proved quick, keen, accurate and secure. Most of the clerks, drivers and telephonists, and many of the base wireless operators, were also women; and particularly charming, intelligent, and sensitive women, usually speaking the relevant languages, staffed the holding schools and flats where agents were held in the last nervous hours or days or weeks that intervened between the end of their training and their actual departure on operations.
Less usual work was found for them as well. The present writer argued elsewhere, just before starting on the present subject, that 'there are plenty of women with marked talents for organization and operational command, for whom a distinguished future on the staff could be predicted if only the staff could be found broadminded enough to let them join it'. SOE was such a broad-minded staff. There were women operations officers in AL, F, and RF sections, and F section's intelligence officer, the outstanding Vera Atkins, was a woman; (a head of the training section is even said to have called "really the most powerful personality in the SOE). Moreover women were freely used on operations in the field, when there were tasks they could do; in some cases with much success, as will appear, though in others
also with tragic failure. Some of the blackest passages in the black record of the Nazis' crimes cover their dealings with SOE's women agents.
I have to take the war as a whole. I have the greatest admiration for these people (SOE agents) and they were people I liked, but I can't say they are more deserving of being remembered than - I feel that one mustn't turn them into anyone more heroic than, say, the young pilots of the RAF, going out and knowing perfectly well that of the group that was setting off from a particular aerodrome, some of them, perhaps as many as half, would not return.
I don't know what one should remember or what one should forget. I think one should remember forever that Germany - a civilized country - was capable of evolving this theory of the master race, and what they did on the basis of it to the Jews and the Poles and the gypsies and in all the occupied countries in which they creamed off the intelligentsia. The Germans were very easily led. I think that is something that needs to be remembered: how easy it can be to manipulate a whole nation.
Intimidation is a terrible thing and its exercise is increasingly potent, but there will always be an uprising of natural decency. There was resistance by some in Germany, but they were few and far between. Most people just went along with it.
Ordinary people sometimes reveal quite unexpected strengths. These people had no doubts about the importance of defeating Nazism. They undertook risks feeling it was a duty; they made a voluntary sacrifice.
After the war Vera Atkins had the gruesome task of moving from concentration camp to concentration camp, discovering what the fate of SOE agents had been. A number of Germans found her to be a formidable interrogator. Hugo Bleicher of the Abwehr, for instance, considered her interrogation of him was the most skillful of any to which he was subjected. Peter Churchill, himself a former concentration camp inmate, wrote that, as a result of Vera Atkins's enquiries, the friends and relations of those who had died in concentration camps because of their associations with SOE could at least be assured that nothing was spared in trying to discover the full truth of what had taken place.
Vera Atkins: Incredibly Brave British SOE Squadron Officer of World War Two
Early in WWII, the Germans were marching through Europe, and Britain was next. On July 16, 1940, the British prime minister, Winston Churchill, declared, “Set Europe ablaze!” Thus was born the Special Operations Executive (SOE) to do just that.
Vera Maria Rosenberg was born on June 16, 1908, in Galați, Romania to a German-Jewish father and a British-Jewish mother. She studied languages at the prestigious Sorbonne in Paris and went to finishing school in Switzerland before training to be a secretary in London.
Sadly, her father went bankrupt in 1932 and died shortly after, forcing her to return to Romania. By 1937, however, Romania’s new government were markedly pro-German and anti-Semitic. Being a smart woman, Rosenberg decided she was probably better off back in Britain. She began using her mother’s maiden name around that time.
Her gilded life had served a purpose, however. Her family’s wealth had enabled her to mingle with the upper crust – including several European diplomats. In 1940 she traveled to the Netherlands with money to bribe an Officer from the German military intelligence or Abwehr.
Squadron Officer Vera Atkins in 1946.
Her cousin was anxious to escape German-occupied Romania and needed a passport. With help from the Belgian resistance, she got her cousin out and made her way back to Britain. Atkins involvement in the escape was only discovered after she died when a British reporter investigated her life – a reflection of just how secretive she was.
She worked for a time as a translator and an oil company before joining the SOE as a secretary in 1941.
Churchill wanted to set Europe ablaze with sabotage operations to give Britain a fighting chance. Atkins’ language skills, intelligence, and composure got her a promotion – assistant to section head Colonel Maurice Buckmaster.
Secret radio service of the Abwehr. By Bundesarchiv – CC BY-SA 3.0 de
Buckmaster lead the SOE’s French and Belgian section. Between 1941 and 1944, he smuggled 366 agents into France. There they financed and armed the French resistance for sabotage operations and gathered intelligence on the Nazi occupiers. They paid a high price – 118 agents died. Despite knowing the risks, they all volunteered to go.
Atkins played a major role in choosing who went. Once satisfied they stood a chance, she escorted them to the Tempsford airstrip in Bedfordshire and waved them off as they flew across the Channel. It was not easy. Atkins later claimed that it caused her enormous stress to realize she was likely sending them off to their deaths.
Among them were 37 women trained as couriers and wireless operators. Atkins’ job included ensuring they were appropriately clothed giving them proper documentation making sure they knew their target area well seeing to it their families received their pay, and sending coded messages via the BBC so agents in the field knew how their families were doing.
Sadly, the SOE made mistakes, especially in the early years. Henri Déricourt was an SOE agent and former French Air Force Pilot who flew the agents into France. He may also have been a Nazi double agent. Whatever the case, the Germans captured SOE agents, sent false information back to Britain, and even defrauded the SOE of money and supplies.
Assistant Section Officer Noor Inayat Khan in 1943, one of Atkins agents who died in a concentration camp and was posthumously awarded a George Cross.
Despite the warning signs, Buckmaster refused to believe his spy network had been compromised. In March 1941, the Abwehr forced a captured SOE radio operator to send misinformation back to his headquarters. He did so but also transmitted a code which meant he had been captured and was under duress. It made no difference.
Buckmaster accepted the information as valid, ignoring the extra code. As such, he received the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (OBE) award and the French Croix de Guerre after the war. It was also after the war, however, that he realized how badly he had let the SOE be compromised and how many people he had sent to their deaths.
While he could let it go, Atkins could not. By February 1944, she had become a British citizen and denied ever having made any errors in the SOE, stressing the agents were volunteers. She joined the British War Crimes Commission to gather evidence for the prosecution of war criminals.
After the war she visited concentration camps and interrogated guards, attempting to find out what had happened to the 118 missing persons she had sent off. Hugo Bleicher, the Abwehr officer who had broken most of the SOE agents, claimed she was the most formidable interrogator he had ever met.
Atkins even questioned Rudolf Hess, Commandant of Auschwitz. Asked if he was responsible for killing 1.5 million Jews, Hess replied no. The correct figure, he insisted, was 2,345,000. He was convicted at the Nuremberg Trials.
The SOE Memorial in Valençay in 2011. By Fabrice Dury CC-BY 3.0
In 1947 she was told the SOE was to be disbanded, and her search could no longer be funded. Using her contacts in MI6 (British Military Intelligence, Section 6), she obtained funding to continue her work.
She continued searching through documents, claiming she “could not just abandon their memory.” Atkins went on to explain “I was probably the only person who could do this. You had to know every detail of the agents, names, code-names, every hair on their heads, to spot their tracks.”
Although she never found them all, her work became the basis of the Roll of Honor at the Valençay SOE Memorial unveiled on May 6, 1991, in Loire, France. It lists 91 men and 13 women who gave their lives to free the French and may have given Atkins some peace when she finally passed away on June 24, 2000.
February 16th, 2010 · 13 Comments · Books, Diaspora, PEOPLE, quotations, Reviews
Vera Maria Atkins (née Vera-May Rosenberg)
b. 15 June 1908, Galati, Romania– d. 24 June 2000, Hastings, England)
WWII Secret Service Agent, SOE, Squadron Leader of the Women Auxiliary Forces (WAAF),
Croix de Guerre, Commandeur of the Légion d’Honneur (1987)
Vera Maria Rosenberg was born in Galati, the only daughter of Max Rosenberg a well-to-do Jewish businessman from Germany. Max settled in Romania at the beginning of the 20 th century to manage his brothers’ shipping business in Galati and Constanta. Vera’s mother, Hilda Atkins was born in London. Max and Hilda met in South Africa where Hilda’s father Henry Atkins, made his fortune during the Boer War by supplying the British Army with porridge and tinned meat from Australia which he had the foresight to stockpile before the war in huge quantities. The Atkins business interests in South Africa flourished to diversify into building a booming Cape Town and also in acquiring a diamond mine. If the Boer war turned out to be a bonanza for the Atkins it was certainly an economic disaster for the business interests of Rosenberg. The downturn of Rosenberg’s business fortune did not preclude Max from marrying Atkins’ daughter Hilda, as they exchanged vows at the London Central Synagogue in 1902. Thereafter Max was compelled to sell at a loss his South African assets and move instead to Romania. Why Romania of all places? Because the small Balkan kingdom which became independent from the Ottomans only twenty years previously was experiencing an unprecedented boom marked by a huge economic growth. The Danube was its main export thoroughfare to central Europe and to the Black Sea for such commodities as timber, cereals, livestock and petrol from the country’s refineries.
Galati – Vera’s birthplace and self-denial:
Galati port on the Lower Danube, in Romania, where Vera's family made its fortune (Period woodcut, private collection, London)
The International Danube Commission was regulating the passage of foreign ships and Britain had its own representative there as well as a Consul at Galati. By 1890s Galati was a thriving port where foreign traders were trying to gain a slice of the profits by exporting Romania’s riches. The port of Galati was of sufficient interest for the British to have there a Consul since before the Crimean War. Perhaps one of the most distinguished British envoys was one Charles George Gordon ( 1833-1885) before he made his reputation in Sudan as “Gordon of Khartoum”. At Galati Gordon was involved in the International Danube Commission: his opinions on the inter-ethnic relations during the mid 19 th century is revealing especially as they reflect the official Imperial attitude to such outposts of Europe (Thompson: 137).
Charles George Gordon, CB (1833-1885), British Consul at Galatz, before he became known as :'Gordon of Khartoum'.
By 1904 when Max Rosenberg came to Galati where the German Gebrueder Rosenberg of Cologne had shipping interests: they were exporting timber from their estates in the Carpathians on the fringes of Austria-Hungary. The city had no less than eighteen synagogues for its sizable Jewish community of some 20,000 souls. Romania was for Vera’s father, Max Rosenberg a land of opportunity where he restored his personal fortune to become a powerful businessman with a shipyard at Galatz and a merchant fleet on the Danube, the Dunarea company registered in London. With success came money and with money came acceptance: Rosenberg was entertaining foreign diplomats at shooting parties on his estate at Crasna, in Bukovina, or at his brother’s estate at Valea Izului.
In spite of this comfortable “colonial” life style Hilda’s mother did not settle well in Romania as she was constantly pining for her more sophisticated life in London and for the climate and scenery of South Africa. According to Vera’s hagiographer Sarah Helm, Vera, like her mother, appeared to have regretted her father’s choice of coming to Romania, in spite of the family’s financial gain which brought it considerable wealth. Romania secured for Rosenberg the foundation on which Vera enjoyed a favourable handicap in life which secured for her the best education open to daughters of Europe’s upper classes to private schools in Switzerland, France and England and earlier on with foreign governesses in Romania.
However on a deeper reflection, there maybe a strong case against including Vera Rosenberg Atkins in an Anthology of Romanian Women, simply because her Romanian roots, per se, were not tenuous and in particular she appeared to identify herself more with her mother’s British heritage, rather than her father’s Romanian aspirations. Yet Max, whom Vera adored had a more pragmatic approach than the South African Hilda: Max was feeling at home wherever the going was good and business prosperous and in the 1900s this happened to have been on the Danube and in the Carpathians.
It is true that Vera had cosmopolitan roots and aspirations were reflected in a commensurately cosmopolitan upbringing. But her Romanian beginnings were going to leave an indelible mark on her personality, although later on in her adult life she tried to deny them and even erase them from her memory. Such self-denial did not just apply to her Romanian birthplace but also to her Jewishness. Hers was not an isolated phenomenon, by any means: King Carol II Jewish mistress Madame Lupescu was such an example, or the movie actress Nadia Gray, coming from a historic Romanian family the Herescu also airbrushed her Romanian roots in favour of he maternal Russian, origins. On the other hand Vera’s self-denial and fixation in playing down her Romanian background was consistent with her family tradition which for generations put a smoke screen over its more humble origins. These were the Etkens, her maternal folk, who fled the pogroms of Bielorussia, during the 19th century, to settle in South Africa and change their name to Atkins. Similarly Rosenberg’s own German Jewish origins from Kassel were presented as plain ‘German’ and to prove it Max was busy erecting a catholic chapel on his estate in the Carpathians, a pious feat for which the Pope sent him a medal. Given the prevailing anti-Semitism of 19 th century Europe, these adaptations were necessary but in addition they had an overprint which was exacerbated by a certain snobbery amongst the Jews themselves – theirs was a strong preconception whereby German or English origins were ‘superior’ to the East European roots. One can see how Max and Hilda Rosenberg passed on to Vera these prejudices to which they were applying an additional more attractive gloss, in order to attain social kudos.
Max died in 1933 in Romania and Vera who was going to be naturalised British in the 1930s adopted her mother’s maiden name and subsequently considered her birth in Galati as a mere ‘accident of history’ dictated by her father’s commercial interests. Whether coincidentally or not the Romanian youth of this young lady remained an important component in the makeup of her personality and her future professional career.
The Romanian component :
Bucharest in the 1930s dubbed "le Petit Paris" it had a buoyant social and economic life. Here Vera Atkins escorted Count for Schulenburg.
The source of our interest in Vera’s Romanian biography is twofold – first because it sheds light on 20 th century Romania from 1900 to the Second World War and in particular on the playground of upper class Jewish community there, which was a world apart from the lower class immigrant Jews inhabiting the same towns and schtetles. Secondly because Vera’s glitzy life in the Bucharest of the late 1920s and early 1930s was crucial in moulding her future career as a spy in the services of the SOE during WWII. This was the backdrop of a world which faded into history, a world so fondly recalled by Clara Haskill and so vividly portrayed by Gregor von Rezzori in his memoirs. But above all it was the world frequented by the diplomat and writer Paul Morand, the gay life of a sophisticated Petit Paris, described by Satcheverell Sitwell and Queen Marie of Romania. For Vera’s knowledge of languages including fluent English French, Romanian, German was common place among aristocratic families of Bucharest and this enabled her establishing a good social network and make her an effective communicator.
Count von Schulenburg (1875-1944), German Ambassador to Bucharest and friend of Vera Atkins: he was shot in 1944 following an aborted assassination plot against the Fuehrer
Count Friedrich von Schulenburg (1875-1944) the German Ambassador to Romania enjoyed Vera’s company as the young woman threw herself into the glitzy social whirl of Bucharest. Later Schulenberg was going to be instrumental in forging the ‘German-Soviet Non-aggression Pact’ and the annexation of Romanian territory by the Soviets in 1940. In 1944 Count Schulenburg was hung by Hitler for his implication in a plot against the Fuehrer. But in the early 1930s when the Count was Ambassador in Bucharest this was yet a good corner of Europe to live in. For Vera the easy-going atmosphere of laissez-faire Romania was infinitely more attractive for a young debutante girl than the more rigid principles of the British society at the Court of St James’s during the reign of George V and his staid spouse Queen Mary, Princess of Teck. Vera’s pragmatic father knew it too well for he gained automatic acceptance in the Romanian high society where he created for himself the life of a country squire on his estate in the Carpathians. In Romania Rosenberg enjoyed the luxuries of a ‘colonial life’ style, affording large houses and soft-footed servants, all more affordable than in Britain. Here it was easier for a foreign businessman to host a shoot of Carpathian bear or wild boar than stalking deer or shooting grouse in the Scottish Highlands.
Vera Atkins Biography "Spymistress" by William Stevenson
Maybe the answer to this option taken by Max came from Sarah Helm herself, Vera’s biographer, pointing out that the Jewish upper classes in Romania were accepted – as opposed to their lower class co-nationals, who were poles apart and had little to do if anything with each other. So much for the Rosenberg’s social history against the 20 th century Romanian backdrop.
Out of Romania:
In 1933, after her father’s death, Vera emigrated with her mother to England, but soon after they settled in France during the Socialist presidency of Léon Blum. This was an inspired move because elsewhere in Central Europe the Rosenberg cousins who stayed behind in Czechoslovakia were rounded up and sent to Auschwitz . One of Vera’s cousins, Walter Rosenberg (aka Rudolf Vrba, 1924-2006) became famous for escaping in April 1944 from the concentration camp. His statement known is history as the Vrba-Weltzer Report was to be the first source in informing the Allies about the methods of extermination details of which were reported by the BBC. This prompted world leaders to appeal to the Hungarian dictator Horthy to halt the deportation of Hungarian Jews to the gas chambers. For a while some of the Central European Jews benefited from a temporary reprieve, and were allowed a quick exit from the quagmire. In this context Romania represented a secure transit on the way to Palestine and the future state of Israel, although the British Foreign Office was none too happy about such influx of immigrants and advised the Romanian Government to stop it. After 1945 it was the turn of the Soviet occupation authorities to refuse giving exit visas to the ethnic Jews of Eastern Europe wanting to migrate to Israel.
Before the German occupation of France Vera enrolled as a student in modern languages at the Sorbonne, followed by one-year course at a finishing school in Lausanne, a privileged education in an incubator reserved for young ladies of upper class families. This background was going to keep her in good stead as an intelligence operative during WWII, a role defined by Ian Fleming in his classic retort:
In the world of spies, Vera Atkins was the boss.
Ian Fleming (1908-1964) who created Miss Monneypenny after Vera Atkins.
But occupied France was not the best place for an uprooted Jewish family and in 1940 Vera returned to England, where her career as an SOE operative took off under Maurice Buckmaster (1902-1992). During her time as an SOE officer the indomitable Atkins sent 470 agents including 39 women behind enemy lines into German-occupied French territory. Her spying persona inspired film makers as she became Miss Moneypenny in a James Bond movie and also the main character in Genevieve Simms movie Into the Dark.
Still the great paradox in Vera Atkins’ life remains the contradiction in offsetting the effect of Romanian anti-Semitism versus the brand practiced in France or Great Britain, three countries where she lived and where she enjoyed a very different social life and acceptance! Vera Atkins distanced herself from her native Romania where she enjoyed the spoils of her family riches, frequented the high society, was accepted, had fun and was safe. Her example is not singular, yet in spite of it Romania remains to this day a fair game for western historians censoring her for her treatment of ethnic minorities. Surprisingly, in the same breath, the said academics seem to be incapable of discerning a more nuanced reality from a blanket stereotype: indeed, Vera’s family’s wealth and lifestyle seem to contradict the said effects of Romania’s brand of nationalism.
By contrast in France, where anti-Semitism was rampant, this was an infinitely less safe place for Jews to live in, as they were sent in droves to concentration camps, which was the case everywhere in Central Europe, as reported by Vera’s cousin in the famous Vrba-Weltzer Report broadcast by the BBC. In England the brand of anti-Semitism was more covert than in France or Romania, but persistent enough not to cause Atkins to be given the recognition she pined for: even many years after the end of WWII she never received even as little as an OBE for her war-time services: of course, she was too stiff-upper lip to show her discomfiture! Still, some four decades after the end of war, in 1987, Atkins received instead from the French president the Croix de Guerre, Commandeur of the Légion d’Honneur.
Vera Atkins died quietly, aged 92, in a home for the elderly in Hastings, in Southern England.
A Life in Secrets: Vera Atkins and the Lost Agents of SOE – review
Women who assume the power of life and death over others are often demonized. Failing that, they may be sentimentalized, as has happened in film and print to the thirteen female agents who were sent to their deaths in Nazi-occupied France by a branch of English intelligence, the Special Operations Executive (SOE). SOE’s goal was to subvert Nazi operations in Europe by means of sabotage and aid to the local resistance, employing men and women who could impersonate civilians and were usually sent by parachute drop. Its most famous agents were sent to France. Some of them were extremely useful to the Allies in fighting the Germans. Forest Yeo-Thomas, in particular, was potentially the equal of his friend Jean Moulin in uniting the French resistance movements, had he not been captured and sent to Buchenwald near the end of the war. Yeo-Thomas is one possible model for Bigwig in Watership Down: his code name was “White Rabbit.” He worked for the independent Gaullist (“RF) section of SOE. The main “F Section,” as it was known, was headed by Maurice Buckmaster, a naïve-seeming eccentric who came in for considerable criticism during and after the war for his decision to send women to France. The rumors of F Section incompetency and callousness toward the agents increased with their fame. Violette Szabó, a Vivien Leigh lookalike and by common consent the most romantic figure among the women agents, was portrayed in film-star terms by Virginia McKenna in the film that cemented the reputation of SOE’s women fighters, Carve Her Name with Pride.
The agents’ control is believed by many to have been the original for Miss Moneypenny in Ian Fleming’s James Bond books. She was Vera Atkins, an elegant blonde, with that sort of accent — “more British than the British” — that is guaranteed to rub true members of the ruling class the wrong way. In the beginning, SOE recruited specifically from the upper crust, and some public-school mythology has naturally accrued to the real-life heroism of the agents. This is especially so regarding the image of the women. The female agents who were sent to France were nearly all very young many were attractive — several positively glamorous, like Violette Szabó — and, in the words of Buckmaster, they were “touchingly keen.” Vera Atkins was older, reserved, and a lifelong spinster. Thus the lost agents are remembered in conventionally feminine terms, with the allure and the measure of innocent, bloodless heroism allowed to some doomed women. Vera Atkins, on the other hand, tends to be remembered in sinister terms, in the absence of tangible evidence that her actions were suspect. The aura derives from her personality alone.
For most people this can be said quite literally: nobody knew anything about her. Upon learning that she was born Vera Rosenberg in Crasna, Romania, the most common reaction for her acquaintances was disbelief tinged with a kind of relish. The brother of one of the murdered agents was amused, in the midst of a conversation as to whether his sister had indeed been reduced to a “bloody mess” at Dachau, to learn that Atkins had this in common with Leslie Howard. Atkins’ origins were not secret but not at all publicized. Her Jewishness and foreignness satisfied a deep-seated desire among those who knew her to cut Atkins down to size. This was an impulse shared even by Charlotte Gray writer Sebastian Faulks, who has his Vera figure dye the hair on his heroine’s head while forgetting her pubic hair. It’s safe to say that the real Vera would not make this mistake.
It’s one of those touchstone moments of misapprehension that do much to tell us who the real person was: in this case, a woman so little sentimental that it was precisely her remembering such details in the face of death that many people couldn’t forgive her. She is now the subject of two biographies, one published in 2006 and one in 2005, to some acclaim, by journalist Sarah Helm. Helm’s book, A Life in Secrets: Vera Atkins and the Lost Agents of SOE, is a brilliant and unnerving piece of investigation, though not without flaws. It has been praised by none less than M.R.D. Foot, the doyen of SOE historians, and it is extraordinary in the amount of personal detail Helm has uncovered about this most secretive of women. Though some of the revelations about Atkins’ private life are striking, Helm is even bolder in unearthing a fetid aura of rumor that surrounded her and dictated much of what is still believed about SOE. Ian Fleming’s semi-comical character of Moneypenny bears little relationship to the real-life mythmaking: quite a number of witnesses testify that Atkins exuded menace. More than a few are frightened of her now, several years after her death and seventy years after the war. The menace exists in an abeyance that cries out for logical explanations. For some of Atkins’ contemporaries, that is the point: she did nothing as agent after agent, including most of the lost women, was fed into the black hole of the Prosper network, the largest SOE group in France, which collapsed under its own weight in 1943, and whose penetration was obvious to all except Buckmaster for almost a year. One person believes Atkins must have been a Soviet double agent, another that she really worked for the Nazis.
What startles the reader is how many people believed these far-fetched theories and how many of them in turn were people who should have known better. As a feminist, one is driven to ask what it was about Atkins that led her to be remembered in such malevolent terms. There were all kinds of rumors about SOE, but they did not adhere in the same way to its men — least of all to Buckmaster, perhaps the most culpable in the Prosper disaster, who’s remembered as a dear doddering daddy. In contrast to Atkins, something was known about the male principals. Buckmaster especially was an emotional man, given to tears when pressed about SOE’s mistakes later in his life. Helm’s impressionistic portrait of Atkins suggests strongly that this was just it: Atkins did not leave evidence of how she herself felt about things, which is considered to be of such importance in analyzing a woman’s character. Atkins may have been a megalomaniac of sorts, or she may have been a shrewd and realistic woman who didn’t care much for others’ opinions of painful controversy, but in any case she knew what most people do not: how to hide her relationship with herself. It’s this that one most needs in order to analyze motive. Lacking it, Helm tries to analyze Atkins by looking at or speculating about her deeds, themselves hard enough to pin down.
As a result, this is a book in which theory is not easy to separate from implication. Helm goes over the most significant conspiracy theories regarding SOE and tests them out against the fate of the women agents. Some of this ground has been covered before. It is a flaw in Helm’s book that she does not do more to credit Elizabeth Nicholas in particular. Nicholas’ book, Death Be Not Proud, is more amateurish in tone, but quite similar to Helm’s in many respects. The chief difference between Nicholas’ book and Helm’s is that Nicholas, who was personally acquainted with one of the agents and grew close to several of their families, was convinced that there had been double dealing. Specifically, she believed that the reason the collapse of the Prosper network led to the death of ten out of the thirteen female casualties was that they were somehow deliberately sacrificed in a counter-game, to mislead the Nazis as to British awareness of the tragedy. Helm is vigorous in blaming the worst of the Prosper disaster on Buckmaster, who refused to believe in it for a year and continued sending agents to join Prosper and its tributaries even after he heard a German accent pretending to speak in the voice of one of the male agents, over a captured radio. (Prosper himself, in civilian life a half-English, half-French barrister named Francis Suttill, would be suspected of making a pact with the Germans in the belief that his agents would be saved he and many others did not survive the war.) But she does not go further than accusing Buckmaster of extraordinary obtuseness and Atkins of slavishness before his authority. Nicholas believed that women were used deliberately as decoy sacrifices: the belief in women’s lesser capacities would make their deaths less suspicious. Nicholas went out of her way to credit Atkins, pointing out the efforts she went to in tracing the lost agents. It is thus uncertain how much she believed, as Helm does, that Atkins was supine before Buckmaster or otherwise implicated, though Helm names Nicholas as one of Atkins’ exposers. (Nicholas’ contemporary and complementary writer, Jean Overton Fuller, would speak of Nicholas as if she were as suspicious as Fuller but this was in the 1980s, after Nicholas’ death and many complex changes of position and suspicion on Fuller’s own part. One of the great frustrations in researching this episode of history is that it can be difficult to sort out who thought what about whom among researchers, as among principals, well after the fact — never mind at the time.)
Given the widely disseminated conviction that there must have been something fishy about Vera Atkins, Sarah Helm is perhaps under some pressure to deliver the goods. She milks Atkins’ hidden origins for drama, and argues that Atkins’ Jewishness at once provided the motivation for her fierceness in fighting the Nazis and for her timidity in opposing anything Buckmaster did or didn’t do. Thus Atkins’ Jewishness becomes a sign that she was on nobody’s side, somewhat in keeping with Kissinger-like Realpolitik — a tempting conclusion for people on various sides of the political spectrum, and a rich source of reflections on the price of survival.
The difficulty is that not all of it is necessarily warranted. Allied Jewish agents were valued, as the only nationality whose anti-Fascism could be guaranteed beyond a doubt. A number of SOE’s agents were Jewish, including Brian Stonehouse, who survived four concentration camps and drew a sketch of two women agents killed at Natzweiler, one of whom Atkins may have confused with Noor Inayat Khan. (This was Sonia Olschanezky, herself Jewish. Olschanezky bore a striking resemblance to Noor, but the sketch reproduced in Helm’s book and identified as Olschanezky is of Andrée Borrel, Prosper’s chief lieutenant. Stonehouse identified the woman in the sketch separately from a woman resembling Olschanezky.) SOE’s chief coder was a Jew, Leo Marks. Atkins’ enemy nationality would, to be sure, have posed a more serious problem it was in defiance of the regulations. But it was not entirely unknown, and in many clandestine organizations, Jews from enemy nationalities were not considered as being German or Romanian rather than Jewish. If it does not necessarily follow that Atkins’ Romanian birth certificate would have spelled the end of her SOE career, how much less probable is it that her Jewishness represented such an insurmountable obstacle? It’s far more likely that Helm’s Atkins believed it might, in the face of all the evidence, because she wanted more than to stay in SOE: she would not have wanted to be a target for the kind of casual anti-Semitism remembered in Marks’ memoir, not after she had suffered the humiliation of losing the happy butterfly life she enjoyed as a pigtailed girl in Bukovina. Above all else, as Helm’s interviewees see Atkins, she wanted to be English.
If this is true, the mystery of Atkins’ self-image might be considerably elucidated by the affair she had with Richard Ketton-Cremer, a member of the Norfolk landed gentry, marriage to whom would have sealed her Britishness. Atkins did not marry Ketton-Cremer, but it’s possible that her acquaintance with him opened her eyes to possibilities that she could never again risk losing. And tantalizing indeed is the possibility that Atkins failed to confront Buckmaster, not for fear of being labeled an enemy alien, but for fear of losing entry to that club. Her personality was at once grand and guarded, and may have required the buttressing of social status for her to function. She somewhat resembles Alma Rosé, the Viennese musician who led an orchestra of female prisoners in Birkenau by styling herself as a combination of Toscanini and the headmistress in an English boarding school, to which one survivor compared her. This incongruity is played for all it is worth by Fania Fénelon in her eyewitness account, Playing for Time, in which she ridicules Rosé much as James Watson did a third tough Jewish lady, Rosalind Franklin, in The Double Helix. Fania Fénelon described Rosé as a megalomaniac, so insulated from the reality of the camp by her own delusions of grandeur that she was proud to play for Himmler (likely a fabrication on Fénelon’s part). A less hostile biography of Rosé presents perhaps an even more disturbing picture, of a truly brave woman whose heroism in saving lives (nearly all orchestra members survived, though Rosé did not) was inseparable from her bizarre ambitions for “her” girls: she planned, after the war, to lead the Birkenau orchestra on a world tour.
Vera Atkins was every bit as proprietary of her agents as Rosé of her musicians, as given to peacocking, as impassive before their mortality, and just as devoted. It is no wonder that so many suspected ulterior motives in Atkins’ case, political machinations of the most Bondian kind. Atkins’ Jewishness is indeed of relevance here because it makes Nazism impossible and Stalinism unlikely, but a few of the people to whom Helm indicates as much react with seeming disappointment. She was the sort of person of whom it is said “I’m glad she’s on our side.” In Atkins’ case as in Rosé’s, the banality of good comes uncomfortably close to that of evil, and vice versa.
Two implications thus run parallel: that with so much smoke, there had to be fire, if only of a banal sort and yet that Atkins was playing her own game, aware of Buckmaster’s limitations, unwilling to challenge him, but prepared to push her own anti-Nazi agenda through between the cracks. Helm runs into some trouble when her parallel implications contradict each other. Her excuse for Atkins’ behavior resembles nothing so much as the excuses many Vichy loyalists made for Philippe Pétain: that he did not know what was going on, or else that he was playing the Nazis for fools while scheming to liberate France. If she was seduced by ego, Atkins may or may not have known what was going on, assuming for now that it was restricted to incompetence on the part of Buckmaster. (There are other theories, focused on the tolerance shown toward a known double agent in Prosper: SOE historian Jean Overton Fuller, many French people, and a pack of conspiracy theorists each believe he was protected by the British for their own ends, though Fuller suspects further incompetence and the French and other conspiracy theorists imagine a grand plan to deceive the Germans.) It should also be pointed out that it is very unlikely Atkins would have been able to do anything about Buckmaster’s failures had she seen them clearly. That was not her job to behave otherwise might well have indicated that Atkins had delusions about her own power. The final impression left by the book, apart from the mill of Gothic rumor it exposes, is that Vera Atkins may have been much as she presented herself. She did her job it was tough she did it well. If she were a man, that might be enough to make it unnecessary to defend him against baleful musings.
Helm gives full credit to Atkins for her extraordinary odyssey into postwar Germany, single-handedly tracing the fates of the thirteen women who did not return from the camps (together with over a hundred men). Yet the family members who owed it to Atkins that they knew anything about their daughters, sisters, wives and mothers all had uniformly negative impressions of her they speak bitterly of her detachment in general and her coldness to them in particular. It remains possible that it was Atkins’ unsentimentality that most inspired paranoia. Tania Szabó and Vilayat Inayat Khan may have expected things of Atkins that they would never have dreamed of asking the tearful Buckmaster to provide: emotional involvement, above all.
Tania and Vilayat were the daughter and the brother respectively of two of the most celebrated agents. Helm draws many implications from Atkins’ relationship to Noor Inayat Khan, who was sufficiently her opposite to represent a fine dramatic foil. The unworldly Sufi girl, who was the only woman of color to die on an SOE mission, is often cited as the best example of the agency’s savagery in sending women to work in the field: she was slight and appeared defenseless. Helm uncovers evidence that she was tortured to death, which has, sadly, been verified since by release of Noor’s SOE file. But there is abundant evidence that Noor was an outstanding agent in most ways once she was in the field. Almost alone, she survived the fall of Prosper and kept herself alive for several months in the most dangerous job, that of radio operator. When she was betrayed, it was by a woman who was jealous of a male agent’s interest in her. Her own mistakes compounded the tragedy but did not cause it. She fought so fiercely when arrested and tried so hard to escape prison that she was eventually kept in chains.
The sentimentalization of the women agents has, itself, played into a subtle politics of gender that has done as much as anything else to gloss over SOE’s blunders. If women were sacrificed, the reasoning goes, the agency might be guilty of ruthlessness in sending them but not of incompetence in setting them up to be captured, when they could not be expected to survive long. The latter charge has been raised against the handling of the male agents, with some fairness: Prosper himself was encouraged to raise a huge army of resistors and then told to remain under cover for almost a year, guaranteeing that thousands would fall with him when the network was blown, and probably contributing to his paranoia about those in charge. (In France, many still believe that the “Prosper” network was given up as an act of disinformation about the true date of the Allied invasion.) The truth is that several of the dead women were brilliant Resistance fighters long before they joined SOE. Andrée Borrel and Madeleine Damerment, both in their twenties, survived for years in occupied France (the average life of an amateur résistant was three months), helping Allied airmen into Spain. M.R.D. Foot makes the same point in observing that SOE’s women agents did not expect special treatment and went into the field as prepared for death as any male agent. Nor does the legendary status of SOE’s female sacrifices do justice to the SOE women who survived and did magnificent work: Pearl Witherington, Lise de Baissac, Nancy Wake, Yvonne Cormeau, Anne-Marie Walters, Eileen Nearne, her sister Jacqueline Nearne, Virginia Hall, Yvonne Baseden, and many others. Of the agents who survived the war, one of the best known is Countess Krystyna Skarbek (“Christine Granville”), whose fame rests largely on her having been stabbed to death after the war by a jealous lover. (Her other claim to popular fame is that she may have been a model for Fleming’s Vesper Lynd.)
Interestingly, Yvonne Baseden, an agent who survived arrest and incarceration in Ravensbrück concentration camp, speaks with insight of Vera Atkins’ mistrust of her. “I think she was trying to put us at ease by looking herself at ease, as if it was something which a lot of people were doing and that it was nothing out of the ordinary… She had reason to be quite suspicious of me… I think she must have thought — you know — why had I been released? What had I done to be released and not the others?”
Baseden did not love Atkins, but she understood her. It leaves us wondering whether the other women agents might also have done. When women have the power of life and death, especially over other women, judgments of their ethics often hinge upon perceptions based on fine emotional distinctions and interpretations of correct behavior. Fania Fénelon gagged upon the thought that Alma Rosé could be proud of her orchestra while her people burned the families of Vera’s agents noticed that she seemed “very pleased with herself.” At the Ravensbrück trial, Atkins sent postcards to her mother that might as well have been sent from some little spa on the Baltic coast. She might have been sociopathic in her calm or else, she might have attended the trial and written the postcards on the same days in the awareness that both were her duty.
But she remains a disturbing figure. Helm’s research suggests that she could resemble a brilliant child, a prodigy, with a prodigy’s isolation and devotion to her elders’ precedent. After the work she did to uncover the agents’ fates, it is remarkable that so many of their families waited years to learn the most elementary details the mother of one, Diana Rowden, did not know that her daughter had received the Croix de Guerre until Elizabeth Nicholas found out in the 1950s. One can speculate that Atkins was too enamored of her role as keeper of secrets to stop playing the game another, somewhat kinder interpretation is that Atkins was inclined to solace herself by maintaining the sense that the buck stopped with her, just so long as nobody knew the details. In any event, the slipshod way in which the details crept out has provided fodder for conspiracy theories that may never end.
In classic gendered fashion, there is the same degree of unsubstantiated speculation regarding Atkins’ sexuality: some believe she was a lesbian, others that she must have been a man-trap. Neither is impossible neither is substantiated. When asked to explain why, witnesses cannot allude to more evidence than a feeling she gave them. The imaginative Jean Overton Fuller remembers Atkins in a gauzy black top, obviously meant to seduce her. (It is possible that Atkins was in love with Violette Szabó, whom she insisted on seeing off personally.) No witnesses admit to being drawn to Atkins that way themselves, but it is intriguing to find how often it is said that she was “almost beautiful.” “Beautiful” is a designation of approval when applied to a woman, not idealizing her appearance so much as it simultaneously recognizes power and simplifies it into innocuousness. By saying that Vera Atkins was “almost beautiful,” witnesses appear to be wrestling with their incongruous perceptions — of an extraordinary woman, a noble woman in so many ways, who also scared the hell out of them.
Perhaps that is also why Helm’s biography goes soft in certain places, seeking emotional connections Atkins would have disdained and perhaps that is why Helm returns instinctively to the spy story’s lowest common denominator of intrigue, the best self-justification we all have for meddling and snooping — next to the belief that the subject would have wanted it that way, which also comes up. Helm’s sleuthing on the likelihood that Atkins passed money to Nazi officials to save her Dutch relatives (one plausible reason for Atkins’ deference to Buckmaster) is dramatic, but spread a little too thin. Inevitably, these fillips of suspense also remind us of the journalist’s obligation to pry into other people’s soft spots, and the results can be uncomfortable. Helm interviews Yvonne Baseden and spots a purple balloon on the ceiling, reading “Happy Eightieth Birthday,” while Baseden’s eyes fill with tears as she recalls Ravensbrück. At the annual memorial to the SOE members lost in France, Helm observes a disturbed woman, “still mourning her fiancé, who was killed while serving with SOE in France, but she had never been told quite how he was killed or why. I wondered whether the woman in black had grabbed Vera’s arm and how Vera had responded.”
Up to a point these glimpses of SOE life behind the scenes are important even as they can make us cringe. It’s needed in the wake of the fictional representations of SOE, beginning with the sanitized biographies and films and continuing with Sebastian Faulks’ meretricious bestseller, Charlotte Gray. In writing on Quentin Bell’s biography of his aunt Virginia Woolf, Cynthia Ozick observed that what an insider can convey most valuably is “the smell of a house,” and this Helm does even as an outsider. It is instructive to observe how much of this SOE “smell” will be familiar to ordinary women. As indicated, the strength of Helm’s biography over an official version will probably lie in its attempt to do justice to the complexity of emotions surrounding Atkins and its revelations about the quality of these emotions. Male heroes are idealized after their death, but they also tend to disappear without clear emotional traces their survivors resent their absence above all, the lacuna in a family left behind by means valorized in society. Prosper’s children remember growing up without their father in more ways than one: his wife erased all traces of him from their lives. This may have been the way Atkins wished to vanish from public sight. Helm begins to restore an outline, not of Atkins’ inner life, but of the effect she had on others. As she does so, she begins to recreate Atkins as a gendered figure. The resentment attaching to the memories of women heroes are likelier to concern lies, evasions, and compromises: in fine, the awareness we’re left with of the disconnect between real and official narratives of power and survival. They resemble the mixed emotions we have had about our mothers, the life-and-death choices they made when and as our fathers, their consciences protected by the demands of the masculine role, could not or did not.
Feminist commentators have tended to view all forms of militarism as a grafting of masculine values onto women’s lives. By contrast, other feminists such as Vera Laska, Margaret Collins Weitz, and Claudia Koontz have observed women adapting traditionally female modes of behavior to warfare on opposing sides of conflicts in such a manner as to make it less of a given that militarism and women’s lives are natural enemies. The significance of Atkins’ gender in her work was not that she was less female for engaging in militaristic activity but that she did not have the professional training associated with males in positions of equivalent responsibility. Atkins was an amateur, if a very gifted one, and she was capable of making mistakes. This may actually place her closer to the traditional role of the mother. Feminists who draw ethical prescriptions from the experience of mother stress that maternalism is by definition an improvisational ethic. The ethics of secret-keeping have also been traditionally female and improvisational. Atkins’ life drives us to ask whether a female “ethic of care” is not also, when necessary, an ethic of deception, secrecy, militarism, and downright ruthlessness, not to mention vanity and self-delusion. This may go a long way toward rescuing the figure of the mother from sentimentalization, but it raises further thorny questions for feminists. A mother is, first and foremost, a woman with power. Atkins may have been little maternal in appearance, yet she did function as a mother toward the agents in the simplest sense: of wielding the power of life and death and assuming it as her natural right. She thus removed the mental escape route most of us cherish, of imagining civilian life as the world of mothers and not fathers, demarcated from war and its horrors by the gender line. Her ambiguity as one of the “good guys” reminds us that women’s power has been trivialized in part because power of any kind has potential for destructiveness. Thus our desire to view maternalism and militarism as opposites can only be frustrated if we admit maternalism its full power. It may be significant that the harshest judgments of Atkins, including Helm’s, have come from women several of the men she encountered remembered her as notably kind, even maternal.
Like the rest of us, Helm loves and hates her mother figure, and fills in the gaps of her story imaginatively with the intention at once of undermining and forgiving her like the rest of us, she has some telling insights and others in which Atkins is unrecognizable, sometimes both at once. It is typically hard for her to accept that Atkins, as a consummate secret agent, had agency: that she made her decisions as an independent being, not as a victim of history. By intervals she assigns too little responsibility to Atkins, and then again too much. Copying Tania Szabó, Vilayat Inayat Khan, and many others, she wants approval and does introspective calisthenics on realizing she will not get it. She falls prey to the ultimate daughterly illusion by suggesting that Atkins wanted her personal story told. The story begins when Helm seeks out Atkins’ niece and sister-in-law in Cornwall, searching through the bland press clippings that constitute Vera’s personal files, and discovering uncensored oddments that she interprets as signposts which Atkins left to point the way for a future biographer. Most of them have to do with the guilt that Helm assumes Atkins felt over the deaths of Noor Inayat Khan and the others.
There is evidence that Atkins was not invulnerable. After her return from Germany, she went for a long time into seclusion. (She had just learned that Ketton-Cremer was also dead, killed in action on Crete.) Helm is believable on Atkins’ compulsive self-control, and the anguish it may have guarded. “Close friends felt only sympathy for Vera. Behind that controlled façade they sensed that she was all the time suppressing her own emotion and her own guilt.” But if she proposes a Vera racked by guilt over the agents’ deaths, and thus leaving clues scattered about on purpose, Helm is quite likely kidding herself.
In fact an official biography was commissioned by Atkins and has come out early this year, and perhaps that awareness of the rival biography caused some of the flaws in Helm’s. Though nowhere near as good in most ways, William Stevenson’s Spymistress is the superior work in terms of its presentation of the nitty-gritty details of Atkins’ work for SOE. Stevenson’s book goes even further than Helm’s in describing the miasma of anti-Semitism in which Atkins had to work and her awareness of her Jewish identity. It does not confirm Helm’s belief that Atkins had to lie low with Buckmaster as the price for her power if anything, it indicates that Atkins was much braver as a Jew than Helm was aware, a judgment based not on what she may have done in the Netherlands but on many attempts she made to wake the British high command up to what was happening to Europe’s Jews. The unforgiving Leo Marks shared his high opinion of Atkins with Stevenson, a regard based in part on their common fate as Jews. But where Leo Marks filled a tome with his anger at SOE, Atkins kept loyally silent, and suffered the opprobrium of her peers. Stevenson’s book also turns up a few personal details that are easily as juicy as anything Helm has found. (Rather than Ketton-Cremer or Violette Szabó, the great Yeo-Thomas may have been the true love of Atkins’ life.) And if Helm as a woman relates to Atkins as a good/bad mother, Stevenson as a man seems much more concerned to “place” her as a romantic figure. He stresses Vera’s beauty and sex appeal, describing her black hair (most eyewitnesses remember it as blonde) and “smoky eyes.” Alma Rosé, as Fania Fénelon saw her, is perhaps conveniently replaced with the biblical Esther or Judith, or indeed the beautiful and heroic Alma remembered by some of the Birkenau orchestra survivors.
Yet of the two, Helm’s biography of Vera Atkins comes closer to an essential truth about power figures in a dark time. Helm’s book is in every way distinguished as a literary production — it is beautifully written — and impressive for the amount of clutter it has cleared away from a story that once seemed tangled beyond hope, even if in some places it adds its own. But the truest distinction of Helm’s book, imperfect though it is, may lie in the honor it pays to the emotional ambiguities that remain for the survivors of war, especially regarding the memories of its outstanding players. If Helm at times succumbs to the need all survivors have to force intractable details into a pattern that makes sense, like Atkins’ beloved England we can still be grateful to have such an ally on our side and as with Vera Atkins, we can probably forgive her.
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Women in History- Vera Atkins
Vera Atkins was born Vera Maria Rosenberg in Galați, Romania, to Max Rosenberg, a German-Jewish father, and his British-Jewish wife, Zeffro Hilda, known as Hilda. She briefly attended the Sorbonne in Paris to study modern languages and a finishing school at Lausanne, where she indulged her passion for skiing, before training at a secretarial college in London. During her somewhat-gilded youth in Romania, where she lived on the large estate bought by her father at Crasna (now in Ukraine), Atkins enjoyed the cosmopolitan society of Bucharest where she became close to the anti-Nazi German ambassador, Friedrich Werner von der Schulenburg. Atkins' father, a wealthy businessman on the Danube Delta, went bankrupt in 1932 and died a year later. While in Romania, Atkins came to know several diplomats who were members of British Intelligence, some of whom were later to support her application for British nationality, and to whom in view of her and her family's strong pro-British views, she may have provided information as a "stringer". She also worked as a translator and representative for an oil company. Atkins remained with her mother in Romania until emigrating to Britain in 1937, a move made in response to the threatening political situation in Europe and the growing extremism and antisemitism in Romania.
Though not a British national, in February 1941 Atkins joined the French section of the SOE as a secretary. She soon was made assistant to section head Colonel Maurice Buckmaster, and became a de facto intelligence officer. She served as a civilian until August 1944, when she was commissioned a Flight Officer in the Women's Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF). In February 1944 Atkins was naturalized as a British subject. She was later appointed F Section's intelligence officer (F-Int). Atkins' primary role at SOE was the recruitment and deployment of British agents in occupied France. She also had responsibility for the 37 women SOE agents who worked as couriers and wireless operators for the various circuits established by SOE. Atkins would take care of the "housekeeping" related to the agent, such as checking their clothing and papers to ensure they were appropriate for the mission, sending out pre-written innocuous letters at regular intervals, acting as SOE's liaison with their families and ensuring they received their pay. Atkins would often accompany agents to the airfields from which they would depart for France, and would carry out final security checks before waving them off. Atkins always attended the daily section heads meeting chaired by Buckmaster, and would often stay late into the night at the signals room to await the decoded transmissions sent by agents in the field. She would usually arrive at F Section's Baker Street office around 10.00 am. Although not popular with many of her colleagues, she was trusted by Buckmaster for her integrity, exceptional memory and good organizational skills.
After the liberation of France and the allied victory in Europe, Atkins went to both France, and later, for just four days, Germany, where she was determined to uncover the fates of the fifty-one still unaccounted for F Section agents, of the 118 who had disappeared in enemy territory (117 of whom she was to confirm had died in German captivity). Originally, she received little support and some opposition in Whitehall, but as the horrors of Nazi atrocities were revealed, and the popular demand for war crimes trials grew, it was decided to give official support for her quest to find out what had happened to the British agents, and to bring those who had perpetrated crimes against them to justice. At the end of 1945 SOE was wound-up, but in January 1946 Atkins, now funded on the establishment of the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6), arrived in Germany as a newly promoted Squadron Officer in the Women's Auxiliary Air Force to begin her search for the missing agents, including 14 women. She was attached to the war crimes unit of the Judge Advocate-General's department of the British Army HQ. Until her return to Britain in October 1946, Atkins searched for the missing SOE agents and other intelligence service personnel who had gone missing behind enemy lines, carried out interrogations of Nazi war crimes suspects, and testified as a prosecution witness in subsequent trials. In November 1946 Atkins' commission was extended so that she could return to Germany to assist the prosecution in the Ravensbrück trial which lasted into January 1947. She used this opportunity to complete her search for Noor Inayat Khan, who she now knew had not died at Natzweiler-Struthof, as she had originally concluded in April 1946, but at Dachau. As well as tracing 117 of the 118 missing F Section agents, Atkins established the circumstances of the deaths of all 14 of the women, twelve of whom had perished in concentration camps. She had also persuaded the War Office that the twelve women, technically regarded as civilians, who had been executed, were not treated as having died in prison, as had been originally intended, but were recorded as killed in action. Atkins' efforts in looking for her missing "girls" meant not only did each now have a place of death, but by detailing their bravery before and after capture, she also helped to ensure that each received official recognition by the British Government, including the award of a posthumous George Cross to both Violette Szabo in 1946 and, especially due to Atkins's efforts, Noor Inayat Khan in 1949.
She went to work for UNESCO's Central Bureau for Educational Visits and Exchanges, as office manager from 1948, and director from 1952. She took early retirement in 1961, and retired to Winchelsea in East Sussex. Atkins was appointed CBE (Most Excellent Order of the British Empire) in the 1997 Birthday Honours, a time around the Queen’s birthday where she honors important British citizens. She was awarded the Croix de Guerre in 1948 and made a Knight of the Legion of Honour by the French government in 1995. Atkins died in hospital in Hastings on 24 June 2000, aged 92. She had been in a nursing home recovering from a skin complaint when she fell and broke a hip. She was admitted to hospital where she contracted MRSA. Her memorial plaque, which is shared with her brother Guy, is in the northern wall at St Senara's churchyard in Zennor, Cornwall where her ashes were scattered. The inscription reads "Vera May Atkins, CBE Légion d'honneur Croix de guerre".
This list contains non-fiction and fiction accounts of spies and intelligence agencies in WWII.
'The Lost Girls of Paris' Fictionalizes True Tale Of Female Spies During World War II
NPR's Scott Simon speaks with author Pam Jenoff about her new novel, The Lost Girls of Paris. It's the story of a group of British female spies sent to France during World War II.
Grace Healey is trying to cut through Grand Central Station, late again, on her way to work in 1946 when she stumbles over an abandoned suitcase. She looks inside. She cuts her finger and finds a packet with a dozen photos, each of a different woman, and becomes intrigued. What she discovers about those women and the woman whose name, Trigg, is engraved on the case is told in Pam Jenoff's new novel "The Lost Girls Of Paris." And Pam Jenoff, a former U.S. foreign service officer, now teaches law at Rutgers, and who's author of the previous bestseller "The Orphan's Tale," joins us from the studios of WHYY in Philadelphia. Thanks so much for being with us.
PAM JENOFF: Thanks for having me.
SIMON: So why doesn't she just leave the suitcase?
JENOFF: Well, Grace is at an interesting crossroads in her life. She is what I call not quite a war widow. She lost her husband during World War II but not to combat. And she's living in New York, trying to figure out what's next when she finds the suitcase. So I believe she's intrigued both with the photos for themselves but also with this journey that is a bit of an escape from her own problems.
SIMON: The stories of these women were inspired by the stories of real people, weren't they?
JENOFF: They were. I was researching for my next book idea, and I discovered the incredible tale of the British women who had served in Special Operations Executive, deployed behind enemy lines to engage in sabotage and subversion. And so this book is very much inspired by the real-life heroism of those women.
SIMON: They had discovered - maybe we should explain - that for a number of reasons, men were more vulnerable to being discovered.
JENOFF: Yes. It was the darkest days of the war for Britain when they started sending people over - first, men to engage in these activities. And the men were easily discovered because on the streets of France in the early 1940s, there simply weren't many young men. They had all been conscripted or imprisoned. And so British men trying to fit in were tagged quite easily. So someone said, there's lots of women, why don't we send some of those?
SIMON: You introduce us to a character named Eleanor Trigg, directly inspired by a real-life British character named Vera Atkins. Tell us about them both.
JENOFF: So in real life, Vera Atkins - an interesting woman. She was not British. She was of East European descent, from a Jewish family. And she had worked her way up through Special Operations Executive and, among other things, became in charge of the women's unit - the women who were to serve in SOE. So she was in charge of their recruitment and their deployment. And ultimately, when many of these women were captured and killed, she felt a great deal of guilt and went to find out what had happened to them.
SIMON: You worked at the Pentagon and State Department, including a stint in Poland, I gather. Do we see any of that in your novels?
JENOFF: All of my books are very much inspired by those experiences. I was first at the Pentagon. And that is a time that I refer to as seeing the world from the shoulders of giants, to paraphrase Sir Isaac Newton. I traveled all over the world with my boss, including to the 50th anniversary commemorations of World War II.
I then moved over to the State Department. And, myself, I was - I'm Jewish, and I was on the ground in Poland, became very close to the survivors. And the U.S. government gave me responsibility for the Holocaust issues. And so I emerged from both of those experiences really changed and moved. And I've been writing what I refer to as love songs to that period ever since.
SIMON: So much of this novel is taken up with the stories of people who are trying to do the right thing when it's the stealthy thing (laughter). Well, how do we get ahold of that in this time and place?
JENOFF: One of the themes that really emerged for me in writing this book is the trust that we place in our governments and whether or not such trust is warranted, which, you know, may or may not be a timely theme, as well.
But in this case, in the book, you know, these women just up and left their lives, and sometimes children, and were dropped into occupied Europe - you know, just dropped by a plane - and had to sort of fend for themselves. And they were very much doing what they believe was the right thing. But they were only one piece of a much larger puzzle. And often, you know, it's a question of whether sort of the ends justify the means, I think.
SIMON: Yeah. Do you hope that people who might read your novel might feel some debt to the real people after whom it's modeled?
JENOFF: Absolutely. One of the most striking things is that - not just the scope of the heroism of these women and their exploits, but, you know, after the war, they really received very little recognition for a long time. And so there's a great joy in bringing these stories to life. And someone remarked that this is almost an appropriate story for this #MeToo moment that we're having because it really is a story about women finding their power and their voice.
SIMON: Pam Jenoff, her new novel, "The Lost Girls Of Paris" - thanks so much for being with us.
JENOFF: Thank you for having me.
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The hidden horrors of Ravensbrück, a concentration camp for women
In her new book, If This Is a Woman, journalist and author Sarah Helm relates the six-year history of the Nazis’ all-female Ravensbr࿌k concentration camp. She unearths unknown stories of the heroism and endurance of some of the 130,000 women who passed through its gates. The book’s title comes from the Primo Levi poem “If This Is a Man,” in which he writes: 𠇌onsider if this is a woman, / Without hair and without name / With no more strength to remember, / Her eyes empty and her womb cold / Like a frog in winter. / Meditate that this came about: / I commend these words to you.”
From Berlin’s Tegel airport it takes just over an hour to reach Ravensbr࿌k. The first time I drove there, in February 2006, heavy snow was falling and a truck had jackknifed on the Berlin ring road, so it would take longer.
Heinrich Himmler often drove out to Ravensbr࿌k, even in atrocious weather like this. The head of the SS had friends in the area and would drop in to inspect the camp as he passed by. He rarely left without issuing new orders. Once he ordered more root vegetables to be put in the prisoners’ soup. On another occasion he said the killing wasn’t going fast enough.
Ravensbr࿌k was the only Nazi concentration camp built for women. The camp took its name from the small village that adjoins the town of Fürstenberg and lies about 50 miles due north of Berlin, off the road to Rostock on Germany’s Baltic coast. Women arriving in the night sometimes thought they were near the coast because they tasted salt on the wind they also felt sand underfoot. When daylight came they saw that the camp was built on the edge of a lake and surrounded by forest. Himmler liked his camps to be in areas of natural beauty, and preferably hidden from view. Today the camp is still hidden from view the horrific crimes enacted there and the courage of the victims are largely unknown.
Ravensbr࿌k opened in May 1939, just under four months before the outbreak of war, and was liberated by the Russians six years later — it was one of the very last camps to be reached by the Allies. In the first year there were fewer than 2,000 prisoners, almost all of whom were Germans. Many had been arrested because they opposed Hitler — Communists, for example, and Jehovah’s Witnesses, who called Hitler the Antichrist. Others were rounded up simply because the Nazis considered them inferior beings and wanted them removed from society: prostitutes, criminals, down-and-outs and Gypsies. Later, the camp took in thousands of women captured in countries occupied by the Nazis, many of whom had been in the Resistance. Children were brought there too. A small proportion of the prisoners — about 10 per cent — were Jewish, but the camp was not formally designated a camp for Jews.
At its height, Ravensbr࿌k had a population of about 45,000 women over the six years of its existence around 130,000 women passed through its gates, to be beaten, starved, worked to death, poisoned, executed and gassed. Estimates of the final death toll have ranged from about 30,000 to 90,000 the real figure probably lies somewhere in between, but so few SS documents on the camp survive nobody will ever know for sure. The wholesale destruction of evidence at Ravensbr࿌k is another reason the camp’s story has remained obscured. In the final days, every prisoner’s file was burned in the crematorium or on bonfires, along with the bodies. The ashes were thrown in the lake.
I first learned of Ravensbr࿌k when writing an earlier book about Vera Atkins, a wartime officer with the British secret service’s Special Operations Executive. Immediately after the war Vera launched a single-handed search for British SOE women who had been parachuted into occupied France to help the Resistance, many of whom had gone missing. Vera followed their trails and discovered that several had been captured and taken to concentration camps.
I tried to reconstruct her search, and began with her personal papers, which were filed in brown cardboard boxes and kept by her sister-in-law Phoebe Atkins at her home in Cornwall. Inside were handwritten notes from interviews with survivors and with SS suspects — some of the earliest evidence gathered about the camp. I flicked through the papers. “We had to strip naked and were shaved,” one woman told Vera. There was 𠇊 column of choking blue smoke.”
A survivor talked of a camp hospital where “syphilis germs were injected into the spinal cord.” Another described seeing women arrive at the camp after a th march” through the snow from Auschwitz. One of the male SOE agents, imprisoned at Dachau, wrote a note saying he had heard about women from Ravensbr࿌k being forced to work in a Dachau brothel.
Among the prisoners were “the cream of Europe’s women,” according to a British investigator they included General de Gaulle’s niece, a former British women’s golf champion and scores of Polish countesses.
I began to look for dates of birth and addresses in case any of the survivors — or even the guards — might still be alive. Someone had given Vera the address of a Mrs. Chatenay, “who knows about the sterilization of children in Block 11.” A Dr. Louise Le Porz had made a very detailed statement saying the camp was built on an estate belonging to Himmler and his private Schloss, or château, was nearby. Her address was Mérignac, Gironde, but from her date of birth she was probably dead.
Towards the back of the box I found handwritten lists of prisoners, smuggled out by a Polish woman who had taken notes in the camp as well as sketches and maps. “The Poles had all the best information,” the note said. The woman who wrote the list turned out to be long dead, but some of the addresses were in London, and the survivors still living.
I took the sketches with me on the first drive out to Ravensbr࿌k, hoping they would help me find my way around when I got there. But as the snow thickened I wondered if I𠆝 reach the camp at all.
Many tried and failed to reach Ravensbr࿌k. Red Cross officials trying to get to the camp in the chaos of the final days of war had to turn back, such was the flow of refugees moving the other way. A few months after the war, when Vera Atkins drove out this way to start her investigation, she was stopped at a Russian checkpoint the camp was inside the Russian zone of occupation and access by other Allied nationals was restricted. By this time, Vera’s hunt for the missing women had become part of a bigger British investigation into the camp, resulting in the first Ravensbr࿌k war crimes trials, which opened in Hamburg in 1946.
In the 1950s, as the Cold War began, Ravensbr࿌k fell behind the Iron Curtain, which split survivors — east from west — and broke the history of the camp in two. The site became a shrine to the camp’s Communist heroines, and all over East Germany streets and schools were named after them.
Meanwhile, in the West, Ravensbr࿌k literally disappeared from view.
In those countries that lost large numbers in the camp, survivors’ groups tried to keep memories alive. An estimated 8,000 French, 1,000 Dutch, 18,000 Russians and 40,000 Poles were imprisoned. Yet, for different reasons in each country, the story has been obscured.
In Britain, which had no more than 20 women in the camp, the ignorance is startling, as it is in the U.S. The British may know of Dachau, the first concentration camp, and perhaps of Belsen because British troops liberated it and the horror they found there, captured on film, forever scarred the British consciousness. Otherwise only Auschwitz, synonymous with the gassing of the Jews, has real resonance.
After reading Vera’s files I looked around to see what had been written on the women’s camp. Mainstream historians — nearly all of them men — had almost nothing to say. Then a friend, working in Berlin, lent me a hefty collection of essays mostly by German women academics. In the 1990s, feminist historians had begun a fightback. This book promised to “release women from the anonymity that lies behind the word prisoner.”
I had also come across a handful of prisoners’ memoirs, mostly from the 1950s and 1960s, hanging around in the back shelves of public libraries, often with sensationalized jackets. The cover for a memoir by a French literature teacher, Micheline Maurel, showed a voluptuous Bond-girl look-alike behind barbed wire. A book about Irma Grese, one of the early Ravensbr࿌k guards, was titled The Beautiful Beast.
I went to see Yvonne Baseden, the only survivor I was then aware was still living. Yvonne was one of Vera Atkins’s SOE women, captured while helping the Resistance in France, then sent to Ravensbr࿌k. Yvonne had always willingly talked about her Resistance work, but whenever I had broached the subject of Ravensbr࿌k she had said she “knew nothing” and turned away.
This time I told her I was planning to write a book on the camp, hoping she might say more, but she looked up in horror.
I asked why not. “It is too horrible. Couldn’t you write about something else? What are you going to tell your children you are doing?’ she asked.
Didn’t she think the story should be told? “Oh yes. Nobody knows about Ravensbr࿌k at all. Nobody ever wanted to know from the moment we came back.” She looked out of the window.
As I left she gave me a small book. It was another memoir, with a particularly monstrous cover, twisted figures in black and white. Yvonne hadn’t read it, she said, pushing it on me.
When I got home I read it without putting it down. The author was a young French lawyer called Denise Dufournier who had written a simple and moving account of endurance against all odds. The omination” was not the only part of the Ravensbr࿌k story that was being forgotten so was the fight for survival.
A few days later a French voice spoke out of my answering machine. It was Dr. Louise Le Porz (now Liard), the doctor from Mérignac who I𠆝 assumed was dead. Instead, she was inviting me to stay with her in Bordeaux, where she now lived. I could stay as long as I liked as there was much to talk about. 𠇋ut you𠆝 better hurry. I’m 93 years old.”
Soon after this I made contact with Bärbel Schindler-Saefkow, the author of Memory Book. Bärbel, the daughter of a German Communist prisoner, was compiling a database of the prisoners she had travelled far afield gathering up lists of names hidden in obscure archives. She sent me the address of Valentina Makarova, a Belorussian partisan, who had survived the Auschwitz death march. Valentina wrote back, suggesting I visit her in Minsk.
By the time I reached Berlin’s outer suburbs the snow was easing. I passed a sign for Sachsenhausen, the location of the men’s concentration camp, which meant I was heading the right way. Sachsenhausen and Ravensbr࿌k had close contacts. The men’s camp even baked the women’s bread the loaves were driven out on this road every day. At first each woman got half a loaf each evening. By the end of the war they barely received a slice and the “useless mouths” — as the Nazis called those they wanted rid of — received none at all.
Himmler’s SS empire was vast: by the middle of the war there were as many as 15,000 Nazi camps, which included temporary labour camps and thousands of subcamps, linked to the main concentration camps, dotted all over Germany and Poland. The biggest and most monstrous were those constructed in 1942, under the terms of the Final Solution. By the end of the war an estimated six million Jews had been exterminated. The facts of the Jewish genocide are today so well-known and so overwhelming that many people suppose that Hitler’s extermination program consisted of the Jewish Holocaust alone.
People who ask about Ravensbr࿌k are often surprised that the majority of the women killed there were not Jews.
Today historians differentiate between the camps but labels can mislead. Ravensbr࿌k is often described as a “slave labour” camp, but slave labour was only a stage on the way to death. Prisoners at the time called Ravensbr࿌k a death camp. The French survivor and ethnologist Germaine Tillion called it a place of “slow extermination.”
Leaving Berlin, the road north cut across white fields before plunging into trees. From time to time I passed abandoned collective farms, remnants from Communist times.
Deep into the forest the snow had drifted and it became hard to find the way. Ravensbr࿌k women were often sent out through the snow to fell trees in the woods. The snow stuck to their wooden clogs so that they walked on snow platforms, their ankles twisting as they went. Alsatian dogs held on leashes by women guards pounced on them if they fell.
The names of forest villages began to seem familiar from testimony I𠆝 read. Then the spire of Fürstenberg church came into view. From the centre of the town the camp was quite invisible, but I knew it lay just the other side of the lake. Prisoners talked about seeing the spire when they came out of the camp gates.
On the other side of Fürstenberg a cobbled forest road — built by the prisoners — led to the camp. Houses with pitched roofs appeared on the left from Vera’s map I knew these were the houses where the guards lived. One had been converted into a youth hostel, where I would spend the night. The original guards’ decor had long since been stripped away, to be replaced by pristine modern fittings, but the previous occupants still haunted their old rooms.
The lake opened out on to my right, vast and frozen white.
The Siemens factory camp, a few hundred yards beyond the south wall, was overgrown and hard to reach, as was the annex, called the Youth Camp, where so much killing had happened. I would have to imagine what they were like, but I didn’t have to imagine the cold. The prisoners stood out here on the camp square for hours in their cotton clothes. I sought shelter in the 𠇋unker,” the stone prison building, its cells converted during the Cold War period into memorials to the Communist dead. Lists of names were inscribed on shiny black granite.
Outside the camp walls I found other memorials, more intimate ones. Near the crematorium was a long dark passage with high walls, known as the shooting alley. A small bunch of roses had been placed here they would have been dead if they weren’t frozen. There was a label with a name.
There were three little posies of flowers in the crematorium, lying on the ovens, and a few roses scattered on the edge of the lake. Since the camp had become accessible again, former prisoners were coming to remember their dead friends. I needed to find more survivors while there was still time.
I understood now what this book should be: a biography of Ravensbr࿌k beginning at the beginning and ending at the end. The book would try to throw light on the Nazis’ crimes against women, showing, at the same time, how an understanding of what happened at the camp for women can illuminate the wider Nazi story.
So much of the evidence had been destroyed, so much forgotten and distorted. But a great deal had survived, and new evidence was becoming available all the time.
Most important for this book would be the voices of the prisoners themselves they would be my guide as to what really happened.
The sun broke through briefly as I stood near the shooting gallery. Wood pigeons were hooting at the tops of the linden trees, competing with the sound of traffic sweeping past. A coach carrying French schoolchildren had pulled in and they were standing around smoking cigarettes.
I was looking straight across the frozen lake towards the Fürstenberg church spire. In the distance workmen were moving around in a boatyard summer visitors take the boats out, unaware of the ashes lying at the bottom of the lake. The breeze was blowing a red rose across the ice.
© 2015 Sarah Helm, extracted from the prologue of If This is a Woman, published by Little, Brown.
Resistance is a common thread in both A Call to Spy and Radium Girls
Like most of the films reclaiming women’s stories, this one focuses on the years of her greatest achievements. Virginia simply mentions her past in her first interview with Vera. She had tried to join the US intelligence service, but the State Department rejected her because of her prosthetic. She went to France as a wartime ambulance driver instead, and later worked in the office of the American Embassy in London. While A Call to Spy is true to the basic facts and trajectories of its heroines’ careers, it fictionalises their relationships. Vera knew Virginia, but did not recruit her as she does in the film. The real-life Noor worked for Vera, but she and Virginia did not share a room during their SOE training and meet again in France as they do on screen. The changes, Thomas says, “allowed me to put Noor and Virginia together in time and space, like Hidden Figures did. I call them the hidden figures of the spy world. That film was 100 per cent a reference”.
The film A Call to Spy is based on the true story of Virginia Hall and her colleagues (Credit: Amazon Prime)
Linking the stories also made the film more pertinent in today’s global world. “I was interested in the concept of how women from different nationalities and backgrounds united to resist a common evil,” Thomas says. Throughout the film, Vera is suspect in her own department because she is Jewish and foreign-born. She worries that her British citizenship will not come through and she’ll be deported. Noor, born to an Indian father and English mother, is a Muslim and a pacifist who insists she has a part to play in fighting the Nazis.
Danger and drama
Resistance is a common thread in both A Call to Spy and Radium Girls, which Pilcher co-directed with one of its screenwriters, Ginny Mohler. Radium Girls begins in 1925 in a factory where women paint glow-in-the-dark numbers on the faces of watches. They lick the brushes, loaded with paint containing radium, to draw more precisely. The company, American Radium, also sells radium-infused water as a magic elixir. The heroines are based on real-life sisters who sued the company they worked for, and discovered that the owners had known about the lethal danger of radium for years.
As she does in A Call to Spy, Pilcher creates an atmospheric world here, and characters with whom viewers can sympathise. Joey King plays Bessie, who dreams of becoming a Hollywood star, and Abby Quinn is Josie, who longs to visit Egypt on an archaeological dig. Josie is the factory’s fastest and best worker, but soon becomes ill. The company doctor tells her she’s fine, although she is coughing up blood and losing her teeth.
The glowing, radium-laden nail polish Bessie wears is an example of the film’s potent use of period details. But the heroines’ struggle for the truth couldn’t be timelier, demonstrating how historical figures can resonate in the present. Although Radium Girls was made before Covid-19 was discovered, Pilcher sees the story as “parallel to what’s happening today in the world of Covid, where science is being denied, some people are saying something is safe when it’s not, and you see people dying”.
In Radium Girls, Joey King plays a factory worker who bravely resists her bosses (Credit: Alamy)
As vivid as these screen heroines are, the films tell only part of their histories. A Call to Spy ends with the war still on. Virginia’s irresistible real-life drama, in all its scope, is covered in a major biography published last year, Sonia Purnell’s A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War Two. After the war, she became one of the first women in the newly formed CIA, but today even the CIA acknowledges that the agency did not use her well. A declassified report cited by Purnell says that Virginia was held back “because she had so much experience that she overshadowed her male colleagues, who felt threatened by her”. In 2016, the CIA named a building after her. That is not complete restitution, but it’s something. Telling her story on screen, along with those of other undersung heroines, is a more dynamic living tribute than any building could be.
A Call to Spy is streaming now in the US and UK. Radium Girls is in cinemas and streaming in the US, and begins streaming in the UK on 15 Dec.
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Women Spies During WWII Were Way Better At Keeping Secrets Than Their Male Counterparts
“Loose lips sink ships,” a famous World War II poster warned. While men dominated the spy game in World War II, women might have been better at it. Why? Because they took the poster’s warning to heart, and never talked about it. Women of that era had learned how to hide their true feelings from men, and by extension, the world. “The girls were good at role playing,” British spy trainer Leslie Fernandez recalled in Marcus Binney’s The Women Who Lived for Danger. “Survival did not just require physical strength but the ability to live a cover story—which women could excel at.”
The official line on how the British broke the German codes, which they dubbed “Ultra,” was kept fully under lids until 1974, when English spy Frederick Winterbotham (a man, I note) published The Ultra Secret, revealing the now legendary decryptions at Bletchley Park. Female codebreaker Mavis Batey, who was 53 years old in 1974, was shocked to see what she’d kept secret for 30 years suddenly in the public sphere. “Could we now tell the family why we were so good at anagrams, Scrabble and crossword puzzles?” she wrote in Michael Smith’s Bletchley anthology Action This Day.
When exposing Bletchley’s activities, Frederick failed to give Mavis and the other women who toiled in Bletchley’s decryption “cottage” their due. Men of that era didn’t like to give women credit for brain work—sitting up late at night with pencil and paper, or wrestling with machines that mimicked how their enemies encoded the message. The public preferred to cling to the stereotype of the rare female spy as a femme fatale. Mavis fumed about an earlier male writer who insisted that a beautiful spy dubbed Cynthia broke an important Italian naval code the feminine way. She had supposedly enthralled the Italian attaché in Washington to sneak the codebooks from him. Thanks to Cynthia, the British won the battle of Matapan.
Not true at all, Mavis said. She knew, because she broke the code herself. “If we had such books we wouldn’t have needed codebreakers as it would have been child’s play,” Mavis sniffed.
Her Bletchley boss Dilly Knox knew the value of his “girls,” and composed a light-hearted poem in their honour, the women who really defeated Mussolini. “These have knelled your fall and ruin, but your ears were far away/English lassies rustling papers through the sodden Bletchley day.”
Women weren’t only rustling papers, but they went in the field too. By necessity in the UK, with nearly all men off to fight Hitler overseas, large numbers of British women entered the espionage game under the Special Operations Executive (SOE), the true cloak and dagger stuff, and made up one-third of that secret service.
“In the real world of spies, Vera Atkins was the boss,” famed 007 author Ian Fleming, a naval intelligence man, wrote. Though a select few people knew that Vera was born in 1908 as Vera Maria Rosenberg, a Romanian Jew by way of Germany and South Africa, no one knew who she really was. Vera “became known as tight-lipped, outspoken, kind, ruthless, beautiful, dowdy, a social butterfly, a scholar, proudly Jewish, [and] more English than a vicar’s daughter,” her biographer William Stevenson wrote in Spymistress.
She was 31 years old when World War II broke out in her adopted homeland of Great Britain. Her wealthy father, a financial advisor to the king of Romania, had ensured Vera had a handy mix of accomplishments: shooting guns, riding horses, and dancing. Vera’s first major assignment—before the war when she was only 23—was to loosen the lips of the German ambassador to Romania, and Vera got him to blab about Hitler as they dined in fine restaurants.
Men of that era didn’t like to give women credit for brain work—sitting up late at night with pencil and paper, or wrestling with machines that mimicked how their enemies encoded the message.
She snuck into Poland three days after the Nazis invaded to rescue key Polish codebreakers. Vera was also an airplane pilot. Was there nothing she could not do? “Women are best at such clandestine work,” she declared to her companion, Elder Wills, who developed spy gadgets for the SOE. He did not disagree. Their conversation turned to politics, with Vera supporting a socialist. Wills said Churchill would never support a socialist in parliament. “Winston’s changed his mind,” Vera said. “Just like he’s changed his mind about lady killers.”
And well he might, when some of the male operatives could be show-offs and big mouths. Consider this American spy in Istanbul in 1944—when Lanning MacFarland entered a local nightclub, the music stopped and a spotlight beamed down on him. Then, the orchestra struck up with a song apparently called “Boop, Boop, Baby, I’m a Spy!” as recounted in Evan Thomas’s CIA history The Very Best Men.
Vera had a special talent to recruit the right women. She scrutinized them cagily, because her position as a director of the SOE was kept secret even from her spy colleagues. One of the few who knew her true role was in awe of her calm yet ruthless statement: “We know very bad men plan very bad things. We must find out who they are and kill them.”
Vera’s agents became legendary themselves. Virginia Hall had cover as a correspondent for the Chicago Times in France. After the Nazis invaded, she pretended to be French Canadian and became the leader of a safe house in Lyons, where she hid Allied servicemen “who burrowed their way out of prison camps” as they escaped to neutral areas such as Spain. No matter that she had a wooden leg, which she called Cuthbert—she built up her own fighting units. A Gestapo chief grumbled, “I’d give anything to get my hands on that Canadian bitch!”
Besides Europe, women were also active in espionage in Far East during the war. The American spy service, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), maintained its regional office Kandy, India, where agents kept an eye on Burma, Thailand, and other strategic countries. Kandy also happened to be the headquarters of Admiral Lord Mountbatten, supreme commander of the combined Allied operations. A heady locale for an innocent 30-year-old California gal, Julia Child. She and her debutante pal Betty MacDonald were of the same ilk, cheerfully admitting they were only middling as spy personalities, as recounted in Jennet Conant’s biography of Julia, A Covert Affair. However, their OSS compatriot Jane Foster was of a different mold. She got others gossiping, yet gave nothing away herself as she became everyone’s friend. “She was the jolliest girl on land or sea,” an OSS lieutenant said. Jane was also cosmopolitan: she spent the 1930s flitting through the salons of Paris and Nazi Germany, and lived a time in the Dutch East Indies. She became fluent in French and Malay.
Julia, Betty and Jane started in the OSS propaganda department, but they received full sleuth training, which included covert trailing and the use of arms. By the time they got to India, the three women were promoted to assessing clandestine reports and tracking secret agents in the field. Jane was the only member of the female OSS team—which was based in outlying bungalows of the command compound—to be invited to Lord Mountbatten’s fabulous parties at the colonial palace.
Near the end of the war, as the US and UK battled it out for spy supremacy in the Far East, Julia was transferred to Kunming, China, to monitor the rise of Communism there. America hoped to stop Communism from spreading to nearby Burma and Thailand, the setting for my espionage novel Doublespeak. Meanwhile, Jane was put in charge of repatriating prisoners of war in Indonesia, documenting war crimes, and filing daily reports of political developments on the ground.
Within ten years of Jane’s heyday, the FBI accused her of being a Russian spy during the McCarthy witch hunts. Jane denied it, and her OSS friend Betty refused to believe it. Pragmatic Julia stayed quiet about her opinion for decades until, in an interview near the end of her life, she just shrugged while referring to “that fascinating and amusing girl, Jane Foster, who turned out to be a Russian agent.”
Certainly, neither Jane nor Julia could be said to have loose lips. Suck on that, Mr. Boop Boop Baby.
The original book is like this.
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