A Life in Secrets: Vera Atkins and the Missing Agents of WWII.

A Life in Secrets: Vera Atkins and the Missing Agents of WWII.

by Sarah Helm

Once rumored to have been the inspiration for Ian Fleming's Miss Moneypenny, Vera Atkins climbed her way to the top in the Special Operations Executive, or SOE: Britain's secret service created to help build up, organize, and arm the resistance in the Nazi-occupied countries.

Throughout the war, Atkins recruited, trained, and mentored the agents for the SOE's French Section, which sent more than four hundred young men and women into occupied France, at least one hundred of whom never returned and were reported MPD (missing presumed dead) after the war.

Drawing on recently released sixty-year-old government files and her unprecedented access to the private papers of the Atkins family, Helm vividly reconstructs a complex and extraordinary life.

  • Language: English
  • Category: History
  • Rating: 4.06
  • Pages: 528
  • Publish Date: August 22nd 2006 by Nan A. Talese
  • Isbn10: 038550845X
  • Isbn13: 9780385508452

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My reading program for this month is to immerse myself in the world of female agents operating in France during WW2. During World War Two, Vera Atkins recruited, trained, and mentored the agents for the SOE's French Section, which sent more than four hundred young men and women into occupied France, at least one hundred of whom never returned. What this meant was many of the female SOE agents were quickly caught by the Gestapo. As a footnote I was also pleased to read how appalled real female SOE agents and their relatives were by Charlotte Gray, both the novel and film.

So this fabulously well written and researched book contains mysteries within mysteries within mysteries.

This biography of Vera Atkins is one of the most amazing books I have ever read. I was amazed at the level of incompetence in the Special Operations Executive (SOE), clandestinely established by the British to place saboteurs into Europe.They were engaged in recruiting, and setting up resistance organizations as well as supporting them behind enemy lines. It was her job to help recruit, train and send off the operatives.

The book conveys the authors heroic effort to discover the truth about Veras life and also about the agents, many of whom landed right into the arms of the Germans and eventually died horrible deaths in concentration camps.

And yet as I have read other non-fiction upon specific agents in this exact circle, I find this particular research work dry and yes, having pieces of interest, but with no solid connecting direction, or "how" of the operation to mesh transitions between individual outcomes. Vera was rather a closed trap far after the fact of war time operations. The search for missing women agents that Vera Atkins conducted during the war crimes trial years is the much heavier content of this book. Vera's eyes are so, so 1000 year stare and cold. Nora Inayat Khan was the most famous British woman agent in France for which Vera never really found an answer.

A Life in Secrets: Vera Atkins and the Missing Agents of WWII is a book about journeys. Firstly it is the author Sarah Helms journey to discover the real Vera Atkins who she met only once in 1998. When after the war more than a hundred SOE agents hadnt returned Vera begins a journey to find out what happened to them. Helm then writes about many of the female SOE agents including Yvonne Rudellat, Nora Inayat Khan, Violette Szabo and others. This is the part of the A Life in Secrets I really wanted to read about - the fate of the missing agents, including thirteen women.

Women were so successful in their roles as couriers that eventually the decision was made to send them in as wireless operators as well. Helm focuses on the life of Vera Rosenberg, aka Vera Atkins, one of the original members of the SOE. At the conclusion of the war, Vera undertook a one woman mission to learn the fate of each agent lost and secured honors for their deaths where she could. I have tried to read more about these fascinating women. Helms does a great service by adding to the annals of history a work that looks critically at the organization responsible for the lives of the brave women.

This is a very astounding book; another look behind the curtains of the S.O.E and the "brains" of the "F" section, Vera Atkins.

Yet this book largely, but not wholly, reads as though the author struggled to sift and piece her material together to her satisfaction, let alone that of her editor.