From an award-winning journalist comes this real-life cloak-and-dagger tale of Vera Atkins, one of Britain's premiere secret agents during World War II.
As the head of the French Section of the British Special Operations Executive, Vera Atkins recruited, trained, and mentored special operatives whose job was to organize and arm the resistance in Nazi-occupied France. After the war, Atkins courageously committed herself to a dangerous search for twelve of her most cherished women spies who had gone missing in action. Drawing on previously unavailable sources, Sarah Helm chronicles Atkins's extraordinary life and her singular journey through the chaos of post-war Europe. Brimming with intrigue, heroics, honor, and the horrors of war, A Life in Secrets is the story of a grand, elusive woman and a tour de force of investigative journalism.
Starred Review. Vera Atkins (1908-2000) was the highest-ranking female official in the French section of a WWII British intelligence unit that aided the resistance. Atkins sent 400 agents into France, including 39 women she'd personally recruited and supervised. Many were caught by the Gestapo and subsequently disappeared and presumed dead. In 1945, after the war, Atkins, fiercely loyal to the memory of her missing agents, took it upon herself to spend a year interviewing concentration camp officials and survivors in order to piece together her agents' fates. Helm, a founding member of London's Independent, brilliantly reconstructs Atkins's harrowing detective work, shedding light in particular on the fate of missing agent Noor Inayat Khan, whose suitability for the job had been widely doubted. Helm's portrait of Atkins is acute, dwelling evocatively on her Romanian-Jewish origins and their social significance for Atkins within upper-crust British circles, and on Atkins's mysterious personal life. Drawing on interviews with relatives and friends of both Atkins and her agents, and on full access to Atkins's private papers, Helm has produced a memorable portrait of a woman who knowingly sent other women to their deaths and a searing history of female courage and suffering during WWII. (On sale Aug. 22)
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December 03, 2007
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Excerpt from A Life in Secrets by Sarah Helm
Chapter 1 1. Nora Vera Atkins did not, as a rule, take too much notice of the opinions of others. When it was a question of judging the character of a particular agent, especially a woman agent, she liked to make up her own mind in her own time—which was usually within a few moments of their entering the room where she first met them, at Orchard Court. The flat in Orchard Court, just off Baker Street in London’s West End, was a base used by SOE’s French Section, or F Section, where headquarters staff could meet new recruits and also brief those departing on missions. Agents were never allowed into SOE’s HQ in Baker Street in case they heard or saw something they did not need to know. By the spring of 1943, when recruitment to F Section was fast picking up, a steady stream of young men and women would arrive at Orchard Court. The drill for new arrivals was by now well established. First, Park the doorman, in dark suit and tie, would lead the way (never asking names but always knowing exactly who a new arrival was) through the gilded gates of the lift and on up to the second floor. In perfect English or French, whichever they preferred, Park would then usher them into the flat and straight into a bathroom, because there was no space for a waiting room. “Back in the bathroom, please, sir [or madam],” he would say if they wandered out, and here the agents sat on the side of a deep, jet-black bath, or on the onyx bidet, surrounded by black and white tiles, while they waited to see what would happen next. Park would then lead the agent to meet Maurice Buckmaster, the head of F Section. A tall, slender, athletic figure (he once captained Eton at soccer) with angular facial features and fair, thinning hair, Buckmaster would shake the agent’s hand vigourously, then, perching momentarily on his desk, legs swinging, make a few warm welcoming remarks. To any recruit who seemed inquisitive he would say, “We don’t ask questions,” firmly stressing the need for secrecy at all times. He would then stride off with the recruit down the hallway and, opening another door, say, “And this is Miss Atkins.” Nodding towards Vera, Buckmaster would then explain, “Miss Atkins will be looking after you from now on,” and as the door closed the new arrival’s eyes would fall on a woman seated at a table, who produced a smile—remote but welcoming. Vera then rose, tall and trim, in twinset or tweed suit, her fair hair rolled up at the nape of her neck. This mature woman in her midthirties, most recruits assumed, must be a woman of senior rank, though exactly what rank was not at all clear as there was no uniform and she was only ever called “Madam” or “Miss Atkins.” After proffering a hand, Vera settled herself again behind a small table, showing off nicely turned ankles and smart court shoes that looked expensive but probably were not. She then slowly lit a cigarette, and her blue-grey eyes fixed upon the new recruit. Vera appeared to know everything about the new arrival, and without referring to any piece of paper she could talk to them about their country of origin, about their family, and about their special knowledge in any field—for example, she knew if they could fire a gun, fly an aeroplane, read a map, or ski. And Vera knew exactly where the new recruit was living, and if they needed accommodation, she would offer to arrange it. She knew of their financial circumstances as well and could offer cash advances on request up to a limited amount each month. All this was very reassuring, because until they met Miss Atkins many of these men and women had felt somewhat disoriented by the experience of “special employment,” as their new work was called. Some