Thursday, August 31, 2006

Sounds Like a Great Book

A new book is out, Vera Atkins and the Missing Agents of WWII, By Sarah Helm, Illustrated. 493 pages. Nan A. Talese/Doubleday

In 1941, with its back against the wall, Britain was ready to try just about anything to avoid defeat at the hands of Nazi Germany. And so it happened that, to her surprise, a 33-year-old woman named Vera Atkins was recruited by a top-secret agency, the Special Operations Executive, where she ended up overseeing a network of British spies operating in France. Like many of the people around her, Miss Atkins was an amateur. Unlike them, she hid a past so mysterious that it took decades to unravel. Her extraordinary life, pieced together in a stupendous job of reporting by the British journalist Sarah Helm, is the subject of “A Life in Secrets.”

Of the 400 agents sent to France by F Section, the French division of the Special Operations Executive, more than a hundred were still missing three months after D-Day, and Miss Atkins, who had personally seen many of them off from airfields in Britain, was determined to learn their fate.

Ms. Helm describes the workings of F Section in fascinating detail, including the fact that in 1943 it was betrayed by a French pilot, who flew agents from Britain to France. As a result, many of its operatives walked directly into the waiting arms of the Nazis, who took their radios and began requesting more agents, money and arms, which F Section duly sent.

The history of F Section, and the Special Operations Executive, blends heroism and ineptitude, with top honors for incompetence going to Miss Atkins’s superior, Maurice Buckmaster. A genial bumbler, Buckmaster refused to believe that his operations had gone awry until the Germans, on orders from Hitler, sent taunting messages thanking F Section for the cash and the guns.

Miss Atkins, despite her posh English accent and her adoration of all things upper class and British, was a Romanian Jew with the family name Rosenberg. The family, with roots in Germany, South Africa and Britain, ran a successful timber business. Vera grew up speaking multiple languages and attended finishing school in Switzerland.

Ms. Helms discovered that Miss Atkins probably began supplying information to British intelligence while working as a secretary for an oil company in Bucharest. After making her way to Britain in 1937, she was recruited for F Section, an ideal candidate considering her fluent French and German.

In other ways, she was less than ideal. As a Jew, she encountered prejudice from the sort of upper-class Englishmen she so admired. More seriously, and unknown to anyone until Ms. Helm unearthed the facts, she had secretly traveled to Antwerp in 1940 to pay $150,000 to a Nazi intelligence agent to secure a passport for a family member, who agreed in return to supply intelligence to the Nazis.

The search for the missing agents provides Ms. Helm with her most gripping pages, as Miss Atkins, racing against time, tracks down and interrogates Nazi officers, prison-camp workers and former prisoners. Some of the missing returned. Brian Stonehouse, a Jewish agent, miraculously survived four concentration camps. Odette Sansom, a courier, survived Ravensbrück by pretending to be the wife of her spy partner, who happened to be named Churchill. This ruse earned her special consideration, although her Churchill was no relation to the prime minister.

Most of the female agents were sent on doomed missions that led them, eventually, to concentration camps and execution. Noor Khan, considered emotionally frail, turned out to be fierce and courageous when captured. She refused to cooperate with the Germans, showed them nothing but contempt, and in the instant before her death, after she had been tortured and beaten to a bloody pulp, spoke but a single French word, “liberté.”

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