Friday, March 18, 2016

Review of A Life In Secrets: The Story Of Vera Atkins And The Lost Agents Of SOE by Sarah Helm (2005, Abacus)

Vera Atkins was born in Romania in 1908, schooled in Switzerland, and travelled widely prior to the Second World War, including Germany, England, South Africa (in each of which she had family) and the Middle East.  After her father’s death she changed her surname from Rosenberg to her mother’s maiden name, seeking to hide her Jewish heritage, and moved to Britain in the late 1930s.  Throughout her life she moved in the higher echelons of society and through her contacts she secured a post working for the nascent SOE, formed to place agents into enemy territory to collect information and undertake sabotage.  Vera took particular interest in the female agents, always trying to be at the airfield when the departed.  After the war she travelled to France and Germany and doggedly investigated the fate of those agents that fell into the hands of the Gestapo, visiting concentration camps and interrogating Nazi officers and officials.
Sarah Helm’s book explores Vera’s life and in particular her role in SOE and her post-war quest.  The book is divided into three parts.  The first part concerns Vera’s time in SOE during the war, the setting up of agent networks in France, and the disastrous handling of the Prosper and related networks in which London was expertly played through a ‘radio game’ in which the Germans broadcast through captured wireless sets and fresh agents were parachuted into their waiting hands.   The second part concerns Vera’s life before the war and her move to Britain.  The third part details Vera’s attempt to track down what happened to her agents and to seek justice for them.  What is clear from the outset is that Vera Atkins spent her life creating a carefully managed story about herself and her work.  And despite living a full and eventful life, she was guarded, manipulative, and often quite cold.  While respectful to Vera’s memory, Helm also exposes her secrets, dispelling the myths she created.  The story of the agents is both tragic and poignant.

Helm tries to enliven the text a little by describing her research; her various interactions with those that knew her and the families of SOE agents, her journeys to track down sources and view the places that Vera had lived/visited, and her searching and sifting through various archives.  The insertion of the author into the narrative runs counter to usual biographical/historical accounts and while it does provide some context as to why Helm draws the conclusions that she does it’s also a little tedious at times and pads the text.  Nonetheless, it is clear that Helm has undertaken a very large amount of research and her deductions seem sound.  The result is an interesting account of secretive woman who was involved in secretive work and the female agents she sent into the field.

No comments: