Book Review – Flames in the Field by Rita Kramer
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
While this has lots of fascinating information about SOE Operations in France in WW2 it needs a better editor. The nature of the story, primarily of the secret operations in German occupied France in 1943 and the SD penetration of the SOE network, is one of many parallel threads and the uncovering of a mystery. So this makes it hard to just write a linear narrative, and the author has done a pretty good job of writing very readable prose that clearly explains what is going on. However there are a few places where the ordering of the material goes backwards within a few paragraphs and crucial pieces of information are given out of order.
The book shows an awful lot of research was done by the author, over a period of what seems to be years, and building on the work done by a number of predecessors. There is an academic level of referencing and footnotes. There are several distinct parts to the book. The first is a narrative on four women SOE agents killed by the nazis at Natzweiler, which then widens to encompass the others that were arrested around the same time and that shared their captivity in Fresnes and then Karlsruhe. Each of these women is identified and has their life story before joining SOE told. Where it is known this then leads up to how they were captured.
Another piece of the narrative are the attempts by others (initally Vera Atkins in 1945-6 and then Jean Overton Fuller) to find out what happened to the women after they were arrested. This then leads nicely into attempts to work out whether or not the women were betrayed, and if so by whom. There has been a lot of controversy about this, and many of the participants in the events have competing theories. Traitors in SOE, strategic deception and sacrifice by the British, french informers, poor operational security of the SOE agents, German counter-intelligence competence. Each of these is disected in turn, sometimes adding new perspectives to help rule them in/out.
Lastly there is some discussion of the post-war discoveries as the secrets kept for 20-30 years following the war started to come out. How the revelations around both Ultra intelligence and the British strategic deception plans changed how the events of 1943 are interpreted to modern eyes.
On a content basis this should be a five star book, it draws together all the earlier sources and is well written. However the structure lets it down, and makes it harder to assimilate. It reads like the collected notes of the author more than as a structured narrative.