Vera Atkins: A Life in Secrets by Sarah Helm [Book Review]
A Life in Secrets has been on my shelf for a few years. I’ve had an interest in SOE since I read Carve Her Name With Pride when I was about 11. Since writing Hunting Nazis I’ve collected more and more material about SOE with the background thought that I might write some more historical fiction with the same characters.
Vera Atkins: A Life in Secrets
I found A Life in Secrets a very thorough piece of investigation by Sarah Helm. It builds on what has come before, especially the work of Jean Overton Fuller and adds to it using primary research with documents, interviews and visits to key locations. Sarah Helm shows the secrets in Vera Atkins life, and the conspiracy theories that they spawned. She then adds her own extra work to debunk some of the conspiracy theories.
The last 100 pages or so of this book draws on the previously unpublished official files. It also uses material found in both Vera Atkins archive and those of others involved. I found a lot of pencil underlining and flagging in this section because there was a lot of new material here. The earlier part of the book also holds a lot of new material too, although I was mostly interested in the SOE section.
One of the things that did strike me was that there were some very strange things going on with SOE. The Germans had thoroughly penetrated it, which isn’t news, but how they did that points closely to another key staff officer and his pre-war contacts with both Henri Déricourt and also Karl Boemelburg who lead the Gestapo in France. How Vera Atkins, or her boss Colonel Buckmaster, didn’t realise this remains hard to discern. There’s a suggestion, from the postwar trial of Déricourt, that this was a deception operation and that Déricourt passed information to the Germans under orders from London.
Vera Atkins shaping narrative
There’s also the matter of some of Vera’s behaviour, which seemed odd to me.
- Vera used to lurk in the comms room waiting to see the messages arrive, which wasn’t her job.
- She personally weeded the files before they were sent to the archives.
- Vera either interrogated or acted as an interpreter for many key war crimes suspects.
- She rapidly engaged with those telling SOE stories to give them the ‘correct’ version and cut off anyone that seemed to be trying to tell anything else
Put together these are suspicious, it looks like Vera Atkins was hiding something, although we’re unlikely ever to know exactly what. Vera erased anything she didn’t like from the official files. She also ensured that war criminals didn’t pass on unhelpful information. There are some chinks though, and Sarah Helm has done her best to use those to debunk some of the conspiracy theories. The last couple of chapters deal with these well. What we are left with is a woman who tried her best to save her Jewish family members and to defeat the Nazis. There are a few notable gaps in her history, especially from 1939 until she joined SOE in late 1941. Her naturalisation as a British subject was sponsored by three British officers, all known to have worked for MI6. She also had at least one trip to the continent in late 1940 that wasn’t disclosed to the immigration department.
Overall, this is one of the best researched histories of SOE F Section and it’s London end. A Life in Secrets would be an excellent place to start if you wanted to understand the Operating Context of F Section, SOE.