I discovered “A Life in Secrets” as a result of reading Leo Marks’ book, “Between Silk and Cyanide” in which Vera features and I was intrigued to find out more about her.
This book is in not about Bletchley Park, though it is mentioned twice. It is quintessentially about Special Operations Executive (SOE) French (F) Section and Vera Atkins, her character, her role within F Section and her post war quest to find her missing SOE agents. This biography successfully provides an insight into the complex character of Vera Atkins combining her strengths and weaknesses, which produced the cold detachment necessary to carry out her wartime duties in SOE and would take her beyond the call of duty to discover the fate of the lost SOE agents
The author, Sarah Helm, was a reporter and feature writer with the Sunday Times and a founder member of the staff of the Independent where she wasHome Affairs Correspondent covering official secrets stories before becoming Diplomatic Editor in 1989. This experience shows in her extensive research and matter of fact writing style, ironically mirroring the skills of her subject, Vera Atkins.
Vera Rosenberge was born in 1908 of Jewish parents and lived a privileged life on the family estate in Crasna on the Austro-Hungary / Romanian border. However, both world wars would play a part in the “Rosenberge” family fortunes and by 1941 Vera had travelled to London and secured herself a post with the newly formed SOE.
As the assistant to Buckmaster, the head of F Section, Vera was responsible for the care of SOE agents, particularly the small band of women recruits. With her attention to detail and excellent memory Vera provided the SOE agents with new identities, paperwork, currency and personal effects. She would accompany them to the airfield and wait with them until they boarded the plane to be dropped behind enemy lines. She would also be there to receive them home.
However, many did not return home and it is the account of Vera’s post war quest which is the most harrowing. As the war came to an end many of the agents had not been accounted for and against all odds Vera took it upon herself to go and find “her agents”. She travelled to Allied occupied Germany with her investigations leading her to the concentration camps at Natzweiler, Ravensbruck and Dachau.
Once she had discovered the fate of the lost agents she continued to battle on their behalf. Civilian women agents were in a limbo of both non-recompense and non-recognition and Vera strove on both counts for them and the families they had left behind.
Vera seems to have been a very formidable woman and regardless of her character and the conspiracy theories without her, the fates of 12 women SOE agents would not have been known, nor would their bravery have been recognised. This is the story of an impressive woman, written by a brilliant writer on a subject which should not be forgotten. Please be aware some of the subject matter is quite distressing.
Associated reading, “Between Silk and Cyanide” by Leo Marks