Play / pause Vera Atkins

Vera Atkins

  • Josh Levine


Vera Atkins was a Jewish woman,

born in Romania to a German father.

Moving to Britain before the Second World War,

she became a member of the Women's Auxiliary Air Force

and one of the most remarkable figures

in British wartime intelligence.

Vera had a very comfortable childhood,

raised by English governesses.

In 1937, Vera and her mother left Bucharest for England.

Now, Vera had no right to British citizenship

once she was in England, so she had to register as an alien.

At the start of the war, in fact,

it seems she might be interned as an enemy alien

due to her father's nationality.

During the summer of 1940,

Vera moved with her mother to South Kensington in London.

where she joined the local ARP

and it was some time in the months that followed

that Vera Atkins was approached

to join the Special Operations Executive, or SOE.

The approach came in a letter.

It was as bland as any letter could ever be,

but this letter would define the rest of Vera's life.

And it soon became clear

that Vera would be a great asset to SOE.

As her internal report noted,

she had a fantastically good memory,

a quick grasp, and was fluent in French and German.

She was made the assistant to Colonel Maurice Buckmaster,

the head of SOE's French Section,

which was known as F Section.

In theory, the position was secretarial,

but in practice, she was becoming an intelligence officer

and as time went by, so her importance grew to the point

where she was considered the real brains in F Section.

She was responsible for the recruitment of agents.

She would organize their training.

She would provide them with credible cover stories

and possessions, letters, photographs to back up that story.

Vera was also responsible for keeping up-to-date

with intelligence that was coming in from France

because she had to know the latest fashions,

the curfew hours, the details of everyday life,

the tiniest little details,

and she would debrief returning agents

about their experiences.

In fact, even be on this, she was responsible

for the pastoral care of the female agents.

They looked to her for support

in the weeks before their missions.

So, who was Vera fighting against?

Well, at the obvious level, her enemy was the Nazis,

but sadly this wasn't her only opposition.

Within SOE, there were those who objected to her

for sadly predictable reasons.

One SOE staff officer interviewed by Sarah Bern recalled

that there was a stink and a smell in the office

when Vera first joined the organization.

When pressed as to the reason, the man said,

"I am not anti-Semitic, but I am not very keen on Jews".

Another interviewee explained why it took so long

for Vera to receive British nationality.

He recalled a senior SOE officer saying,

"that damn fair-haired Romanian Jewess

"has applied to be naturalized.

"I have put a stop to it."

Nevertheless, in the summer of 1944, Vera was naturalized.

She was also commissioned

into the Women's Auxiliary Air Force

and appointed Intelligence Officer for F Section.

a job she had, in practice, been doing for years.

And the consequences of her efforts,

and the efforts of others in F Section,

was it more than 450 agents were sent to France

before the end of the war.

Of these, more than 100 would never return,

including 14 women, among them Violette Szabo

and Noor Inyat Khan.

All of these agents, once they arrived in France,

began work within a specific circuit.

Each circuit covered a particular area

and the agent would act within that area

as either an organizer

responsible for recruiting local people,

as a courier, or as a wireless operator.

When communicating with London,

these agents would use carefully prepared

and understood codes and, for the most part,

the system worked, but not always.

On one occasion, when compelling evidence,

including a message sent without an agent security check,

suggested that circuits had been infiltrated by the Germans,

that evidence was overlooked by London.

It seems that Maurice Buckmaster was so keen

to believe in his agents

that for a long time he failed to acknowledge

what should have been clear and, for whatever reason,

Vera did not question his failure.

Perhaps this explains why after the war

Vera went to great lengths trying to find out

exactly what had happened to every agent

who failed to return.

Traveling to France and Germany,

armed with personal knowledge and immense determination,

she trolled through records

and carried out numerous interviews.

She spent many years ensuring

that her agents were acknowledged and honored.

Vera Atkins died in Winchelsea, age 92 in the year 2000.

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