Once rumored to have been the inspiration for Ian Fleming’s Miss Moneypenny, Vera Atkins climbed her way to the top in the Special Operations Executive, or SOE: Britain’s secret service created to help build up, organize, and arm the resistance in the Nazi-occupied countries. Throughout the war, Atkins recruited, trained, and mentored the agents for the SOE’s French Section, which sent more than four hundred young men and women into occupied France—at least one hundred of whom never returned and were reported “Missing Presumed Dead” after the war. Twelve of these were women and among Atkins’s most cherished spies. When the war ended in 1945, she made it her personal mission to find out what happened to them and the other agents lost behind enemy lines, tracing rigorously their horrific final journeys. But as the woman who carried out this astonishing search appeared quintessentially English, Atkins was nothing of the sort. As we follow her through the devastation of postwar Germany, we learn Atkins herself covered her life in mystery so that even her closest family knew almost nothing of her past.
In A Life in Secrets Sarah Helm has stripped away Vera Atkins’s many veils. Drawing on recently released sixty-year-old government files and her unprecedented access to the private papers of the Atkins family, Helm vividly reconstructs a complex and extraordinary life.