on 11 September 2007
There is so much to say about this book. It seems there have been several conspiricies put forward about Vera Atkins, yet this author has dispelled them with excellent research of her own. Vera Atkins was a major player in the SOE (Special Oerative Executives) F (France) section and undertook her own search to find out what had become of her agents. Her boss Buckmaster made some highly damaging decisions, that condemned the lives of many agents, ignoring key information and clues and giving the Germans information that endangered the lives of his agents. Atkins fought against the War office and government to discover the fate of her own people and for the recognition of the women agents who fought as FANY to be recognised as military with the same rights. This book follows the training of the agents, then Veras lone search through the chaotic Allied occupied German and also to the Russian zone. The fate of the female agents was harrowing, all the more so for how the author feeds us the information, in the same way as Vera found it.
There is no doubt that Vera was a phenomenally brave and strong woman but she was always seen as cold. This book deals with much of that and of Veras secret past. Vera's life was surrounded and shrouded in secrets for almost all of it with good reason and the author reminds us of the social and political world and domestic views then which seriously affected Veras life. Even her own family knew virtually nothing about her past and her war work. Vera was awarded for her work but also blamed for it too. Whilst she went out of her way to trace her agents, she also blocked information that could have greatly helped others in the search for their own loved ones.
Many media reviews for this have called it as reading like a thriller. I understand how they mean it, but these were real people horrifically tortured and mistreated at the concentration camps. I don't find that a 'thriller' book. Vera was a strong, powerful woman focused on her work and to ensure the best for her agents in their memory. The book is a difficult read because of the topic and because I can't quite decide how I feel about the woman personally although she did great work in terrible circumstances and I have a huge respect for her. The author Sarah Helm has done a phenomenal job on a contraversial subject (SOE) and on a highly contraversial woman without bias. Full marks for a truely excellent book.
on 17 July 2011
My grandfather was Bill Rogers, described in the book as the doyen of the expatriate British community in Bucharest, and I knew Vera very well for 40 years up until her death. I found the book fascinating, particularly on Vera's early life which had been a bit of a mystery to me, but I had to take a lot with a pinch of salt. I tend to agree with reviewer S. Ricks that the author was excessively harsh on Vera and judged her out of context. The Vera I knew had a mind like a steel trap that could pick up any inconsistencies immediately and woe betide anyone who tried to get the better of her. However, she was also an extremely warm and loyal person, as well as vulnerable in certain ways, although it is true that she didn't suffer fools gladly. As S. Ricks states, she was from another era when they believed they had a duty to do whatever they could to protect their way of life from totalitarianism. Of course, Vera felt terrible sending young agents to France and she gave them time to reconsider after explaining to them that there was a strong possibility they would never come back. It was made easy for them to pull out without anyone else ever knowing. On the other hand, we have to take into account that the supply of potential recruits was extremely limited after De Gaulle prevented the British from recruiting French nationals. She talked of her agents often in later years and clearly felt deeply for them as human beings, as well as having a heavy sense of responsibility for those who failed to return which was why she insisted on being allowed to trace them and worked with War Crimes after the war. She once showed me a photograph of the defendants at the war crimes trial sitting like school boys with their headphones on. She remembered in detail what each was accused of what their sentences were but had felt no satisfaction in their punishment. Her task had been purely to find out happened to her agents.
I respect Ms Helm for the detailed research she has done. However, I feel that the book failed to portray Vera accurately as a human being and the reconstruction of her persona in the book is frequently unrecognisable to those who knew her (the unfounded insinuations about her sexuality and alleged racism are particularly uncalled for). This is not surprising, since Ms Helm only met her once. Whether rightly or wrongly Vera was adamant that she would not pen an autobiography. (I used to work in publishing and tried hard in the 80s to persuade her to change her mind without success.) She did, however, give a high degree of access to authors she took to but Ms Helm was clearly not one of them and the book unfortunately reflects this.
on 19 July 2005
A Life In Secrets is by far the best book ive read this year...and the most chilling. I couldnt put it down .These lost SOE agents especially the female operatives, my godness , I am haunted by their photos. The author has masterfully written how Vera Atkins ,after the war found out what had happened to the missing agents .. Each being murdered in a most barbaric way by the Nazis. But dying with great courage that takes your breath away.
This great book should become a classic. I salute those patriots who served their country well.Awesome
on 7 June 2010
I too was gripped by this book, not so much by the tale of heroism that is the background to the investigation, but more by the way Sarah Helm is as committed to finding the truth as Vera Atkins was. However, whereas Vera Atkins had understandable reasons for suppressing a few aspects of the truth from others, which Sarah Helms painstakingly uncovers, Sarah Helm herself is careful to present all the facts she uncovers, including a necessary degree of repetition, in a way that leaves the reader to draw the conclusions fairly and sympathetically:
That F Section of the SOE was seriously compromised by betrayals is not news, any more than that the rivalry between it and MI5 (and indeed the Free French efforts) led to a disastrous lack of co-operation. What makes this tale so compelling is the gradual exposition of the motives of one key player, Vera Atkins, through her upbringing, experiences and status. Her determination to discover the fate of each and every one of her missing female agents is the nub of the book. What it brings out is the moral dilemma of being Jewish of mixed nationality, of being an intelligent female in a man's world, of sending agents into the field who were both female and civilian at a time when such was still not really accepted as appropriate. In stressing the manner of their execution, and the Nazi policy of Nacht und Nagel, the author skirts around the rights and wrongs for them to be executed in the first place. Certainly, the physical courage of most of the captured agents is well testified; the moral courage of Vera Atkins is what also comes through. It is, without doubt, one of the most fascinating books I have read.
on 21 October 2007
This is in all senses a fascinating book. So rare to read a factual acccount of the war written by a woman, about women. It benefits greatly from a throrough treatment of the human and personal aspects of life in these momentous times. It is at once a biography, a detective story, a spy story and a narrative of war time events, illuminated throughout by the tale of the enigmatic life and tragic end of Noor Inayat Khan. It is a very fitting tribute to the other courageous women and men of SOE. The only problem with this book is putting it down once you have started reading.
In "A Life in Secrets," Sarah Helm tells the riveting story of the courageous men and women of the SOE, the Special Operations Executive, who, during World War II, were parachuted into France, and thence into the arms of the Gestapo. The author also delves into the life of the woman who sent them there, the enigmatic Vera Atkins, who, as a perfect spy, covered her traces so expertly--and so completely--that the biographer has been left with more questions than there are answers.
Ms. Helm nevertheless engages the reader from the very first page, beginning with the recruitment and subsequent departure of the seventeen women and seventeen men who were to serve as organizers, couriers, and wireless transmitter operators of resistance circuits in Nazi-occupied France. After stretching the tension to the breaking point, she breaks that narrative thread and weaves in the story of Vera Atkins, who, even though she was a Romanian subject (and thus technically an enemy alien) at the beginning of the war, nevertheless, became a major protagonist in the SOE during the course of the conflict (She was naturalized as a British subject in 1944.). By continually alternating the topic between the question of the fate of the agents and the account of the formidable woman who persistently searched for them in bombed-out Germany after the war, Ms. Helm captivates the reader--who must relentlessly follow the increasingly horrific narrative, through the Ravensbrueck, Dachau, and Natzweiler concentration camps--from the first page to the last.
One of the implicit questions the book asks is how, when MI5 was running their deucedly clever and successful "double-cross" system, in which they "turned" numerous Nazi agents parachuted into Britain into double agents, playing the "wireless game" (successfully transmitting disinformation back to the Abwehr), SOE could not catch on to the fact that its own agents had been captured, and that the messages being transmitted back to England were bogus and run by the Gestapo. It seems to be another classic case of the left hand of one agency not knowing what the right hand of the other agency was doing!
on 21 July 2007
Although the book is a biography of Vera Atkins, it focuses - understandably - on her time in F Section of the SOE, and the period she spent tracking down SOE agents who had gone missing or been captured in France post-war. As other reviewers have mentioned, it can be grim reading, but provides an unglamourised glimpse at the running of SOE, and the, sometimes horrendous, mistakes which were made there. It also presents a portrait of a woman who never allowed anyone to really know her, and this leaves both the author and the reader to make guesses about her emotions and her motives. I think this is where the book is at it's weakest, but this isn't the author's fault, and she presents the material available to her in as clear and coherent a manner as possible. I also enjoyed the descriptions of her research when it involved Vera's family and friends, as it provided a more personal, humanising touch which sometimes was lacking in Vera's own relationships with others. I very much enjoyed the book, and found it "un-put-down-able", and would recommend it to anyone who is interested in SOE, the role of women in WW2, or even just wants to read a good biography.
on 12 September 2010
This was my first book about SOE but I will follow it up with others as despite Sarah Helm's efforts to be fair it is impossible not to get angry while reading this. To read about the gross incompetence (which it probably was rather than deliberate sacrifice of agents) by Maurice Buckmaster stretches credulity to breaking point. When one agent deliberately left out his code, as agreed procedure, to indicate he was communicating under duress Buckmaster refused to believe it and even informed the agent (and the Gestapo) not to leave his code out next time. Many people paid for this.
Buckmaster was way out of his depth and thought what he was doing as almost part of a game. This is exemplified by his refusal to believe that the Nazis perpetrated the Oradour massacre even though 5 years of war had amply demonstrated the absolute bestiality of the Nazis. Had he not heard of Liddice, itself a savage retribution for another SOE operation?
As for Vera Atkins, Helm does a fantastic investigation on her life despite Atkins' attempts to cover her trails. Some of the information was mindboggling, particularly about Antwerp and Holland. Atkins investigation of what happened to the agents seems to have been conducted schizophrenically, partly as remorse and care for the agents fate but also to see if any blame was going to be attached to SOE. Her treatment of survivors of the concentration camps and non-survivors families showed a callousness hard to understand.
The best part of the book is of course about the agents themselves, particularly the women. To read how they conducted themselves in Gestapo captivity and their fates reduced this reader to tears, all the more when one realised their bravery and selfless idealism were hostage to incompetence and treachery by others who lived long after the war. Never forget them.
on 28 November 2006
This is a marvellous book, but I will agree that because of the investigative style of uncovering the real life of Vera sometimes it can become muddling as more accurate evident comes to light to the author. Nevertheless, it is a grim account of some of SOE's biggest achievements and blunders. I wanted to scream with anger at the stupidity of Buckmaster ignoring coded messages which had many mistakes in them which signalled the agent's capture. These were ignored and Buckmaster and co carried on sending agents out and replying to the German's telling them of their plans and even asking the German's why their security code checks were not in place!! Of the few agents that survived they were furious at this after all the details of codes the agent required to use should they be captured, all these precautions were ignored. Vera was a remarkable person, the ultimate secret being her Jewish background. Certainly worth reading but some of the grim details of agents deaths let alone some of the SS attitudes can be hard to take in. Read it all the same.
on 8 August 2005
If you never read another book about the SOE, read this one.
It is a book you will not be able to put down.
Do not expect glowing pictures of the Special Operations known as SOE, there are none, I congratulate the author, you will read this again and again each time you do, you will find something you missed.
This books tops all those that have been written on this subject