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73 of 74 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars a tale of courage and chilling horror
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...
Published on 19 July 2005 by Stephen Donnison

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79 of 80 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Well researched but failed to portray Vera accurately as a person
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...
Published on 17 July 2011 by George Morgan


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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent but harrowing, 12 Sep 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.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A book every teenager should be made to read, 7 April 2012
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My interest in the book lies in the fact that I trained as a Wireless Operator in the RAF in the 1960's. Having now retired I find myself thinking back to my former days as a telegraphist and finding this book by chance, triggered my curiosity. Added to this was the fact that when serving in Germany in 1965, I had to learn to drive and operate an old WW2 Wehrmacht radio wagon built in 1942 and still being used then by the RAF. It still had the original Telefunken transciever in the back, and unbelievably, the Morse key, still had a swastika stamped on it, I still have the driving license for the vehicle. I have on and off read books about the WW2 radio war and the importance it played in hastening the end of hostilities. One of the books which should be read perhaps before reading this one, is titled 'Between Silk and Cyanide' by Leo Marks, a wartime cryptographer who mentions the various 'mistakes' made by those 'in control', - or were they 'mistakes' ?
I cannot add any more to most of the previous reviews, suffice to say that what incredible courage all the SOE agents displayed, particularly the women. I do feel that this book should be on every school curriculum and should be a study of what the 'beast' in man can create if left unchecked.
After I left the RAF in 1968, I managed to land a communications job with the German Airlines. my department boss was a former Wehrmacht corporal, who described once meeting Hitler as a youth when as a Sudetenlander from the former German part of Czechoslovakia he was forced to join the Wehrmacht just after the Anschluss. Hitler arrived by car one day to greet some of his 'New Germans'. My boss said that when Hitler shook hands with each person, he did not just glance into their eyes, he stared into and through them just that little bit longer than normal. This was part of his intimidation technique to all he met, leaving them in awe of him. I felt I had to include this observation as it was all part of the bigger scene. As an ex RAF airman, I can only conclude that the bombing of German cities was fully justified in bringing the 3rd Reich down and offering some compensation to the relatives who lost loved ones in all circumstances.
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Tale of Courage, 25 Aug 2006
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N. C. Cox (singapore) - See all my reviews
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I agree with a previous reviewer that Vera Atkins was rather an uninteresting and an unlikeable figure.She seemed quite blase about sending under-trained female agents to a likely death in Occupied France,spending much of her time having tea at Fortnum & Masons.The author seemed impressed by the fact that she always went to the aerodrome to see them off-must have been very inconvenient!

However the book is redeemed by the sheer courage of the innocent girls sent to France,keen to "do something in the war" and mostly coming to terrible ends at the hands of the Gestapo or the SS.The SOE boss,Buckmaster,comes across as stubborn and inflexible.Hindsight is a wonderful thing,but the book dispassionately seems to make it clear that only an idiot would not have realised that most of the SOE circuits in France were penetrated by the Gestapo,making the highly dangerous missions of these brave women almost suicidal.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Fanastic read, well researched and inspiring, 6 April 2012
I just can't praise this book enough. I have spent the last few days glued to its pages. It is a fantastic read. It is well presented, well constructed, and gives the reader a balanced account of not only an inspiring woman but the breath taking bravery of SOE agents during the Second World War. The story and accompanying account of the search for evidence are cleverly knitted together so there are few 'dry' passages. Personally, I wasn't overally keen on the chapters detailing Vera's early life in Romania but I think that was because they came at a time when I was just getting my teeth into the content relating to the fate of the lost agents which on an individual level I found much more interesting. I was glad when it jumped back to the 1940's!
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Wish they'd make this into a film!, 23 Sep 2011
I 'read' this on CD, with the intention of listening as I was working. I found I kept sitting down to listen, as I was so involved in it.
I came away thinking that Vera Atkins had embarked on her search for her 'girls' from some form of guilt. I was appalled by the apparent lack of attention to detail by London, resulting in the arrest and death of so many agents - not only in France, it owuld appear. It really makes you think there was some double agents there? I think Buckmaster had a lot to answer for and it's a pity this information wasn't allowed into the public domain immediately after the war.
Exceptionally brave women, whose lives were taken from them, in the most cruel and despicable manner.
The films of Charlotte Grey and Female Agents glamorised these events. I think this should be made into a film that doesn't do that, so this generation can know what happened before it totally disappears into history.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars THE MOST INSPIRING BOOK I HAVE EVER READ., 6 July 2014
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This review is from: A Life in Secrets: Vera Atkins and the Lost Agents of SOE (Kindle Edition)
ONE OF THE BEST AND MOST HEART RENDING READS I HAVE EVER READ, BEAUTIFULLY WRITTEN, SOME PARTS MADE ME ANGRY, SOME SAD, MOST OF ALL VERY PROUD.
THE STORY IS TOLD IN SUCH VERY READABLE WAY THAT I ALMOST FELT AS THOUGH I WAS THERE, I COULD HAVE WEPT FOR WHAT THESE WONDERFUL LADIES WENT THROUGH, THESE PEOPLE WERE FROM THE GREATEST GENERATION THIS COUNTRY HAS EVER PRODUCED AND IT IS THANKS TO THEM THAT I CAN WRITE THIS REVIEW WITH IMPUNITY.
THANK YOU SARAH HELM FOR THIS BOOK, IT WILL BE IN MY HEART FOREVER.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An excellent portrayal of SOE but less about Vera Atkins than may be supposed, 9 May 2014
By 
Andy_atGC (London UK) - See all my reviews
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A moderately sizable book written by a long-standing journalist for major national newspapers, although not a formal biography of one or more individuals, this is a recent telling of the stories of operatives working for SOE (Special Operations Executive) during WWII and concentrates on those who were missing and not traceable. It is mostly based upon interviews with fellow SOE operatives or a family member of the one missing, and is similar in many respects to one read many years ago (the title and author of which are long forgotten) which probably included a modest number of individual stories. Noor Khan, Denise Bloch, Violette Szabo, Odette Sansom and Peter Churchill (the latter two both survived the War; the first three did not) were some known to be included in that book and there were probably a few more.

The secondary title used for the book suggests that it is, to some degree, a biography of Vera Atkins who was in effect 'Office Manager' or Co-ordinator for SOE's French Section. However, that is misleading in that Vera seems to be rather incidental to the larger and broader stories within its pages. Vera Atkins may have been seen as harsh and unfriendly by some or warm and embracing to others but she tried at all times to be bluntly honest and fair, probably knowing that some of those she had known and handled would be lost. The author may be one less well received than expected by Vera.

Coming from all walks of life and from several nations, many of the men that SOE recruited often had military or Intelligence backgrounds; the women may have been mothers, wives or in an ordinary occupation pre-war. On completion of training, most were sent to France, Belgium or The Netherlands with relatively fewer going to Baltic, Adriatic and Scandinavian occupied Europe. Some may have a family connection to a country, a connection by marriage, or have fluency in one of the relevant languages. Most of the women were to be couriers, but may have occasional greater involvement. The broader roles included sabotage, selective assassination or kidnapping, coordination of local Resistance groups and their activities, getting information back to the UK and distributing incoming messages and instructions to the various local groups.

The risks to the agents were high and many were betrayed or discovered as a consequence of their lengthy radio broadcasts and highly effective German radio direction finders. Dozens were executed or imprisoned, some were 'missing in action' and their fates are unknown, but most returned relatively safely. It is the few female agents who failed to return who are the subjects of this book. In some cases, it is possible that an agent was considered 'missing' because relevant documentary evidence was intentionally destroyed by the Germans when in retreat or incidentally by the Allies by bombing or fire. The initial aim of Vera Atkins in the year or so immediately following the end of the war was to try to find traces of that evidence. It is that which formed the core of the book.

Regardless of the degree of success or failure that Vera Atkins was able to achieve, this is a valuable contribution to the recognition of the heroism and sacrifices of those agents and their colleagues, many of whom were honoured by Britain and the countries in which they had operated.

A substantial, closely printed book that is organised according to broad phases of SOE's functional lifetime and a very effective history. Highly readable and showing great empathy to its subjects due to its journalistic approach.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A story about justice with unexpected turns., 29 Dec 2013
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I certainly boil with anger about the lack of justice for acts of barbarism by Nazis and I suspect many others do too. This story shows how a small group of people did not forget their comrades who were murdered and reveals some of the unusual life of this remarkable woman who pursued the murderers.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Biography more than history, and a rather mean grave., 29 Sep 2013
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I am amazed to see that it is now eight years since I bought and first read this excellent book - high time to read it again! I don't want to add much to what many others have already said, but I think it is important to remember that this is first and foremost a biography of Vera Atkins; not a history of the SOE. For me the most poignant part of the book is the very last page of the Epilogue where the author describes Vera's grave, shared with her brother, in the peaceful West Cornwall village of Zennor. I sought it out myself last year during a visit to Cornwall: it is a humble grave, one of several in a plain rough-grassed area at the side of the churchyard, marked only by the (now corrected) headstone - itself already blemished by bird droppings or other detritus. Vera does not perhaps come over as a wholly likeable person, but none of us are perfect. Especially when contrasted with the immaculate rows of carefully tended graves in the big military cemeteries elsewhere, it seems a rather mean grave for a lady who played such a significant part in great events. May she rest in peace.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Enigma, 26 Oct 2012
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This review is from: A Life in Secrets: Vera Atkins and the Lost Agents of SOE (Kindle Edition)
I found this book fascinating to the end. As a lawyer used to weighing up the value of evidence,I find that the author is very fair. The dilemma faced by Vera was that essentially she was a Romanian with English connections trying to be English. This must have caused her enormous strain,especially as it made her presence in England in WW2 precarious. The impression of her boss, Buckmaster, is that he was pretty incompetent. Vera was competent but not that honest,if the author is to be believed. Strange times throw up strange people, and although I feel very sorry for the SOE agents betrayed by the poor system, incompetence and dishonesty are part of our human makeup. The book is well written and I would recommend it to anyone interested in WW2.
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