A life In Secrets by Sarah Helm. This book is subtitled Vera Atkins and the Missing Agents of World War II. It is the fascinating story of Vera Atkins of the Special Operations Executive or SOE and the secret agents she trained and sent to France.
The SOE was formed in 1940 in order to conduct sabotage and espionage in German occupied Europe as well as to assist local resistance groups.
The SOE was a secret organization sometimes called "Churchill's Secret Army" or "The Baker Street Irregulars", named after the street on which its main London office stood.
Vera Atkins who was in large part responsible for the SOE section devoted to recruiting, training, mentoring and running secret agents in France.
The agents were both men and women, several of whom were trained as wireless transmitter operators. For the most part they were not trained military personnel but civilians. At the time it was unheard of for women to be recruited for such a perilous wartime job.
A Story of Betrayal and Incompetence
The agents were told that they had a fifty percent chance of surviving and each was given a cyanide capsule in case of capture.
In the book Sarah Helm investigates many aspects of the Vera Atkins, SOE story. Through her painstaking research we are introduced to the agents themselves, especially the women for whom Atkins felt a special responsibility.
The author recounts the shocking incompetence of the SOE which resulted in agents being parachuted straight into the arms of the Gestapo. Judging by the evidence that Helm assembled it was absolutely criminal that the SOE were not aware that they were being duped by German wireless operators or that one or more of the SOE agents was a traitor.
Secrecy, Concentration Camps and Murder
The author also investigates Vera Atkins life and family history. She was born in Romania of Jewish heritage, but for many reasons remained extremely secretive about her personal life and many aspects of her work. Sarah Helm was able to interview her in 1998 two years before her death but even then Atkins had "closed the book" on her past.
The author also had access to records relating to the SOE that were made public sixty years after the war and it is from these, as well as the personal papers of some of those involved in the story that she was able to assemble the facts surrounding this amazing story.
At the end of the war Atkins spent months in Europe trying to discover what had happened to the many SOE agents who had been captured by the Germans. This part of the book makes for a gripping read as Helm describes how Vera Atkins tracked down and interrogated some the Germans who had been involved in the murder of several agents, in particular four of the women.
This is a fascinating and gripping book. Sarah Helm travelled to Germany, France, Romania and Canada to unearth many of the details behind the story. She interviewed Atkins family members as well as those of many of the people who were featured in the book, including former Nazis. If you read Agent Zigzag, this will add to the picture of Britain's clandestine operations in Europe.
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