Alexis Coe’s essays on history appear once a month. Past installments can be found here.
Vera Atkins called the 39 female British spies she recruited, trained, and placed in the field her “girls,” but to the rest of the world, they didn’t exist.
During World War II, the French Section of Special Operations Executive (SOE) depended on this secrecy. Considered the amateurs of the British Intelligence community, it was created when other agencies, including the famed MI-6, had failed to establish a single agent nine months into occupied France.
Atkins, born to a German Jewish father and a British Jewish mother in Romania, proved far more successful. She placed 400 agents, spending months teaching them about the curfews, rationing, transport, and regulations. She saw to every detail of their new identity, purchasing mementos and even, in one case, insisting that an agent have all of his teeth refilled in the French manner.
But after the war ended in 1945, more than 100 F Section SOE agents vanished – including female couriers and wireless operators.
Finding them was not a national priority. While the Americans interned hundreds of thousands of German males in de-Nazification efforts, the British focused on sustaining the population and reviving the Ruhr coal production. Major Anghais Fyffe was tasked with locating the missing agents, but he wasn’t even F Section. Only Atkins knew what the agents looked like, the personal details they may have purposefully divulged to witnesses and subtle tracks and flotsam they left behind.
“I wanted to find them as a private enterprise,” Atkins told Sarah Helm, author of the excellent A life in Secrets: Vera Atkins and The Missing Agents of WWII, shortly before her ninetieth birthday in 1998. “I always thought ‘missing presumed dead’ to be such a terrible verdict.”
Self-imposed mission aside, Atkins still needed a permit to travel into post-War Germany, and her myriad entreaties were met with great resistance in London. Maurice Buckmaster, her own section head, believed they would eventually make contact on their own, even as the steady stream of death certificates for SOE agents at Dachau, Flossenbürg, and Mauthausen arrived. As Atkins would later discover, higher-ups knew a French pilot had betrayed the SOE, often delivering agents to the Nazis. Even Adolf Hitler became annoyed with their seeming compliance, and ordered a scornful thank you note for the steady stream of agents, arms and money.
She tried arguing that relations with Russia were worsening by the hour, and indeed the Cold War would officially begin just two years later. Any agents left would likely be killed by their hand, she pleaded to no avail.
In the end, it was the public’s ignorance of women deployed behind enemy lines that proved to be her winning argument. As instructed, the missing agent’s families remained quiet and hopeful, with the exception of Violette Szabo’s father. He quickly grew frustrated with the silence, and began lobbying local politicians in South London. If her case reached the House of Commons – Szabo was mother to a young child – the issue of female spies would garner media attention, and would no doubt launch a moral debate.
The government wanted the country to focus on war crimes, not the plight of young, missing British women. After a map at Nuremberg showed more than 300 camps and sub camps across Europe, the public’s appetite for justice became insatiable. Trying major leaders was not enough; all involved were expected to be held accountable.
Atkins promised to help interview camp commandments of Sachsenhausen, which primarily interned political prisoners, and Ravensbrück, a notorious women’s concentration camp, in exchange for a permit. The government acquiesced, offering her a handful of days, but no per diem.
She wasted no time, only alerting Major Fyffe of her presence when he stumbled in from a dance hall all nighter to find her waiting. She was eager to begin interrogating Franz Berg, who had been a crematorium stoker at Natzweiler, where she suspected several of her agents had been.
“They were her ‘bairns,’ if you like,” said Fyffe, who initially told Atkins there was no room in his operation for a woman. “And after all, she knew she had sent them to their deaths.”
Atkins no doubt felt culpable, but her emotions were rarely on display. Any guilt was manifested in a monomaniacal mission to uncover and document her agent’s deaths. She extended her stay by officially joining the British War Crimes Commission, for whom she relentlessly interrogated the most infamous Nazi officers. In one report, she noted Rudolf Höss, the commandment of Auschwitz, admitted to overseeing over two million deaths before they broke for lunch.
Ostensibly, she collected evidence to present at trials, but every camp commandment, doctor, nurse, guard and prisoner was also a potential witness to her agent’s deaths. As they talked, she drew sketches of camps, noting the length of the paths and measurements of cells, in the same manner she committed grotesque details to the page. She heard from man whose job it was to murder young children, coolly explaining to her, “Like pictures I hung them along the wall,” and the sadists, who flogged emaciated, over-worked bodies at their own discretion. Peter Straub, the executioner at Natzweiler, knew the stools he kicked out from under hanged prisoners was too short to ensure a quick death, and referred to the victims he killed not as people, but as “pieces.” Atkins did not object when Gerald Draper, by then a seasoned war crimes solicitor, concluded the deposition by ordering Straub to “leave this room on your hands and knees like an animal.”
But Atkins remained in control, traversing Germany and France to witness and conduct interrogations, visit jails and concentration camps and residences. The trails she followed were circuitous, and stories rarely aligned. Low level workers feared implication, while many prisoners suffered major psychological damage from the trauma, often compacted with incorrect repatriation.
No clue was too small, no lead too vague. Portraits painted in blood and names carved into the walls of jail cells were documented. When Atkins learned that Brian Stonehouse, a former sketcher for Vogue, had survived four concentrations camps, including Natzweiler, she sent him photos of the women. He sent sketches matching several women in return. An intercepted letter led her to Hedwig Muller, a nurse arrested by the Gestapo in 1944 for slandering the Führer. Muller sent a letter to SOE agent Madeline Damerment’s mother, using her alias to describe a woman whose hands and feet were chained, noting that several women in the Akademiestrasse prison communicated to each other in code. Through Muller, Atkins learned that Theresia Becker, chief wardress, had lied to her in an earlier interview, and was then able to records supposedly missing records stashed her home.
But just as one series of events seemed to come together, another clue would suggest it was incorrect. Atkins had already settled the case of Noor Inayat Khan, the first female radio operator to be sent occupied France when a letter arrived from Yolande Lagrave. She claimed to have met Khan at Pforzheim prison in September 1944:
She was very unhappy. Her hands and feet were chained and she was never allowed out. I heard the blows which she received from prison guards….Before she left she had been able to send to me—not her named because it was too dangerous—but her alias and she also wrote down her address for me. It was: Nora Baker, Radio Centre Officers Service RAF, 4 Taviston [sic] Street, London. I kept the address on a paper strewn into my hem.
Other witnesses had testified that the 30-year-old Khan had been killed three months earlier. Her family launched their own investigation, and her brother shared his findings with Atkins, writing “the jail keeper who is said to have beaten up my sister has been maintained in his post as jail keeper to this day.” He had learned she had tried to escape twice, and while many women at the prison were raped, shot, and thrown into a mass grave, he had it on good authority that his sister had been sent to anther camp.
Atkins insisted on reopening the case. Her “movement orders” were revoked shortly thereafter, but she struck another deal, agreeing to assist the prosecution team in the Ravensbrück trial. She watched the defendants plead guilty, the same men she knew had taken part in forced sterilization, abortions and gynological experiments. Atkins worked steadfastly to implicate the men had run a camp where 92,000 of the 120,000 female prisoners had died, but at every opportunity, she’d slip away to investigate missing agents.
She successfully traced Khan’s death at the Dachau concentration camp, along with Yolande Beekman (left), Elaine Plewman (below right), and Madeleine Damerment, three other female SOE agents. The remaining death certificates were filed and letters to next of kin written, but she wasn’t ready to return to London just yet.
Atkins became obsessed with physically retracing her agent’s final steps. She entered the camps as they had, through the 20 foot tall gates covered in barbed wire. She stood outside the room in which 24-year-old Andrée Borrel was given a lethal injection of phenol, and walked along the hallway where her body was dragged to the oven. That was where Borrel briefly regained consciousness and clawed at the executioner’s face; he burned her alive.
When she finally returned to Britain, Atkins disappeared to a remote cottage in Wales for several weeks. By all accounts, she saw no one but the farmer who carried her bags upon arrival.
“But I think when she discovered all that awful horror, it was like a series of body blows,” her niece, Zenna Atkins, told Helm. “Then she spent the rest of her life recovering from those blows.”
Back in London, Atkins was hired by the Central Bureau for Educational Visits and Exchanges. The F section of the SOE had been shut down, but Atkins and Buckmaster engaged in a nearly fulltime publicity campaign. Sensational articles chronicling the adventures of SOE agents were published in the Sunday Express and the Daily Herald, and soon after, screenplay writers and television producers came calling.
One of Atkins’ surviving “girls,” Odette Sansom, captured the public’s interest many times over. She had been captured with her supervisor, Peter Churchill, and tortured at Sicherheitsdienst. In hopes of preferential treatment, she told two lies, one of which would become true: Peter was her husband, and that he was Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s nephew. She was nonetheless condemned to Ravensbrück, but somehow managed to escape and, in 1947, marry Churchill.
Books and films followed, including one penned by Buckmaster, but never Atkins. While she encouraged coverage and accepted the Légion d’Honneur, she remained a mysterious figure in the background. In her silence, conspiracy theories abounded. Some believed her to be a double agent, perhaps for the Germans or Soviets, but those rumors were unsubstantiated. She did, however, have a secret that was unearthed after her death. In 1940, it seems likely that Atkins covertly travelled to Antwerp to see a Nazi intelligence agent. She paid him $150,000 to secure a passport for her cousin, Fritz Rosenberg. On their way to safety in Palestine, he and his wife Karen were harassed by Germans in Budapest and Istanbul; still fearing for their lives, the Rosenbergs supplied intelligence to the Nazis.
History would have viewed an attempt to save a Jewish relative from a concentration camp as brave, but the intelligence community would not. Atkins was guarded for a reason greater than professional, and no doubt feared her secret, or more likely, secrets, would someday come to light.
And so she spent the rest of her life devoted to publicizing and honoring her lost agents. Before she died in 2000, Atkins raised substantial funds for memorials, composed the inscriptions, and corresponded on even the most minute details. Some women had received posthumous honors, including the Croix de Guerre, but Atkins argued in numerous letters that it should be left off shared marble memorials, as all the women deserved recognition. She suggested the space instead be used for a line from Walt Whitman’s poem, “After the Dazzle of Day,” which could have easily applied to her own life.
“Only the dark dark night shows to my eyes the stars.”
Buckmaster, Maurice J. They Fought Alone: The Story of British Agents in France. (Goodreads | Amazon)
Carve Her Name with Pride. Dir. Lewis Gilbert. Perf. Virginia McKenna, Paul Scofield.
Fuller, Jean Overton. Madeleine. (Amazon)
Helm, Sarah. A Life in Secrets: Vera Atkins and The Missing Agents of WWII. (Indiebound | Amazon)
Stevenson, William. Spymistress: The Life of Vera Atkins, the Greatest Female Secret Agent of World War II. (Indiebound | Amazon)
Alexis Coe is The Toast's history correspondent. She holds a master's degree in American women's political history, and was a research curator at the New York Public Library. Alexis is also a columnist at The Awl, and has contributed to The Atlantic, Slate, the Paris Review Daily, and many others. Her first book, Alice+Freda Forever, will be published on October 7th. Follow her @alexis_coe.