Sun, Sep 03, 2006 - Page 18 News List

British spy boss comes in from the cold

Oh what a tangled web Vera Atkins wove, when first she practiced to deceive; but the wartime espionage supervisor always handled her position with aplomb


Atkins, despite her posh English accent and her adoration of all things upper class and British, was a Romanian Jew with the family name Rosenberg. The family, with roots in Germany, South Africa and Britain, ran a successful timber business. Vera grew up speaking multiple languages and attended finishing school in Switzerland.

Helms discovered that Atkins probably began supplying information to British intelligence while working as a secretary for an oil company in Bucharest. After making her way to Britain in 1937, she was recruited for F Section, an ideal candidate, considering her fluent French and German.

In other ways, she was less than ideal. As a Jew, she encountered prejudice from the sort of upper-class Englishmen she so admired. More seriously, and unknown to anyone until Helm unearthed the facts, she had secretly traveled to Antwerp in 1940 to pay US$150,000 to a Nazi intelligence agent to secure a passport for a family member, who agreed in return to supply intelligence to the Nazis.

The search for the missing agents provides Helm with her most gripping pages, as Atkins, racing against time, tracks down and interrogates Nazi officers, prison-camp workers and former prisoners. Some of the missing returned. Brian Stonehouse, a Jewish agent, miraculously survived four concentration camps. Odette Sansom, a courier, survived Ravensbrueck by pretending to be the wife of her spy partner, who happened to be named Churchill. This ruse earned her special consideration, although her Churchill was no relation to the prime minister.

Most of the female agents were sent on doomed missions that led them, eventually, to concentration camps and execution. Noor Khan, considered emotionally frail, turned out to be fierce and courageous when captured. She refused to cooperate with the Germans, showed them nothing but contempt, and in the instant before her death, after she had been tortured and beaten to a bloody pulp, spoke but a single French word, liberte.

Atkins may have been too secretive for her own good. In later years she was suspected of being either a German or a Soviet spy. One former colleague, writing to her in the 1960s, faulted her for being discreet, “so discreet indeed as to seem mysterious, if you are not mysterious.”

She was mysterious, with a lot to be mysterious about. Helm, to her great credit, digs to the very bottom of it and lays it out for the world to see.

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