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The Woman Who Schooled Spies
During World War Two, British Intelligence needed women and men to parachute into France and join the resistance against the Germany Army. Vera Atkins was the person in England who recruited, trained, dispatched, and watched over these Nazi fighters.
Vera Atkins was born Vera Rosenberg in Bucharest, Romania in 1908. In the mid-1930s, amid rising anti-Semitism in Europe, she moved with her family to London. She adopted her mother’s maiden name. She studied modern languages at the Sorbonne in Paris and attended finishing school in Lausanne, Switzerland.
Vera’s father was an influential businessman in Romania. Vera was acquainted with diplomats from British Intelligence, who later supported her application for citizenship in England.
In 1940, Vera traveled to the Netherlands to pay a German officer to get her cousin out of Romania. Vera became stranded when the German Army invaded the Netherlands. She had to go into hiding and was able to get back to Britain with the help of the Belgian resistance.
The next year, Vera took a job as a secretary in the British Special Operations Executive (SOE). She quickly was made assistant to the Section Head and became an intelligence officer. She then joined the French Section.
As intelligence officer in the F Section of the SOE, Vera helped prepare her agents with their use of the French language, their knowledge of laws, rules, and curfews, and the validity of their intricate cover stories with false identities and backgrounds, to be sure they blended undetected into French society behind the enemy line. The agents then underwent commando training to learn how to shoot guns and set off explosives. They completed a survival course and learned how to parachute. Vera accompanied her agents to the airfields for their departure to France. She updated the agents’ families on their situations and status. Vera also waited up nights to receive and decode messages from her secret agents. She was renowned for her loyalty to her four hundred women and men agents.
After the war ended, Vera traveled to France and Germany to find the whereabouts of the one hundred eighteen F-Section agents who were missing in action, fourteen of which were women. She searched records and interviewed personnel at German concentration camps. She interrogated Rudolf Hoess, ex-commandant of Auschwitz-Birkenau. Vera traced one hundred seventeen dead agents (the last one was determined to be a compulsive gambler who disappeared with SOE money near Monte Carlo). She established the places of death of the fourteen women agents, detailed their bravery, before and after capture, and garnered recognition of their service and sacrifice from the British government.
From A Man Called Intrepid, by William Stephenson:
Vera Atkins, the heart and brain of the Baker Street Irregulars' French Section, was a young and highly organized woman with a misleadingly innocent smile and an eagle eye for detail. She had an encyclopedic memory for local regulations in odd comers of Europe and subtleties of behavior that a stranger might fatally ignore. She had private sources of "bits of theater" that reinforced an agent's cover; tram tickets from the region where the agent was going, concert programs, crumpled French cigarette packs. She checked the agent in these last remaining days, at meals, in conversation, at work, and even while sleeping. A slip in the pouring of tea, the wrong use of jargon, a sudden reaction to the sound of the agent's real name-these she caught. Like other COs, she nursed the agent through final briefings in a cozy apartment at Orchard Court, near Baker Street.
Vera spent her life after the war working to keep the memory of the Resistance alive. In 1987, she was appointed Commander of the Legion of Honor, the highest order of France. Vera retired to the south of England, where she died in 2000 at the age of 92.
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