'A Life in Secrets': The real Miss Moneypenny

During World War I, the British Tommy got his name from that of a fictional private called Tommy Atkins.

life book 88 298 (photo credit: )
life book 88 298
(photo credit: )
A Life in Secrets By Sarah Helm Nan. A. Talese/Doubleday 493 pages; $27.50 During World War I, the British Tommy got his name from that of a fictional private called Tommy Atkins. Exactly 51 years ago, while in Johannesburg, I met a charming and kindly Jew named Julian Atkins. I never asked him how he acquired this archetypal goyish name. But I learned from this remarkable biography of Vera Atkins, a senior training officer in SOE's (Special Operations Executive) wartime F Section, that there were a number of Jewish Atkinses in South Africa, Litvaks who, long ago in Lithuania, were once named Etkind. One of them was Vera's mother, Hilda Atkins. Born in South Africa, Vera's mother was a British subject who married a German Jewish businessman named Paul Rosenberg. The couple made the crucial mistake of allowing their daughter Vera to be born in Romania. In wartime Britain, Vera Atkins, an intelligent, well-spoken, multilingual and attractive blonde, was at first secretary to and later principal assistant of Lieut.-Col. Maurice Buckmaster, head of the French Section of SOE. Her being technically an enemy alien was an embarrassment, but she was later formally naturalized with Buckmaster's help and blessing. SOE was full of Jews who risked a sticky end while being dropped into occupied Holland, Belgium and France as agents or wireless operators. Many lost their lives. This did not prevent a number of army officers in SOE acknowledging an active dislike of Jews, something widespread in those days. One British major-general always insisted on referring to Vera as "Rosenberg," her father's name; and openly tried to prevent her obtaining British citizenship. Vera's job was to select, train and prepare young female volunteers for service as couriers and wireless operators. A number of the 39 who went to France were Jewish. Eleven of them were killed. Some were hanged or shot or beaten to death; one was cremated while still alive. Most of the young women were arrested by the Gestapo as they got off the Lysander aircraft that made perilous landings on French soil. For thanks to a Frenchman who was a double agent and SOE's air movement officer, the Germans knew every detail of F Section's operations. Captured men and women agents were astounded to find how much the Germans knew about them and Buckmaster. Buckmaster was an old Etonian who could not bring himself to believe that his operation had been penetrated, even when receiving messages in Morse code that were obviously not from the "hand" of the British wireless operators. He even allowed his own operator to remind the delighted Germans of the correct security procedures, of which they were unaware. Nobody in British officialdom was interested in what happened to the missing men and women of SOE. After VE Day, Vera secured a temporary honorary commission in the WAAF and went to France to try to find out what had happened to her "girls." After a frustrating trip, she got herself promoted to squadron officer (major) and returned to Europe to continue her search. Slowly she unraveled some of the myths surrounding the women. One of the few who returned to Britain was the famous "Odette" who was invested with the George Cross; Vera later joined her at the premiere of the film about her. It turns out that the undeniably brave Odette was also part of a patriotic myth and nearly lost her medal. Vera tracked down Hans Kieffer, the Gestapo officer who captured her girls. Her evidence put him on the gallows. Kieffer's boss, who had passed on Hitler's orders to execute the female agents, was conscripted into British Intelligence and escaped punishment. Author Sarah Helm is an investigative reporter and one of the founders of The Independent. She met the very English and close-mouthed Vera only once, shortly before she died. All the rest of this remarkable book is the story of how she was able to get to the heart of both Vera and what really happened to her luckless girls. Buckmaster, an otherwise decent man with a part-Jewish wife, was given a medal and retired, but 10 years were to pass before Vera Atkins was given a CBE. The pair remained good friends into old age. It was only after Buckmaster died that his limitations - some call it stupidity - became generally known. Vera never married and lived the life of a cosseted English country lady. She did have several lovers as a young woman, one a pilot killed over Crete in 1941. In later years, harassed at times by a number of ambitious authors of conspiracy theories, she kept her mouth firmly shut. Helm leads us through all the turns and false trails of her brilliant book, a biography that evolved into a spy story. Every page shines with the author's diligence and intelligence.