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About the Author

Includes the name: Sarah Helm

Works by Sarah Helm


Common Knowledge



Sarah Helm did a fine job of following Vera's trail, but she did it with a bias. Maybe she is one of those writers who becomes so enmeshed in their subject's life that they can no longer see or cope with any doubts. In the case of Vera Atkins, the seeds for doubt happened fairly early in the book and had me wondering all through it, what is wrong with Helm?

Somewhere not too far into the book Helm tells of some wireless transmissions received in London from one of their French operators. The message did not include the agent's secret sign. You only have to read one book on secret agents and wireless transmissions to know that the most important thing they are reminded of before being sent out is that the secret sign is crucial. If it is missing or altered, London will know that the agent is captured. This is crucial for the agent and for London. For the agent because headquarters is warned that there is a serious problem and can possibly do something to help (as unlikely as that would have been). London because they know their network has been as least partially breached and they must take that into consideration before any more actions and before sending in any more agents.

So what did the head of the French section of SOE do upon receiving that message? Buckmaster wrote back admonishing the agent for forgetting to include his secret sign and told him to be more careful the next time. Even I would have known better than to do that. Although no one in London knew it at the time, that caused serious problems for the agent who of course was in German hands. You can imagine how he might have been treated when the Germans saw that response from London telling them the agent was playing them a trick; I don't need to tell you. So, Buckmaster, the head of the French Section of SOE was an idiot?

Atkins witnessed the message and the response but did nothing. Other messages followed from the same agent and were treated as bona fide. Other dubious messages from other agents in France were also received and were also treated as bona fide. The British lost one whole network and various other agents to the Germans -- to their prisons, concentration camps, and execution squads -- because of London's ongoing ignoring of what should have been an obvious problem of a takeover of their agents by the Germans. Not only were agents arrested who were already in France, but SOE continued sending in more and more, for about two years. All of them were captured. Vera nerver raised her voice. Helm says she was probably protecting Buckmaster or possibly herself because of her dicey legal status in Britain.

SOE had a hard time getting off the ground and then continually felt threatened by other War Office agencies for a variety of reasons. They were deathly afraid of any of those agencies or the government finding out about any error they might have made. This was, supposedly the reason why they covered up the complete takeover by the Germans of the Dutch network, a story told by Leo Marks in his book Between Silk and Cyanide. I don't remember Marks saying much or anything at all about the obvious problem with French messaging, but maybe I've forgotten. In any event, what happened was the same with the Dutch and Marks talks at length about that. Marks found the flaws in the incoming messages and tried to raise the alarm, but was beaten down and shut up by his superiors who were afraid of having their shop closed down if anyone found out.

Our heroine went to Germany after the war to find out what had happened to her "missing girls." I think she went to find out and to cover up as much as possible the fact that SOE knowingly sent most of those brave young women to their gruesome deaths. You can see that in the story as Helms tells it, even if she can't see it herself.
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dvoratreis | 20 other reviews | May 22, 2024 |
The subject of this book is the woman who became pivotal to the importance of 'F' section, the part of the World War II Special Operations Excutive (SOE) who trained and managed agents to be dropped into France to liaise with and recruit locals, act as couriers or wireless operators and manage circuits of resistence operatives including other SOE personnel. Vera Atkins took a particular interest in the women agents, and her section boss, Buckmaster, was happy to let her get on with it as the use of women in the field was highly sensitive. For a start, they did not have the scanty protection of the Geneva Convention given that they were not military personnel although, for reasons the author explains, they were nominal members of a voluntary organisation attached to the army but not classified as part of it. There was even a reluctance to cover them for welfare or pensions purposes.

The book is an account of the author's investigation as well as an account of what both she and Vera found regarding the fate of twelve female operatives who were killed by the Nazis. It also delves into Vera's background. Vera was a very secretive character whose deliberate obstructiveness has led in the past to conspiracy theories as to whether she could have been a Nazi or Soviet agent. Eventually the author draws the conclusion that her secretiveness was more to do with Vera covering her own back as, although not widely known but known to her immediate boss and others, she had been born in Romania and so would have been classified as an enemy alien (such people usually being subject to internment, rather than working in one of Britain's most sensitive secret services organisations). As such, she was dependent on Buckmaster's help in putting forward a successful case for her to be naturalised as a British citizen, and this may explain why she supported him in his 'ostrich head in the sand' behaviour when many others raised doubts as to whether agents had been captured, whether their radios were being operated by the Germans, and whether a particular pivotal agent in France (Henri Dericourt) was actually working for the Germans so that the parachute drops/plane landings of agents sent them into the hands of the enemy. Even after the war, she witheld evidence when Dericourt was on trial in a French court and he walked free. She also had a deeper secret to do with her activities in the early part of the war before joining SOE, which the author eventually uncovers.

The book is an odd mix because it veers firstly from dealing with the 'F' section setup, then back to the author's digging into Vera's early life, and then back to WWII and its aftermath. In fact this switching about of viewpoint happens quite a bit and in two places leads to a lot of repetition about the same events. So it is to some extent a journalistic detective story.

After Germany's surrender, Vera went to Germany and managed to interrogate various Nazi and other people to find out what had happened to what are always known as 'her girls' (which I found a bit irritating). She had to fight for permission to do this, and overcome various obstacles, but it is clear that it was more a case of wanting to close the files tidily. She was never moved by any of the terrible stories she heard - and there are some very harrowing accounts of the women's suffering. Later on, she showed a cold blooded callousness when faced with questions from relatives who were told, to begin with, that the women were known to be alive at certain times, and then told of their deaths, but to refrain from contacting anyone about it except her, and also when she dealt with the queries of grown up children or grandchildren of the dead women in the 1960s onwards. She had an intimidating air which often led such people to feel that they were in the wrong rather than her.

She was mistaken about the fate of one agent, Noor, confusing her from the vague descriptions of witnesses with a local operative Sonya who had behaved very bravely and tried to warn London that Noor was a captive. When she discovered from interrogating captured Germans that the 'fourth woman' in the group horribly killed at one camp could not be Noor who was, at the time, in a different prison entirely, Vera arranged for an official trial transcript to be altered to say that the fourth woman's identity was unknown even when she had actually sworn on oath that she was Noor. It becomes clear that Vera could never admit she was wrong about anything and would rather cover up the truth than own up to a mistake.

Oddly, despite her being given direct testimony from, among others, the head of the SS intelligence section, the Sicherheitsdienst (SD), in Paris who had presided over the "radio game" as the Germans called it, she withheld it from the French authorities at the time of Dericourt's trial and also kept to herself the news about Sonya whose relatives were never told what happened to her as she wasn't an actual SOE operative, but 'just' a local recruit.

I found the book uneven because of the switching about and the amount of detail about the journalistic search. There are also points which are just dropped: at one point, the author mentions finding a lot of what look like shopping lists in the papers left by cousins of Vera, with words such as the German for chocolate. A bit later, when describing how one of these cousins was instructed by a representative of German army intelligence (Abwehr) to use code words, including chocolate, for certain military things, in the intelligence they insisted this person should pass to them, we are left to draw our own conclusions about the shopping lists as if the author forgot to explain. And the repetition of certain scenes, with some information in one place and other information in another are irritating and unnecessary.

Perhaps intentionally, the character of Vera herself is rather repugnant. I found her unlikeable and by the end of the book was holding her personally culpable, at least in part, for the deaths of countless agents, both SOE and local French personnel. Hers wasn't the only incompetence - the amount displayed by the bosses not only of SOE but also the higher ups who didn't pass on, for example, the fact that SOE circuits had been "blown" in the Low Countries earlier, is absolutely staggering - but the fact remains that she put her own circumstances first and did not even attempt to suggest to Buckmaster that the various signs that their own networks had been taken over by the enemy should be taken seriously. A colleague of hers who did try to blow the whistle was moved out of the section as being "unnecessarily sentimental" so it seems she valued her job above the lives of the agents.

It is not surprising then, as the author describes, that after the war many people began speculating that the incompetence was really deliberate action, and that agents were betrayed with the intention of delivering false information to the enemy. I don't think this likely with the scale of losses involved, but it is regrettable that it was allowed to go on so long with large numbers of people sent to concentration camps, many of whom died and all of whom endured awful suffering, when it was completely unnecessary. But those who started to write biographies of agents such as Noor, or about other aspects of SOE and who approached Vera were treated coldly or outright misled, as she continued her mission to cover up her own activities early on in the war. And of course she could never admit that SOE or she herself had done anything wrong in sending certain agents at all into the field, for example Noor, whose training was incomplete and who was known to be poor at lying, or another woman with a one year old baby.

Altogether the book forms an account of an area of the war where the authorities did not cover themselves in glory. But partly because I found Vera such an unattractive character and partly due to the muddled sequence which came across as poorly edited I can only award this 2 stars.

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kitsune_reader | 20 other reviews | Nov 23, 2023 |
It's taken a while for me to figure this out about writing reviews for books I read, but the better the book, the harder it is for me to review it. Do I just say, "Wow, that was great!", and hope the person reading my review just takes my word for it? Not even my wife trusts me that much. So, no. Do I explain in detail why I think it's great, taking page after page to layout the book's many attributes? Nah. I need that time reading more books, and, after all, nobody likes me enough to read that much of what I have to say, so, also no. So, what can I say about this epic tome? It is epic, after all. Yet, one look at the book's subtitle, and most people I know wouldn't think twice about reading it, or should I say not reading it. Think Hitler and concentration camp, and I dare say the vast number of American's will think "Jews", "gassing", and probably Auschwitz. Who wants to read nearly 700 pages of assembly-line genocide? The thing is, this book is not even close to being that. First, it is unique, being about the Nazi concentration camp for women. Two, it very quickly fills the reader in on the breadth of depravity the Nazis had for a vast array of non-Jews, or should I say more precisely, non-Aryans, and even Aryans with "worthless lives" and any Aryan who may not support this depravity with full measure of vigor. Third, it acknowledges and points out the reaction within the camp to the various stages of this depravity, without specifying the cause of those stages. Emphasis of the Jewish genocide increased as German armies went toward and into Russia. The emphasis on merely killing anyone unable to walk, came when those Soviet armies won at Stalingrad, stopped Hitler from getting critical access to oil fields and started overrunning other concentration camps besides the women's camp. The author does not cite those events, but the reaction at the camp is obvious. Third, and perhaps most importantly, the author, who did masterful work both in document research and a multitude of personal interviews, lets the reader know in complex, intimate narrative about the persistent, creative, intelligent, empathetic, heroic ways many of the women in this camp, survived, if they could, and helped others survive, if they themselves could not. The idea of women as the "fairer sex" will be forever ripped from your brain, indeed if it was ever there. The deaths of so many of these women, regardless of their religion, nationality, politics, or vocation, is tragic beyond measure, but it was the will of them to withstand, to survive, that deeply colors my view of what the author has written. The book is like a great novel. I expect it to resonate with me not for just a long time, but forever.… (more)
larryerick | 11 other reviews | Jan 21, 2022 |



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