Vera Atkins and her Power and Accomplishments as British Spy
British intelligence officer Vera Atkins worked for the Special Operations Executive (SOE) in the French Section during the second World War. Born in Romania, Atkins came from a Jewish family and was very powerful as a spy.
On June 16, 1908, Vera Maria Rosenborn was born to German-Jewish Max Rosenberg and British-Jewish Zeffro Hilda, who went by Hilda, in Galați, Romania. Vera, who later took on the name of Atkins (her mother’s maiden name), had four brothers.
For a brief period of time, Atkins studied modern languages in Paris at the Sorbonne along with a finishing school in Lausanne, Switzerland. At the latter, she was able to partake in one of her favorite activities, skiing. From there, Atkins travelled to London to train at a secretarial college. Her father went bankrupt in 1932, dying the following year. So, Atkins stayed with her mother in Romania until she decided to move to Britain in 1937 due to the political situation in Europe, especially the extremism and antisemitism in Romania.
Growing up, Atkins lived on her father’s estate at Crasna, now apart of the Ukraine. She and Friedrich Werner von de Schulenburg, an anti-Nazi ambassador from Germany became close. Atkins was at one point involved with Dick Kitten-Cremer, a British pilot, and the two met in Egypt. It is possible that the two may have been engaged. He ended up dying in 1941 though. Atkins never married and instead lived with her mother Hilda until she died.
Atkins also met many members of British Intelligence in Romania. Some would go on to help her when she tried to move to Britain.
Shortly before she joined the SOE, Atkins visited the Low Countries trying to provide money for a bribe she made with Hans Fillie, an Abwehr officer, to get her cousin a passport to escape Romania. The Netherlands were invaded by Germany on May 10, 1940 and she was stuck there, unable to return to Britain until later that year with help from a resistance network in Belgium. This whole incident was a secret Atkins kept for her entire life. It wasn’t until Sarah Helm, her biographer, found out by asking mourners about Atkins at her funeral that it was revealed. Before the SOE, Atkins also volunteered in Chelsea as an Air Raid Precautions warden.
In February of 1941, Atkins joined the SOE as a secretary in the French section, despite not being a British citizen. She, not long after, became the head of the section Colonel Maurice Buckmaster assistant and was therefore, a de facto intelligence officer. Up until August 1944, she served as a civilian. Atkins was then commissioned in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) as a Flight Officer. Earlier that February, she was appointed as an intelligence officer in the F Section.
The main role Atkins played for the SOE was recruiting and employing British agents in France along with being responsible for the 37 women who were SOE agents working as couriers and wireless operators. She did the “housekeeping” for the agents, meaning Atkins made sure they were prepared for their missions by checking their clothes and papers and also acting as a liaison for their families by sending regular letters to them to make sure the agents were getting their part. On top of that, Atkins would regularly go to the airfields with her agents as they left for France and made sure everything was secure beforehand.
Everyday, Atkins attended daily section heads meetings Buckmaster chaired. She usually stayed up late at night in the signals room to receive transmissions agents sent from the fields that had already been decoded. At around 10 in the morning, she would arrive at the F-Section’s office. Many of her colleagues, did not like her, although Buckmaster trusted her because not only did she have a great memory, but she also had integrity and great organization skills.
More recently, there has been a controversy surrounding Atkins that has come to light. At one point, the Germans penetrated one of the F-Section’s primary spy networks, but nobody seemed to notice the clues. Instead of pulling out agents who were now at risk due to the situation, her and Buckmaster sent in more. Though Atkins received signals from captured radios that were not checked, she failed to inform Buckmaster. Allegedly, this was because Atkins was negligent in allowing Buckmaster to repeat errors he had made in the past that put the lives of their agents at risk. Biographer Sarah Helm suggested that perhaps she was defensive about the relationship she had had with Abwehr and the secret she kept about her cousin being rescued from Romania. Due to her Romanian citizenship and not British, it made her an enemy alien legally and also left her extremely vulnerable.
On October 1, 1943, the F-Section received a message from one of their Berne agents, “Jacques”, or Jacques Weil, that four of their agents were captured by the Germans. The two named agents were “Sonja”, Jacques’s fiancee Sonia Olschanezky, and “Madelaine”, Noor Inayat Khan. However, Buckmaster did nothing. This may have been because he did not know “Sonja”, who had been locally recruited. Even after Noor was arrested, the F-Section received and believed she was sending many messages under the name “Madelaine”. There is also no evidence that Atkins knew this was happening.
Once the war ended, Atkins found out that in 1943, the Germans had been almost completely successful in destroying the SOE networks that were in the Low Countries. The circuits collapsed completely in the Netherlands and Belgium, and neither Atkins nor Buckmaster knew about it. Their superiors failed to inform those apart of the F-Section of what was happening, which was possibly the reason for why Atkins and Buckmaster were so overconfident with their security networks. The two would often ignore evidence signals as well.
Atkins also made sure to trace down nearly all of her missing agents when the war ended. Perhaps, this was due to feeling guilt over the amount of deaths that could have been avoided, but weren’t. Another possibility is that she felt it was her duty to find out what happened to the agents, especially because she had known them all personally, who died for the F-Section. But, she also refused to admit when she made a mistake and would do whatever possible to hide them.
France was soon liberated and the war in Europe came to an end. Atkins travelled to France, and later on also went to Germany for a few days. There, she began to track down fifty-one missing F-Section agents to find out their fates. When she originally began to do so, many opposed her. Though the horrendous actions the Nazis made were soon revealed,Atkins was given official support to find out what happened to the British agents.
The SOE began to shut down by the end of 1945, so Atkins was funded by the newly established Secret Intelligence Service (M16) and travelled on to Germany as a Women’s Auxiliary Air Force’s Squadron Officer. There, she started searching for the missing agents, fourteen of which were the women she looked over.
Atkins continued to search until October 1946 when she returned home. She had searched for both missing SOE agents and other missing intelligence service personnel. That November, they extended her commission and she was able to return to Germany so she could be of assist to the prosecution of the Ravensbrüch Trial, lasting until January of 1947. During this time, Atkins also searched for Noor Inayat Khan. She found out that though they originally believed her to have died at Natzweiler-Struthof, she had died at Dachau.
In the end, Atkins found 117 out of 118 missing agents from the F-Section. She was also able to figure out how all fourteen of the women had died. Only two out of those fourteen had not been murdered at Nai concentration camps. these twelve did: Yolande Beekman, Denise Bloch, Andrée Borrel, Madeleine Damerment, Noor Inayat Khan, Vera Leigh, Cecily Lefort, Sonya Olschanezky, Eliane Plewman, Lilian Rolfe, Diana Rowden, and Violette Szabo. Yvonne Rudellat and Muriel Byck both died of disease, the former of typhus and the latter of meningitis. Atkins was very dedicated to finding her missing women, now knowing where they died but also able to detail their bravery before they were captured. She also made sure all of them were able to receive official recognition from the British Government, except for Sonya Olschanezky, as Atkins did not know of her until 1947.
In 1947, Atkins was demobilized. She was also nominated for an MBE (Most Excellent Order of the British Empire), but did not receive it. From 1948 to 1952, she worked for the Central Bureau for Educational Visits and Exchanges of UNESCO as an office manager until becoming director in 1952. In 1961, she retired early to Winchelsea, East Sussex.
Atkins advised two movies about two of her agents, Odette, about Odette Sansom, and Carve Her Name With Pride, based off of a biography on Violette Szabo. On top of that, she helped Jean Overton Fuller as she wrote a book on the life of Noor Inayat Khan. Later on, Overton Fuller had, however, come to believe Atkins was an agent for the Soviets. Some former SOE agents also thoughts her to be working for the Germans or being a Soviet spy, but Sarah Helm dismissed all these claims. This was because Atkins was not as straightforward as her colleagues and could be secret at times, especially when it came to her mission in Europe in 1940. It is possible that she could have been working for the Nazis or Soviets, but it is highly unlikely.
On June 24, 2000, ninety-two year old Vera Atkins died in Hastings after living at a nursing home recovering from a skin complaint due to falling and breaking her hip earlier. When she was admitted to the hospital, Atkins contracted MRSA, Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus. Her ashes were scattered in Zennor, Cornwall at St. Senara’s churchyard with a memorial plaque she and one of her brothers shared.