A Life in Secrets – Vera Atkins and the missing agents of WWII

Published By: Anchor

Book Category: Non-Fiction, History

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Reviewed by Al Olsen

When I think of secret agents from the United Kingdom, normally I think of MI 5 or MI 6. Another agency was created during World War II—and disbanded at its end—called the Special Operations Executive or SOE. This book is about one woman, Vera Atkins, and her work within this branch of covert operations that sent patriotic men and women spies into France to help bolster the work of the French Resistance prior to the 1944 D-Day invasion at Normandy.

It is obvious from the start of the book that author Sarah Helm has done extensive research on Ms. Atkins, piecing together not only her work for the SOE, but also Ms. Atkins’ personal life. For example, Helm was tireless in trying to find exact locations of photos taken during Ms. Atkins’ childhood in Romania. At the very beginning of the book the author talks about the one and only encounter she had with Vera Atkins.

At the time of the interview, Ms. Atkins was but a few weeks from her 90th birthday, and chose to speak little of her involvement with the SOE. With that as a backdrop, the author used her skill and connections to interview anyone who had worked with or knew Vera Atkins to put together a very interesting story. The book is written in narrative form, but at times Helm drops into the text a snippet from one of these various interviews with survivors from that era. Most of the book is about how Vera Atkins tracked down leads on the agents who didn’t return or were presumed dead, because Ms. Atkins felt responsible to give an accurate accounting to the families that were unaware their missing family members were agents.

When reading this book, you are aware that you are reading about British history by a British author. One of the ways that this is evident is by the author’s liberal usage of French phrases, some of which are not translated into English. For a British audience this may not be a problem, but for the average American audience, it can be troubling at times.

Armchair Interviews says: A fascinating story about World War II and well worth the time to read.

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