Vera Atkins: WWII Spy Boss
Concentration Camp Killings of SOE Agents
In April 1945, Vera read the report of Free French agent Bernard Guillot, who had escaped from the Buchenwald.
Guillot said he had been with a group of arrested agents who were put on a train leaving Paris for Germany on August 7, 1944. He recalled, "In addition to the men, there was a party of twenty-five women who left at the same time." At a station the males and females were put on separate lorries.
Vera took cards about seventeen agents from her index and wrote on each, "Believed executed at Buchenwald." Then she wrote a letter to Maurice in which she said Guillot's report suggested the killings were the result of a specific order from Hitler. Intelligence had related the "Commando Order" that the Fuhrer had given on October 18, 1942 that stated: "All terrorist and sabotage troops of the British and their accomplices who do not act like soldiers but rather like bandits will be treated as such by the German troops and will be ruthlessly eliminated in battle wherever they appear."
Then Vera began work on settling the affairs of the dead agents. The War Office wanted to categorize them as having "died as prisoners of war" while Vera wanted them classified as "killed in action." She reasoned, "It was one of the peculiar risks of SOE work that being in civilian clothing they were liable to be executed by the enemy . . . their execution was caused directly by their work for us." This difference of categorization mattered because the surviving family of "killed in action" were entitled to greater compensation than those who died as prisoners of war.
British forces liberated the Belsen concentration camp on April 15, 1945.
Vera received good news May 3, 1945 when a telegram arrived that stated that a British woman had been in a Red Cross convoy carrying prisoners out of Ravensbruck. The description reminded Vera of an SOE agent Yvonne Baseden. Arrangements were made for this woman to meet Vera in London.
She was indeed Yvonne Baseden.
Vera asked, "What do you know of any others?"
Yvonne knew of Violette Szabo, Lilian Rolfe and Denise Bloch. Yvonne met up with them in a holding camp for prisoners.
She never spoke English with them at the camp. The Germans believed Yvonne Baseden was a French Resistance member and she feared they would be harsher on a British agent.
This belief seemed to be borne out when Yvonne saw the aforementioned three put on a transport for Ravensbruck. However, she found herself at that camp just a few days later. She did not see the three there. Other inmates told her that they were taken away.
Vera combed through Ravensbruck survivors' reports. She showed survivors photographs of missing SOE women. One survivor believed she recognized agent Eileen Nearne. Several identified agent Cicely Lefort and said she had been killed by gas.
Vera wrote "no trace" on the names of seven other missing female agents.
On May 6, Vera read a puzzling report from United States First Army Headquarters in Allied-occupied Germany about a woman who said she was agent Eileen Nearne. The report stated, "She claims that despite being tortured she did not reveal any information detrimental to the British intelligence service or its agents." The report continued that she said she had escaped from a camp near Leipzig. However, the report also said, "Subject creates a very unbalanced impression. She often is unable to answer the simplest of questions, as though she were impersonating somebody else."
Vera believed the woman was no imposter. Vera turned out to be correct. Eileen returned to England. She reported that when first at Ravensbruck, she had been put on a work group with Violette, Denise and Lilian. Later Eileen was transferred to a munitions factory.
Later in May, SOE agent Odette Sansom, who had escaped from Ravensbruck, came to England.
Odette was working as a courier when she, along with her organizer Peter Churchill, were apprehended by the Germans. When they were captured, Odette called herself "Mrs. Churchill" because she thought it could be to her advantage if the Nazis thought she was related by marriage to British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.
In an interview with Vera, Odette said she was first kept in the Fresnes prison, then run by the Germans but located in France. At the Fresnes prison the Germans had pulled out her toenails and burned her on the back with an iron bar but she had refused to give information under torture.
Odette said that in May 1944, she and other SOE women were taken to a civilian prison in Kahrlsruhe, Germany. She had stayed there about two months at which time she was separated from the other SOE prisoners and taken to Ravensbruck.
At Ravensbruck, she was kept in solitary confinement. However, the Ravensbruck commandant Fritz Suhren seemed to have a fondness for her. He ensured she had adequate food and was not murdered.
As the Russians advanced, Suhren made arrangements to flee, taking Odette with him. They drove toward the Americans. He hoped that she would vouch for him, describing how well he had treated her so that his own life would be spared. She informed the Americans that he had been the Ravensbruck commandant and he was arrested.
Vera asked Odette to look through a book of photographs and Odette picked out seven women as having been at Karlsruhe when she was there. She was even remembered the names of six of them: Madeleine Damerment (alias Martine), Vera Leigh, Diana Rowden, Yolande Beekman (alias Yvonne), Andre Borrel (alias Denise) and Eliane Plewman. However, Odette did not know where they had gone after leaving Karlsruhe.
Odette recommended that Vera seek information from the wardress of the Karlsruhe prison, Fraulein Becker.ca