Vera Atkins: WWII Spy Boss
Prejudice in the SOE
The head of F Section, Maurice Buckmaster, whose wife had Jewish ancestry, strongly opposed anti-Semitism and was determined to see that Vera got a fair shake.
By February 1944, D-Day was planned and Vera's participation hinged on her citizenship status. In a letter to the Home Office supporting her application, Maurice noted that SOE wanted Vera to run a special station in France that would coordinate post-D-Day operations. He wrote, "If Miss Atkins goes overseas as a Romanian subject we fear that she will be both obtrusive and much restricted in her movements."
Vera received a certificate of British citizenship on March 24, 1944.
F Section was designated a pivotal role in D-Day. Many new agents had to go to France although their peril. The circuits in France worked diligently to interfere with German lines of communication to prevent Germany's troops from reaching the landing beaches. F Section agents blew up railways, telephone lines, fuel depots and dams.
One of the agents Vera briefed during this time period was Violette Szabo. Violette was born in Paris, the daughter of a British World War I veteran who married a Frenchwoman. The family went to England to live when Violette was still a child. Shortly after WWII broke out, Violette married French Foreign Legionnaire Etienne Szabo. He was killed in action, leaving Violette behind with a one-year-old baby. The young mother ensured that her child would be taken care of through pension arrangements if something happened to her.
Violette landed by parachute in France on April 5, 1944. Her cover story was that she was secretary Corinne Reine Le Roy. Her real mission was to learn if Germans had penetrated a particular sub-circuit. After discovering that the sub-circuit had been compromised, Violette flew back to England late that same month. In June, Violette parachuted into France for a second time.
Also in early June, SOE sent hundreds of messages to circuits and hundreds of messages were broadcast back to the SOE signals room. One was ominous. Appearing on the teleprinter, it was forwarded to Maurice and Vera. It stated, "Many thanks large deliveries arms and ammunition have greatly appreciated good tips concerning intentions and plans." It was signed the Gestapo. Soon afterward another message was sent that thanked the British for items recently delivered, noting that "certain of the agents had had to be shot," but claiming that others who were willing to cooperate were allowed to live. The Gestapo signed that one as well.
Maurice responded in a similarly ironic vein, "Sorry to see your patience is exhausted and your nerves not so good as ours."