Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Vera Atkins: WWII Spy Boss

The "Anodyne Little Letter"

 

In the late 1930s, Romania turned chilly toward Jews residents and passed discriminatory measures against "non pure-blooded Romanians."


Guy Atkins wrote to his mother, sister, and brother imploring them to leave Romania before things worsened. William also urged her to move. Hilda, Vera, and Ralph moved to England in October 1937.


Hilda automatically regained British citizenship. Ralph, who had been born in South Africa, had a right to naturalization. However, Vera's birth in Romania meant that she was an alien.


Tight restrictions on the employment of foreigners meant that Vera could not work. She lived off family savings.


War was declared on September 3, 1939. Vera applied for work with the Land Army, the British Red Cross, and Postal Censorship. All rejected her because of her nationality.


Maurice Buckmaster <em>(Public Domain Image)</em>
Maurice Buckmaster (Public Domain Image)
In February 1941 Vera received what she described as "an anodyne little letter" in the mail. It asked her to go to the War Office for an interview. As Helm states, "That was how she came to join the London staff of Britain's newest secret service: the Special Operations Executive, or SOE."


The SOE was formed in July 1940 in reaction to the German invasion of Denmark, Norway and France. The organization was designed to build resistance in Nazi-occupied countries, employing spying and sabotage in that effort.


When Vera was asked decades after the end of the war why the SOE wanted her, she answered, "One didn't know." However, it is probable she was considered a good candidate for this work because her family had worked for British intelligence in the past and she herself had passed information when she lived in Romania to spies she saw socially.


Vera was soon appointed intelligence officer for F Section that coordinated the preparation of over four hundred agents who went to France.


She worked under the head of F Section, Maurice Buckmaster.


Vera interviewed new recruits. The reasons they were chosen as possible spies varied but a major one was that they spoke fluent French. Often they had a French parent, had spent time in France, or had learned the language early in life. Some had previously worked with the French Resistance. As an article in the New York Times related, "The recruits were a remarkable cross-section -- bankers and playwrights, chefs and taxicab drivers."


Vera informed each recruit that he or she would be undertaking dangerous work and there was a good chance of being killed. Each person was told to consider the risk for a few days before deciding whether or not to accept it.


Those who did devoted three weeks to assessment and training. Then they learned about explosives and parachuting. Finally, they were trained in Morse code and concealing messages.


Some in the SOE opposed the use of female agents. However, by 1942 SOE Executive Director Colin Gubbins convinced the British military that women should be employed as spies. He held that in some respects female spies held an edge over men.


Helm writes, "SOE operations in the field were organized around a system of circuits, or networks, each covering a specific sector of France. Circuits were structured around three key figures -- an organizer, a courier, and a wireless operator, or signaler -- all normally recruited and trained in Britain."


The organizer headed and coordinated the circuit and identified possible targets for sabotage.


Couriers carried messages between circuits and sub-circuits. Gubbins believed conditions in France made women especially suitable for acting as couriers. From early 1942 until the end of the war young Frenchmen were likely to be sent to Germany as forced laborers unless they were considered "essential" workers in France. Thus, women would arouse less suspicion. Women were also less likely to be bodily searched.


Female SOE agents had to join the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY) as a "cover" for their secret training. The FANY was made up of women volunteering for military support positions.


The agents Vera recruited were eventually either parachuted into France or flown there in light, short-winged airplanes called Lysanders that could land in small fields. Just before their departures, she scrutinized their clothing for English labels, laundry tags, or any sign that they came from Britain. She completed their disguises by handing them a packet of French cigarettes, a recent issue of a French newspaper or photographs of fictitious relatives. Sometimes she stitched a French manufacturer's labor or a French-style button onto their clothing.


SOE made its headquarters in several buildings located on London's Baker Street. Plaques on office fronts read "Inter Services Research Bureau" or something similar. Vera told family, friends and acquaintances that she worked at "a boring little job in Baker Street."

By mid-1943 her job included intelligence which meant that she interviewed a variety of sources, and scoured magazines for information on whether ration cards in France were issued monthly or weekly, the hours of curfew, what papers an agent might need to move about and the latest fashions in various sections of France. She put some of the most important points she gleaned into leaflets she named "Titbits" or "Comic Cuts."

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