May 31, 2008

Steyn on Vera Atkins

Last week, in honor of Ian Fleming (perhaps I should write "in honour"), Mark Steyn reprinted an obituary he'd written previously on the Canadian actress who played "Moneypenny" in most of the Bond films.

She is interesting, indeed. Even more interesting is the woman who is widely regarded as the model for Moneypenny, but ultimately didn't have that much in common with her except for the old Executive Assistant trait of having power out of proportion to one's rank: Vera Atkins.

There are two biographies out about Ms. Atkins: a work of journalism and a sort of romanticized version of her life that gets her hair color wrong.

She sent somewhere between 400 and 470 agents behind enemy lines into France, including around 40 women. She lost 118 agents, including a dozen women. It was Ms. Atkins who investigated their deaths, and helped to bring their killers to justice after the war at the Nuremberg Trials.

For the rest of Ms. Atkins' life, she endured criticism for having sent females to their deaths. But not, I suppose, the far larger number of males.

The NYT obit on Atkins is one of the best short summaries of her life, by the way. The Telegraph tribute is also quite good.

What an extraordinary woman.

UPDATE: For more on the women of the SOE, go to 64 Baker Street. The interface is a bit old-fashioned, but it's an amazing site—a real labor of love. (Or a "labour of love." You get the idea; we really need to agree on some trans-Atlantic spellings, style rules, and grammar, stat. It's a smaller world now than it ever was in the past.)

Posted by Attila Girl at May 31, 2008 05:32 PM | TrackBack

A bit of difference between the NYT and Telegraph accounts. Firstly we have 104 dead (91 men and 13 women) in the Telegraph version. And the implication that De Gaulle's people might have tipped off the Germans in a pissing contest with the Brits. The NYT fails to mention this. No one is surprised.

Posted by: Darrell at May 31, 2008 08:16 PM

The numbers conflict badly in all the different accounts of her life that I've read. That's one of the reasons I want to read A Life in Secrets.

The allegation about De Gaulle is only in that one account, and I read a good handful of 'em over the past few days. Mostly, De Gaulle would not permit the Brits to use any actual French people in their operations. But (of course) their agents had to speak perfect French, to pass as natives--so they tended to use British citizens who were half-French.

Posted by: Attila Girl at June 1, 2008 10:01 AM

De Gaulle wouldn't permit? The Brits should have instituted the first 'just say no" policy. I would have used people who actually lived in the needed area. And I would have looked for leaks after the war. If the German were waiting for the drop, I'd have a pretty good idea. And then there would be a number of unfortunate escargot accidents, the kind where two just happen to lodge 5 inches up each nasal tract.

Posted by: Darrell at June 1, 2008 01:48 PM

There was indeed a lot of friction between DeGaulle and SOE, but I have never before heard the suggestion that DeGaulle or his organization deliberately betrayed SOE agents to the Germans.

What *has* been suggested is that British authorities, either in SOE itself or in MI-6 (which also had considerable friction with SOE) betrayed agents, possibly as part of a high-level disinformation plot. It does seem strange that when a double agent was identified, British authorities (after the war) seemed strangely reluctant to see him prosecuted. Also, many SOE records were detroyed in a fire, which of course encouraged belief in a conspiracy.

Personally, I doubt that deliberate betrayals took place. However, it is probably true that many agents were lost as a result of Churchill's decision to increase the level of SOE operations in order to help convince the Germans that the invasion was coming earlier than it actually was, and thereby to relieve pressure on the Russians.

This is not an exact quote, but when questioned about the losses of agents, Vera Atkins said something like:

"Yes, we made mistakes, and in war mistakes cost lives. Do not think that we will not live with these things until the day we die."

Posted by: david foster at June 1, 2008 03:22 PM

For adult readers of LMA. I assure you that there was no injection before the trip into the oven. The Nazis and Russians never wasted their last chance to get information. Hard to believe about the betrayal of allied agents? The spy business is a nasty game even for those within your own organization. Clown factions in our own CIA have concocted stupid plans, like providing the KGB with a CIA agent to trade, so that the KGB wouldn't secure one on their own when we were holding several of theirs. Of course the Russians figured that new intel was more appealing than already compromised agents, resulting in a trip to a charming KGB fellow named "The Baker." Guess why.
Somebody should write a book. And certain people need an accelerated expiration date, no matter how hard it is to live with the things they have done.

Posted by: Darrell at June 1, 2008 09:26 PM

Please do not include Ms. Atkins in that statement, D. By all accounts, she was wracked with guilt--and she did spend all that time digging up information on what had happened to her guys and gals for the war crimes trials. No one asked her to do that, and she had to finagle permission to do it of her own accord.

Also: we musn't let any dislike we might feel for any of the 21st Century French citizens or government to detract from our admiration for the real achievements of either the SOE or the French Resistance.

Posted by: Attila Girl at June 1, 2008 10:20 PM

One real disaster in SOE operations involved the agents sent to Holland (who did not fall under Vera Atkins' domain since she worked for the "France" section.) The Germans had captured some agents and broken their codes, and were transmitting using the identities of the captured agents in order to lure more SOE people into the trap.

Leo Marks, SOE's Codemaster, was suspicious that the "agent" transmissions might actually be coming from Germans, but had no way to know for sure. Eventually, someone in Communications observed that real German operators tended to end their transmissions with an exchange of "HH" (for Heil Hitler) signals. (HH in Morse is 8 dits.) So a trap was set--the SOE communicator conducting a session with an "agent" ended his transmission with HH.

Before he could stop himself, the German on the other end came back with HH.

Posted by: david foster at June 2, 2008 05:15 AM

I love that.

Posted by: Attila Girl at June 2, 2008 09:38 AM

I should have been more clear. I consider Ms Atkins one of the good 'guys'. Any professional agent would have been proud to serve with her. If only everyone were like her. The guilt wasn't on her shoulders, and I hope she had people around her to her her know that every day.

Posted by: Darrell at June 2, 2008 10:59 AM

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