|Born||16 Jun 1908|
|Died||24 Jun 2000|
|Country||United Kingdom, Romania|
Contributor: Alan Chanter
ww2dbaseVera May Atkins CBE was a British intelligence officer who worked in the French Section of the Special Operations Executive (SOE) from 1941 to 1945 during the Second World War. Few people acquainted with Vera, who spoke perfect English and appeared to be British to the core, knew that she was born Vera Maria Rosenberg in Romania, the daughter of a German businessman and his British South African wife, both of whom were Jewish. She lived a privileged life in Bucharest where her influential friends included a number of British diplomats who were members of British Intelligence (some of whom were later to support her application for British nationality) and even the German ambassador. Vera was recruited before the war by the ebullient Canadian spymaster William Stephenson who sent her on a fact-finding missions across Europe to obtain intelligence on the increasing military threat posed by Nazi Germany.
ww2dbaseIn September 1939, Vera was part of a British team which assisted Polish code breaker Marian Rejewski's group, with their reverse engineered replica Enigma machines, to cross the border into her native Romania, from where they made their way to France and Britain to join the Allied cryptanalysis working on breaking the German Enigma codes. When, in 1940, the anti-Semitic Fascist Iron Guard gained power in Romania, Vera and her relatives took flight to London, England, United Kingdom.
ww2dbaseIn February 1941 Vera was recruited into the Special Operations Executive (SOE) where she worked in Section F - the French section of SOE which had been established by Winston Churchill to infiltrate German-occupied territory and "set Europe ablaze." SOE started life at 64 Baker Street in London, with the cover name as the Inter-Service Research Bureau. By 1945 it had expanded to occupy six acres of office space between Baker Street tube station and Portman Square. It recruited staff variously among service personnel, civilians with specialist knowledge of occupied countries, refugees such as Vera, and sundry adventurers who fitted in nowhere else. It established training schools in sabotage at Stevenage, black propaganda at Watford, subversion at Aston House near Knebworth, field craft at Lochailort and guerrilla techniques at Arisaig House. Resented by the professional intelligence hierarchy in MI6 who considered SOE as amateurs impinging on their territory it was, nonetheless still the Prime Minister's pet idea and therefore had unwavering support at the highest level of government.
ww2dbaseIt was in Section F where Vera, working initially as a secretary for the Sections chief, Colonel Maurice Buckmaster, became involved in assigning women as couriers to French networks involved in sabotage and other forms of resistance. Section F also prepared others for an even more dangerous role - transmitting coded radio messages from France to London, which might be monitored by the Germans and tracked to their source. Volunteers were sought from women who spoke flawless French. Many who qualified had been raised in France or studied there before leaving for Great Britain as war loomed.
ww2dbaseIn total some 39 female agents were sent to France to aid those resisting German occupation. The first such volunteer was an American, Virginia Hall (q.v.), who, even before SOE was authorised to employ women agents in the field, went in 1942 on her own initiative. Those that followed in her path included such brave women as Christine Granville, whose Jewish mother had been murdered by the Nazis in Warsaw, Poland and was determined to pay them back; Eileen Nearme, who would suffer a brutal captivity; and Odette Sansom whose undercover activities would inspire the 1950 film "Odette". All three survived the war but thirteen other unfortunate "Atkin's Girls" would be lost in action in France. Vera was always concerned for her 400 or so SOE agents assigned to France but felt personally responsible for all of her "Girls" (some of whom were in their 30s and 40s with children of their own). She personally saw them depart on their perilous missions keenly aware of the dreadful fate that might await them should they be betrayed and arrested by the German secret police, the Gestapo. For they would be far less likely to survive the war than many men in Britain's armed forces.
ww2dbase29-year-old, Paris educated, Noor Inayat Khan (q.v.) was perhaps one of the best known of Atkin's recruits. She joined SOE in February 1943 and trained at Thame Park as a radio operator to communicate messages from the French resistance. Atkins had certain reservations about whether Inayat Khan was up to the task and fully committed to a mission that could be fatal for her if caught. Nearly one in four female SOE agents lost their lives in action and the risk was greater in places like Paris where Inayat Khan would operate. Told that it was not too late to drop out of the mission the agent told Vera that she had no intention of backing down and her only concern was how her death might affect her mother. Reluctantly Vera had to conclude that Inayat Khan was ready for action and, on 16 June 1943, accompanied her to the airfield where a Lysander aircraft waited to deliver her to France to join the resistance network led by Francis Suttill (code-named Prosper). It was not easy for Atkins to expose someone into such danger. Before departure she sent Inayat Khan a gift - a silver brooch in the shape of a bird, for a fledgling agent who was taking flight and might never return.
ww2dbaseSOE was disbanded at the end of the war and Vera was demobilised in 1947, going to work as an office manager (and later Director) at UNESCO's Central Bureau for Educational Visits and Exchanges. She took early retirement in 1961 and retired to Winchelsea in East Sussex. She was awarded the Croix de Guerre in 1948 and made a Knight of the Legion of Honour by the French government in 1995. In the 1997 Birthday Honours she was awarded the CBE (Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire).
ww2dbaseVera Atkins CBE died at a hospital in Hastings on 24 June 2000, aged 92, having contracted MRSA while recovering from a skin complaint following a fall at her nursing home. Her ashes are scattered at St Senara's churchyard in Zennor, Cornwall.
ww2dbaseVera Atkins has most recently been the basis for the MI5 character Hilda Pierce in the British Television crime series, Foyle's War (2013-15).
Neil Kagan and Stephen G Hyslop: World War II-The Spies and Secret Missions That Won the War (National Geographic, Washington DC., 2017)
Max Hastings: The Secret War (William Collins Publishers, 2015)
Wikipedia - Vera Atkins
Last Major Revision: Oct 2020
Vera Atkins Timeline
|16 Jun 1908||Vera Rosenberg was born in GalaČ›i, Romania.|
|16 Jun 1943||Noor Inayat Khan boarded a Lysander aircraft in Britain for France. She was accompanied by her superior Vera Atkins.|
|24 Jan 1944||Violette Szabo made her will, witnessed by Vera Atkins and Major R. A. Bourne Paterson of Special Operations Executive, naming her mother Reine as executrix and her daughter Tania as sole beneficiary.|
|24 Jun 2000||Vera Atkins passed away in a hospital in Hastings, England, United Kingdom.|
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James Forrestal, Secretary of the Navy, 23 Feb 1945