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A Life in Secrets: The Story of Vera Atkins and the Lost Agents of SOE
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A Life in Secrets: The Story of Vera Atkins and the Lost Agents of SOE

3.99 of 5 stars 3.99  ·  rating details  ·  509 ratings  ·  99 reviews
During World War Two the Special Operation Executive's French Section sent more than 400 agents into Occupied France - at least 100 never returned and were reported 'Missing Believed Dead' after the war. Twelve of these were women who died in German concentration camps - some were tortured, some were shot, and some died in the gas chambers. Vera Atkins had helped prepare t ...more
Hardcover, 463 pages
Published September 14th 2005 by Little Brown and Company (first published 2005)
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This biography of Vera Atkins is one of the most amazing books I have ever read. I was amazed at the breadth and depth of Helm's research. I was amazed at the level of incompetence in the Special Operations Executive (SOE), clandestinely established by the British to place saboteurs into Europe.They were engaged in recruiting, and setting up resistance organizations as well as supporting them behind enemy lines. The ability to rationalize away grave mistakes in judgment as the result of the fog ...more
Jim Leffert
Vera Atkins, the “spymistress” who sent men and women as agents to France during World War II, was a wealthy Anglophile Jewish woman in Romania who ended up trying to assimilate in England and becoming den mother to a legion of undercover operatives in France. This biography of Atkins is better even than the novels of Alan Furst! The book conveys the author’s heroic effort to discover the truth about Vera’s life and also about the agents, many of whom landed right into the arms of the Germans an ...more
Vera Atkins' core personality seemed as covert as her work in this book, IMHO. It's a decent detailing of the origins of SOE during early days of England's WWII years and of Vera's operation of the SOE's French section. And yet as I have read other non-fiction upon specific agents in this exact circle, I find this particular research work dry and yes, having pieces of interest, but with no solid connecting direction, or "how" of the operation to mesh transitions between individual outcomes. Vera ...more
Regina Lindsey
Great Britain formed the Special Operations Executive (SOE) as a reaction to the Panic of 1940, in order to execute espionage activities behind enemy lines. In 1942, Col Collin Gubbins received unofficial authority to send women into combat zones as couriers. It was thought Nazis would be less likely to bodily search women and women could devise logical explanations as to why they were on the move as opposed to men who would be readily searched and conscripted. Women were so successful in their ...more
This is truly a book of contrasts. Here is a story that needed to be told, and which required the skills of a terrier of a competent and persistent investigative journalist to breathe life into it. Yet this book largely, but not wholly, reads as though the author struggled to sift and piece her material together to her satisfaction, let alone that of her editor.

However, I am glad that Ms Helm fully engaged in that struggle, because overall her text really is very well worth sticking with. Yes,
May 11, 2008 Leslie rated it 4 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: People who like WWII memoirs, espionage, strong women
Ooof - this is a long, detailed, sometimes disturbing but always fascinating account of Vera Atkins' work with female SOE agents both during the war, and after. She spent a great deal of time post-war tracking down and interviewing witnesses on both sides of the war who could provide details of her missing female agents, and their ultimate demise.
An excellent book and well worth reading. Vera Atkins was indeed an enigma but this book tries to dispell some of the myths. What can't be denied is the work Vera Atkins put in after the war to find the missing female SOE agents that didn't return home.
Liz Chapman
A fascinating account of Vera Atkins lone search through the chaos of Allied Occupied Germany, to find out what had happened to the 12 missing female agents that had been dropped behind enemy lines , that Vera had helped to prepare for their missions.
N.L.B. Horton
A LIFE IN SECRETS is a book whose story should be told. It's predominantly about British spies during WWII, and a spy mistress (Vera Atkins) with secrets of her own. Working closely with the female spies sent to France on behalf of the Allies, she went to great lengths to determine the fates of those whom she prepared for espionage.

Atkins herself was quite a character, and I enjoyed reading about the challenges she faced to get her job, do her job, and to survive within the British establishment
Debbie Robson
A Life in Secrets: Vera Atkins and the Missing Agents of WWII is a book about journeys. A lot of journeys. Firstly it is the author Sarah Helm’s journey to discover the real Vera Atkins who she met only once in 1998. She initially came to see Atkins about the agents but found that to understand what happened to the agents she needed to understand Vera Atkins herself, a woman who said of her Romanian past: “It is something on which I have closed the book. I have closed the book on many things in ...more
Mark Drew
This is a very astounding book; another look behind the curtains of the S.O.E and the "brains" of the "F" section, Vera Atkins. I have read several books regarding the activities of England's super secret sabotage department, but this one surprised me for several reasons, the foremost being the character of Vera Atkins herself. In the other books I have read Atkins is usually painted in saintly hues but here we find a totally different persona, one who probably had feet of clay with a will of ru ...more
Conventions, especially in the fantasy genre, have a strange side effect on my life. Well other than the direct effect of following people attending them and reading up on all the happenings (I mean, really who thought cons would be cool one day?) they have the other impact of making most of my favorite authors write their next books very slowly.

This leads to me outreading their series, deterred at starting other ones, and suddenly developing an uncharacteristic streak of enjoying non fiction. O
Oliver Flynn
I'm captivated by untold stories of the war and this was generally a good one. Princess Noor Inayat Khan's story has long interested me. Apparently, as a person, she intrigued Vera Atkins, as well, since much of the SOE portion of the book follows Atkins' extensive search for “Madeleine’s” post-war whereabouts. I was saddened to learn of the betrayals by other British agents and the seeming ineptitude by Atkin's superior, allowing the Gestapo to all-too handily round up the carefully trained Bri ...more
Douglas Perry
This is the true story of Britain's Special Operations Executive and how, after World War II, its "spy mistress" went in search of her missing agents. Clearly, "A Life in Secrets" has all the makings of a great book, but it never quite engaged me. For one thing, the protagonist, the austere, self-absorbed Vera Atkins, is not very likable. Plus, the SOE -- sort of a kid sister to MI6 -- was filled with incompetents at the staff level, and this is the reason so many of Atkins' agents went missing. ...more
I could barely put this book down. From page one I was hooked. The stories about agents going behind Nazi lines into France were compelling, and Vera Atkin's tenactiy to discover what happened to each and every agent that did not come back was admirable. The descriptions of conditions in the prisons, camps and countries during WW II are difficult to read and accept. Then Sarah Helms goes beyond these points in history to discover what shaped Vera Atkins. Helms does not wear only rose colored gla ...more
Amazing story about WWII spies for Britain, many of them of whom were women and whom went unacknowledged for decades after the war. Vera Atkins was not a spy herself, but coordinated the special group of spies. When things went terribly wrong and the Nazis captured her people, Atkins went on a personal journey, after the war, to find out what happened to each and every one.

The book is as much about her search, as it is about Atkins, who is a mysterious character herself. I found myself not likin
Bianca Woodard
Sarah Helm, A Life In Secrets: Vera Atkins and the Missing Agents of WWII, (New York, Anchor Books 2005) Kindle Edition

Sarah Helm, author of A Life in Secrets: Vera Atkins and the Missing Agents of WWII, is no stranger to the journalistic pursuits and rabbit trails in covering foreign affairs. She began her career as a journalist with the Sunday Times and later became a founding member of a start-up newspaper, The Independent. She spent her time here covering “official secret stories” as the Ho
This book is a very fascinating account of a little known spy network that the British set up in WW2. It was out side all of the traditional spying groups. Unfortunately, they were hampered in lots of ways -- The most tragic of which was their own amazing incompetence which lead to the deaths of may of the agents they sent in to occupied areas of Europe...unfortunately the Nazis were often waiting for the agents as soon as they were airlifted in to their assigned areas. The woman involved in the ...more
This book is a mess. The author presents seemingly random bits of evidence and anecdotes, switching from her own experience in retracing the steps of Vera Atkins and Vera Atkins' journey to discover the fates of F section SOE agents. I found the author's tale of her journey to Vera Atkins' childhood home especially out of place and unnecessary. I assume the author was attempting to present similarities between her experience of trying to discover details of Ms. Atkins' early life and Ms. Atkins' ...more
I'm kind of tempted to file this under 'secret history' because Miss Atkins was incredibly secretive about elements of her life, especially when it pertained to her time in SOE and the women agents she worked with. Helm captures a strong, complex woman who was fascinating but not always likeable, who moved through her world with determination. (As a fantasy writer, I also liked the rather mystical moments that cropped up a few times in the story.)
I love the subject and wish like heck we could do half stars here. The first half of the book was very well done, but in an effort to tell Vera's entire story the author must dig back into the hidden past and ends up with suppositions and guesswork. I guess that bothered me. The other issue is that by the end of the book, as we work so very arduously to complete Vera's story, I came to dislike her very much. Yeah, I understand the need for control when sending people to their deaths but later, w ...more
I'm giving this book three stars because the author has obviously done a beautiful job of researching this story. However, the book didn't really engage me at all. For some masochistic reason I felt compelled to finish every last word, like maybe, just maybe I will find something in this book that proves useful to me later...why do I do that to myself? The main character of the book, Vera Atkins, seemed unlikeable, cold, and even callous. Helm explains at the end of the book the hidden events in ...more
I had slightly mixed feelings about this one. It was at times extremely captivating. I just had to find out the fate of these agents but the problem I had was that I could have totally done without having to read about Vera Atkins because I found her to be not at all likeable in any way.

In hindsight I would have been much more interested in reading something else that was focused solely on the agents. I also really struggled with the level of incompetence, lies and back covering that went on by
Hats off to Sarah Helm for an amazing piece of work, her dedication to researching her subject and the length of time she spent gathering sources really paid off. This was a fascinating read and deeply shocking for the level of incompetence it revealed among those in London who sent agents into occupied Europe. The outcomes for some of the agents were really difficult to read and assimilate. The book highlights the true story of agents undercover in France rather than the fictionalised versions ...more
A man I sat next to on a plane from Bangalore to London told me I should get this book. It took a bit of effort to find it as I wasn't able to find it in London nor could book stores in the US get it for me. I finally got it through the Newberry Library in Chicago in the summer of 2013.

I was not aware of this secret British organization that recruited, trained and mentored special operatives whose job was to organize and arm the resistance in Nazi-occupied France.

While the focus of this book is
Christy S
A fascinating history and biography, I learned so much!

Miss Atkins was high up in a branch of the Special Operations Executive, or SOE, that sent hundreds of agents into France to work in the Nazi Resistance of WWII. A small percentage of these agents were women, and they did such amazing work! The average length of their assignments before capture was only 6 weeks, and they parachuted in, bicycled hundreds of miles to deliver messages kept in their underwear, blew up major rail lines, kept trac
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Alan Cohen
This was a very engaging read. I enjoyed this book although I thought it did go on a bit longer than I wanted it to. It revealed much about the intricacies of the SOE, in World War II. I was interested in following up after reading Leo Mark's book "Between Cyanide and Silk". This was a new perspective on some of the players mentioned by Marks , taken from a different vantage point. The book was very well researched, paralleling the book's subject, Vera Atkins' own perfectionistic style.
Ms. Atki
From Barnes & Noble:

From an award-winning journalist comes this real-life cloak-and-dagger tale of Vera Atkins, one of Britain’s premiere secret agents during World War II.

As the head of the French Section of the British Special Operations Executive, Vera Atkins recruited, trained, and mentored special operatives whose job was to organize and arm the resistance in Nazi-occupied France. After the war, Atkins courageously committed herself to a dangerous search for twelve of her most cherished
I picked up this book with high hopes, but after reading it I didn't enjoy it as much as I expected. I was hoping for an in-depth biography of Vera Atkins, a woman who was very high up in the British spy organization SOE during the second world war. Instead, the book concentrates on the women she sent into France to spy during the war and her search to find them or discover their fates after the war. A good subject, definitely, but the author's failure to flesh out the women and her dry writing ...more
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