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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  ·  426 ratings  ·  90 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 January 1st 2005 by Little Brown and Company
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Community Reviews

(showing 1-30 of 1,525)
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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
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
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,...more
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.
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
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'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
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
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
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...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...more
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
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...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...more
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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...more
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
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...more
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
Pablo Carmona
I feel that Sarah Helm did a good job researching and has gotten the story right. SOE has always had an air of mistery and sometimes war propaganda makes you think they did everything right, and that the war was won byt their efforts. But this books takes away the propaganda and it focuses on some of the mistakes that cost the lives of some people sent to ocupied France and the tenacious efforts to find what happened to them. If you like WWII history this book is frank and good to read.
Penny Linsenmayer
This is well-written narrative non-fiction with great pacing. From a technical standpoint, I couldn't decide if I liked the author interjecting direct quotes of questions and answers from herself and interviewees. In some instances, it seemed distracting and out-of-place, while in others it was actually reasonably effective. But, I couldn't help feeling overall it was a bit lazy somehow. My other complaint was that I really wished Helm could have summed up her own picture of Vera more. Vera was...more
Margaret Sankey
I wanted to like this a lot more than I did. Helm painstakingly reconstructs the life of a reclusive, difficult, secretive person and her actions as an agent of the SOE, almost too well, because the bulk of the book is exhaustive accounts of SOE missions and the intricate organization of the cells in France, which bog down out of sheer numbers of tragedies I already knew. The missing part, which, because of Atkins' own personality, we may never know, is how recruiting and coaching people to go o...more
Tom Reddy
A potentially very interesting subject, as my first book dealing with the SOE, an eye opener in a lot of ways and clearly based on some very exhaustive research, but for some reason I found it a real slog to get through, the author perhaps tries to tell too much, about too many, and it all starts to get very convoluted. No doubt a fair reflection on how complex it got for the agents and the organisation during and after the war itself, but not something I felt I could carry on with. Excess of in...more
It took forever to get this read, but was well worth the time. A fascinating and haunting biography of an interesting life, cloaked in secrecy. The biographer does a superb job in organizing, parsing, and uniting all the stories that make up this book. Kudos to her for unraveling the mystery. This book is well worth reading if you're interested in covert operations in WWII, British history, women's history. It's also one of those books that starts you off on other journeys. I'll now have to read...more
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