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A Life In Secrets: Vera Atkins and the Lost Agents of SOE

4.07  ·  Rating details ·  1,570 ratings  ·  210 reviews
During World War Two the Special Operation Executives 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 ...more
Kindle Edition, 528 pages
Published June 4th 2009 by Abacus (first published September 14th 2005)
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Average rating 4.07  · 
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Apr 09, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
My reading program for this month is to immerse myself in the world of female agents operating in France during WW2. I read one book on the subject which got me more interested in that world. One book, as we know, leads to another. I was overwhelmed by the courage of these women and want to know more about them.

During World War Two, Vera Atkins recruited, trained, and mentored the agents for the SOE's French Section, which sent more than four hundred young men and women into occupied France, at
Violet wells
An utterly compelling read about Vera Atkins and the female SOE agents she helped send to France. Especially moving is her relentless attempt at the end of the war to discover what happened to those agents who had vanished from all official records. At this point the book becomes a gripping detective story. There's also the mystery of Vera herself, a fascinating woman who gave so little of herself away and destroyed many of her documents. So this fabulously well written and researched book ...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
Sep 17, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: biography
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
Sep 04, 2010 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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 authors heroic effort to discover the truth about Veras life and also about the agents, many of whom landed right into the arms of the Germans and ...more
A biography of Vera Atkins, the woman who supervised SOE British secret agents during World War II. Their mission was to infiltrate Nazi occupied France, aid the French resistance, and prepare for D-Day. In rank she was below the SOE commander, Maurice Buckmaster, but in actuality she was the person who kept the agency effective. Buckmaster was a screw-up. Curiously she never tried to undermine him. Atkins was especially effective after the war when she investigated the whereabouts of 100 or so ...more
Engrossing book.

Re-read. There is quite a bit in here about how to do research and about conflicts that we have with our heroes. It really is an entertaing book about a quest, more than a biography.
Jan 24, 2017 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Got to page 100 and I am so bored. My goodness I just could not get into this book at all. I tried and really wanted to be amazed and awed. Didn't happen....
Pam Baddeley
Aug 12, 2019 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
The subject of this book is the woman who became pivotal to the importance of 'F' section, the part of the World War II Special Operations Excutive (SOE) who trained and managed agents to be dropped into France to liaise with and recruit locals, act as couriers or wireless operators and manage circuits of resistence operatives including other SOE personnel. Vera Atkins took a particular interest in the women agents, and her section boss, Buckmaster, was happy to let her get on with it as the use ...more
Debbie Robson
Sep 17, 2012 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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 Helms 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
Regina Lindsey
Sep 25, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Mark Drew
Jan 16, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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 ...more
Bob Mayer
Sep 14, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Covert operations in World War II are still shrouded in mystery. What really happened? What cover stories still exist to this day?

This is a great read for anyone interested in peeling back some of the mystery. I recommend it, along with Bodyguard of Lies.

One has to remember that brutal sacrifices were made for the "greater good." One question that still lingers for me is whether certain individuals and teams were sacrificed deliberately as part of a disinformation campaign. I don't think we'll
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,
Dec 28, 2007 rated it really liked it  ·  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.
Mar 08, 2009 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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.
This book is the true story that partially serves as the underlying theme of the book, Lost Girls of Paris. After reading that book, I wanted to learn more about the real people that actually served as spies in France during World War II. As I read A Life in Secrets, however, I realized that the story portrayed in Lost Girls is only one small part of Vera Atkins life story. This book is actually a biography of Atkins whole life.

This book does not disappoint, as it fills in many of the gaps that
Stephen Goldenberg
Another book that passed me by on its original publication but which proves that there are still things left to discover about the 2nd World War. In this case, Sarah Helm delves into the operations in occupied France by the Special Operations Executive (S.O.E). In particular, she tries to piece together the story of Vera Atkins, who worked at the S.O.E. Office in London recruiting agents to be parachuted into France to collect intelligence and support the resistance. She took particular ...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
Douglas Perry
Jun 02, 2010 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: nonfiction
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 am an ambiguous admirer of Vera Atkins and, after reading this book, a huge admirer of Sarah Helm. This is a harrowing book, a war history as well as a biography, and the amount of detective work Helms done in pulling together the story of Atkinss lifeas WELL as retracing Atkinss steps in some of her OWN detective workis tremendous. Im a little envious! (from a time and money point of view). Im also agog at the gargantuan task Helm has done in putting all this minutiae together to make it not ...more
Liz Chapman
Aug 04, 2012 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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.
Sep 24, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Fascinating, absorbing read - also maddening. Atkins, Buckmaster, Bodington and Co in the F Section of the SOE are the epitome of ineptitude, and given that the lives of SOE agents were literally depending on their decision making, that is tragic indeed. I was shocked to read that after all of the training of these agents, the SOE administration violated the very rules they taught, and a lot of what was taught was not put into practice by the agents in the field, directly leading to their ...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.
Aug 24, 2014 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
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
N.L.B. Horton
May 20, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Jan 19, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Jul 12, 2016 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Vera Atkins was the coordinator of the French desk within the British Special Operations Executive during World War II. SOE sent over four hundred agents to occupied countries, four hundred of them to France. The agents coordinated resistance activities and provided communications links to SOE. Over one hundred of the British agents who were sent to France did not return alive. Twelve of those killed (executed) were women. Vera Atkins, who had risen to the highest position held by a woman in ...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 Madeleines 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 ...more
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, ...more
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Sarah Helm (born 2 November 1956) is a British journalist and non-fiction writer. She worked for The Sunday Times and The Independent in the 1980s and 1990s. Her first book A Life in Secrets, detailing the life of the secret agent Vera Atkins, was published in 2005.

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