Saturday, April 17, 2010

A life in secrets

I've spent the day in my pyjamas watching episodes of The Pacific. I don't think that it's terribly good but now that I've run out of episodes I find myself at a bit of a loose end. So time for some serious blogging. For too long I've flitted about, telling you about my underwear and going out for afternoon tea. I've neglected to write about all the reading I've been doing.

A life in secrets: the story of Vera Atkins and the lost agents of SOE by Sarah Helm was a dreadfully challenging read. Atkins worked for the French Section of SOE, the Special Operations Executive who we've met before, dropping agents into occupied territories to support resistance movements. Unfortunately, the section was compromised fairly early on by traitors and the successful capture of entire networks of agents. In many instances, agents were parachuted into France straight into the waiting arms of the Gestapo. Once having captured the agents, the Nazis continued to operate their wireless transmitters, organising more drops, leading to more captures. That the SOE remained unaware that so many of their agents were lost was largely a matter of incompetence and wishful thinking. Buckmaster, head of SOE French Section, was outrageously bungling and ignored obvious signs that many of the messages they were receiving were sent by Germans.

Atkins' role in all this was as Buckmaster's second in command. She was particularly responsible for supervising the female agents and was indirectly responsible for sending many of them to their death. She's an extremely unlikable character who does do some astounding things. At the end of the war, when the full degree of infiltration was known, SOE was rather hurriedly shut down. Of the 400 agents sent into France, the fate of over 100 of them was unknown. It was Atkins who took it upon herself to track them down, searching the concentration camps of Europe, interrogating captured Gestapo officers and preparing evidence for war crimes trials.

There are some pretty famous names here: Nora Inayat Khan, Violette Szabo and Yolande Beekman. Their fates are unspeakably ghastly and we go into the detail again and again as more evidence comes to light. Every detail is important. This I found quite hard to read. Perhaps, like Atkins, I recognise that it significant to remember all that these brave people did but it was a horrible experience. Atkins, surely, was also motivated by a sense of responsibility - though she never, ever once admitted that she or Buckmaster had made any mistakes.

There's a lot to be angry about here - the horrifying ineptitude of the French Section and the betrayals, the horrors of the concentration camps and those 'just obeying orders' - through to the mythmaking that has sprung up about SOE, the cover ups and conspiracy theories, the farce of the war crimes trials and the rush to get them over with. Atkins is a fascinating character, unlikeable yet admirable. A very, very difficult read.

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