Leave no man behind. You’ve heard it, I’ve heard, it’s in just about a every war movie of the 20th century. But what we’re talking about here is slightly different. In Intel, especially covert ops, sometimes someone does get left behind, it’s the very nature of the game, but what’s more important is that those who get left behind are not forgotten.
Vera Atkins (1908-2000), for lack of a better description, was a sort of Den Mother to the British Spy outfit known as the Special Operations Executive (and a precursor to MI6). But when the war ended and all of Europe was trying to make nice with each other by sweeping all that prior nastiness under the rug, it was Vera’s single-minded determination that led to the discovery of what had happened to the SOE agents who had disappeared into the wilds of Europe during WWII.
Vera was born to a Jewish family in Bucharest, Romania in 1908, but moved to England in 1933. She attended The Sorbonne in Paris where studied modern languages. Vera returned to England in 1944 where she joined the F-Section (‘F’ for France) of the SOE as an intelligence officer.
Vera briefed agents going into the field and debriefed them coming out. An agent’s return provided valuable information on the latest goings-on on the war front which greatly aided in briefing the agents heading into that zone. For example, this is the dame who would tell you not to order creme fraiche with your coffee in France because it hadn’t been available for over a year. Little details like that could preserve your cover and save your hide.
Actually, Vera was not above patting down agents to look for a stray piece of anything that might reveal their English identity. This bird, however, was a master of finessing an agent with enough items of French origin so as to further aid their mission: a Paris Metro tickets planted in a pocket, a stamped letter from “relatives” in the country, Vera knew to make sure that every detail was perfect prior to sending her agents out into the field.
And there really was no aspect of F-Section that Vera wasn’t involved in. She had a say in recruitment, training, and who went where. She saw agents off to the airfield where they would soon being parachuting into France. She also took care of their lives at home, contacting relatives, providing cover stories during an agent’s absence, even helping agents to draw up wills should they not return from their missions. Vera knew every agent going into the field, and they damn well knew her.
After the war’s end, 118 agents from the SOE still had not returned from the field. Since SOE basically ceased to exist after the war, Vera did not have official permission to track these agents down. And this is where things get interesting.
A very important, and often seldom accomplished, part of the intelligence cycle is feedback. In the case of a covert op, that feedback comes in the form of debriefing upon an agent’s return. When an agent does not return, if no one sees to it to discover that agent’s fate, then you really have no way of knowing/assessing what went wrong, what went right, and what possibly needs to change. Fluke things happen that derail an op, but if there was poor Intel going into the mission, you have no way of knowing unless you get the opportunity to ask.
And hey, there’s the human factor after all. Vera was the lifeline for 400 agents going out into the field. She had to know them better than some of their families. In the fog of war, it’s easy for people to disappear. Vera was determined to clear the air and find out what happened to those missing agents.
It was then that Vera joined the Women’s Auxilary Air Force (WAAF) and on a self-appointed mission, spent three months criss-crossing Europe tracking down the missing.
She returned having learned the whereabouts of 117.
Atkins continued working until she was demobilized in 1947 where she retired to the countryside. She died in 2000 at the age of 92.