Archive for the ‘Missing In Action’ Category

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.

In the intermingled histories of Dames in War, you no sooner research one skirt when another comes to light. So to continue with the apparently British Babes theme that is currently in play, Violette Bushell Szabo (1921-1945) represents one of the more tragic figures of WWII.

Violette was born in Paris to a French mother and a British father. She was raised in England and at the start of the Big One, she was working at a perfume counter. Hardly representative of the adventures this gal was about to embark upon.

Violette met Etienne Szabo, a Frenchman of Hungarian descent, and after a zam-pow courtship, they married a short 42 days later. Violette was 19 years old. Etienne was sent to fight in Northern Africa while Violette was left behind where she went to work for the Auxilary Territorial Service and to gave birth to their only child, Tania. Tragically, Etienne was killed in battle in 1942, never once having seen his daughter.

This event provoked a profound change in Violette. She offered her services to the British Special Operations Executive where she met considerable resistance (much like the kind Pearl Cornioley encountered), but was cleared for service and was parachuted into France in 1944.

Codename “Louise”, Violette went to town reorganizing a fractured French Resistance network that went kablooey at the hands of the Germans. This sprite of a girl led her men to sabotage roads and bridges while Violette herself radioed back to the British important Allied bombing targets. Violette returned to England a short 25 days later, her first mission a resounding success.

Violette returned to the Limoges region of France in June with the mission to disrupt communications lines of the Germans. Violette was captured when her car encountered and unexpected roadblock and she ran out of ammo during a consequent gun fight. She was taken to prison, moved repeatedly about the country, and endured obscene amounts of torture in effort to get her to rat-out her comrades which she never did.

An SOE rescue attempt missed Violette by a mere 2 hours when in late August 1944, Violette was transported to the Ravensbruck Concentration Camp.

Violette Bushell Szabo was executed sometime during the early part of February 1945. She was shot in the back of the neck alongside two other female SOE agents. A female French section agent imprisoned in the camp later reported of Violette’s demise. Her remains were incinerated in the camp’s crematorium. She was just 23 years old.

23 Years old. It’s hard to get your head around the feats of this young dame. Most 23 year olds this Agent knows are too wrapped up in their nightlife, chasing guys, and celebrity gossip.

But Violette was of a different ilk and a different era. In our time of war, a war that is so far removed from our shores, it’s difficult to imagine the sacrifices some broads have made for the sake of better world.

In 1946, Tania Szabo, Violette and Etienne Szabo’s surviving daughter (pictured left), received the George Cross, posthumously awarded to her mother who was only the second woman to have received the honor. In 1950, seven year old Tania also received the Croix de Guerre from France for Violette’s heroism.

No name. No family. No picture. All because, quite frankly, we haven’t a damn clue who this chick is. Which is a shame, really, that Agent 355 should go down in history as a nameless number when she paid the ultimately spy-dame price for her country during the American Revolution.

So here is what we do know:

She was part of the famous Culper Spy Ring and was based in New York where she had contact with Major John Andre and Benedict Arnold. “355” was numerical code for the word “Lady”. She was most likely part of a well-regarded Loyalist family that afforded her this access to those at the top (as Andre was known to be a bit of ladies’ man).

After the arrest of Andre and disappearing act of Arnold, Agent 355 herself was taken into custody by the British, possibly for having fingered Arnold as a traitor (a little retribution by the said same Arnold?). She was pregnant at the time and all we know of the father is that he was “Dear Robert”. It is speculated that this may be Robert Townsend of the Culper Spy Ring. She was imprisoned on the HMS Jersey where she refused to give up her cohorts. She stayed aboard the prison boat eventually giving birth to a son under some truly heinous conditions and dying as a result.

There are some theories bouncing around regarding Agent 355’s true identity and others that say she never existed. The fact that she is specifically referenced in coded intelligence documentation written by the scrupulous Abraham Woodhull regarding Agent 355’s invaluable activities suggests to this Agent that the skirt not only existed but was of great aid to her country.

Perhaps this smack about Agent 355’s “non-existence” is to cover the abject shame of the men-folk for having left this spy-dame without the precious gift of identity for the last 228 years?

Mary Elizabeth Bowser (1839-Unknown) was an unbelievably courageous freed slave who worked as a Union spy during the Civil War.

Mary began life as a slave on a plantation in Richmond, Virginia. When the plantation owner passed away in 1851, his daughter, Elizabeth Van Lew, a staunch abolitionist, freed Mary. Mary stayed on and continued working for the family. However, Elizabeth took note of what a smart cookie Mary was and sent her to the North to receive an education.

In 1863, Elizabeth Van Lew arranged for Mary and a friend to be placed in Confederate President Jefferson Davis’ home as a servant. As a maid in Davis’ home, Bowser had access to a great deal of military information. Troops movements, correspondence, POW reports, and military strategies were all memorized and reported back to Van Lew, who in turn, reported the information back to Union Military Intelligence. Needless to say, this should have taught Davis a thing or two about underestimating the lady who serves you tea.

Whatever became of Mary remains a mystery. What is known is that In January of 1865, Mary fled Davis’ home but not before a failed attempt to burn down the Confederate White House.

Was Mary discovered as a spy? This Agent prefers not to think about it as the consequences of discovery for Mary would have been undeniably grave. Instead, this Agent prefers to think of her like Amelia Earhart, never crashing but instead flying the ghostly plane. I like to think Mary, who disappeared in time for the ratification of the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery, is roaming the Virginia Appalachians keeping tabs on things.

In 1995, Mary Elizabeth Bowser was admitted to the Military Intelligence Hall of Fame.