Spymistress: The True Story of the Greatest Female Secret Agent of World War II
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She was beautiful. She was ruthless. She had a steel trap for a mind and a will of iron. Born Vera Maria Rosenberg in Bucharest, she became Vera Atkins, legendary spy and holder of the Legion of Honor. Recruited by William Stevenson—the spymaster who would later come to be known as “Intrepid”—when she was only twenty-three, Vera spent much of the 1930s running countless perilous espionage missions. When war was declared in 1939, her fierce intelligence, blunt manner, personal courage, and knowledge of several languages quickly propelled her to the leadership echelon of the highly secretive Special Operations Executive (SOE), a covert intelligence agency formed by, and reporting to, Winston Churchill. She recruited and trained several hundred agents, including dozens of women, whose objectives were to penetrate deep behind enemy lines.
The stirring exploits and the exemplary courage of the SOE agents and the French Resistance fighters—who in the words of General Dwight D. Eisenhower together “shortened the war by many months”—are justly celebrated. But the central role of Vera Atkins has until now been cloaked in silence. William Stevenson was the only person she trusted to record her life; he kept his promise that he would not publish her story until after her death. Here is the extraordinary account of the woman whose intelligence, beauty, and unflagging dedication proved key in turning the tide of World War II.
with skull and crossbones. He had found his friend Jose Dupuis, still teaching at the same girls’ school, and she had built him a network. Before his murder, Jean Moulin set the strength of a secret army at 50,000 with a reserve of 100,000. Yeo-Thomas had raised morale by being seen as a British secret-service officer, and he came back with new observations: “The gazogène, a wartime utility tractor, and the remorqueur, a towpath tractor, are good for transporting concealed weapons. There's a
will tell us your further financial needs after you take into the field the sum of five hundred thousand francs.” He sat one night with her in Leo Marks's untidy little Baker Street office to learn about “silks,” providing an agent with a way to encode messages from cribs imprinted on silk one-time pads. The White Rabbit proposed to use silks for long important messages, and an old-fashioned poem-code as backup. Leo fretted that SOE agents in Holland were under German control. The top brass
Polish ambassador in London, Count Raczynski. The Germans had invaded Poland. Rebels against Prime Minister Chamberlain now included some within his own cabinet, who burst into 10 Downing Street during a violent thunderstorm on the evening of September 2 and announced that they would not leave until Chamberlain swore to abandon all thought of negotiating with Hitler. It was midnight before the rebels, numbering seven or eight, got the Umbrella Man to see things their way. Nine hours later,
embassy, where David Bruce passed her on to SOE. When Paris fell, Virginia was driving ambulances. She escaped to London, and returned after a defeated France was divided. Germans occupied the larger Atlantic-coast and northern zone, nominally governed from Vichy, whose militia did much of the Gestapo's dirty work in the unoccupied zone. Charles de Gaulle, an obscure junior French general, sounded a call to arms from London four days before the armistice, in defiance of what he called “this
to Bristol. But there he was arrested and sent to Pentonville Prison. He was moved to discover that in England, putting a man to death was still treated as a solemn and exceptional event: guards walked on tiptoe and a mighty hush fell over Pentonville whenever a German spy was hanged. Koestler was finally released. He summarized English attitudes as “Be kind to the foreigner, the poor chap can't help it.” When he said this to the locals, they nodded in modest agreement. “So few saw the joke that