True Spies Episode 41: Seven Female Spies
DISCLAIMER: This story contains descriptions of Nazi war crimes that some listeners may find upsetting.
NARRATOR: Welcome to True Spies. Week by week, mission by mission, you’ll hear the true stories behind the world’s greatest espionage operations. You’ll meet the people who navigate this secret world. What do they know? What are their skills? And what would you do in their position?
This is True Spies Episode 41: Seven Female Spies.
VERA ATKINS: We kept lists of the missing. They were long lists. Diana. Vera. Yolande. Eliane. Madeleine. Andre. Nora.
NARRATOR: The Second World War didn’t end in 1945. Well, not for everyone. Not for Vera Atkins, this week’s True Spy. She’s voiced here to tell her story. Vera died 21 years ago, at the age of 92 and we’ve used research to think about how she might have told it. Atkins worked for Special Operations. If you’re a regular listener to this podcast, you’ll be familiar with the Special Operations Executive. But here’s a refresher. The SOE was a top-secret arm of British intelligence, headquartered in central London. It sent its agents - a mixture of British and European citizens - on perilous missions behind enemy lines. Tragically, many never returned. This is the story of one woman’s tireless search for the agents who didn’t come home.
VERA ATKINS: It was March, early March in 1945. The Russians, the French, the Americans... They were liberating camps. Not all of them, of course, but enough for information to begin trickling through. Thousands of POW’s on the move, mostly traveling east and I received a note from the French, a note about John Hopper.
NARRATOR: John Hopper was a spy who had been captured in occupied France. He was imprisoned and later transferred to Germany. When the French liberated the prison, they found an unusual note next to his name in the prison records. N + N.
VERA ATKINS: Naturally, I asked my sources to confirm the meaning. They came back with an answer. Nacht und Nebel.
NARRATOR: In English? That’s Night and Fog. Hitler had issued the Nacht und Nebel order in 1942. It was a special prisoner classification intended for spies and resistance operatives. If a prisoner was assigned N+N status, it meant that they would disappear. Nobody would ever know what had become of them. Vera didn’t know it yet, but those two letters, scrawled in the margins of a dog-eared record-book, would become her constant companions.
VERA ATKINS: We sent over 400 to France. A quarter of them, at least a quarter, did not return.
NARRATOR: They had vanished. As if into night and fog. Vera was going to find out how. But who was Vera Atkins? In a sense, it’s hard to know. Tall, elegant, and always immaculately dressed, she was often described as ‘cagey’ - closed off, unemotional. Outside of the government’s official records, very little was known about her life before the war.
VERA ATKINS: It is something on which I have closed the book. I have closed the book on many things in life.
NARRATOR: The mystery shrouding her origins was entirely by design but here’s what we do know. Vera was born to a Jewish family in Romania. She came to live in England at some point during the 1930s after making contacts in British intelligence through her role as a secretary at the German Embassy in Bucharest. She joined the SOE in 1941 having been recommended by a contact. If she was particularly excited by the appointment, she certainly didn’t show it.
VERA ATKINS: I received an anodyne little letter out of the blue, telling me to come for an interview. I went to see a woman I did not much like. She wouldn’t say exactly what it was that I would be doing. I said I would give it a month. If I liked it, I would stay.
NARRATOR: Regardless, she quickly became an influential voice within F-Section - the department of the Special Operations Executive that worked in Occupied France. The coolness and unsentimentality that made her so unknowable also made her a highly effective spymaster. But in spite of her outward demeanor, she felt a deep sense of responsibility toward the women she recruited. After all, there was a good chance that she would be sending them to their deaths. As the war drew to its bloody close, Vera was effectively running F-section.
VERA ATKINS: Buck - Maurice Buckmaster - had been the head of F-Section since its inception, really. By 1945, after VE Day, he’d gone back to Ford, managing public relations there. John Senter, the organization’s security director, had gone back to the Bar. The whole organization was winding down. As if the work was finished.
NARRATOR: Vera sensed that the SOE’s days were numbered. Throughout 1945, she had been lobbying her contacts in the British government for a commission - a military rank, at officer level. Up until this point, she had been denied this. Because, officially, due to her Romanian background, she was considered an enemy alien in the UK. Without a rank and without the authority of the SOE behind her, she would lack the means to conduct any further investigations into what had happened to F-Section’s missing agents.
VERA ATKINS: The vast majority of my colleagues would have been quite happy to assign them ‘missing, presumed dead’. Their files would be closed. As if... well, as if they had never existed.
NARRATOR: The female agents of the SOE were a particular point of interest for Vera.
VERA ATKINS: At first, there was a great deal of resistance to the idea of sending female agents to France - ‘unsuitable temperaments’… ‘the public would never stand for it’… you know, the usual arguments.
NARRATOR: As it turned out, women were among the most effective of the SOE’s operatives in Europe. Vera had recruited many of them personally.
VERA ATKINS: Yes. I put most of those girls on the plane.
NARRATOR: Like Vera, the SOE’s female agents weren’t given a military rank. For field agents, the reason for this came down to deniability. There would be no official record that women had been used for such unladylike operations. Unfortunately, this also meant that if they were captured, they would not qualify for Prisoner of War status. So whose responsibility were they? If they were confirmed dead - executed as spies - would their relatives be entitled to a government pension? Would those relatives even be told what had happened to their wives, daughters, and mothers?
VERA ATKINS: And if they were found alive by the Americans or the Russians who would be responsible for repatriation? It was a mess, a terrible mess, and it wouldn’t have happened to men.
NARRATOR: By the spring of 1945, Vera began to fear that the fates of her missing agents would never be discovered. Allied forces were closing in on Berlin. The Nazis rushed to burn their records. The Russians left little but death and debris in their wake. It was chaos, and then it got worse.
VERA ATKINS: We began to receive intelligence about the camps.
NARRATOR: As the war in Europe shuddered to a halt the true horror of the Nazi’s concentration camps revealed themselves.
VERA ATKINS: In April the Americans liberated Buchenwald. General Patton blew the lid. The pictures were everywhere. We had lost 17 of our men there.
NARRATOR: This confirmed Vera’s worst fears. If SOE agents had been captured they had likely been executed or worked to death.
VERA ATKINS: More camps were liberated - Belsen, Dachau, Ravensbrück.
NARRATOR: But she couldn’t know for sure. And as long as that uncertainty was there, Vera would always crave the truth.
VERA ATKINS: Yes, many were dead. But there was hope, too.
NARRATOR: Yes, some agents did come home. Odette Sansom, who had escaped from the women-only Ravensbrück camp, shed the most light on what might have happened to some of Vera’s missing agents.
VERA ATKINS: Before Ravensbrück, they had tortured Odette in Paris, then moved her to Karlsruhe prison, near the French/German border. She said she had traveled there with seven other women, all SOE. I showed her pictures of the girls that had been, as yet, untraceable. She identified six of the seven from their photographs. Vera Leigh. Diana Rowden. Andrée Borrel. Yolande Beekman. Madeleine Damerment. Eliane Plewman…
NARRATOR: And the seventh? The woman that Odette could not confirm as having been on transport to Karlsruhe prison was, to Vera, perhaps the most interesting of all. More on that later. She made it her sole mission to find out what had happened to the missing seven. But how? Weigh up your options. You’ve spent the last few years of your life as part of an organization that ran agents all over Europe - could you use their contacts? Rely on whispers and hearsay, telegrams, and crackling phone calls? Or would you take a more active approach?
VERA ATKINS: It was becoming less and less likely that our agents would just ‘show up’ in the Russian zone. So there was a feeling that it was more urgent, as a result, to find out what had happened to them. Definitively. I saw that we needed someone on the ground - over there. If we were ever going to get anything done for these girls.
NARRATOR: After months of lobbying, Vera was on the verge of being allowed to conduct her own investigation. She was helped by the fact that the public was beginning to become aware of the sheer scale of Nazi atrocities. People wanted answers and they wanted justice, too.
VERA ATKINS: There was, if I can put it this way, a growing market for war crimes. So, eventually, they gave me my commission - Squadron Officer, Women’s Auxiliary Air Force - and I was allowed an exploratory trip to Germany to see what I could turn up. They gave me four days.
NARRATOR: In December 1945 Vera left London for the German spa town of Bad Oeynhausen, where the British Army had established its headquarters. It was not a fruitful trip. She spoke to a number of captured Nazis, including two concentration camp Kommandants. But as an interrogator, Vera was still learning the ropes. And four days is no time at all. She came back to London none the wiser about the fates of her seven missing women. But the fire that fueled this personal mission had been well and truly stoked. Back at home, Vera began another charm offensive. This time she was asking for a more permanent position in Germany. But a job, however unusual, generally requires an employer.
VERA ATKINS: I learned that the government planned to close down the Special Operations Executive at the end of the year. This was in December.
NARRATOR: Once the SOE was dissolved, no other government department would take on the outstanding workload. As far as the British government was concerned, nobody would be looking for the missing women. Until Yurka Galitzine. Yurka Galitzine was a young intelligence officer who had been tasked with gathering evidence of German war crimes prior to 1945. He was Vera’s key to being taken seriously. Among the countless horrors that he encountered on his travels through Europe, one place, in particular, stood out.
VERA ATKINS: Yes, so Natzweiler was a small camp. It was up in the mountains on the French/German border, on the French side, just about. And Galitzine had discovered that for many of those Nacht und Nebel prisoners Natzweiler was the last stop.
NARRATOR: He had also - and this is what caught our True Spy’s attention - uncovered evidence that at least one British woman had been executed within its walls.
VERA ATKINS: Galitzine delivered his report in the summer of 1944. It was buried. I don’t know why.
NARRATOR: This infuriated Galitzine. Eventually, his report was leaked to the media, sparking an official investigation into the deaths at the Natzweiler camp. That investigation turned up a witness with information that would be essential to Vera’s purpose in Germany. His name was Franz Berg - a prisoner at Natzweiler who had been employed as a stoker in the camp crematorium.
VERA ATKINS: Berg’s statement got things moving. He described the arrival of four women at Natzweiler in July of 1944. He told our people how they had been killed. By injection, not gas. The doctors told them that the jab was for typhus. And then he indicated that they had been burned alive. That the injection hadn’t worked. Berg said - and this was backed up later, by other witnesses - that one of the women had woken up as she was about to be put in the oven. She scratched the face of the camp doctor.
NARRATOR: Could these four women be part of the seven that Odette Sansom had traveled with to Karlsruhe? With Berg’s testimony in hand, Vera was able to convince her superiors that somebody needed to confirm the identities of the women who had died at Natzweiler. If what he said was true, then the brutal manner of their deaths would be impossible to keep quiet in the long term. The press would have a field day with the idea that the British government had sent women to burn alive in France. If Vera was allowed to investigate - find out the whole story - then the government could control the narrative. After all, who knew if Franz Berg’s testimony could even be relied upon? If he could cozy up to the SS then he was more than capable of spinning a sensational yarn for the British. Vera wouldn’t rest until she knew for sure.
VERA ATKINS: So MI6 agreed to foot my bill - good of them - and I set to work breaking down my office.
NARRATOR: With Vera’s departure, the SOE ceased to exist.
VERA ATKINS: I sent out letters with a forwarding address to the families. For the girls that Odette claimed she’d been with at Karlsruhe, I allowed for a little sentiment. Most of them had left things with me - a coat, a photograph - things they couldn’t take with them to France. I sent those back to the families, and I told them I was looking for them, to see if they had been at Natzweiler. If they had died there.
NARRATOR: Vera left SOE headquarters for the last time on the 8th of January, 1946. MI6 had given her three months to find out what had become of the seven missing women.
VERA ATKINS: I arrived in Bad Oeynhausen the next day. I was billeted in a rather spartan little room - one chair, one desk, one ashtray. It was perishingly cold, too - I hadn’t dressed for the weather. But, all that aside, it was where I needed to be.
NARRATOR: Vera was now in a position to find out whether some of the girls that Odette Sansom had met on the way to Karlsruhe prison had died at Natzweiler. She had been corresponding with another ex-SOE agent - a man called Brian Stonehouse. Remarkably, Stonehouse had survived four concentration camps. One of them had been Natzweiler. If anyone could shed light on what happened there, it was him. Shortly after her arrival in Germany, he wrote to Vera to relay a long-buried memory from his time at the camp. He remembered, or thought he remembered, three English girls. He described three women. He was sure that one of them was Diana Rowden. This was the first name Vera could tick off her list. She had been among the seven girls in Karlsruhe prison.
VERA ATKINS: The second girl he knew was Vera Leigh. The third girl he described was shorter, darker-skinned. He couldn’t swear to who she was. I assumed that this was the same girl that Odette had been unable to identify. He said there might have been a fourth, as well. That would have been Andrée Borell. Franz Berg had identified her from a photograph. I knew that much.
NARRATOR: Through cross-referencing Stonehouse’s descriptions with those from Franz Berg’s statement, Vera was now able to place three of the SOE women from the Karlsruhe prison transport at Natzweiler. Dianna. Vera. Andrée. Name by name, she was getting closer to the truth. The fourth girl... that would have to wait. Vera had an idea of who it might have been... even who it probably was but she wasn’t sure. Not 100 percent. And she needed 100 percent. There were still three other women, identified by Odette, whose fate, post-Karlsruhe, was unknown.
VERA ATKINS: So I decided to go to Karlsruhe Prison myself. I spoke to the wardress and she confirmed that all seven of the women Odette had traveled with had been imprisoned there per my descriptions. Strangely, she claimed to have no memory whatsoever of their departure. The prison records had been destroyed, too - supposedly by the French, which was also strange. Why would they do it? What would they gain?
NARRATOR: Like so many Germans who had served the Nazi regime in more peripheral ways, the wardress of Karlsruhe prison was naturally inclined to suppress any potentially incriminating acts on her part. Destroying documents would count.
VERA ATKINS: No you’re right, I did not trust the wardress.
NARRATOR: Vera returned to Karlsruhe several times over the next few days, interviewing various local people with connections to the prison.
VERA ATKINS: And it was a fairly exhausting process, the truth be told. Interrogations for days on end. Nobody knew anything about where the girls had been taken after Karlsruhe. And then finally, Hedwig Müller came forward.
NARRATOR: Hedwig Müller was a local woman who had been arrested by the Gestapo for mocking Hitler in public. She claimed that she had been imprisoned with several of the women Vera was seeking.
VERA ATKINS: She was a quiet girl, a nurse, around 29. She had known Odette, who left Karlsruhe for Ravensbrück before the others were moved. The rest had left in two groups, which went some way to explaining why Brian Stonehouse had remembered only three or four girls arriving at Natzweiler together. Perhaps he had missed a second arrival later on. Or perhaps the other girls, the last three, were sent somewhere else.
NARRATOR: Now Vera needed to know which girls had left Karlsruhe together. Only then she could positively identify all of the girls who had arrived - and later burned - at Natzweiler. Brian Stonehouse had confirmed the presence of Diana Rowden and Vera Leigh. Franz Berg had given her Andrée Borrel. But Hedwig could not identify the small, dark, mystery woman who had accompanied those three women to their deaths.
VERA ATKINS: So instead, I asked her: “Who stayed behind, after the first four left?”
NARRATOR: Hedwig offered up more descriptions. No trace of emotion flickered across Vera’s face as she marked more names off her mental list. She was closing in. None of the three women Hedwig described who remained in Karlsruhe could have matched the description of the fourth Natzweiler girl. Through this process of elimination, Vera was able to make an educated guess at her identity.
VERA ATKINS: Based on the evidence available to me, I believed that it must have been Noor… Noor Inayat Khan.
NARRATOR: Noor Inayat Khan. Nora, to her friends in England. Recognize the name? We told her story in Episode 27 of True Spies - Codename: Madeleine. She was F-Section’s first female wireless operator, a particularly dangerous role that came with a heightened risk of capture. After all, concealing your identity is one thing. Concealing a bulky radio transmitter is quite another. She was captured by the Gestapo in Paris, in 1943.
VERA ATKINS: Nora was brave. But she wasn’t confident. During her training, several officers expressed doubts about her. She hated lying, for a start. And she was a very gentle girl, very kind. But when the time came to send another wireless operator to France I put her forward. I put her on the plane. She knew the risks.
NARRATOR: Throughout her time in Germany, it was Noor who played most on Vera’s mind. Now, she was almost certain that she had been the fourth prisoner at Natzweiler. The fourth dead woman. And soon enough, she would have her chance to confirm her suspicions. As the first months of 1946 wore on, the Allied inquiry into the Natzweiler camp had developed. A trial was set for May. Every member of staff that could be tracked down was to be brought up on war crimes charges. That included Franz Berg, the prisoner who had manned the crematorium where, allegedly, the SOE women had been burned alive. Berg was what was known as a ‘kapo’, a prisoner who secured special privileges by working with the Nazis. Vera saw her opportunity to properly interrogate Berg, to pump him for any information that could lead to the definitive identification of all four of the SOE victims at Natzweiler.
VERA ATKINS: They led Berg in and sat him down. He hadn’t been hard to find. Everybody at the Natzweiler camp knew kapo Berg. He was a gossip. So I began to ask him about the women he had cremated. Every detail. Where were you when you first saw them? What time? Describe them.
NARRATOR: Berg did as he was asked. Vera took notes.
VERA ATKINS: All killed. Undressed. Clothes and bags put into cell 11. First girl - dark blonde, about 32. Vera Leigh. Second, slim, dark. I believed that to be Nora.
NARRATOR: Third was Diana Rowden. Then Andrée Borrel. Berg’s description of the second girl was enough to satisfy Vera. She now believed that she knew exactly who had died at Natzweiler. This was the kind of information that could swing the balance of a war crimes trial. Vera shared the information with Yurka Galitzine, the intelligence officer who had discovered the horrors of Natzweiler and was still playing an important role in the prosecution.
VERA ATKINS: I met Yurka Galitzine, a couple of weeks later. He came to the villa at Gaggenau, where I was staying. He came to brief us about the trial. He asked me if I was sure that the identities of the F-Section victims were finalized. I said there had been doubts, but I was satisfied now.
NARRATOR: But Vera’s personal satisfaction was not enough. To prosecute the staff of Natzweiler for the deaths of the agents there could be no room for doubt. The defense team would leap on it…
VERA ATKINS: … which was frustrating. Because the only way to determine those identities would have been the prisoner records from Karlsruhe, which had been destroyed. Or so I was told. I mentioned this to the room. Bill Barkworth, who was leading his own investigation into Natzweiler, stood up and declared that ‘of course the wardress was lying’ and that we should search her premises immediately as well as the prison itself. He had the firepower - and, frankly, the support - that I lacked. And he got things done.
NARRATOR: A small convoy of military jeeps roared across town to the private home of the wardress. Bill Barkworth, the charismatic head of an SAS Intelligence operation working parallel to Vera, searched the property. Meanwhile, Vera returned to Karlsruhe prison to search for any hidden records there.
VERA ATKINS: We lined up the prison staff and questioned them. We tore the place halfway apart, looking for these records. But we turned up nothing. And then Barkworth’s jeep pulled up outside the gates. There were boxes piled high in the back. I remember the look on his face. He was grinning.
NARRATOR: Barkworth’s boxes contained records for every prisoner going back years. Vera flicked through until she found the records for May 1944, when her agents had arrived at Karlsruhe.
VERA ATKINS: I crossed them off one at a time. Odette - she’d returned safely, as I said. Then Vera Leigh. Diana Rowden. Andrée Borrel. The Natzweiler girls. Yolande Beekman. Madeleine Damerment. Eliane Plewman. I knew they’d been at Karlsruhe. They left later on. I didn’t know where to, not yet.
NARRATOR: She kept looking. There was one name that eluded her.
VERA ATKINS: Nora wasn’t there. Not Nora, not Noor, not any of her known aliases. But, to my mind, she had to have been there.
NARRATOR: There was one other name. Someone who had been admitted to the prison on the same day as the other girls and taken away to Natzweiler with the first group.
VERA ATKINS: Sonia Olschanezky. I’d never heard of her. I decided that it must have been a new alias for Nora. She was born in Moscow, after all. She might have chosen a Russian name. In any case, I had already notified the families. It had to be her.
NARRATOR: Like so many things in her life, Vera had closed the book on the identity issue. Wouldn’t you? Put yourself in Vera’s shoes. The description you’ve been given seems to match Noor. It’s certainly close enough, especially given that she might have changed herself physically during her time in the field. Disguise was second nature to an SOE spy. Noor had been trained to dye her hair, to transform herself. Then there was the Russian connection. And nobody else seemed to know a Sonia Olschanezky. It had to be an alias, didn’t it? And you want it to be her, for her family, for yourself. The pain of losing her would be less than the agony of never knowing what had happened so when the Natzweiler trials took place in May 1946 Vera was the first to take the stand.
VERA ATKINS: I named the dead on the condition that they were left out of the newspapers to protect the next of kin. That was the official line.
NARRATOR: In reality, it was in the British establishment’s interests - Vera included - to suppress the names of the agents who had died. They didn’t want to answer awkward questions about the women’s true role or that of the SOE in general. Vera’s mission was halfway done - well, four-sevenths of the way to be precise. With the Natzweiler trial concluded, she turned her attention to the other three women who had been imprisoned at Karlsruhe. Yolande Beekman. Madeleine Damerment. Eliane Plewman. Quite by chance, her new mission got off to a strong start.
VERA ATKINS: I went back to Bad Oeynhausen. And there I found a statement from some American investigators who had been sniffing around Karlsruhe too. We all shared intelligence when it was appropriate.
NARRATOR: The Americans had interrogated a Gestapo officer who claimed that in September 1944 a transport had left Karlsruhe for Dachau, a camp famous for its barbarism, even by Nazi standards. Was this where the remaining girls had met their end? The dates lined up. The records showed that they had been moved from Karlsruhe around that time but there was one thing in the Gestapo man’s testimony that stuck out.
VERA ATKINS: All the way through, he spoke about four prisoners being taken to Dachau. There were seven SOE women at Karlsruhe. Four died at Natzweiler. There should only have been three of our girls left. So who was the fourth woman taken to Dachau from Karlsruhe? If our people were held under Nacht und Nebel, they would not have been mixed in with the general prison population. She had to be involved with intelligence work but she wasn’t one of ours, I thought, and I had my priorities.
NARRATOR: As Vera read on, she noted that the fourth prisoner had been held at another prison close by, Pforzheim, and had been brought to Karslruhe to join the others before they were transported to Dachau. At the time, although she couldn’t account for the fourth prisoner, this detail seemed irrelevant. She kept reading.
VERA ATKINS: They were executed the morning after they arrived. Shot through the head. All four of them. All in a row. That’s what the Gestapo said. We don’t know for sure how it was done. It seems unlikely that they would be so charitable.
NARRATOR: With this tragic revelation, Vera’s business in Germany was at an end. The dates matched. The descriptions marched. She was satisfied that Madeleine Damerment, Yolande Beekman, and Eliane Plewman had died at Dachau. She returned to London where she began to prepare for a return to normal life.
VERA ATKINS: My three months on the MI6 payroll were up and I was tired of the military. And I’d worked damn hard for my rank. Now it felt like a weight.
NARRATOR: But life so rarely accommodates the courses we chart for ourselves. At home in London, Vera received another letter. It did not make for easy reading.
VERA ATKINS: The letter came from a Yolande Lagrave. The name meant nothing to me.
NARRATOR: The letter had been sent to a member of the House of Lords who had known Yolande Lagrave before the war. It had been bounced between various government departments until it had eventually reached Vera.
VERA ATKINS: As it turned out, the Lagrave woman had been French Resistance. Her husband had died at Dachau. She had been deported to Pforzheim prison, also in Germany.
NARRATOR: Lagrave went on.
VERA ATKINS: She wrote about an English parachutist she had met in Pforzheim. A woman whose hands and feet were always bound, an escape risk. This was standard practice for Nacht und Nebel prisoners… Nora Baker.
NARRATOR: This couldn’t be right. Nora Baker - aka Noor Inayat Khan - had died at Natzweiler. Vera was sure of it, wasn’t she?
VERA ATKINS: The letter was authentic. It listed Nora’s address in London. There was no possible way she could have known that unless she had spoken to her.
NARRATOR: In truth, the evidence that had placed Noor at Natzweiler had always been shaky, based more on Vera’s self-assurance than solid fact. Now, with one letter, her entire conception of events - the narrative she had forced herself to believe - had been disrupted. Now, she had to correct her mistake, preferably before anyone found out.
VERA ATKINS: Madame Lagrave had managed to contact Nora’s family, too. They knew that the official line, what I had told them, was untrue. I had to fix it.
NARRATOR: Around the same time, Vera became aware of another investigation into Nora’s whereabouts. It was being conducted by a sharp young war crimes lawyer named Nicolson. He had managed to track Nora to Pforzheim, and spoken to several people who knew her there. Nicolson’s report gave Vera all the information she needed to reopen her investigation into Nora’s fate but what could she do from London? Fortunately, timing was on her side. A new trial, this time for the war criminals of Ravensbrück camp, was underway in Germany. The authorities there had asked for Vera’s assistance.
VERA ATKINS: So I went over there, again. Did my bit at the Ravensbrück trial, took a few days leave, told them I had a few loose ends to tie up at Bad Oeynhausen.
NARRATOR: In fact, Vera was heading to the town of Minden, just north of Bad Oeynhausen. There was a British prison there. In that prison was an inmate who might be able to confirm a niggling suspicion fomenting at the back of her brain. Three girls had been taken from Karlsruhe prison and killed at Dachau. They were joined by a fourth prisoner before they were taken to their deaths, a prisoner from Pforzheim. Think about it. Why would the Germans have felt it necessary to execute women from different prisons together? What did they have in common?
VERA ATKINS: They were spies, our spies.
NARRATOR: Had Noor Inayat Khan died at Dachau? As she approached the prison at Minden, she hoped against hope that she was about to find out.
VERA ATKINS: Max Wassmer was the Gestapo officer responsible for transporting the girls from Karlsruhe to Dachau. He was late 50s, looked older. I’d spoken to him before during the first Dachau investigation. He hadn’t had a lot to say. He denied that he’d witnessed the murders although a colleague of his had put him at the scene.
NARRATOR: Wassmer was still reluctant to talk about the details of the executions but that wasn’t what Vera was here for. She only needed one answer.
VERA ATKINS: So, I asked him: “Did you take four girls to Dachau?” And he said: “Yes.”
NARRATOR: Wassmer also provided brief descriptions of the girls.
VERA ATKINS: One small, round face. Madeleine Damerment. One tall, blonde, a little German. That was Yolande Beekman. One just ordinary, average, could only be Eliane Plewman. And then... Nora. Noor. He described Noor.
NARRATOR: Wassmer was led back to his cell. Vera had her answers. Noor Inayat Khan had died at Dachau.
VERA ATKINS: Yes, the story we got from the Gestapo men was that they had all been shot. “That seemed too clean,” I think I said. Later, it came out that one of the men spoke to Nicolson, the lawyer, during his investigation. And said that he’d spoken to Max Wassmer about the killings. And Wassmer had said: “Do you want to know how it really happened?” And on reflection, he did not. And nor do I.
NARRATOR: This is the end of Vera’s story, at least, the part we’re telling. She left government service shortly after returning to London and retired early in 1961. She wasn’t perfect, and she made mistakes, but nobody could argue that she hadn’t tried her best for the women she had lost. That said, there’s one more mystery we haven’t addressed. Four women died at Natzweiler. Vera had believed that Noor Inayat Khan was one of them but now we know she died later, miles away, at Dachau. So who was the fourth woman to burn at Natzweiler? We have a name: Sonia Olschanezky. Originally, Vera had assumed that this was one of Noor’s aliases but once she knew otherwise, she dropped that particular thread. It was only picked up years later. So, who was Sonia Olschanezky? First of all, Sonia Olschanezky was a real person. In fact, as a courier for the SOE she had served with Noor Inayat Khan in Paris. It had been Sonia who had first alerted the SOE to Noor’s capture in the autumn of 1943. For reasons unknown, her message was ignored. The Nazis continued to use Noor’s radio to send fake messages back and forth to London, resulting in the capture of several more agents including Sonia herself a few months later. The SOE let her down at every turn. When wars end, some people get justice. Some people just don’t.
I’m Vanessa Kirby. Vera Atkins was voiced by Clare Wille. We’d like to thank Sarah Helm, author of A Life In Secrets: Vera Atkins and the Lost Agents of SOE, from which we drew the research for this episode. Join us next week for another operation behind enemy lines with True Spies. We all have valuable spy skills, and our experts are here to help you discover yours. Get an authentic assessment of your spy skills, created by a former Head of Training at British Intelligence, now at SPYSCAPE.com.
Vera Atkins was born in Romania but studied at the Sorbonne in Paris before settling in England. Joining the French section of Britain’s Special Operations Executive in 1941, Atkins interviewed recruits, organized training and created cover stories for special agents sent into territory occupied by Nazi Germany. In her time she sent hundreds of agents into France but it was the female recruits that haunted her, particularly seven women who seemed to vanish.