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Wednesday, 28 July 2010

SOE and Vera Atkins

A recent trip to Cornwall brought me to Zennor, home of the Tinners Arms with Tinners Ale, the church with the mermaid, and a small Cornish life museum. DH Lawrence had been here in 1915-16 with his German wife Frieda, cousin of Baron Manfred von Richthofen the air ace. Not a combatant on health grounds, the locals were suspicious and persuaded them to leave. The story, and the bitterness of the experience, is found in Kangaroo. In the church is a memorial to the Burma Star Association, with a book to inscribe memories and appreciation. The Association has been very active in linking and championing those soldiers with traumatic memories from their youth. Percy our former neighbour, was one of these, buried eventually with full Burma Star honours. The book tells a similar story of servicemen remembered but now dead. One piece of graffiti condemned war, preferring I guess to live in a fascist dictatorship.

The stimulus for this post is my fruitless search for the gravestone of Vera Atkins. I remember seeing it some years ago, but could not find it again. Vera was the key administrator at Special Operations Executive (SOE) in Baker Street. Jewish, a refugee from Romania, former family name Rosenberg, she always had to cope with feelings of vulnerability. She ran operations involving both men and women, but it was the SOE women who caught the popular imagination after the war. The film on Odette and book on Madeleine have given this group of women mythic status. Noor Inayat Khan, from a Sufi family, alias Nora Baker, alias Madeleine is a personal favorite, a woman with deformed feet because of foot binding as a child, a pacifist who refused to take weapons on a mission, and who refused to reveal any information under torture.  The reality is that they were doing a dangerous job, for reasons of their own, because of ideals they were prepared to die for. Any some of them did, either on the ground or in Ravensbruck concentration camp, or Buchanwald.  After the war she hunted down their killers and worked with the Nuremberg war crimes tribunal. She chose to be buried with her brother Guy in Zennor. The story is well told by Sarah Helm, A Life in Secrets. The official historian of SOW is MRD Foot.

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