Tuesday, February 21, 2012

To Finish or Not to Finish

That is the question.  If I start a book and find I don't like it or am not in the mood to read it, I usually make the decision to quit reading by p. 50 or so.  But right now I'm almost 300 pages into a book with 150 pages left, and I'm ready to take out my bookmark and move on.  There's nothing wrong with the book.  It's a cracker.  Sarah Helm has written a fascinating biography of Vera Atkins, a powerful figure in Britain's Special Operations Executive, which was responsible for gathering intelligence and sabotaging targets in Nazi-occupied Europe.  Atkins's job was to recruit and dispatch men and women to France to act as organizers, couriers and radio operators.  After the war ended, she searched relentlessly to learn the fates of the one hundred SOE agents who had disappeared in France.  The number included sixteen women.

My difficulty with the book is simply that the story is so relentlessly oppressive that I'm beginning to buckle under the weight.  I've read a great deal about espionage activity in WWII and the treatment of prisoners by the Gestapo, but Helm tells a story that is horrifying because so many prisoners were caught and died due to bureaucratic incompetence and callous negligence.  Then there's the whole issue of how women agents were treated.  They were rather cavalierly sent off to France with the understanding that they'd never break cover if they were caught, their disguise as simple French girls would persuade the Germans they were harmless, and because they were women the Gestapo would treat them humanely.  It turned out to be rather difficult to maintain the fiction that you have nothing to do with the French resistance movement when you're caught red-handed with a radio set in your bedroom and your finger poised on the transmission key.

Nor were women granted military commissions as were the men.  SOE executives thought a military rank would ensure that male prisoners would be treated in accordance with the Geneva Convention.  Of course they were as wrong about this as they were about the Gestapo's chivalrous attitude to women.  The women also left England without a guarantee of pension benefits to surviving family, unlike the men who were entitled to such as military officers.

I'm also incensed at the complete ineptitude and dogged stupidity of the people at SOE HQ in London. If a radio operator was captured, the Germans immediately pressured him or her to transmit false reports.  SOE was aware this might happen and required each agent to submit a security check in their reports.  The security check took various forms:  a word, a phrase, a number, a misspelled word and so on.  After a little softening up, many agents did transmit, but without their security check to tip off HQ that they had been nabbed.  What did HQ do?  Admonished the agent in the next message to please include their security check next time.  Predictably, the Gestapo interrogators got busy finding out their prisoners' security checks.  As a backup, a false check was also provided.  If it appeared in the message, it was another tip-off to HQ.  The SOE folks back at the office sent back messages along the lines of, "Really, old chap, you mustn't include your false check in your messages as we'll think you've been captured."  This went on and on and on for a full year, while more and more agents were parachuted into France to a reception committee organized by the Germans.

This sort of willful ignorance continued after the war, with little effort expended to located captured agents.  Vera Atkins essentially conducted a one-woman campaign to track down the missing operators.  SOE and the military were reluctant to circulate pictures and names to the Russians and American who were busy liberating concentration camps for fear of revealing the identities of the agents.  The Brits just assumed that these shattered survivors of torture would take a few weeks at a seaside resort and then be willing to take on the communists.  My blood boils at the official indifference to the plight of these men and women.

And then there's Vera.  I'd love for her to be the unblemished heroine, but alas, she is not.  Interviews with her comrades after the war indicate a range of feelings about her that range from "strongly dislike" to "pure hatred."  She was efficient, ruthless, fiercely loyal to her boss and her agents, but a complete mystery to most people.  She revealed nothing of herself to anyone with whom she worked, which is understandable as she was actually a Romanian Jew whose last name was Rosenberg.  She was not naturalized as a British citizen until 1944, which meant that she was a foreign national from a country run by fascists under Nazi direction while she worked in one of the most sensitive areas of the British war effort.  Her story is not a happy one, and her post-war career is a tale of a lonely woman who was eventually accused of being a Soviet spy.

Between the SOE blunders, Vera's antagonistic personality, and the disparity in the treatment of the female agents, I am reading this book with an ever increasing feeling of gloom.  There's no happy ending here, just a brutal record of incompetence, arrogance, stupidity and sadism.   I though that writing this post might help me clarify my own feelings about the book.  It's an important book.  It's well-written and meticulously researched.  But it is bleak.  Well, I'm still on the fence.  I think I'll set it aside for awhile and find something more uplifting.

I've got this bio of Vera Atkins in my TBR file.  Do I dare?


  1. If you do dare (and it does sound like very interesting stuff), then I'd suggest you wait a bit. Read something a little less bleak before you jump back into that realm. Maybe a Vintage Mystery :-)

  2. I agree, and that's just what I did. I'll have a new review up soon.