Thursday, March 15, 2007

Scoop or scandal

If a new book about Britain's wartime SOE is true, most of what we know is wrong. But if it is true, why are the footnotes so puzzlingly flimsy?

Wartime espionage

Secrets and spies
Mar 15th 2007
From The Economist print edition

A spymistress and a mystery

BELIEVE the blurb, and Vera Atkins is a wartime heroine rescued from obscurity by an old pal. Believe her family and her story is being hijacked. “Spymistress”, by William Stevenson, a Canada-based author of books about espionage, claims she was “the greatest female agent of World War II”; Mr Stevenson is described as “her close author she greatly admired...the only person she would trust to record her life”.

Vera Atkins, who died in 2000, is certainly a fascinating figure. A meticulous authorised biography published in 2005 by Sarah Helm, a British writer, explains how she recruited and trained female agents for the wartime Special Operations Executive (SOE). Botched security—not her fault—meant many were captured and killed by the Gestapo. After the war, Miss Atkins (she never married) trekked round the ruins of post-war Europe to chronicle their fate.

But Mr Stevenson depicts Miss Atkins as far more senior: a key figure in Anglo-American intelligence co-ordination, a champion of efforts to disrupt Nazi genocide, and much more besides. These are big claims; if true, they would require the rewriting of much of the history of wartime intelligence.

That puts Mr Stevenson's sources under close scrutiny. Long-ago conversations—such as his purported meeting with Miss Atkins as a teenage messenger boy in London during the Blitz—are rendered verbatim; not a normal practice in history books. Equally puzzling is that the book's footnotes give no references for its most startling contentions. They do not detail what he says were many meetings and phone calls with Miss Atkins. He has no letters from her, he says, and wrote none; her executor (and niece), Zenna Atkins, says her aunt's papers make no mention of him; she says she heard Miss Atkins refer to Mr Stevenson only once, describing a previous book of his as “utter bilge”.

Mr Stevenson, blaming a muddle with his publisher, says he now regrets leaving out the details of his interviews with Miss Atkins from the footnotes. He is in Toronto; many of his notebooks are elsewhere. He blames the publisher also for overstating both Miss Atkins's wartime role and his friendship with her. The publisher, New York-based Arcade, blames a “concerted effort” by the Atkins family to undermine the book because of their “vested interest” in supporting Ms Helm's work.

Leaving all this aside, Mr Stevenson's book raises other issues. “Someone I knew for 40 years with blonde and then grey hair has black hair,” says M.R.D. Foot, Britain's top historian of SOE. (Mr Stevenson says Miss Atkins perhaps dyed her hair.) His book gives her middle name as Maria and her birthplace as Bucharest. Her family says her middle name was May; she was born in another town. Mr Stevenson says he was misinformed by a source, now deceased.

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