Self finished the Francisco Goldman novel (The Divine Husband) around 1 a.m. (Three out of four stars!) and immediately began reading the next book in her pile, a book that was on The Economist’s list of Best Books of the Year 2005, A Life in Secrets: Vera Atkins and the Missing Agents of WW II. Self was so riveted she had to force herself to stop reading, around 3 a.m. If not for Gracie’s whining to be fed, self would have been late for her tutoring at the Writing Center: she didn’t get up until 9:30! Then, after scrambling into her clothes and hot-footing it to Belmont, self was informed that school hadn’t started yet, the first day of class wasn’t until Wednesday (!!). So she went home and resumed reading her book. And — let’s just say, self’s at page 61, and her jaw’s already dropped several times.
The subject of this book is a mysterious Romanian named Vera Atkins who was one of only two female officers working for Britain’s World War II spy agency, SOE (for Special Operations Executive). So far, in Part I, her job seems to consist of bucking up nervous agents with “pep talks” and accompanying them to the airfields from where they embark on their clandestine flights to enemy-occupied France (from which many would not return.)
Self finds it incredible that the recruits, who were to conduct top secret missions behind enemy lines, were chosen if they could speak at least passable French. In their files, their British “handlers” scribbled such things as “talks too much” (about a radio operator). Twice, women recruits were described as “innocent, childish” (but they were parachuted into France anyway). One twenty-three-year-old volunteer, a war widow (her husband was a member of the French Foreign Legion and was killed early in the war) presents with a young baby: all she wants to know is about provision for her child in the event of her death.
Vera Atkins writes on the widow’s file: “A new and fairly promising trainee.” Another officer (probably male?) writes, tersely: “This girl has a young baby. I wonder if she realises what she is doing.”
Oh, and, another thing? The British spymaster, Maurice Buckmaster, is a dufus! Informed by assistants that a series of coded messages sent by a behind-the-lines radio operator were probably “contaminated,” he demanded to speak in person to the aforementioned operator, to clear up all suspicions. So a pre-arranged time and date were agreed upon for the operator to speak to Buckmaster through an S phone, a “directional microwave trans-ceiver.” Even after the “person on the ground spoke English with a heavy guttural accent,” Buckmaster claimed that the vocal distortions must have been caused by “atmospheric conditions” and continued to drop British agents into occupied France, into the very eager hands of waiting Gestapo.
Earlier in the book, it is stated that General de Gaulle had his own network of clandestine spies operating in occupied France, but he loathed the British SOE (name of the spy agency) and would have nothing to do with them. Refused even to share information, which the British considered the height of boorishness.
Well, after reading Part I of this book, self thinks General de Gaulle was smart! Probably the smartest man in the room!
Self thinks that when the war ended, Maurice Buckmaster should have been put on trial for gross incompetence!
Stay tuned, dear blog readers, stay tuned.