Atkins returned to England when France was invaded by the German Army in May 1940. She joined the French section of the Special Operations Executive (SOE) in February 1941, and served as assistant to Maurice Buckmaster, the head of the French Section.
Her work at the SOE included interviewing recruits, organizing their training and planning the reception in France. One of her major tasks was to create cover stories for all the special agents who were about to be sent into territory occupied by Nazi Germany. During the Second World War she sent 470 agents into France including 39 women.
After the war Atkins spent a year interrogating German officials and guards who worked at the concentration camps to discover what had happened to the 118 special agents that had not returned to Britain. This included Yolande Beekman, Andrée Borrel, Madeleine Damerment, Vera Leigh, Gilbert Norman, Sonya Olschanezky, Eliane Plewman, Diana Rowden, Francis Suttill and Violette Szabo,
Atkins, who retired to Winchelsea, Sussex, never wrote her memoirs but gave numerous interviews to those writing about the history of the Special Operations Executive. Vera Atkins died on 24th June, 2000.
Vera Atkins, the heart and brain of the Baker Street Irregulars' French Section, was a young and highly organized woman with a misleadingly innocent smile and an eagle eye for detail. She had an encyclopedic memory for local regulations in odd comers of Europe and subtleties of behavior that a stranger might fatally ignore. She had private sources of "bits of theater" that reinforced an agent's cover; tram tickets from the region where the agent was going, concert programs, crumpled French cigarette packs. She checked the agent in these last remaining days, at meals, in conversation, at work, and even while sleeping. A slip in the pouring of tea, the wrong use of jargon, a sudden reaction to the sound of the agent's real name-these she caught. Like other COs, she nursed the agent through final briefings in a cozy apartment at Orchard Court, near Baker Street.
I was responsible for recruiting women for the work, in the face of a good deal of opposition, I may say, from the powers that be. In my view, women were very much better than men for the work. Women, as you must know, have a far greater capacity for cool and lonely courage than men. Men usually want a mate with them. Men don't work alone, their lives tend to be always in company with other men. There was opposition from most quarters until it went up to Churchill, whom I had met before the war. He growled at me, "What are you doing?" I told him and he said, "I see you are using women to do this," and I said, "Yes, don't you think it is a very sensible thing to do?" and he said, "Yes, good luck to you'" That was my authority!
Atkins's remarkable efficiency and intelligence was accompanied by deep humanity and sense of responsibility to those whom she was sending to possible death. She was often businesslike and even severe - "immaculate, every hair in place" with a "detached and seraphic smile" as one agent put it. Sometimes she was mocking: one agent who admitted that he had fallen in love produced the riposte "oh the bloody English... We never have this sort of bother with the French... They copulate and that is that".
But there was no doubting her loyalty to, and fondness for, her agents. She saw them all off in person, and as she recalled years later: "the burden of stress was probably on the person who was seeing them off. The realization that they were going out on a very dangerous mission, and this was probably the last glimpse they would have of the lovely countryside through which you were travelling with them, while you remained quite safely at the end. There was a considerable strain on one at this time. I think I must have been extraordinarily tough - I was extremely exhausted by it."
It has long been known that SOE was interested in woman-power as well as man-power. In accordance with the body's usual principle - go straight for the objective, across any social or military conventions that may get in the way-ample military use was made of women, both on the staff and in the field. The bulk of the base cipher operators were girls in their late teens, who proved quick, keen, accurate and secure. Most of the clerks, drivers and telephonists, and many of the base wireless operators, were also women; and particularly charming, intelligent, and sensitive women, usually speaking the relevant languages, staffed the holding schools and flats where agents were held in the last nervous hours or days or weeks that intervened between the end of their training and their actual departure on operations.
Less usual work was found for them as well. The present writer argued elsewhere, just before starting on the present subject, that 'there are plenty of women with marked talents for organization and operational command, for whom a distinguished future on the staff could be predicted if only the staff could be found broadminded enough to let them join it'. SOE was such a broad-minded staff. There were women operations officers in AL, F, and RF sections, and F section's intelligence officer, the outstanding Vera Atkins, was a woman; (a head of the training section is even said to have called "really the most powerful personality in the SOE). Moreover women were freely used on operations in the field, when there were tasks they could do; in some cases with much success, as will appear, though in others
also with tragic failure. Some of the blackest passages in the black record of the Nazis' crimes cover their dealings with SOE's women agents.
I have to take the war as a whole. I have the greatest admiration for these people (SOE agents) and they were people I liked, but I can't say they are more deserving of being remembered than - I feel that one mustn't turn them into anyone more heroic than, say, the young pilots of the RAF, going out and knowing perfectly well that of the group that was setting off from a particular aerodrome, some of them, perhaps as many as half, would not return.
I don't know what one should remember or what one should forget. I think one should remember forever that Germany - a civilized country - was capable of evolving this theory of the master race, and what they did on the basis of it to the Jews and the Poles and the gypsies and in all the occupied countries in which they creamed off the intelligentsia. The Germans were very easily led. I think that is something that needs to be remembered: how easy it can be to manipulate a whole nation.
Intimidation is a terrible thing and its exercise is increasingly potent, but there will always be an uprising of natural decency. There was resistance by some in Germany, but they were few and far between. Most people just went along with it.
Ordinary people sometimes reveal quite unexpected strengths. These people had no doubts about the importance of defeating Nazism. They undertook risks feeling it was a duty; they made a voluntary sacrifice.
After the war Vera Atkins had the gruesome task of moving from concentration camp to concentration camp, discovering what the fate of SOE agents had been. A number of Germans found her to be a formidable interrogator. Hugo Bleicher of the Abwehr, for instance, considered her interrogation of him was the most skillful of any to which he was subjected. Peter Churchill, himself a former concentration camp inmate, wrote that, as a result of Vera Atkins's enquiries, the friends and relations of those who had died in concentration camps because of their associations with SOE could at least be assured that nothing was spared in trying to discover the full truth of what had taken place.