Vera Atkins: WWII Spy Boss
Vera Seeks More Clues to the Agents' Fates
In September 1945, Vera wrote to Anghais Fyffe, a Scot who had been sent to Germany to search for missing SOE agents. She asked him to look for "confirmation" from the Russians that Cicely Lefort had been gassed at Ravensbruck. Vera also wanted him to double-check Belsen records for Yvonne Rudellat who had not been found even though the Belsen records showed her as alive at the camp's liberation.
Fyffe wrote back that it would take weeks to get an answer from the Russians and that as many as 15,000 had died of starvation or illness within days of the liberation and it was not feasible to identify them individually.
Vera was went to Germany early December where she interrogated the Ravensbruck and Sachsenhausen commandants.
Anton Kaindl had been Sachsenhausen commandant. Vera could get no information about her agents from him.
Ravensbruck commandant Fritz Suhren claimed to know nothing of gassings, hangings or English prisoners although he gave a start when the crematoriums were mentioned.
Yurka had also found survivors who reported that at least two Englishmen had been at Natzweiler. One was said to have had drawn sketches of his fellow prisoners and signed them "J. B. Stonehouse." The name meant nothing to Yurka but much to Vera. Her agent Brian Stonehouse had been an artist for Vogue prior to his service. Brian had survived four concentration camps--Neuengamme, Mauthausen, Natzweiler and Dachau -- which was a feat since he was a Jew as well as a British spy.
Vera wrote to Brian. In her letter, she enclosed photographs of missing SOE agents and asked if he recalled any of them. Brian wrote back that he could not recognize anyone from the photographs but had seen three Englishwomen at Natzweiler.
He described one as possessing "short blonde mousy hair" in which she sported a bow. Vera believed that must be agent Diana Rowden who habitually wore a bow in her hair.
The second woman he described was said to have dyed blonde hair. Brian drew a sketch of her but Vera could not recognize the woman he drew.
Brian had only a vague recollection of the third woman and was unable to describe her.
Vera also sent photos to a British Special Air Service (SAS) major stationed in Germany and asked him to show them to witnesses from Natzweiler. The major replied that he had a witness named Franz Berg who had worked in the camp. Berg recalled that in July 1944 two English and two French women were killed by injection and their corpses taken to the crematorium. From the photographs, he identified two SOE agents.
In January 1946 Vera left England with a list of fifty-two missing SOE agents. Her superiors gave her three months to work.
Her first goal upon arriving in Germany was to discover how many British spies had been murdered at Naztweiller. Survivor Odette Sansom had identified six female agents she could name at the camp and one she could not.
Following Odette Sansom's suggestion, Vera arranged to interview Fraulein Becker, wardress of the civilian Karlsruhe prison at which SOE agents had been incarcerated.
Vera showed Becker photographs of all those Odette Sansom recalled as being on the train to Karlsruhe.
Becker said they had been in her prison but could recall only the name "Martine," an alias of agent Madeleine Damerment.
"And their admission to the prison was, of course, most irregular," Becker added. She continued that they had been admitted under a "protective custody" order that applied to political prisoners and spies. She also said, "I had no authority to take such prisoners into a civilian jail." She protested to her superiors and recalled that Odette was removed in July 1944 and the rest that August.
Vera interviewed a German, Hedwig Muller, who had been incarcerated in the prison for making a joke about Hitler. Muller had shared a cell with "Martine."
Muller recalled an Englishwoman named "Eliane" in the next cell but had never seen her. She said Martine and Eliane tapped Morse code to each other with plates or spoons against the cell walls.
Vera pressed to learn if Muller knew of other Englishwomen. Muller recalled hearing of others and thought there were seven in total including "Odette Churchill." She said the seven had been transferred but left in two different groups. Helm notes, "Muller's recollection that after Odette's departure the other women left in two separate groups contradicted what the chief wardress had said. Fraulein Becker insisted that the remaining seven girls left in one group. Muller's evidennce fitted, though, with Brian Stonehouse's recollection that three women only arrived at Natzweiller sometime in July. It was now imperative that Vera learn which three women left Karlsruhe in the first group, in July. They must have been Stonehouse's Nos. 1, 2, and 3, whom he had seen walking to the Natzweiler crematorium."
Muller recalled a woman named "Diana," a dark-haired woman whose name she could not recall and a stocky older woman named "Simone." Simone was the alias of agent Vera Leigh. Crematorium worker Berg had identified Leigh from a photograph as killed at Natzweiler.
Muller believed there might have been a fourth woman but was unsure.
According to Muller, Martine and Eliane had been transferred in the second group. Then Muller suddenly recalled an Englishwoman named Yvonne, the alias of agent Yolande Beekman. Muller said Yvonne had a problem with her legs and rarely left her cell because of the pain. She described Yvonne as blonde.
"Was her hair dyed blonde or naturally blonde?" Vera asked.
"It was dyed blonde," Muller replied.
Yolande Beekman dyed her hair.?