Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Vera Atkins: WWII Spy Boss

A Mistake in Identification


Vera Atkins <em>(Public Domain Image)</em>
Vera Atkins (Public Domain Image)
Vera continued working to tie up loose ends. On her return to England she interrogated Dr. Josef Goetz who was being held there. The German military had employed Goetz, previously a schoolteacher, to play the radios of captured agents and then impersonate those agents to the British.

This was not the first time Vera and Goetz had communicated. When Goetz was successfully impersonating captured agents, he had sent messages to Vera who had sent messages to him believing she was communicating with an SOE agent. One of them was Noor Inayat Khan. Goetz recalled that Noor had been captured in September or October 1943 and he had began impersonating her soon afterward.

Even as Vera interrogated Goetz, she received startling information. Another investigator had recovered a telegram from Sonja Olschanesky about Noor's capture. While Vera had concluded that Noor had used Sonja as an alias, this investigator revealed that Sonja had been an SOE agent locally recruited in Paris. Russian-born and Jewish, Sonia had been a courier.

Ironically, in view of Vera's erroneous belief that the two women were the same, their fates were intertwined. Sonia had warned London about Noor's capture on October 1, 1943 but was ignored as local recruits were not trusted to the same extent as those trained in Britain. Helm observes, "Had Sonia's warning been heeded at that time, Dr. Goetz's 'radio game' would have been exposed and probably halted there and then, saving countless SOE lives."

Soon information appeared reinforcing the notion that Noor's fate required further investigation. It was a letter from a woman named Yolande Lagrave who had been arrested by the Gestapo for working in the French Resistance. She wrote of being taken to Pforzheim prison where she met a woman who said she had parachuted into France from England. Unable to give her real name, she gave Lagrave a note saying her alias was Noor Baker and that she was from 4 Taviston Street, London. The letter stated that Noor was chained at wrists and ankles and never allowed out of her cell. Lagrave also said Noor was frequently beaten by prison guards. Nora was taken from Pforzheim in September 1944.

Vera was certain the letter writer was truthful. 4 Taviton Street had once been the address of Noor's family. If Nora was at Pforzheim in September 1944, she could hardly have died at Natzweiler three months before as Vera had believed. The investigation into Noor's fate had to be reopened.

However, Vera faced obstacles in returning to Germany. Wanting to return to civilian life, she had resigned her commission. Additionally, although she was a naturalized British citizen, not enough time had elapsed for her to receive a British passport.

The obstacles to a return to Germany fell when the prosecution team in the Ravensbruck trial requested her return. Because of the summons, British officials extended Vera's honorary commission and granted her authority to return to Germany.

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