If you know me, you’ll know that I’m a sucker for a spy film. I’ve spent many a Friday night engrossed in films like the Bourne trilogy, the Mission: Impossible franchise, Bridge of Spies etc. John le Carré’s books have accompanied me on many a train ride (I read one in its’ entirety on a six hour car ride from Pennsylvania to Ohio – The Spy Who Came in From the Cold), and I even embrace the more modern, spoofy creations such as Spy and Central Intelligence. I wrote a paper recently about how we humans have a strange fascination – perhaps even obsession- with spy thrillers and whodunnits. This is particularly true of the British, and indeed a certain spy is essentially part of our national identity. So much so that the opening ceremony for the 2012 Olympics, which featured the best of British everything, included him escorting the Queen into the Olympic arena in a hilarious spoof sky-dive. His name is James Bond.
(Sean Connery as Bond, with Miss Moneypenny)
I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with Bond. Like every other English person, I obviously love the Bond films. I grew up watching Sean Connery take on an array of interesting baddies, and despite the formulaic, predictable nature of the films, I never seemed to get tired of them. More recently though, and with the turn my career has taken in the direction of women’s history, I’ve lost a lot of respect for Bond and his creator. It’s no secret that women are completely objectified and sexualized by Bond. A perfect example is Miss Moneypenny, who seems to spend most of her time sprawled across her desk either canoodling with Bond or fantasizing about doing so. This little gem from Casino Royale about sums up what Bond (and ultimately Fleming) thought about women:
“These blithering women, who thought they could do a man’s work. Why the hell couldn’t they stay at home and mind their pots and pans and stick to their frocks and their gossip, and leave men’s work for the men.”
As a historian I feel compelled to point out that historical context is always important with these things. Casino Royale was published in 1953, when women were still gaining their rights and available opportunities, especially career wise, were thin on the ground. As a woman, I feel compelled to point out that I’d like to punch Bond in the face. Not least because of Miss Moneypenny. Several women have been rumored to have inspired Fleming’s creation of M’s secretary, one of which is the completely wonderful, indomitable Vera M. Atkins. Vera is very dear to me. The subject of my undergraduate dissertation, she (along with Peggy Carter) determined the direction my research would forever take. When Winston Churchill created the Special Operations Executive during World War II, Colonel Maurice Buckmaster was appointed head of its F-Section (responsible for underground operations in Nazi occupied France). Buckmaster defied convention by choosing Vera Atkins as his second-in-command, giving her incredible responsibility and the eventual title of intelligence officer – an uncommon title for any woman at the time. It is widely known that Ian Fleming worked for Naval Intelligence during the Second World War, and his job involved liaison work with SOE. Through this, he encountered both Buckmaster and Vera. Buckmaster is said to be his inspiration for Bond’s boss, ‘M’.
(Left: Colonel M. Buckmaster, Right: ‘M’, James Bond’s boss, as played by Bernard Lee)
Whilst I can see how Maurice Buckmaster could have inspired ‘M’, I can see little to no connection between Miss Moneypenny and Vera Atkins. A Romanian Jewess, Vera fled to England as a young woman, and being highly intelligent and capable, was promptly recruited out of Air Raid Precautions into SOE. Buckmaster soon realized that she was capable of far more than filing and typing. Within months he had promoted Vera so that only he outranked her in F-Section. Vera was responsible for the recruitment and training of agents, for their deployment into occupied territory, for their welfare and that of their families whilst they were away and often for overseeing their wireless transmission of important information to the London headquarters. SOE trained agents to be deployed into Nazi occupied Europe, usually as wireless operators or couriers. They were tasked with obtaining secret information like possible bombing targets for the allied air forces, Nazi weapons caches and plans, and the whereabouts of downed allied pilots or prisoners of war. Much of the information Vera received from her agents was absolutely imperative to the allied war effort. Of the hundreds of agents Vera sent to France, thirty-nine were women. These she called ‘her girls’. Recognizing that they, like her, were trailblazers in that they were the first women to serve in such roles, she did all that she could to defend and look after them.
Vera’s contribution to the war effort is not to be underestimated. Working sixteen hour days in an office dominated by men that she knew didn’t want her there, she devoted herself entirely to the success and safety of her agents. The work they carried out was dangerous, brave and crucial to British intelligence. At one point, one of her female agents (Noor Inayat Khan, see my earlier post, The Indian Princess) was the only wireless operator that any of the allies had in occupied Paris, where she managed to save the lives of around twenty downed allied pilots. Vera fought like a lion to be allowed to send her girls to France, and once they were there she took care of their families, wrote to them often and did her best to ensure their safety. This she could not always do. Her agents knew the risks – she warned each of them before they left that there was around a fifty percent chance that they would return. When they courageously chose to go, she accompanied them to the airfield, saw them off in their planes and was there waiting for them when they came home. Unfortunately, a number of them didn’t make it home, and it is thanks to Vera that we have any knowledge of what happened to them.
At the end of the War, Vera fought with the British authorities to be able to go to France and Germany to find out what had happened to her missing agents. No-one wanted her to go – not only did they not want a woman poking around in the chaos, but they didn’t want her looking for missing women because it meant admitting that women had been deployed as spies in the first place (something the British authorities were acutely embarrassed about). When Vera adamantly refused to give up asking, the War Crimes Investigation Unit allowed her to go and search for her 118 missing agents. Following their trails with expert detective work and incredible determination, she discovered the fate of 117 of them. Her investigations took her to several countries and various concentration/prison camps, including Belsen and Ravensbrück. The Nazis had tried to eradicate any trace of what they had done to captured agents, and if Vera had not been so persistent we would not know today what had happened to these brave men and women. Evidence she collected was used in a number of war crimes trials, and helped to convict a number of prominent Nazis. Perhaps most noticeable was her interrogation of Rudolf Hoess, the former commandant of the Auschwitz extermination camp. Hoess admitted to Vera that he had supervised the slaughter of 2,345,000 million people, and her evidence helped to send him to the gallows. It is difficult to imagine how Vera must have felt whilst interrogating Hoess, being Jewish herself. She was, however, famous for her cool, calm demeanor and total professionalism.
(Vera Atkins, working with the War Crimes Investigation Unit)
Ian Fleming’s view of women is not an isolated case in the 1950s. Vera Atkins was a woman ahead of her time, as were her girls. It is easy for us to look back from the twenty-first century and think that Fleming’s misogynistic view of women is dreadful and unfair (like his overt racism), when it can be argued that it would have been true of most people in his position at the time. That being said, this woman is an actual superhero, and whether we are talking then or now, she deserves to be treated and remembered as one. Not even on her first day at the office could she be compared to Miss Moneypenny. One of Vera’s male agents once said of her, “Vera was well aware that she could master anyone in trousers” – and he did NOT mean by throwing them across her desk with romantic fervor. Despite being pretty much a woman in a man’s world, she picked out and trained spies, sent them to do dangerous jobs, made sure they did them well and brought them home safely. When circumstances beyond her control meant that they couldn’t come home, she spent years laying them to rest by discovering their fates and ensuring that they received the proper commendations and honours. Late in her life, Vera said that “ordinary people sometimes reveal quite unexpected strengths”. The unexpected strength of this woman knew no bounds (though it can be argued that there was nothing ordinary about her). She didn’t think she could do a man’s work – she knew she could. If she had stayed at home and stuck to her frocks and gossip as Fleming suggested in Casino Royale, the allied war effort would have lost a great and powerful contribution.
I would dearly love to see Mr Bond tell Vera Atkins to stay home and mind her pots and pans. Knowing Vera, I’m absolutely sure that Bond would not have won that one.
**As always, thanks for reading – it’s so lovely to hear from you. If Vera’s life is of interest to you, do let me know – I can recommend many books and resources on her (including recordings of interviews with her before she died), and would be happy to lend a copy of my dissertation, which focuses on her life and work with SOE.**