The subject of Vera Atkins came up in a comment on my blog, so I am putting in my two cents worth in a new blog post.
Vera Atkins testified for the prosecution in several war crimes trials, for example the trial of Werner Röhde and 8 others.
The Trial of Werner Röhde and 8 others in a British Military Court at Wuppertal, Germany began on May 29, 1946 and ended on June 1, 1946. The nine men were charged with the murder of four British SOE agents on July 6, 1944 at the Natzweiler concentration camp in Alsace. Werner Röhde was a medical doctor who had allegedly murdered four SOE agents by giving them a lethal injection. It was the custom of the Allies to strip the title of Doctor from the accused in war crimes proceedings.
The 8 others in the dock, at the trial, were Fritz Hartjenstein, the Commandant at Natzweiler, Max Wochner and Wolfgang Zeuss from the Political Department at Natzweiler, Peter Straub who was the man in charge of executions, Franz Berg who was a prisoner in the camp, Emil Brüttel, Emil Meier and Kurt aus dem Bruch. Dr. Heinrich Plaza, who had also allegedly participated in the lethal injection of the women, was not on trial because he had not been captured.
In all of the Allied Military Tribunals, the concept of a “common plan” or co-responsibility for war crimes was used. This meant that anyone, who was present when a war crime was committed, was equally guilty because the accused should have acted to prevent the crime from taking place.
The evidence for the prosecution had been gathered by Major Bill Barkworth of the SAS War Crimes Investigation team and Vera Atkins, a Squadron Officer of the British SOE, who had interrogated the Natzweiler staff and some of the Natzweiler prisoners, who were also captured SOE agents.
The four SOE agents, who were allegedly murdered at Natzweiler, had been captured by the German Gestapo and had not returned after the war ended. The key prosecution witnesses, Albert Guérisse, Brian Stonehouse and Dr. Georges Boogaerts, who were all members of the SOE, had a motive for wanting these 4 women SOE agents to go down in history as heroines, not as missing persons.
The first witness for the prosecution was Vera Atkins, who testified on May 29, 1944 that Andrée Borrel, Vera Leigh, Diana Rowden and Noor Inayat Khan had been murdered at Natzweiler. It was not known until much later that Noor Inayat Khan was allegedly executed at Dachau and that Sonia Olschanezky was the fourth victim at Natzweiler. However, before her testimony, Vera Atkins had made sure that the Court would not allow the names of the victims to be published. Atkins herself was referred to in the press as a “WAAF officer” and her name was withheld.
According to Sarah Helm, who wrote a biography of Vera Atkins, entitled “A Life in Secrets,” Atkins did not want the SOE to be “exposed to any close scrutiny as a result of the case.” The SOE was a secret organization, also known as Churchill’s Secret Army, and it was engaged in espionage and sabotage behind enemy lines. The four women agents had been in the F section which operated as illegal insurgents in France after that country had signed an Armistice with Germany in 1940.
The attorney for the defense, Dr. Grobel, argued in court that “international law allowed for the execution of irregular combatants” and that the court should “consider this case from the point of view that it was a normal and simple execution of spies.” Vera Atkins was quoted by the press as saying that “the women were not spies.”
One thing the Allied Military Tribunals would not tolerate was any mention by the defense that the Allies had committed similar acts. During World War II, the British executed 15 German spies. The last person to be executed at the famous Tower of London was Josef Jacobs who was captured after he broke his leg during a parachute jump. He was shot on August 15, 1941.
In America, 8 captured German saboteurs were sentenced to death and 6 of them were executed in the electric chair. The other two sentences were reduced because the men had turned against their countrymen and cooperated with the Americans. Although the 8 Germans were caught before they had the opportunity to commit any acts of sabotage, 6 of them were executed because they had violated the Laws of War by going behind enemy lines to commit hostile acts without being in uniform.
According to Rita Kramer, who wrote a book entitled “Flames in the Field,” the proceedings of the British Military Court were widely publicized by the press, but the names of the women who had been allegedly executed at Natzweiler were not published until two years later, and even then it was not revealed that they had been the subject of a British Military Court where nine men had been prosecuted for their alleged execution.
In 1958, a series of articles in a British newspaper, which was a condensed version of a book entitled “Death be not Proud” by Elizabeth Nichols, accused the authorities of keeping the names of the dead women secret as a “War Office cover-up of official blunders,” according to Rita Kramer. The alleged “cover-up” was for the purpose of keeping secret the accusation that the British SOE had deliberately sent radio operators to France to be caught so that the British could transmit false information to their radios after the agents were captured by the Germans.
The senior counter intelligence officer with RSHA, the Reich Security Head Office in Berlin, was Horst Kopkow; he was responsible for all orders pertaining to the SOE agents captured in France. If any order was given for the execution of four SOE agents at Natzweiler, he would have been the man who signed it. He had not yet been captured when the trial of Dr. Röhde and 8 others began.
By the end of 1946, Kopkow was in British custody, but he denied any responsibility for the murder of any female F section SOE agents, saying that it was Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler who had personally decided their fate, according to Sarah Helm’s book “A Life in Secrets.”
Himmler was the head of the SS and all the concentration camps. All punishments in all the camps had to be approved by the head office in Oranienburg and all punishments of female prisoners had to be personally approved by Himmler, including executions.
Sarah Helm wrote that Kopkow was taken to England for interrogation in 1948, but when he arrived, he was found to be running a temperature, and two days later he died from bronchial pneumonia before any information could be obtained from him. A death certificate was issued for him and information was released that he had been buried in the POW section of a Military Cemetery.
By 1948, the Allies had realized that the real enemy was the Communist Soviet Union. Kopkow had not died; he had been “released from custody to work for British and American intelligence,” according to the book “A Life in Secrets,” by Sarah Helm. Kopkow’s death had been faked so that he could help the Allies in fighting the Cold War against the Soviets.
If Kopkow had authorized the execution of the 8 women SOE agents, he would have given the order to Herman Rösner of the Karlsruhe Gestapo to carry out. Rösner would then have instructed Max Wassmer and Christian Ott to take the women to Natzweiler and Dachau.
Under the “common plan” concept used by the Allies in all their war crimes trials, Rösner would have been guilty of murder, but he was never prosecuted. In the 1960ies, he was hired by the British to provide intelligence for NATO, according to Sarah Helm’s book.
The men who were brought before the Allied military tribunals were called the accused, not the defendants, because they were considered guilty until they were proven innocent. They were guilty from the moment that they had allegedly committed a war crime. As war criminals, rather than POWs, they were not entitled to the protection of the Geneva Convention
It could be argued that the execution of the British spies was not legal under international law because they had not been given a trial, as required by the Hague Convention of 1907. However, using the standards of the Allied war crimes trials, spies were not entitled to a trial because they lost their protection the moment they parachuted behind enemy lines with the intent to commit war crimes.
The procedure was to interrogate the accused before the proceedings began and to obtain depositions which the accused would then repeat before the Court. However, in the British and American proceedings, the accused were allowed to have an attorney to represent them. Their attorneys were allowed to use any means to defend them, including the accusation that their clients had been unduly persuaded to give incriminating information in their depositions which they now wanted to recant on the witness stand.
Testimony or confessions about prior bad acts could be admitted, even though it had nothing to do with the crime that was being prosecuted. For example, one of the accused, Peter Straub, who had worked for a number of years in Auschwitz before being transferred to Natzweiler, had supposedly told Walter Schultz, a prisoner at Natzweiler, that he had “put four million people up the chimney.” What kind of a person voluntarily confesses to such barbarity, knowing that he would surely be executed, and uses the terminology of Auschwitz survivors to describe his crime?
According to Rita Kramer, all of the accused would “later deny their complicity,” after giving depositions beforehand in which they stated that they had been involved in the execution of the four SOE agents at Natzweiler. The fact that all of the accused wanted to change their previous testimony, given in their depositions, indicates that they had somehow been induced to incriminate themselves before the proceedings began.
Peter Straub, the executioner at Natzweiler, denied everything, claiming that he was not present when the executions took place. Straub was the hangman; executions at Natzweiler were normally carried out by hanging and all the prisoners were required to watch.
Read more on my website at http://www.scrapbookpages.com/Natzweiler/SOEagents5.html
Read more about the British SOE agents on my website at http://www.scrapbookpages.com/DachauScrapbook/BritishSOEagents.html