The story of Virginia Hall reads like the script of a Hollywood spy film, except that her exploits were true. She was an operative for the British Special Operations Executive (SOE), later the American Office of Strategic Services (OSS) and finally the CIA.
Despite the loss of her lower leg in a hunting accident, Hall was a daring operative who was hunted and feared by the Gestapo, the German secret police during World War II. The Germans published wanted posters of a woman matching her description, this “unknown woman with a limp” who set up and operated resistance networks, set up drop zones for air drops of critical supplies of equipment, reported on German troop movements, trained three battalions of French Resistance fighters for sabotage missions. And much more.
The German Gestapo’s orders were quite clear on this unknown woman. Putting all their known double-agents on trying to learn her identity, they said, “She is the most dangerous of all Allied spies. We must find and destroy her.”
So, who was this “unknown woman with a limp” who was so dangerous to the Germans? Some of her code names were “Marie Monin”, “Germaine”, “Diane”, “Camille”, and even “Nicolas”, but this extraordinary brave woman was just known to her friends as Virginia Hall.
Hall was born in a well-to-do family in Baltimore in 1906 and studied languages at Radcliffe and at Barnard College. Finishing her studies abroad, she attended schools in France, Germany, and Austria before landing a job as an American Consular Service clerk at the American Embassy in Warsaw, Poland. She wanted to become a Foreign Service Officer but those hopes were dashed after she lost her lower leg in a hunting accident.
Rejected in her quest, she resigned from the State Department in 1939 and immediately was recruited for the British Special Operations Executive (SOE). While fleeing France after its fall from the German invasion in 1940, she met a British SOE operative in a chance meeting on the train. She was recruited and would become the first woman SOE operative sent into France.
And despite her missing leg, she quickly mastered the lessons of weapons, explosives, communications, the training of resistance groups and security. The British smuggled her in Lyon which was part of the Vichy French territory where she quickly developed contacts with the French resistance groups and helped smuggle Allied escaped POWs out of France. She worked under the cover as a reporter for the New York Post.
Her work was successful for two years until the Americans invaded North Africa during Operation Torch late in 1942. In response, the Germans occupied the remainder of Vichy France and Hall now had to get out or face certain death.
To get out, she had to cross the Pyrenees Mountains on foot, something that would be daunting in itself but for a woman walking with an artificial leg she nicknamed “Cuthbert”, it was even more difficult. Her leg was giving her problems, which she radioed to her superiors in London. The reply: “If Cuthbert is giving you difficulty, have him eliminated.”
Arriving in Spain with no papers landed Hall in Figueres Prison for six weeks until a freed inmate smuggled a letter from Hall to the American embassy. Released she was given a new cover as a correspondent for the Chicago Times.
Hall grew restless with an assignment she felt was not accomplishing anything and made her feelings on the subject known. “I thought I could help in Spain, but I’m not doing a job,” Hall said. “I am living pleasantly and wasting time. It isn’t worthwhile and after all, my neck is my own. If I am willing to get a crick in it, I think that’s my prerogative.”
Upon returning to London, King George VI made Virginia a Member of the Order of the British Empire. It was then that Hall found out about the American OSS and she quickly joined and asked for an immediate reassignment back into France.
She was assigned to the OSS’ Special Operations Branch. Unable to parachute in due to her missing leg as was the normal infiltration method, OSS got her smuggled inside Brittany aboard a British PT boat where she immediately made contact with the French Underground. Under the code name “Diane”, Hall went to work.
While working in the Haute-Loire region of central France, Hall disguised herself as an elderly milkmaid, dying her hair gray, shuffling her feet to hide her limp and wearing full skirts to add weight to her frame. The Germans were aware of her activities and were desperate to home in and track her radio signals. As a result, she constantly moved her location to barns throughout the area.
Hall was being hunted by none other than Klaus Barbie, “The Butcher of Lyon” who was later convicted of war crimes. The Germans and Barbie believed Hall who was codenamed “Artemis” by the Nazis was a Canadian. “I’d give anything to lay my hands on that Canadian bitch,” Barbie said. It was not to be.
She and her group mapped drop zones for supplies and commandos from England, found safe houses, and linked up with a Jedburgh team after the Allies landed at Normandy. Hall helped train three battalions of Resistance forces to wage guerrilla warfare against the Germans and they were very successful. In the buildup to and the immediate aftermath of D-Day, Hall’s resistance group destroyed four bridges, derailed several freight trains, severed a key rail line in multiple places and downed telephone lines. They were also credited with killing some 150 Germans and capturing 500 more.
Finally, American troops pushed the Germans back thru her area in September 1944 and her time as an operative in occupied France was at an end. Upon hearing her exploits, President Harry S. Truman wanted to award Hall the Distinguished Service Cross, the only time in World War II it has been awarded to a civilian. But Hall asked that General William “Wild Bill” Donovan, the wartime head of the OSS present it to her.
Donovan presented the medal to Hall in a small private ceremony in his office, attended only by her mother…at her request. Hall personified the “Quiet Professional” mantra before it was even a forethought. Hall was reluctant to capitalize on any fame or notoriety regarding her time in France as the cost in human lives during the operations weighed heavily on her. She simply said, “It was just six years of my life.”
One of the OSS operators who parachuted into France in 1944 Paul Goillot, became her husband in 1950. They both went to work for the CIA, Hall becoming an analyst in 1951. She retired from the service in 1966. Hall passed away in 1982 at the age of 76.
“Virginia Hall is a true hero of the French Resistance,” wrote French President Jacques Chirac in a letter written to Hall’s family when she was honored by both the French and British governments.
Hall’s story is one of courage, perseverance and indomitable will. The CIA named a training facility after her, “The Virginia Hall Expeditionary Center.” A portrait that they commissioned of her hangs in the agency’s headquarters in Langley, VA.
Photos courtesy DOD, CIA