Described by the Gestapo as “The most dangerous of all Allied spies”, Virginia Hall overcame a severe injury to serve as one of the most fearless agents during World War II.
She was born in Baltimore in 1906, excelled at school and studied languages at two of the USA’s most prestigious art colleges, Barnard and Radcliffe. She continued her education in Europe, studying International Law and Economics. A hugely talented linguist, she became fluent in French, Italian and German.
In 1931, with an ambition to work in the Diplomatic Corps, Virginia accepted a clerical position at the US Embassy in Warsaw. She was later posted to Turkey and it was there she suffered a life-changing accident during a hunting trip in December 1933. As she was climbing over a fence, her rifle mis-fired and she sustained a shot to her left foot, necessitating the amputation of her left leg below the knee.
After convalescing at home in Baltimore and mastering a prosthetic limb she nicknamed “Cuthbert”, Virginia was ready to get back to work by September 1934. She was offered a position at the US Consulate in Venice and later transferred briefly to Tallin. Again she attempted to pursue her dream of becoming a diplomat but her application to take the Foreign Service examination was rejected. She was told that applicants had to be “able-bodied”. When her appeal against this decision was also turned down, she decided to resign from the service.
At the start of the Second World War, Virginia returned to France and, following the German invasion in May 1940, she worked in Paris as an ambulance driver. When the Nazis seized control of Paris she fled to London. There, she volunteered to join the Special Operations Executive (SOE), a secret service division formed to co-ordinate subversion and sabotage in enemy-occupied countries. She received training in security, weapons, resistance activities and communications. During the next few years, her bravery, cunning and triumphs became the stuff of legend.
In August 1941, posing as a New York Post journalist, Virginia was posted to France where she gathered intelligence on German operations and assisted the Resistance. Within just a few months she had established a network of agents which became extremely successful. It provided intelligence to the Allies, facilitated the rescue of prisoners of war and British pilots shot down by German forces, set up safe houses, located drop-zones for funds and weaponry and assisted further SOE agents to enter the country.
The Gestapo were determined to apprehend the fearless spy they named “The limping lady” and posted Wanted posters of Virginia throughout Vichy. Nevertheless, despite their relentless efforts, she always managed to evade capture.
When the SOE learned that the Nazis were moving into Southern France, Virginia was forced to leave the country in November 1942. Escaping into Spain, she had to make the gruelling journey across the Pyrenees in mid-winter, trudging through deep snow on foot, a near-impossible task for anyone, let alone someone with a prosthetic limb. When Virginia contacted her superiors in London she told them that “Cuthbert” was giving her a bit of trouble. They responded, “Have him eliminated”.
On arrival in Spain, Virginia was arrested for entering the country illegally and spent six weeks in Figueres Prison until an American official in Barcelona secured her release. She then spent several months in Madrid working undercover for The Chicago Times.
Following training as a wireless radio operator back in London, Virginia joined the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), America’s wartime intelligence agency. At her own request, she was posted back to France in May 1944. Her assignment was as a radio operator in central France where she co-ordinated parachute drops of arms and supplies for resistance groups and provided intelligence regarding the movements of German troops.
She was, of course, in constant danger of capture, given her notoriety. She posed as a rural farmhand, altering her appearance and affecting a shuffling gait to disguise her limp. Staying on the move, she slept in farm buildings and attics to stay one step ahead of the Germans who were desperate to locate her radio signals.
As the war drew to a close and the Allied landing became imminent, Virginia trained and armed three battalions of resistance fighters for sabotage missions against the retreating Germans. Her final report to her superiors detailed that her squad had derailed trains, destroyed bridges and telephone lines and sabotaged a vital railway line. Furthermore, Virginia’s forces were credited with capturing 500 German troops.
At the end of the war, Virginia was awarded the Croix de Guerre avec Palme by the French government and the British authorities made her a Member of the Order of the British Empire. In her native America, she was the only civilian woman to be awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.
Keen to maintain her career in the intelligence service, Virginia worked within the CIA until her retirement at the age of 60 in 1966. She lived the rest of her days in her native Maryland where she died in 1982.