- James Houser
March 21, 1944 - The Odyssey of Virginia Hall, a "Woman of No Importance"
Updated: Jun 4, 2021
March 21, 1944. Women’s History Month. Two agents arrive by cover of night on the coast of France. One is a woman who limps off the tiny boat, levering her heavy prosthetic foot onto the shoreline. To the French she is the “limping lady,” to the Gestapo the Allies' most dangerous spy. Her artificial foot was named Cuthbert. Her name was Virginia Hall.
Virginia Hall was born in 1906 in Baltimore and was marked for success at a very young age. After her initial schooling, she attended Columbia University where she studied European languages, and then George Washington University where she learned French and economics. Virginia, though, was a traveler. From a young age she had a desire to see the world and influence it. She continued her schooling in Europe, studying in France, Germany, and Austria. By 1930, Virginia Hall was at 24 years old one of the most qualified people in the world for basically any diplomatic job.
But these were the 1930s, and she was a woman, so she was a clerk.
In 1931, Virginia was brought into the American diplomatic service as a clerk first in Poland, and then in Turkey. The next year, though, she had an incident that would have ended most people’s careers. While out hunting birds with her friends, Virginia tripped and shot herself in the foot. Her leg had to be amputated below the knee and replaced with a wooden prosthetic. Apparently completely okay with this, she happily named her wooden leg “Cuthbert.” Cuthbert didn’t slow her down at all, since she continued her clerical work in Italy and Estonia.
Virginia didn’t want to be a clerk. She was an expert in foreign languages, a damn good shot when she wasn’t shooting herself, and a highly educated woman. She barraged the Foreign Service with applications, but to no avail. Women were almost never hired as diplomats in the 1930s, and Virginia was a disabled woman on top of everything else. She even appealed to President Roosevelt – disabled himself, he should understand – but to no avail. Realizing there was no future for her in the State Department, Virginia left in 1939 to find further employment.
There are a lot of things a woman with a wooden leg can do. I suppose if you’re Virginia Hall, one of those things includes driving an ambulance in a world war. In February 1940, Virginia somehow talked her way into doing just that for the French Army throughout the German blitzkrieg that year. When France fell and was forced to capitulate, Virginia dipped out and made connections with some British guys she met at a bar in Spain. It’s really impossible to know how she finagled her way into these jobs time and again, but by 1941 Virginia Hall was working for the Special Operations Executive (SOE), the British Secret Services – an offshoot of what we now know as MI6.
What do you do with a one-legged American woman working for British Intelligence? Well, she wasn’t going to be a desk jockey again.
August 1941 found Virginia working as the central SOE agent in Lyon, France. The puppet French government that the Germans had set up at Vichy was not friendly to Britain, so Virginia went undercover as a reporter for the New York Post. In Lyon, Virginia was a pioneer for World War II secret agents. She gathered intelligence by fake interviews, made numerous contacts in the French Resistance, and received and distributed wireless radio sets to resistance fighters. She founded a whole network of SOE agents in Lyon, code-named “Heckler.” Her chief agents were a gynecologist and the madam of a brothel. People such as German officers and officers’ mistresses tend to let their guard down, I suppose, in those situations, and the intelligence the agents gathered was vital.
Virginia was bold but cautious. She had a sixth sense for avoiding Vichy French and German ambushes, and constantly slipped nets that caught other agents. After a few sting operations, Virginia was one of the only surviving SOE agents still at large in France. She avoided other agents and French Resistance members she regarded as reckless or careless, and these men were usually caught.
One of the areas she would stick her neck out on, though, was assisting downed British airmen. When British planes crashed in southern France or Italy, they were told to make their way to Lyon where they should make contact with “Olivier.” Olivier was, of course, Virginia, who would funnel them through the brothel and escort them to safety. Dozens of airmen escaped through Virginia's network.
In July 1942, Virginia planned and arranged a mass breakout of her fellow SOE agents captured in the sting operation. She pulled in all her contacts to assemble vehicles, safehouses, and lookouts, then coordinated the escape. All of the prisoners were funneled through Virginia’s underground tunnel back to safety in England.
This operation, among many others, put Virginia on the Gestapo’s most wanted list. The Gestapo chief in Lyon was Klaus Barbie, a ruthless SS man who had hunted down Jews for Adolf Eichmann. He was in charge of suppressing the French Resistance and allied agents in southern France. Barbie tortured, mutilated, and skinned alive his adult and child prisoners personally, and was directly responsible for the deaths of 14,000 people, becoming known as the “Butcher of Lyon.” Virginia became Barbie’s nemesis throughout 1942, and always managed to evade his clutches. Barbie reportedly said “I would give anything to get my hands on that limping bitch.”
Barbie flooded France with Gestapo agents, and after Virginia’s network was infiltrated, she realized it was time to make her escape. When the Germans moved to occupy Vichy France after the Allied invasion of North Africa, Virginia skipped town. She caught a train to the Spanish border and crossed the Pyrenees over a 7,500 foot pass, covering 50 miles in two days. When she reported to the SOE that “Cuthbert” was causing her a lot of trouble, the SOE, not understanding, replied that she should just eliminate Cuthbert if he was causing that much trouble.
For any normal person that should have been the end of their World War II service. Indeed, when Virginia got back to Britain by 1943, SOE refused to put her back in the field – she was compromised, crippled, and had done her bit. Virginia Hall was irrepressible, though. Having not spent enough time as a freelance secret agent, she quit the SOE and somehow got a job with the American OSS – the forerunner to the CIA. How did she keep getting these jobs?
Better question, how the hell did she convince them to send her BACK to France?
On March 21, 1944, Virginia Hall went ashore in France – AGAIN. She was sent to pave the way for D-Day by making contact with and organizing French Resistance cells. From March to July 1944, Virginia roamed central France, posing as an elderly milkmaid to disguise her limp. She organized resistance groups, helped them obtain weapons, and planned many attacks on infrastructure and German patrols. As a woman of a low rank, she established her reputation among arrogant Maquis officers by sheer force of personality and expert ability. The Allied financial and arms shipments didn’t hurt either.
Even though Klaus Barbie, still the Butcher of Lyon, frothed at the mouth trying to find her, Virginia became the spider in the web at the center of French Resistance operations in south-central France. When the Germans finally began to retreat, her Resistance men liberated their district entirely on their own before American troops even showed up. Her struggle finally complete, Virginia hitched a ride to Paris and reported in to her handler. Her World War II was finally over.
Virginia had paid a heavy personal price by the end of the war. Many of her friends and contacts had been killed; female SOE agents in France had less than 50% odds of surviving. Three of her "nephews" - young French men that she had taken under her wing - had been executed at Buchenwald Concentration Camp.
Nevertheless, life went on. One of her fellow OSS agents had been Lieutenant Paul Goillot, eight years younger and six inches shorter, but she saw something in him. After years of living together “in sin”, although who was going to say ANYTHING to her, they were finally married in 1957.
In 1947, Virginia was one of the first women hired by the new CIA as an intelligence analyst. She was put…at a desk.
Throughout the 1950s, she still remained officially assigned to desk work, but had an unfortunate tendency to wander off and do shit on her own. Her superiors gave her poor performance reviews because they just couldn’t keep her at her desk and out of the field. One of her fellow agents said “she was a sort of embarrassment to the noncombat CIA types.” to them.
In 1966, Virginia finally retired at 60. The scourge of the Gestapo, the liberator of Le Puy-en-Velay, the “limping lady”, settled down peacefully at a farm in Maryland.
In September 1945, General William J. “Wild Bill” Donovan had privately awarded Virginia the Distinguished Service Cross, the only one given to a civilian woman in World War II. President Truman had wanted to make it a public award, but Virginia declined, saying she just wanted to get back to work. Also awarded the Order of the British Empire and the French Croix de Guerre, Virginia has remained in obscurity ever since.
As strange as it may seem, she wanted it that way. Never one to toot her own horn, she rarely permitted anyone to toot it for her either. She gave no interviews and wrote no memoirs, preferring her privacy. She was her own worst publicist, even turning away people who wanted to write about her exploits. She did what she did for herself and the people she saved – no one else. Virginia Hall functioned as her own guiding light, her own hero. Her incredible life was not for public consumption or the spotlight, but for her and her people, for those both living and lost.
Whatever motivated her, it was hers, and hers alone. No one could keep her at a desk for long.
Virginia passed away quietly in 1982 at age 76. It's surprising that even Death was able to catch her.
Book Recommendations: A very decent biography is Sonia Purcell, A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of WWII’s Most Dangerous Spy, Virginia Hall (London: Hachette, 2019).