It’s no secret that British intelligence helped ensure an Allied victory in World War II. Through secrecy, sabotage, and sedition, intelligence agencies were able to provide a lifeline to Nazi-occupied territory while undermining their enemies. Few know, however, that one of the most effective secret agents of the British Special Operations Executive (or SOE) was a disabled American woman. Virginia Hall’s courage, cunning, and charisma allowed her to mount daring escapes, evade the enemy, and unite disparate groups into a resistance army.
Virginia Hall was born in 1906 to a well-heeled Baltimore family. Although her mother wanted her to marry young (and rich), she decided to pursue a career in diplomacy, at a time when only six of the State Department’s 1,500 Foreign Service officers were women. After being denied her first application, she found work at the United States embassy in Warsaw. She transferred to Smyrna (now İzmir), Turkey after a year, where she spent her spare time hunting.
While out hunting in December of 1933, Hall slipped, dropping her gun. Scrambling to retrieve it, she fired a round into her foot. Although she was rushed to the hospital, her leg became infected and had to be amputated below the knee. She attempted to return to work as soon as she could, but it proved too taxing. In June of 1934, she traveled to New York, where she was fitted with a prosthesis. Over the following summer, which she spent on the family farm learning how to walk again, she nicknamed her new companion Cuthbert.
Virginia Hall returned to work that November, this time in Venice. In 1937, she again applied for the State Department, but was rejected due to an archaic rule banning disabled people. Hall continued to work at U.S. embassies until 1939, when she volunteered as an ambulance driver in France.
On June 22, 1940, less than a year into World War II, France surrendered to Germany. British intelligence agents stationed there were deported, arrested, and killed en masse. A month later, Prime Minister Winston Churchill signed off on the creation of a new secret intelligence organization. Unlike MI6, whose role was to observe quietly, SOE agents would be trained in the use of guerilla war tactics: subterfuge, sabotage, and sedition.
There were no rules barring women or disabled people from serving in the SOE. So when undercover agent George Bellows met Virginia Hall by chance at a train station in Spain, he helped her gain passage to London, and put her in touch with SOE officer Nicolas Bodington. After a rigorous background check and comprehensive training, Hall boarded a boat to Vichy, the capital of France’s non-occupied free zone, undercover as a reporter for the New York Post. Her French studies at Barnard College and George Washington University would soon come in handy.
Some had doubts about the SOE’s first woman agent in France, but Hall quickly proved them wrong. Her reports out of the country were a vital source of information. Yet it was difficult to galvanize resistance. Although nominally free, Vichy was crawling with plainclothes Gestapo. Punishments for resistants were drastic, and rewards for turning them in were high.
Hall was transferred to Lyon after a month in Vichy. She met Germaine Guérin, the owner of a local brothel, and the two quickly hit it off. Guérin’s German patrons sometimes paid her in gasoline, which she used to transport recruits and refugees. She also offered some of her spare rooms as safe houses. The women she employed would ply German officers with alcohol to loosen their lips. Their doctor, Jean Rousset, stashed radical literature in his waiting room furniture, and hid refugees in a false psychiatric hospital.
Virginia Hall was becoming the SOE’s go-to agent, but when it came time for them to choose an official leader of their Lyon branch, they chose a man instead—Georges Duboudin. Undeterred, she continued to focus on her work.
Precious few radio operators had been deployed to France, and they were all preoccupied elsewhere—or in prison. Among the imprisoned were legendary operator Georges Bégué, early resistant Jean Pierre-Bloch, and Jean Philippe Charles Le Harivel, who had been destined for Lyon to aid Hall’s efforts when he was captured. The codename for these prisoners was Clan Cameron.
With the help of Bloch’s wife Gaby, Hall began organizing food deliveries to the prison so that Clan Cameron could get their strength up. Innocent-looking jars of jam concealed tools like wire cutters. One of the Camerons began leading athletic drills, where they all practiced crawling and timing their running speed. Bégué used a loaf of bread to take an imprint of their dwelling’s lock, and a can of sardines to carve a key. Hall sent an elderly priest in a wheelchair to visit—with a radio set hidden in the folds of his cassock.
At 3 AM on July 15, 1942, Clan Cameron unlocked their cell door with the sardine key, cut a hole in the prison’s fence, and slipped out in 12 minutes flat. They fled to a nearby safehouse that Hall had secured for them, and waited for the heat to die down.
This was immediately recognized as an incredible feat by the SOE, and a humiliating failure by Nazi High Command. Virginia Hall was considered for (but denied) one of Britain’s highest civilian honors, the title of Commander of the British Empire. Gestapo crackdown was swift and brutal. By torturing their captives, they learned that their primary target was a woman in Lyon who walked with a limp. Lacking a name or nationality for this formidable figure, they called her “The Limping Lady.”
Hall turned to her next mission. On their first meeting in August 1942, Hall was put off by Catholic priest Robert Alesch’s German accent. But he had credentials: he claimed to be a part of the resistance network Gloria, even if he sometimes flubbed the details. He offered to share highly valued information about German defensive maneuvers. She welcomed him into her circle, and he spent his days listening in on conversations around Germaine Guérin’s table.
Hall soon learned that Gloria had been decimated, but she didn’t know that Alesch, a German intelligence agent, had been the one to turn them in. The information he sold her had been falsified. One by one, her contacts began disappearing. Her radio operator was forced to transmit false messages in her name. Many of Guérin’s colleagues followed, and finally Guérin herself.
On November 10, 1942, as retaliation for the invasion of French North Africa, the German army occupied Vichy. With the free zone shrinking around her, Virginia Hall knew her time was up. Leaving the country directly was too risky. She took a train to Perpignan, where a contact set her up with a guide who would take her over the Pyrenees.
It would have been an arduous journey at any time of year, but especially so in November, when the pass was covered with feet of snow. Mountain guides were notoriously impatient, leaving stragglers to fend for themselves. Hall, who would have to make the two-day, 50 mile trip with her prosthetic leg in tow, sent word to the SOE, warning that Cuthbert would likely cause issues. The agent who transcribed the message replied that if Cuthbert was troublesome, she should eliminate him.
By the time Hall reached the top of the pass and parted with her guide, Cuthbert was falling apart. She was bleeding profusely from her leg. Reeling from altitude sickness, she hadn’t eaten or slept since the journey began. Still, she pressed on, descending into Spain—where she was promptly arrested for crossing the border. The U.S. embassy soon negotiated for her release.
So ended Virginia Hall’s first stint in France, but her career was far from over. After briefly working a desk job in London, she returned to the field in Madrid. Wanting to return to the front line, she joined the American Office of Strategic Services (OSS) as a wireless operator. Back in France, she helped undermine the German army ahead of the Normandy invasion. After the war, she joined the newly founded Central Intelligence Agency, setting up resistance networks in Europe in case of a Soviet invasion. She retired from the CIA at 60, and spent her final years living quietly on a Barnesville, Maryland farm with her husband and fellow former OSS officer Paul Goillot.
Despite her being sidelined, underestimated, and passed over, it is no exaggeration to say that Virginia Hall’s work was indispensable both to British intelligence and the French Resistance. Her commitment to secrecy and resourcefulness was all-consuming, touching almost every facet of her life. Hall was made an honorary Member of the Order of the British Empire. She also received the French Croix de Guerre, and a Distinguished Service Cross from the United States Army. Still, she insisted on private ceremonies when she could, wanting to maintain her cover. At her own request, her story had gone largely untold. Only after her death in 1982 did the public begin to acknowledge her monumental achievements.
Sources: CIA, Smithsonian Magazine