Step aside, James Bond, with your wild, fantastical, gadget-laden, good-guy-always-wins superhero stories of unrealistic espionage. This is the tale of a true spy, a real hero named Virginia Hall. What makes it even more amazing is that before the war started she lost her left leg just below the knee in a hunting accident and thenceforth went about with a strapped-on wooden leg, and that she was a woman operating in a system that was heavily biased concerning the toughness and superiority of men in dangerous situations.
Hall first sought employment with the State Department, but was stymied by its prejudiced attitude towards women, an attitude that would follow her through most of her career. She was assigned secretarial deskwork, and though she performed admirably, far beyond the parameters of her job, she was refused time after time when she sought promotions. She finally quit the State Department in frustration. At the outset of World War II, despite her wooden leg, which often gave her pain, she became an ambulance driver in France, speeding into intensely dangerous areas where other drivers refused to go.
The rapid German invasion of France forced her to flee to Spain, and from there to England, where she joined the fledgling Special Operations Executive, or SOE, a top secret organization set up to conduct reconnaissance, espionage, and sabotage. Taking the cover of a reporter for the New York Post, she went into Vichy France, eventually basing in Lyon. From there she worked on setting up resistance networks and sending information on Nazi movements. She was in constant danger of getting captured by the Gestapo or the collaborative French police; it was a certainty that if they apprehended her she would be horrifically tortured and then killed. In fact, as her underground network spread she became a hated target of the Nazis but somehow managed to evade them.
Despite her obvious talent, she faced continual criticism by men who felt that she should be subordinate to them. She had to deal with this jealousy and prejudice as well as circumvent the enemy’s efforts to capture her. One of her greatest accomplishments during this period was the planning of an escape of twelve agents from the notorious Mauzac Prison. When the breakout succeeded, the Germans were furious and stepped up their efforts to find her.
After the Allies invaded North Africa, the Germans moved into Vichy France, forcing Hall to flee. She endured a difficult climb over the Pyrenees Mountains into Spain and a stretch in a Spanish prison before returning to England.
You would think that after all the danger and trauma she had endured that Hall would be content to wait out the rest of the war at an office job, but no. As soon as she arrived in England she was petitioning to be allowed to go back to France. However, the SOE refused to send her, knowing that the Gestapo was prioritizing its hunt for her. As a result of the SOE’s reluctance to use her, Hall approached the newly-formed American Office of Strategic Services, or OSS, which later evolved into the Central Intelligence Agency, or CIA. Desperate for experienced agents, the OSS sent Hall back into France after a period of training as a radio operator. To evade capture by the Nazis, she disguised herself as an elderly peasant woman. She soon ditched her partner, who was holding her back, and in the areas of Cosne and then Haute-Loire went about organizing networks of resistance fighters and planning and executing acts of sabotage. She continued these efforts until France was liberated by the Allies. She later joined the CIA.
Virginia Hall was awarded several honors for her work, including the American Distinguished Service Cross, membership in the Order of the British Empire, and the French Croix de Guerre, but during her lifetime she avoided publicity because she wanted to remain more effective as an active agent. Her story is truly extraordinary and belies the bullshit secret agent movies that we all enjoy so much. This is the story of a real spy and a true hero, and I highly recommend it.