Virginia Hall: America’s Greatest Female Spy

Book Review of The Wolves At The Door: The True Story of America’s Greatest Female Spy by Judith L. Pearsons

Virginia Hall Portion of undated painting of Virginia Hall by Jeff Bass.

Words like strength, courage, commitment and daring only begin to describe Virginia Hall, a remarkable real life heroine and undoubtedly one of the greatest American spies that ever lived.  An inspiring woman whose story should be much more widely known, Virginia had a tremendous impact on the Allied struggle against the Nazis throughout World War II. In fact, her effectiveness as a spy was so impactful, it landed her on the Gestapo’s “most wanted list”, whereby she was relentlessly pursued by the notorious Butcher of Lyon, Klaus Barbie.  To read about Virginia’s achievements elicits awe of her relentless determination and fortitude while operating behind enemy lines in Nazi-occupied France; a feat made more incredible by the fact that she only had one leg!  Referred to by the German’s as, “the limping lady”, Virginia lost her leg in a hunting accident in her twenties and was fitted with a prosthetic limb below her left knee.  Of course, this didn’t stop her from surviving the long trek over the snow covered Pyrenees’ Mountains into Spain to escape her Nazi pursuers.

In, The Wolves At The Door: The True Story of America’s Greatest Female Spy, author Judith L. Pearson deftly tells Virginia’s remarkable story in a way that carries the reader along and often makes one forget that they are reading non-fiction.  Without making it artificially dramatic, the author mixes color and context to include a high level understanding of the geo-politics, institutions, and general conditions that shaped these extraordinary times, while simultaneously capturing the personal relationships, feelings and amazing stories of an incredible cast of real life British agents, French resistors, German Gestapo and their French collaborators. Many of whom were historical figures in their own right!

Blitzkreig

Born in 1906, just outside Baltimore, Maryland, Virginia attended the prestigious Radcliffe College and Barnard College where she studied French, German and Italian.  She dreamed of becoming a Foreign Service Officer (FSO), but opportunities for women were limited. She soon found herself living abroad working as a clerk in the American Consulate in Turkey.  While in Turkey, a tragic hunting accident resulted in the loss of her left leg.  However, an avowed “Tom Boy” and notable athlete as a young girl, this never slowed her down.  After a failed romance with a Polish Army Officer and many unsuccessful attempts to realize her dream of becoming a FSO, Virginia volunteered with her Jewish friend Claire to be an ambulance driver on the frontlines during the German Blitzkrieg into France at the outbreak of World War II.  As an ambulance driver, working continuously around the clock despite her disability, she witnessed firsthand the horrors of war, an experience that hardened her resolve throughout the war.

The Limping Lady

Eventually making her way to Britain after the German occupation of France, Virginia leveraged her unique language skills and knowledge of the French countryside to join the elite British clandestine organization, the Special Operations Executive (SOE).  After rigorous spy training designed to test the mettle of even the most resolute male candidates, she returned to Vichy France undercover as an American Journalist (prior to the US having joined the war).  There, at great personal risk, Virginia, worked doggedly to collect intelligence, help form the French Resistance and rescue downed RAF pilots.  She organized sabotage efforts on German supply lines and successfully planned daring POW prison escapes.  All the while, knowing that capture would mean imprisonment and certain torture at the hands of the Vichy Police or German Gestapo.    Lauded by her superiors at SOE headquarters for her effectiveness, her extraordinary success during this period was equally noted by her enemies.  Soon wanted posters began appearing throughout the area as the infamous Butcher of Lyons, Klaus Barbie, organized a countrywide hunt to track down “La Dame qui Boite” (the Limping Lady).  Although most SOE agents as a matter of policy only spent six months in the field at a time to avoid “burn-out”, Virginia refused to leave her post for a full fifteen months.  It wasn’t until the German occupation of Vichy France after the Allied invasion of North Africa, as Gestapo forces rapidly closed in on her that she fled across the Pyrenees Mountains into neutral Spain.  Far from safe, the Spanish detained her for twenty days in prison because she lacked proper documentation.  She gained her release after a cellmate smuggled a note from her to the American consulate in Barcelona.

lrg_carte-dident-4

From the Spy Museum: these identification and cover documents illustrate Virginia Hall’s career from her early days in the SOE through her work with the CIA.

Recruited by the OSS

Toasted by her superiors upon her return, at this point anyone would have agreed that she had played a significant role as one of the most successful spies of the war; but for Virginia this wasn’t enough. There was still more that could be done.  Unfortunately for her, the SOE felt it was too risky for her to return to France.  After a series of desk jobs supporting intelligence agents returning from the field, and taking wireless radio training in her spare time, Virginia finally got the break she was looking for when she learned of the American’s newly formed Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the precursor to the CIA, created by William “Wild Bill” Donovan.  The OSS was eager to find experienced agents that could be rapidly deployed into France to prepare for the eventual Allied Invasion of the European mainland.  Virginia immediately volunteered.  Because of her notoriety among the Gestapo agents combing the countryside for spies, she disguised herself as a much older lady; a persona that also enabled her to disguise her limp using a slow, shuffling gait appropriate for an elderly woman.

Back in the Fight

Upon her return to occupied France, Virginia immediately jumped back in with the French Resistance working tirelessly as a covert wireless radio operator reporting critical intelligence that could affect the D-Day invasion.  Being a wireless radio operator was one of the most dangerous jobs for a spy in occupied France because the German’s used radio direction finders to locate transmissions.  An operator had to constantly relocate to avoid capture.  While on the move, Virginia used her previous experience organizing resistance efforts to assemble a fighting force of French guerillas that could support the Allied Invasion.  Many initially refused to take orders from a woman, however, as she demonstrated her ability to provide valuable weapons and explosives with London’s full confidence, their sentiments rapidly changed.  When the Allied Troops invaded Normandy on June 6, 1944, Virginia and her resistance army of over 400 volunteers sprang into action.  Destroying train tracks, disrupting supply lines, attacking German troops and committing other acts of sabotage, Virginia and her force slowed the Nazi response to D-Day in any way possible.  As the Allies advanced, what started as small acts of sabotage by Virginia and her Resistance troops quickly turned into all-out war.  As Judith L. Pearson states in her accounting of Virginia’s activity during this critical period, “Between July 14 and August 14 (1944), she had transmitted thirty-seven messages to London with vital information.  She had organized and received twenty-two parachute drops and directed innumerable acts of sabotage.  Her group was responsible for killing over 170 Germans and capturing 800 more.”

William J. Donovan pins the Distinguish Service Cross onto Virginia Hall's dress in his office.

William J. Donovan pins the Distinguish Service Cross onto Virginia Hall’s dress in his office.

A Decorated Heroine

After the war, Virginia Hall was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for her actions.  A military award given by the US Army, for “extreme gallantry and risk of life in actual combat with an armed enemy force.  Actions which merit the Distinguished Service Cross must be of such a high degree as to be above those required for all other US combat decorations with the exception of the Congressional Medal of Honor.”  She was the first civilian woman to receive this honor.  The Director of the OSS, William Donovan sent a letter to President Truman requesting that the President personally present the award to Virginia; to which, the President agreed.  However, Virginia had little interest in awards and having no intention of leaving the intelligence business, respectfully declined the presentation by President Truman because the publicity would preclude her for any future covert operations.  Instead she was presented the award by Director Donovan in his office with only her mother present to witness her honor.

A copy of the letter from Director Donovan to President Truman and the Citation for the award in the National Archives is worth reading and can be found here:

http://todaysdocument.tumblr.com/post/118777115163/virginia-hall-receives-the-distinguished-service

She also received the honor of Most Excellent Order of the British Empire from Great Britain and the French Croix de Guerre Avec Palme.

After the war ended, President Truman dissolved the OSS and Virginia found herself searching for a role where her unique skills could be of service.  Once again, she applied for a position as a Foreign Service Officer and unbelievably, was rejected due to “budget cutbacks”.  However, the Cold War soon began to rage across Europe and due to her many contacts in the intelligence community she was quickly hired into the newly formed Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) becoming among their first female agents.

The daring exploits and extraordinary achievements of Virginia Hall during the Second World War form an incredible story of courage and commitment to duty.  Judith L. Pearson in, The Wolves at the Door captures these remarkable events in a way that is credible yet highly engaging.   This is an important woman in history who earned respect and admiration at the highest levels of three grateful Allied nations.  She distinguished herself as a heroine when acts of heroism were at an all-time high.  Her history is worthy of a broader audience of future generations so that her contributions are widely acknowledged and appreciated.  I highly recommend this book.

About Peter Cannito
Peter Cannito loves history, playing with words and examining alternative perspectives.
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