Spies in History: Virginia Hall, The Most Dangerous Allied Agent in France
Figure 1. Virginia Hall being awarded the Distinguished Service Cross by Bill Donovan, chief of the Office of Strategic Services on September 23rd, 1945 (CIA Museum)
Virginia Hall’s tale of heroism was forged out of her great deeds during World War II, and her story is one of a lifelong determined adherence to the pursuit of her ambitions. Her robust educational background had brought her to Europe in the 1920s to study at the Ecole des Sciences Politiques in Paris, the Konsularakademie in Vienna, including other stints at universities in Strasbourg, Grenoble, and Toulouse.
She had dreams of working for the U.S. Foreign Service, and after initial setbacks of failing to pass the U.S. Foreign Service exam in 1929 and 1930, she decided to get some hands-on experience and joined the staff at the U.S. Embassy in Warsaw, Poland to work as a consular clerk. Her work as a consular clerk took her across Europe, from Poland to Turkey, Italy, and eventually Estonia. While in Turkey, Hall was in a hunting accident where her shotgun misfired and resulted in her left leg needing to be amputated from below the knee. She went back to the United States in February 1933 to recover from the injury and ended up being fitted with a wooden prosthetic, which she named “Cuthbert.”
However, this would not set her back in her goals. Just over a year later, after having learned to walk all over again, she wrote to the U.S. Department of State asking to be reinstated and ended up being offered a position at the American consulate in Venice, Italy at the end of 1934. Hall asked to complete the U.S. Foreign Service exam again in 1937, but she received a letter from the U.S. Department of State rejecting her on the grounds of her amputation – they required that all applicants be “able-bodied.” Her gender was also against her, as only six out of the 1500 commissioned U.S. Foreign Service officers at the time were women. Still, Hall continued her consular work and moved to Tallinn, Estonia where she worked at the U.S. Legation. From Tallinn, she made one last appeal to the Assistant Secretary of State requesting a waiver to take the Foreign Service exam. When her appeal was turned down, she decided that it was time to re-evaluate and so she went to Paris in May 1939.
Just thirty-three years old, Hall was living in Paris when World War II broke out on September 1st, 1939. Rather than flee the incoming onslaught, she enlisted in the French ambulance corps (Services Sanitaires de l’Armee) as a private, and ended up driving ambulances during the so-named “Phony War”, which lasted from September 1939 to May 1940. With French defeat impending, she evacuated to London and ultimately found her true calling.
Hall was recruited into the Special Operations Executive (SOE) by Vera Atkins, who was the special assistant to the head of Section “F” in the SOE. Atkins talked to Hall at a dinner party and found her to be a good fit because of her language proficiency with French and German as well as her ability to work under pressure. Furthermore, the things that had obstructed her from a career in the U.S. Foreign Service – her gender and disability – were generally regarded as assets to the SOE. As an American woman before the United States entered the war, Hill could move freely about France relatively inconspicuously.
After completing the SOE’s agent training program, Hill formally became a SOE special agent in April 1941. She arrived in France on August 23rd, 1941 as an undercover agent using the identity of Brigitte LeContre, a reporter for the New York Post. Hall went beyond the standard six month long SOE field tenure to serve a full fifteen months in Lyon, France.
While in Lyon, Hall organized, funded, supplied, and armed the French resistance. Furthermore, she rescued downed Allied airmen and ensured their safe return to England, oversaw an SOE parachute drop, provided courier service for other agents, and obtained supplies for clandestine presses. She also orchestrated escapes for POW from German and Vichy French prisons.
Halls extraordinary efforts did ultimately lead her to the attention of the Gestapo and the French Vichy Police, but they were never able to find out exactly who she was – they had enough information to know that they were looking for a woman with a limping gait, but they thought she was French Canadian.
The illusion of the Vichy French government collapsed when U.S. and British forces invaded North Africa in 1942 and German troops took complete control of France. The Gestapo there was under the command of a man named Klaus Barbie, who uttered the famous quote: “The woman who limps is one of the most dangerous Allied agents in France. We must find her and destroy her.”
Hall’s position had the stakes raised, and she had no choice but to escape France. In November 1942, Hall arranged a Spanish guide to take her and a few other SOE agents through the Pyrenees Mountains to Spain. This journey would have been difficult for anyone to make in the winter and Hall did it with a prosthetic leg.
However, Hall’s group was arrested at the Spanish border because they did not have the right paperwork to enter the country. She was imprisoned for a few weeks and managed to get out after she had a freed inmate smuggle a letter to the U.S. Embassy. Hall was released shortly thereafter and entered into service at the SOE office in Spain, where she was responsible for setting up a new network of agents and safe houses. When she returned to London in July 1943, she was made a Member of the Order of the British Empire. The British government had wanted to honor her contributions with greater ceremony, but she declined on the basis that too much pomp and circumstance would compromise her work as an operative.
After all of this, Hall still wanted to return to France to continue helping the resistance. The SOE was not enthusiastic about sending her back to occupied France, so Hall sought out something more. On March 10th, 1944, Hall joined the U.S. Office of Strategic Services and by the end of the month was back in France (codenamed Diane) under the guise of an old lady. To facilitate her disguise, her hair was dyed grey, she wore extra clothing to give the illusion of heavier bodyweight, and walked with an extra swing in her step to hide her usual gait.
Because she could not be part of a parachute drop due to her prosthetic leg, she was taken into Brittany by speedboat at night. She and one other agent landed on shore in a dinghy at night. It was there that Hall began her second stint of operations in war-torn France. She eluded the Gestapo by moving from village to village in rural France, organizing the French Resistance network all the way. Between July 14th, 1944 and August 14th, 1944, Hall sent 37 radio messages to London, ranging in topics from where the German army was located to arranging airdrops of food, money, radio equipment, medical supplies, etc. (Payment, p. 21)
By the time the Allied troops stormed the beaches of Normandy in Operation D-Day, Hall and her network – more than 1500 men strong – was ready. (Elder, DIA) Highlighted in the Memorandum for the President (created May 12, 1945) is Hall’s joint effort with two American officers in successfully organizing, arming and training three FFI battalions that took part in a number of engagements with the Nazis as well as acts of sabotage resulting in the destruction of bridges, supply trains, and enemy communications. Furthermore, Hall provided radio communication between London and Haute Loire resistance forces, transmitting and receiving operational and intelligence information. The memorandum calls this “…the most dangerous type of work…” (Archives) and yet Hall completed it unyieldingly.
Virginia Hall was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross by the chief of the OSS on September 23rd, 1945 for her efforts in aiding the liberation of France. Not only was this important for the prestige of the award but also because she made history in becoming the first civilian woman to earn it. After the war, Hall got married in 1950 to a man named Paul Goillot, whom she met in France as a result of a parachute drop that she organized, and went on to continue her career in intelligence with the CIA until mandatory retirement in 1966. She passed away sixteen years later on July 12th, with a legacy of determination, bravery, and service.
This article was written by Kristina Weber, Content Supervisor of Centry. She holds a Bachelor’s Degree in History from the University of Calgary.