Learn how Virginia Hall, woman with a prosthetic leg, became the most feared allied spy in WWII. See how she eluded Nazi capture and aided in a victory at D-Day.
Virginia Hall – The Greatest American Female Spy
If there were ever the highest form of praise that an enemy can give to a spy, it was the one the German Gestapo gave to Virgina Hall when they called her “the most dangerous allied spy”. Hall was a classic World War II spy in many ways including her many aliases of “Germaine”, Camille”, “Diane”, and “Marie Monin”. Even her arch enemies, the Germans had a nickname for Virginia Hall which was “Artemis”.
From her early life in Baltimore, Virgina seemed destined to some form of career in international relations. As she benefited from her studies in Europe, her parents were able to facilitate for her a broad travel experience in France, Austria and Germany. Her knowledge of these countries was of tremendous use to her when she went on to become one of the most feared and notorious allied spies of the war effort.
It was after her school years that Virgina began to seek a life in international service when she got a job at the American Embassy in Warsaw Poland in the Consular Service as a clerk. This experience was a positive one which created an interest in the young Virgina Hall to seek a career in foreign service or diplomacy. But a tragic accident changed the course of her life which became a fluke of history that benefited the allied war effort tremendously.
While on a hunting accident in Turkey, an accident caused her to shoot herself in the left leg. Later the leg was amputated at the knee and Virginia adapted by naming her replacement wooden leg “Cuthbert”. But the injury altered her career plans and she resigned from Embassy job and returned to Paris in where she was when the war broke out. Hall put her international experience to work joining the ambulance service to support the war effort. Before long she became part of the British Special Operations Executive and she was assigned to go undercover coordinating the underground resistance movement in an occupied area of France called Vichy.
The increased hostilities of the war only brought out the side of Virgina Hall that made her a great spy. When the Germans occupied France in 1942, Hall escaped to Spain and then to Britain where she was made a member of the Order of the British Empire in secret so she could continue her clandestine activities to impact the war effort. By this time Virgina was a skilled operative with training in underground work and how to operate in secret to carry out subterfuge for the allied effort.
Returning to occupied France and working under the code name “Diane”, she confounded the Gestapo and quickly energized the French underground to prepare for the overthrow of the German occupation. She served a pivotal role in getting supplies in to sustain the underground and to coordinate safe houses to protect underground operatives. She worked closely with the Jedburgh team during the invasion at Normandy and it was Hall to trained three battalions of resistance soldiers to conduct a successful guerrilla war against the German and to complete countless spy operations to deliver important information to the allies. These efforts were a tremendous help in the effort to defeat the Germans in France and eventually to end the war victoriously for the allied forces.
Virginia Hall’s story is an exciting example of true heroism as she used her considerable talents and tactical planning skills to stay one step ahead of the enemy throughout her time as an underground operative. We can thank spies like Virgina Hall for the work they did in occupied areas and behind enemy lines because it was her successes that lead to the victory against Nazi Germany ultimately.
Resistance is a common thread in both A Call to Spy and Radium Girls
Like most of the films reclaiming women’s stories, this one focuses on the years of her greatest achievements. Virginia simply mentions her past in her first interview with Vera. She had tried to join the US intelligence service, but the State Department rejected her because of her prosthetic. She went to France as a wartime ambulance driver instead, and later worked in the office of the American Embassy in London. While A Call to Spy is true to the basic facts and trajectories of its heroines’ careers, it fictionalises their relationships. Vera knew Virginia, but did not recruit her as she does in the film. The real-life Noor worked for Vera, but she and Virginia did not share a room during their SOE training and meet again in France as they do on screen. The changes, Thomas says, “allowed me to put Noor and Virginia together in time and space, like Hidden Figures did. I call them the hidden figures of the spy world. That film was 100 per cent a reference”.
The film A Call to Spy is based on the true story of Virginia Hall and her colleagues (Credit: Amazon Prime)
Linking the stories also made the film more pertinent in today’s global world. “I was interested in the concept of how women from different nationalities and backgrounds united to resist a common evil,” Thomas says. Throughout the film, Vera is suspect in her own department because she is Jewish and foreign-born. She worries that her British citizenship will not come through and she’ll be deported. Noor, born to an Indian father and English mother, is a Muslim and a pacifist who insists she has a part to play in fighting the Nazis.
Danger and drama
Resistance is a common thread in both A Call to Spy and Radium Girls, which Pilcher co-directed with one of its screenwriters, Ginny Mohler. Radium Girls begins in 1925 in a factory where women paint glow-in-the-dark numbers on the faces of watches. They lick the brushes, loaded with paint containing radium, to draw more precisely. The company, American Radium, also sells radium-infused water as a magic elixir. The heroines are based on real-life sisters who sued the company they worked for, and discovered that the owners had known about the lethal danger of radium for years.
As she does in A Call to Spy, Pilcher creates an atmospheric world here, and characters with whom viewers can sympathise. Joey King plays Bessie, who dreams of becoming a Hollywood star, and Abby Quinn is Josie, who longs to visit Egypt on an archaeological dig. Josie is the factory’s fastest and best worker, but soon becomes ill. The company doctor tells her she’s fine, although she is coughing up blood and losing her teeth.
The glowing, radium-laden nail polish Bessie wears is an example of the film’s potent use of period details. But the heroines’ struggle for the truth couldn’t be timelier, demonstrating how historical figures can resonate in the present. Although Radium Girls was made before Covid-19 was discovered, Pilcher sees the story as “parallel to what’s happening today in the world of Covid, where science is being denied, some people are saying something is safe when it’s not, and you see people dying”.
In Radium Girls, Joey King plays a factory worker who bravely resists her bosses (Credit: Alamy)
As vivid as these screen heroines are, the films tell only part of their histories. A Call to Spy ends with the war still on. Virginia’s irresistible real-life drama, in all its scope, is covered in a major biography published last year, Sonia Purnell’s A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War Two. After the war, she became one of the first women in the newly formed CIA, but today even the CIA acknowledges that the agency did not use her well. A declassified report cited by Purnell says that Virginia was held back “because she had so much experience that she overshadowed her male colleagues, who felt threatened by her”. In 2016, the CIA named a building after her. That is not complete restitution, but it’s something. Telling her story on screen, along with those of other undersung heroines, is a more dynamic living tribute than any building could be.
A Call to Spy is streaming now in the US and UK. Radium Girls is in cinemas and streaming in the US, and begins streaming in the UK on 15 Dec.
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The Daring Exploits of Virginia Hall, World War II’s Most Notorious Spy
O perating undercover as an Allied spy was stressful work. They disguised themselves as ordinary citizens, developing false identities, documents, and cover stories while building trust amongst networks forged in secrecy through shared misery and purpose. And they did all of this under constant threat of being discovered by French double agents, Nazi sympathizers, or the Gestapo. Many were caught and executed by shooting or by hanging.
The members of the French Resistance, Special Operations Executive (SOE), and the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) fought sophisticated and complex battles that turned the tide in World War II. One of their most notorious operatives was Virginia Hall Goillot.
Hall served more than 20 years with the SOE, OSS, and CIA. Her compatriots in the French Resistance referred to her as La Dame Qui Boite , the lady who limps. The nickname was later uttered by the Gestapo in whispers about her successes against them. However, fascination and intrigue were all that materialized — she was never apprehended by those who pursued her. Even after her historic career, she rarely talked about her experience because “too many of my friends were killed because they talked too much.”
H all’s journey into the U.S. Foreign Service was not straightforward. She failed two entry exams in December 1929 and July 1930. She decided to pad her resume with overseas travel and experience that proved she could think rationally during volatile situations. Her admiration and skill for French, German, and Italian languages enabled her to receive an education and mingle within the culture in cities like Paris and Vienna.
Hall eventually earned a spot as an unconventional candidate for an elite intelligence and paramilitary unit across the pond. It may not seem important on the surface, but knowing the names of streets, locations, and landmarks without the use of a map are vital in establishing a network of contacts. Shortcuts, locals-only spots, and fieldcraft used by natives are crucial for a spy to retain cover. Even subtle movements, such as turning one’s head to the left instead of the right while crossing the street, could draw attention and give away the spy’s intent. These subliminal lessons and encounters would prove very useful during her career.
Hall was fitted for a wooden prosthetic, which she named Cuthbert, and added the setback as a positive focal point in her mystique.
Hall’s first overseas assignment brought her to the American Embassy in Warsaw, Poland. The pay wasn’t much — she earned $2,500 salary a year as a consular clerk — but the job brought her one step closer to achieving her goal of becoming a Foreign Service Officer (FSO). This two-year assignment gave her insight into the world of diplomacy but didn’t make her feel as though she was making a substantial difference. Hall eventually transferred to the coastal port city of Izmir (then Smyrna), Turkey to work for the U.S. Consulate.
During a hunting trip on Dec. 8, 1933, her dreams of working for the U.S. Foreign Service were shattered when a shotgun slipped from her grasp. She reached for the weapon but hit the trigger and fired into her left foot. The wound damaged the tissue in her leg beyond repair, so a surgeon from Istanbul had to amputate below the knee. Hall was fitted for a wooden prosthetic, which she named Cuthbert, and added the setback as a positive focal point in her mystique.
Unfortunately, that mystique didn’t change the minds of the Foreign Service, who rejected her a third time for the FSO position, citing that recruits had to be “able-bodied.” The odds were already stacked against her: the Foreign Service culture had yet to evolve, and there were only six women among the 1,500 FSOs in 1937. Hall ultimately decided to leave the Foreign Service and move to France for an ambulance driving position with the Services Sanitaires de L’Armee.
Many wondered about the woman with the limp handling first-aid for those wounded by the Germans during the “ Phony War ,” a term journalists adopted to describe the lack of armed conflict. When Germany occupied France in June 1940, she left the ambulance service and traveled through neutral Spain en route to England.
Betty McIntosh, an OSS veteran and author of “Women of the OSS: Sisterhood of Spies,” writes that Hall obtained a job as a code clerk for a military attaché in the U.S. Embassy. The British SOE recruited her into their ranks by the end of 1940.
T he SOE had a legendary reputation among intelligence and resistance circles. The majority of SOE officers underwent training in tradecraft basics they were expected to use: weapons handling, sabotage, communications, surveillance, security, and subversion. Hall’s physical disability limited her training in guerilla warfare but didn’t limit her effectiveness to plan paramilitary operations, where she used her exceedingly capable teams to execute missions.
“Hall became the first woman in SOE to establish resistance networks out of Vichy, France, beginning in August 1941,” McIntosh writes. Hall worked under General Maurice Buckmaster , the head of (F) Section, comprised of more than 400 officers — General Dwight D. Eisenhower commented that “it was equivalent to 15 divisions” — and it helped shorten the war’s length by six months.
As with any good spy, cover stories are essential to not only avoid foreign adversaries, but also to maintain secrecy amongst peers in the event they are captured. Real names, real home addresses, and real occupations put people and families at risk for mass reprisals from the Germans. Interrogation and torture were the Gestapo’s norm, and spirits were often broken. Hall’s cover as a French-American stringer for the New York Post allowed her reports to be published uncensored because, at that time, the U.S. was still a neutral nation in the war. Her byline, Brigitte LeContre , became her public persona, while her reports to the SOE were delivered under several codenames throughout the war, including Marie Monin , Diane, Germaine, and Nicolas.
When France was on the verge of falling to the Germans, Hall was ordered to leave. She hired a Spanish guide and journeyed on foot over the snow-covered Pyrenees mountain range…
Hall was tasked with assisting escaped prisoners of war (POWs) and downed airmen after her contacts in the French Resistance in Paris received her messages. The years she spent in France before the war benefited her greatly as she influenced French citizens, both men and women, to cooperate and establish safe houses. She ran these missions from Vichy to her apartment at 3 Place Olliers in Lyon. In the streets, she frequented restaurants and familiar bouchons where she exchanged messages between her assets. She continued her cover on the side and reported on the deteriorating conditions of civilian life due to the war.
In a wire story to the New York Post dated Sept. 4, 1941, she wrote: “The years have rolled back here in Vichy. There are no taxis at the station, only half a dozen buses and a few one-horse shays. I took a bus using gazogene, charcoal instead of gas, to my hotel. Vichy is a tiny town used once by summer visitors to take the cure. It is an infinitesimally small place to accommodate the government of France and the French Empire which has commandeered most of the hotels.”
When France was on the verge of falling to the Germans, Hall was ordered to leave. She hired a Spanish guide and journeyed on foot over the snow-covered Pyrenees mountain range with two Frenchman and a Belgian army captain. She transmitted a message to London that said, “Cuthbert is giving me trouble, but I can cope.” Her message was received, and an unknown staffer replied, “If Cuthbert is giving you trouble, have him eliminated.”
When traveling, especially during wartime in Europe, proper documents were scrutinized, but since they didn’t carry any, they were arrested and imprisoned on the border in the town of San Juan de las Abadesses. Hall befriended a Spanish prostitute, instructed her to smuggle a letter to the American consulate in Barcelona, and waited.
Upon her release weeks later, Hall was assigned to D/F Section of the SOE in Madrid, which is well-known for their escape and evasion practices. She acted as a courier running important people between safe houses, created lasting contacts, and assumed a new cover as a reporter for the Chicago Times . McIntosh stated that Hall sent a letter to headquarters describing her displeasure in the new role: “I thought I could help in Spain, but I’m not doing a job. I am living pleasantly and wasting time. It isn’t worthwhile and after all, my neck is my own. If I am willing to get a crick in it, I think that’s my prerogative.”
Hall’s intentions were to make an impact on the warfront and evolve with each new role. Her contacts proved to be a solution to her demands. An American named William Grell , a seasoned OSS captain who made history as the first American assigned to work alongside SOE forces, befriended her.
“I have always had the greatest respect for that lady. Her courage knew no bounds.”
“We were working with an unusual type of individual,” Grell said, recalling the nature of supply drops across France. “Many had natures that fed on danger and excitement. It was not unusual to find a good measure of temper thrown in.”
Hall informed Grell of her intention to become a wireless operator, and he decided to help her make the transition into the OSS.
W illiam Temple Hornaday II — a lifetime public servant of the OSS, CIA, and FBI whose father was the founder of the American conservation movement — remembered Hall’s fierce professionalism, mastery of radio transmission procedures, and steadfast commitment to improve her skill set. She even studied how to pack parachutes.
“She was just back from Spain for SOE briefings,” Hornaday said. “She sometimes carried her detachable brass foot in a pack or leg bag. I have always had the greatest respect for that lady. Her courage knew no bounds.”
Working in disguise for the OSS, she relocated often, assumed new aliases, and utilized tactics specific to her character. As D-Day approached, Gestapo and Nazi sympathizers hunted for suspected spies, and she was their most prized. Hall assumed the identity of a milkmaid , wore old, frail clothes, and dyed gray her naturally brown hair. Her normal duties as a farmer were furtive during the day, and at night she ran resistance missions. Sometimes the meetings were to exchange German troop movements and information, others included air drops to the Maquis. In order to hide the evidence of the drops from nearby surveillance teams, Hall concealed the parachutes in a donkey cart and handled the supplies.
A month after the Allies launched D-Day, Hall moved to establish a resistance force in Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, a remote region surrounded by farms, forests, and mountains. Allied pilots often missed their designated areas because of the terrain. Hall became the forward air controller of her time and reported back to London. Edmund Lebrat, a member of her team, took an old bicycle and jerry-rigged it to turn an electric generator to power her radio. Through codes , like l es marguerites fleuriront ce soir (“the daisies will bloom tonight”), she was able to schedule more accurate airdrops.
“My life in Haute-Loire was different and difficult,” she said. “I spent my time looking for fields for receptions, bicycling up and down mountains, checking drop zones, visiting various contacts, doing my wireless transmissions and then spending the nights out waiting, for the most part in vain, for the deliveries.”
The Allied invasion of southern France on August 15 during Operation Anvil-Dragoon reinforced efforts to Hall’s position. Two Americans and one French officer from an OSS Jedburgh team organized sabotage operations to be carried out by three battalions of the Forces Francaises d’Interieur. Their successes resulted in four destroyed bridges, derailed trains, the cutting of strategic lines of communications, and the capture of more than 500 German soldiers.
H all worked with the OSS until the war’s end, met her future husband — fellow OSS veteran Paul Goillot — and served with the Central Intelligence Group before it merged into the CIA in 1947. William Donovan, the head of the OSS, and President Harry Truman awarded her the Distinguished Service Cross, making her the only woman in World War II to earn the honor.
McIntosh writes that Hall worked in the National Committee of Free Europe, a CIA front organization responsible for interviewing refugees from Baltic nations and issuing propaganda in direct support of resistance forces that operated there.
Hall was a “gung-ho lady left over from the OSS days overseas,” said CIA official Angus Thuermer. “Young women in sweater sets and pearls listened raptly to Virginia Hall gas with muscular paramilitary officers who would stop by her desk to tell war stories.”
The Female Spy who was Feared by the Gestapo in WWII
Virginia Hall was known by many names during her career. Working as a spy for Britain’s Special Operations Executive during the Second World War, she was known as Marie, Nicolas, Diane, Germaine, and Artemis.
To the German Gestapo, though, she was more than just an alias – she was the person they considered to be the most dangerous Allied spy of them all.
While hunting snipe in Turkey, she accidentally shot herself in the left foot at point-blank range with a 12 gauge shotgun.
By the end of the war, the team of spies and resistance agents she led had destroyed a number of bridges, derailed German freight trains, killed at least 150 German troops and agents, and had captured around 500 Germans. Amazingly enough, she did all of this with only one fully functional leg.
After the war she was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, making her the only female civilian to be awarded one during WWII.
Virginia Hall receiving the Distinguished Service Cross in 1945 from OSS chief General Donovan
Born in 1906 in Baltimore, Maryland, Virginia Hall showed great promise from an early age. She excelled at her studies and displayed a particular talent for languages.
By the time she graduated from Barnard College, she was fluent in French, German, and Italian – languages that would be perfect for the wartime espionage in which she would eventually become involved.
Her path to success was not without setbacks, though. Just as she was taking her first steps into what looked like it was going to be a long and distinguished diplomatic career in the American Foreign Service, disaster struck. While hunting snipe in Turkey, she accidentally shot herself in the left foot at point-blank range with a 12 gauge shotgun.
The OSS of World War II forged a French identification certificate for “Marcelle Montagne,” an alias of spy Virginia Hall
Her left leg had to be amputated below the knee, and this disability effectively put an end to any hopes the 27-year-old Hall had of continuing her career in the Foreign Service.
Formerly posted to the US embassy in Warsaw, she contacted the embassy in Vienna in the hopes of gaining employment there but was told in no uncertain terms that, due to her disability, her career as a diplomat was over.
This could have been the end of the line for Hall, but then something of great significance happened — an event that was to change the course of her life and that of millions of others too: the Second World War broke out.
Soldiers of the Polish Army during the defense of Poland, September 1939
Hall immediately joined the Ambulance Corps in France, but after much of France fell to the seemingly unstoppable German advance, she made her way across the Channel. Once there, she volunteered for Britain’s Special Operations Executive (SOE), a newly formed organization specializing in espionage and covert operations.
The men at the SOE looked past Hall’s injured leg and saw great potential in the fact that she was fluent in three of the most useful languages for their purposes. The SOE signed her on, gave her intensive training in weapons use, covert communication, and the art of disguise, along with other essential skills for a spy.
Shortly after her training, she was back in France, posing as an American reporter, to take on the Germans.
B MK II receiver and transmitter (also known as the B2 radio set). Photo:Hanedoes CC BY-SA 3.0
From 1941 to 1942, she worked tirelessly in France, assisting the French Resistance, coordinating operations, gathering intelligence, running safehouses, and smuggling people out of the country — all while passing on important information to her SOE superiors in Britain.
She established her own network of agents called HECKLER, whose activities and missions she coordinated with great success from sabotaging German communication lines to smuggling downed British airmen out of the country.
SOE Operatives in demolition class, Milton Hall, circa 1944
German counterintelligence inevitably learned about HECKLER and were soon offering generous bounties for the capture of the “Lady with the Limp” or simply the “Limping Lady” as they called her. The Gestapo went as far as to say that she was the most dangerous of all the Allied spies and the one they most wanted to get their hands on.
Despite all the precautions Hall had taken, the Gestapo net soon began to tighten around her and her operatives. Realizing that capture was imminent as the rest of France fell to the Germans in late 1942, Hall decided to make a daring escape across the Pyrenees on foot in the dead of winter.
Les Marguerites Fleuriront ce Soir by Jeffrey W. Bass. SOE’s early recruits for espionage operations were from a variety of people from all classes, pre-war occupations, and countries—including Virginia Hall.
She did not tell her guide about her prosthetic leg, which she had nicknamed “Cuthbert.” The journey took her over mountain passes 7,500 feet in altitude, and sometimes she had to cover as much as 50 miles in two days, which was incredibly painful with her prosthetic leg.
When she was able to send a message to the SOE in Britain, they asked how the journey was going. She mentioned that Cuthbert had been giving her trouble, to which they replied that she should simply “eliminate” him, not realizing who — or, rather, what — Cuthbert really was.
Hall managed to reach Spain safely, but once there she was arrested at a train station and charged with having entered the country illegally.
Maquisards (Resistance fighters) in the Haute-Savoie département in August 1944. Third and fourth from the left are two SOE officers
After a stay of six weeks in a Spanish prison, she was able to contact American officials in Barcelona who managed to secure her release. She continued to work for the SOE from Madrid.
In 1943, she was made a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) – a great honor, especially for a non-British citizen.
After this, Hall joined the American Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the United States’ wartime intelligence agency, and requested that she be allowed to return to France to continue fighting the Germans there.
Major General William J. Donovan, Director, OSS and Colonel William H. Jackson in April 1945.
She was smuggled back into the country and assumed the disguise of a rural peasant woman, a task for which she dyed her hair gray, shuffled like an old lady, and even had her teeth fillings altered to match the style of French dentistry.
Under this new identity, she assisted with coordinating supply drops for Resistance troops and then Allied troops who were advancing through France after the D-Day landings.
Soldiers of the 6 & 7 Battalions, Green Howards, 69th Brigade, 50th Division, 30 Corps, sorting out kit as they prepare for the journey to Normandy.
She also reported on German troop movements and sabotaged German supply lines and communications, tasks which she and her team performed flawlessly. In September 1944, the OSS decided that she had done enough, and she was pulled out of France.
For the role she played in the Allied war effort, she was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, and was the only female civilian to receive this decoration in WWII.
Memorandum for the President from William J. Donovan Regarding Distinguished Service Cross (DSC) Award to Virginia Hall, 05/12/1945
President Truman wished to present her with the award personally in a public ceremony, but Hall politely refused this request as she did not want her identity to be known.
After the war, she worked for the CIA until 1966 when she retired. She lived out the rest of her days in peace and passed away at the age of 76 in 1982.
Virginia Hall, the “Lady with the Limp,” will long be remembered as one of the greatest American spies of the Second World War.
Virginia Hall was a forerunner in closework and espionage in the European theater of World War II. She, along with scores of other women, joined the clandestine cabals comprised of aristocrats, magicians, journalists, artists and hunters trained in the art of silencing sentries, sabotage and subterfuge. She participated in efforts to save soldiers during the early days of battle in France as an ambulance driver. Virginia was eventually recruited by Vera Atkins, one of the highest-ranking spies in the newly formed Special Operations Executive (SOE).
Born in Baltimore in 1906 and raised in a self-made, wealthy family, Hall attended Radcliffe and Barnard Colleges. She spoke English, French and German. She was class president, the editor of her school newspaper and spent summers working on a farm. All of these attributes were paramount to her survival as the first Allied spy in France.
Dames, Daggers and Demolition
In Scotland, Virginia Hall and several other women trained in explosives, knife fighting and stalking. Using wooden training knives edged with lipstick, she practiced lethal lacerations, leaving red streaks along her classmates’ throats. The SOE had established an airborne school for the spies consisting of five jumps wearing a camouflaged suit they could unzip from neck to ankle. This allowed the operator to step out completely dressed in civilian attire native to the country she was entering.
They carried very few provisions on these jumps: flashlight, pistol, dagger, medical kit, folding shovel and counterfeit money. Unfortunately, Hall had to skip the airborne school because few knew that she only had one foot. In her youth, her lower left leg was lost to an accidental discharge of her shotgun. Future courses would graduate women who would later deploy on moonlit night jumps from Lysanders, to land in occupied countries.
Hall was hired by the New York Post as a foreign correspondent covering the building war in France. This cover story allowed her to be mobile from village to village, collecting information while simultaneously identifying future resistance fighters and building a sleeper network. Several of her articles were published, but France soon fell into the death grip of the Gestapo and Vichy Police. Hall worked within her circuit and assisted with locating downed pilots and smuggling them out of France.
In one rescue, she dressed the pilot in local garb and wrapped a bandage around his neck. When detained by German soldiers, she politely explained his vocal cords had been severed in a terrible explosion, rendering him voiceless. The ruse worked, and he was eventually transported out of France safely. Hall also collaborated with a doctor and established an asylum front to hide downed pilots. When questioned by the Gestapo, the explanation was simple: The men dressed in tattered French clothes suffered brain injuries or could not speak. This system allowed pilots to rest and time to plan and coordinate routes for their safe extraction. Hall also utilized beekeepers to smuggle firearms and explosives across France. Bee-fearing German soldiers avoided the carts, so they cleared checkpoints without discovery.
Escape, Evade and Live to Fight Another Day
Hall’s circuit collected intelligence and transmitted it back to England via decoders the size of a typewriter. Their operator, who worked diligently coding messages for the Allies, was called the “Pianist.” This system provided the most accurate information for decision makers. The Nazis, however, designed a mobile machine to triangulate the Pianist’s transmissions.Gestapo leader Klaus Barbie had learned of Hall and her circuit and offered a large reward for her capture or a torturous death for any who collaborated with her.
Hall’s cell fell prey to this tactic, causing her to flee France through the Pyrenees Mountains, only to be captured and imprisoned by Spanish Forces for a lack of proper paperwork. While jailed, Hall made friends with a prostitute cellmate and asked her, upon her release, to go straight to the embassy and advise them of her capture. The prostitute made good on her word, and Hall was eventually freed. She then learned of the Gestapo’s wanted poster for “The Limping Lady.” Now compromised, the SOE would not redeploy Hall.
Back to the Front
After leaving the SOE, Hall joined the American Office of Strategic Services under Wild Bill Donovan and returned to France via waterborne insertion by a Royal Navy torpedo boat and a canoe. In the dead of night, she arrived on the beach, well trained and ready to operate as “Marcelle Montegerie,” an elderly cheese-making farmer. The Gestapo was still hunting the infamous “Limping Lady” however, she would appear nothing like her former SOE self. Wearing multi-layered clothing to appear plump, movie cosmetics to appear aged and with her hair in a bun, she was now an unassuming farmhand delivering the best dairy in occupied France.
Her transformation was her idea, and the OSS employed a dentist and an orthopedist to help make her transformation complete. The dentist replaced her dental work with French-made fillings, and the orthopedist showed her how to stoop and shuffle, masking her left-leaning gait. Armed with a shepherd’s staff, she was able to move about by leaning and shuffling. Harmlessly selling her farm goods to German soldiers and Vichy police officers while gathering intelligence on enemy movements, troop strength, tank counts and building more and more participants in her network. Her cover was so successful that her farm was once subjected to a routine raid, and the Nazi troops stopped short of finding her “piano” after one soldier remarked that he recognized her as the cheese lady. The soldiers promptly cleared out and moved on to other raids.
Her mission now was to provide intel for the D-Day invasion. Learning from her first deployment in France, she was her own “pianist” and traveled to various locations to transmit so the Gestapo could not triangulate her position. Because she could travel the countryside, she identified drop zones and locations for caches. She also continued to recruit hundreds of resistance fighters who were poised to strike during the D-Day invasion.Throughout this time, Hall continued to venture at night under a full moon and collect the airdropped supplies. She stashed the weapons and explosives, waiting patiently to unleash the beast and full wrath of the subjugated French.
On the eve of the D-Day invasion, the numerous circuits of resistance becameactivated. Many spies were now doing the same mission as Hall, building large networks of fighters, leading and supplying them. Hall coordinated airdrops of supplies such as Sten guns, pistols and ammunition. Also dropped were “fire flies,” or explosive lumps of coal intermingled in coal piles on enemy troop trains. “Aunt Jemima,” or white powder that when mixed with water turned to dough and became explosive. The last two items appeared innocuous during Gestapo searches but, when implemented properly, were devastating.
Building their own circuits, Hall’s female counterparts were responsible for the destruction of more than 500 rail lines. Armed with her weapon of choice, the Sten gun, she led small teams of men planting demo along train tracks. Prior to D-Day, Hall also led her men to defuse explosives under bridges and they also ambushed trucks with bazookas. Her element was credited with 150 Nazi casualties and the capture of over 500 soldiers. She recieved the Distinguished Service Cross and the French Croix de Guerre for her actions during World War II.
President Truman wanted to pin her with the DSC in an official ceremony, she professionally declined the offer. Instead, she received it and a handshake from Wild Bill Donovan in his office. She continued her career as a spy, transitioning from the OSS to the CIA. She eventually retired in 1966 and later passed away in 1983. Few Americans ever knowing about her lethal capabilities or her heroic actions, remaining in the shadows until the very end.
TIL the most successful and feared allied spy of WWII, Virginia Hall, was an American woman with a prosthetic leg. She escaped France on foot through the Pyrenees mts, re-entered before D Day, and organized havoc behind the Nazi lines.
"At a safe house in the mountains, Hall radioed her superiors in London to report that she was OK, but that Cuthbert [what she called her prosthetic] was giving her trouble. The deadly serious reply from SOE headquarters, which mistook Cuthbert for an informant, read, 'If Cuthbert is giving you difficulty, have him eliminated.'"
damn, thats some straight 007 license to kill shit.
I bet she needed the laugh and probably told off her prosthetic leg in the process.
but did Cuthbert get eliminated?
So if Cuthbert was a human and a member of the team, SOE HQ would allow her to "eliminate" him? Seems like an "at any cost" sort of operation.
I think she had more motivation than you, no offense. She was fighting a war.
Fun fact, she shot her own foot during a hunting accident and it had to be amputated after it got infected.
I hiked in Ordesa. The mountains reminded me of the Rockies.
Kinda shitty, but like with Oscar Pistorius I wonder if that prosthetic gave an overall advantage.
Haha she escaped on foot, get it
Her companions escaped on feet.
She mush have had a leg up on them.
A British fighter pilot was shot down over German occupied airspace and was captured by the Nazis on the ground. He was beaten up pretty bad in the dogfight and parachute landing, and they had to amputate his leg, so he begged them "Please, if you have to take my leg, can you drop it over my base the next time you send a bombing mission?"
The Nazis figured there was no harm in it and the leg was dropped in the next raid.
A week later, his other leg succumbed to his injuries and had to be amputated, and again, he asked his captors to drop in over the base on the next raid, and again they obliged.
The next week his arm succumbed to injuries and it was amputated. Again, he asked the German guards to have it dropped over his base on the next raid. The German barked at him "Nein!"
WWII's Most Decorated Spy Was An American Heiress with A Wooden Leg
Virginia Hall was one of WWII’s most highly decorated spies and yet you’ve probably never heard of her (or her wooden leg, which she nicknamed “Cuthbert.”). Below, we follow Virginia Hall into enemy territory in occupied France as she embarks on her second death-defying mission, this time on behalf of the new secret service, the Office of Strategic Services or OSS.
On the moonless night of March 21, 1944, a small advance guard for the forthcoming Allied invasion of northern France was deposited on Beg‑an‑Fry beach in Brittany. The handpicked duo had dashed across the English Channel in a Royal Navy motor gun boat after spending the previous night in a hotel near the seaside resort of Torquay. One was an elderly peasant woman, bundled up in shawls like a Russian babushka and carrying a heavy suitcase. She was the first to land, silently maneuvering herself out of the camouflaged dinghy onto the rocks and away from the rising tide. A male figure followed but twisted his knee in the dark and barely suppressed a loud yelp as the woman helped him to his feet. He complained all the way up a narrow path onto the headland and on through the gorse bushes to the road for the long walk to the nearest railway station. Yet talking was supposedly forbidden for fear of alerting the Germans in the nearby pillbox, who could turn on their searchlights at any moment and start firing.
Gray-haired Henri Lassot had a pale face, thin moustache, and round glasses, and was a painter by profession and a grumbler by nature—although prized by his OSS commanders who considered his air of aged fatigue a brilliant cover. Code-named Aramis, the American was, at sixty- two, old enough to be his companion’s father for she was actually coming up to her thirty- eighth birthday. Virginia—or Diane as she was known in OSS—looked as if she were in her late sixties because she had gone to extraordinary lengths to change her appearance. In her youth, she had preferred dressing up as a dashing pirate, but for this mission she had opted for something dowdier. She had dyed her hair a dirty gray and secured it with a wooden hairpin in a severe upstyle that sharpened her features Hollywood makeup artists had taught her how to pencil in authentic-looking wrinkles round her eyes baggy woolen blouses and several floor-length skirts with peplums bulked out her silhouette and concealed her Colt .32 and she had had her fine, white American teeth ground down by a much-feared female London dentist to resemble those of a French countrywoman. At five foot eight, she was tall for a peasant but her clothes had been made, distressed, and rigorously checked by Jewish refugees in a secret atelier behind London’s Oxford Circus to ensure they looked real—right down to the way the buttons were sewn on, as the French favored parallel threading while the British and Americans preferred a crisscross pattern. She had even altered her famous gait by learning to shuffle.
German officers across France were still on maximum alert for the Limping Lady sixteen months after her escape from Lyon.
The effect was startling, but OSS judged that Virginia’s disguise alone was not enough and that “radical alteration of her features was indicated for her own safety.” She refused, however, to go under the surgeon’s knife, perhaps because of the memories it brought back of the aftermath of her [hunting] accident in Turkey [when she had lost her leg to gangrene]. It was nevertheless a brave stance—and an unusual one. George Langelaan, one of the Mauzac escapees, was one of a handful of other compromised agents who all agreed to, or even requested, surgery before returning to the field. Two major operations had involved breaking Langelaan’s pointed chin and making it smoother and rounder with a bone graft from his pelvis, a painful procedure he topped up with glasses, a different part in his hair, and a new moustache. After all that, even his closest relatives did not recognize him.
Virginia’s refusal is all the more remarkable given that German officers across France were still on maximum alert for the Limping Lady sixteen months after her escape from Lyon. The Gestapo had given her the code name of Artemis, the Greek goddess of hunting, and for them tracking her down for the kill still represented a particularly gripping if sinister sport. Her pursuers knew she had returned to Britain via Portugal. Now they must be prevented at all costs from finding out she was back in France.
Even so, it was an unusual way to dress for the role she intended to take once in the field, one that went well beyond the orders given to her new circuit, code-named Saint, which were surprisingly modest. Her official brief was to find safe houses for other agents and wireless operators on the run in central France south of Paris—crossing over the perilous area where the Germans had decimated the SOE Prosper circuit and that had become an almost no‑go territory for Allied agents. OSS headquarters were clear that Aramis would be her chief (and had given him a million francs to take with him as expenses), while Diane was his assistant and wireless operator (with five hundred thousand francs). It was still felt in America to be controversial to send a woman on a paramilitary operation and inconceivable to put her in charge. In the U.S. military, which had been hurriedly expanded after Pearl Harbor, female recruits (who never got near the front line let alone behind it) were branded by some male colleagues as prostitutes or the so-called “lesbian threat.” Women were known to fly fighter aircraft but only to and from the factories and never into combat normally the closest women got to the shooting was as nurses. Taking orders in the field from the untested Aramis was hardly a situation, however, that Virginia was likely to tolerate for long. Nor was she likely to stick to her restrictive support-role brief. From the get‑go she had greater ambitions now that she was finally back in France, and scores to settle.
Virginia was well aware of the risks, but the thought of the fate of her friends in Lyon drove her on…One way or another she too would have her revenge.
The country had suffered a great deal since her last mission and the mood had dramatically changed. Virginia had kept her eye on the big picture and had seen well before she arrived that the time had come to form guerrilla armies to attack, rather than set up circuits as before to observe or prepare. As one SOE officer put it, “We had sown the wind for two and a half weary years. We were about to reap the whirlwind.” Indeed, it was already obvious what could be done with the right leadership and equipment—but both were seriously lacking. Churchill had ordered the RAF to drop more than three thousand tons of weapons and supplies (including concentrated foods and vitamins) to French fighters over the first four months of 1944. Even so, the majority remained unarmed, untrained, badly led, and often starving. Some, tired of waiting for rescue, were simply giving up on hopes of the Allies ever coming at all, no longer believing claims that help was on its way. The best-led and equipped groups had, however, already used their new riches to blow up munitions dumps and gas tanks, derail trains, and even attack individual Germans or small military units, demonstrating just what could be done. Most occupying Nazis now consequently feared the Resistance as a genuine military threat rather than a mere subversive one. Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt, the commander in chief in France, was describing some regions as fomenting into a state of “general revolt,” and the lives of German troops as “seriously menaced through shootings and bombings.” The threat became more organized when the Resistance as a whole began to take orders from de Gaulle’s Free French government. Hitler was thereby forced to deploy some Gestapo and Waffen‑SS divisions away from the front line to mount a counterattack of the utmost brutality in the Germans’ own backyard. Anxious to rid themselves of insurgents before the expected Allied invasion, they rounded up thousands of members of the Resistance over the early months of 1944. Many of them were executed by firing squad, some crying “Vive la France” before they fell.
In March, a Resistance stronghold on the Glières plateau in the Savoy Alps was the first to fight a pitched battle with regular Nazi forces. But dive-bombed by Stuka aircraft and encircled by a crack German mountain division more than twenty times its size—and without the desperately hoped-for Allied backup—the result was a bloodbath. The Glières tragedy sent out a resounding message that the Resistance was actively engaged in the war, but also accelerated France’s descent into a furnace of bloody retribution. The SOE agent Francis Cammaerts had warned London before Virginia left about a “reign of terror” in her target area of central France with “farms burnt, shootings, and hangings.” “These are very difficult days,” he added. “The Germans are attacking everybody, even those who are only slightly suspected.” Virginia was well aware of the risks, but the thought of the fate of her friends in Lyon drove her on. She believed that this was finally the ideal environment in which to gather a mighty force to fight back, to create a nation in arms. One way or another she too would have her revenge.
Virginia Hall Was America’s Most Successful Female WWII Spy. But She Was Almost Kept From Serving
W hen Gina Haspel became the first female director of the CIA in 2018, she talked of how she had stood &ldquoon the shoulders of heroines who never sought public acclaim.&rdquo She was &ldquodeeply indebted,&rdquo she said, to women who had served the agency and its wartime predecessor the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) for making her appointment possible by challenging stereotypes and breaking down barriers. Perhaps no woman is a better illustration of that history than Virginia Hall, a one-legged socialite from Baltimore whom the CIA Museum would later hail as the office&rsquos most successful American female spy of the Second World War.
Despite her record behind enemy lines in wartime France, it nevertheless took Hall years to land the post-war job she longed for at the heart of the CIA. It has only been comparatively recently that the agency has publicly acknowledged her as an unqualified war heroine and a devoted officer, giving her a citation in the CIA Museum catalogue on the OSS. It has also now named a training building after her. Yet she has remained little known outside intelligence circles and her agency career suffered from prejudice and misunderstanding until she retired in 1966.
Born to a wealthy banking family in 1906, Hall lost her left leg after a hunting accident at the age of 27 and thereafter was dependent on a wooden prosthetic she named Cuthbert. Despite her raft of languages and extensive knowledge of Europe her dreams of becoming an ambassador had been repeatedly thwarted by State Department prejudice against women &mdash only six out of 1500 staffers in the Foreign Service at that time were female and one of her several attempts to join them was hampered when her exam papers were mysteriously mislaid &mdash as well as the disabled. Even President Franklin Roosevelt, although himself reliant on a wheelchair, rejected lobbying from powerful family friends to overturn a bar on amputees from joining the diplomatic service.
So, as war loomed in 1939, she resigned in disgust from her clerk role at the American legation in the Baltic state of Estonia to embark on what would become a Homeric tale of adventure, action and seemingly unfathomable courage. Long before the U.S. joined the war after Pearl Harbor, she volunteered to drive ambulances for the French army on the front line during the bloody Nazi invasion of May 1940, persevering in picking up the wounded even when fighter planes swept over to pepper the roads with machine gun fire. Yet this was merely an apprenticeship.
When Hall was demobilized after France capitulated, she decided to travel to London to offer her services to the British war effort. On her journey, she was spotted in a Spanish railway station by an undercover agent who in a brief conversation with her quickly realized that here was a woman of exceptional resolve and burning desire to free France from Hitler&rsquos tyranny. He put her in touch with a &ldquofriend&rdquo in Britain, a senior officer in Special Operations Executive (SOE), the new secret service set up by Winston Churchill to &ldquoset Europe ablaze&rdquo through an unprecedented onslaught of spying, subversion and sabotage.
SOE top brass were not keen on employing women, especially foreign ones, and were specifically barred from sending them into enemy territory. Yet after six months of trying, they had failed to infiltrate a single agent into France to embark on what Churchill branded a most &ldquoungentlemanly&rdquo new form of undercover warfare. The search for rule-breaking recruits of &ldquoabsolute secrecy,&rdquo &ldquofanatical enthusiasm&rdquo and unimaginable courage was proving unsurprisingly difficult. Few were willing to take the estimated 50-50 chance of survival against the ruthless barbarism of the Third Reich. When Hall once again volunteered, her obvious qualities saw the old prejudices being abandoned. She was one of the first SOE officers to be dispatched from London and became, in the words of an official British government report at the end of the war, &ldquoamazingly successful.&rdquo
Even then she was patronized and underestimated until she proved herself capable of eluding the Gestapo longer than any of her male Allied colleagues and particularly adept at recruiting and organizing useful assets in the nucleus of what would become the Resistance armies of the future. She also masterminded spectacular jailbreaks for fellow agents who had been captured. For a whole year, she was SOE&rsquos only Allied female agent in France but after 12 months of marveling at her derring-do, the service decided to dispatch more women into the field. This &ldquogallant lady,&rdquo her SOE commanders concluded, was almost single-handedly changing minds about the role of women in combat.
When she later switched to SOE&rsquos American counterpart, OSS, she once again had to break out of her subordinate role by stealth and simply by being better than anyone else. Even the notion of dispatching a woman on a paramilitary operation was still controversial in the U.S., let alone giving her command. So she was deployed as the mere assistant and wireless operator to an older &mdash but inexperienced &mdash male officer. She soon branched out on her own, leaving him flailing in her absence. Once shot of him, Hall quickly emerged as a fearless guerrilla leader who helped liberate whole swathes of France by arming, organizing and sometimes commanding Resistance units when blowing up bridges and attacking German convoys. Hall was rewarded by becoming the only civilian woman of the war to be decorated with the Distinguished Service Cross for &ldquoextraordinary heroism.&rdquo CIA officers have said that the techniques she developed 80 years ago to build up the French Resistance still inform the agency&rsquos missions today, including Operation Jawbreaker in Afghanistan before and after 9/11.
The extreme exigencies of war had finally given Hall the chance to show what she could do the return of peace saw the return of the old barriers. Internal personnel papers and the recollections of fellow agents reveal how she was sidelined, undermined and belittled by some of her superiors at the CIA &ndash with her supporters saddened by her &ldquoreduced status&rdquo and angered by the fact that her track record was viewed as an &ldquoembarrassment&rdquo by the agency&rsquos &ldquononcombat types.&rdquo Hall never received the recognition she deserved during her lifetime, but since then her formidable legacy has gradually become better understood. And as Gina Haspel made clear, her formidable legacy lives on.
From A WOMAN OF NO IMPORTANCE by Sonia Purnell, published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2019 by Sonia Purnell.
Virginia Hall Goillot DSC, Croix de Guerre, MBE (April 6, 1906 – July 8, 1982), code named Marie and Diane, was an American who worked with the United Kingdom's clandestine Special Operations Executive (SOE) and the American Office of Strategic Services (OSS) in France during World War II. The objective of SOE and OSS was to conduct espionage, sabotage and reconnaissance in occupied Europe against the Axis powers, especially Nazi Germany. SOE and OSS agents in France allied themselves with resistance groups and supplied them with weapons and equipment parachuted in from England. After World War II Hall worked for the Special Activities Division of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).
Hall was a pioneering agent for the SOE, arriving in France in August 1941, the first female agent to take up residence in France. She created the Heckler network in Lyon. Over the next 15 months, she "became an expert at support operations – organizing resistance movements supplying agents with money, weapons, and supplies helping downed airmen to escape offering safe houses and medical assistance to wounded agents and pilots."  She fled France in November 1942 to avoid capture by the Germans.
She returned to France as a wireless operator for the OSS in March 1944 as a member of the Saint network. Working in territory still occupied by the German army and mostly without the assistance of other OSS agents, she supplied arms, training, and direction to French resistance groups, called maquis, especially in Haute-Loire where the maquis cleared the department of German soldiers prior to the arrival of the American army in September 1944.
The Germans gave her the nickname Artemis, and the Gestapo reportedly considered her "the most dangerous of all Allied spies."  Having lost part of her leg in a hunting accident, Hall used a prosthesis she named "Cuthbert." She was also known as "the limping lady" by the Germans and as "Marie of Lyon" by many of the SOE agents she assisted.