I imagine Virginia Hall had a pretty normal middle-class upbringing while growing up in Maryland during the 1920’s.
Virginia and her mother Barbara, father Edwin, and brother John all enjoyed the outdoors and it seems adventure was in her blood from an early age. She was a decent, but not outstanding student at Roland Park Country School – served as editor-in-chief of the school newspaper, and captain of the field hockey team. She participated in drama productions and was voted the “most original” in their class. She was fearless and unintimidated by men in power or confining gender roles. Virginia paved her own path through her school years. Insulated from the hardships of the depression, and looking forward to growing opportunities in education for women, she was adamant about attending college upon her high school graduation. (Gralley 2017)Hall studied languages at Radcliffe and Barnard Colleges. She withdrew before graduating because she refused to take classes that were unrelated to her ambitions, but required for graduation.
Even before she set one foot in Europe – her life was a primer for the experiences that led her through hardship, doubt, oppression, and behind enemy lines in World War II.Upon withdrawing from Barnard, Virginia made her way to Europe and studied in Paris and at the Konsularakademie in Vienna. She earned a diploma in economics and international law. She also became fluent in German, French and Italian while she studied abroad, and could also understand Russian. She was a talented polyglot, a skill that would serve her well throughout her career. Once her education was complete, and her thirst for adventure was strong. When Virginia tried twice to pass the extremely difficult exam for U.S.
Foreign Service in December 1929 and July 1930, Virginia decided to look for work at U.S. consulates and embassies across Europe. When she applied for a consular position in Warsaw, Poland she was given the job and left for Eastern Europe in 1931 (Pearson, 2009).
After gaining experience in Poland, Virginia applied for a position in Turkey and moved to Smyrna in April of 1933. An avid outdoors woman dating back to adventures with her family in Maryland, Hall liked to hike and hunt with friends and acquaintances in both Poland and Turkey. During one such outing hunting gallinago—a marsh bird found on the shore of the Gediz Peninsula in Turkey – in December of 1933; her shotgun went off while she was climbing over a fence. (Gralley 2017) The shot left her left foot and lower leg in tatters. By the time her friends & coworkers found medical care, gangrene had set in. An American doctor in Turkey was forced to amputate her left leg below the knee.
In January 1934, after she was stabilized, she was moved to the hospital in Instanbul, and then in February 1934, Virginia was sent home to the United States to recover and be fitted for her prosthesis. (State.gov 2017)On leave from State Department while she recuperated at her family’s farm in Parkton, Maryland, Virginia learned to walk with the clunky prosthetic limb, which she nicknamed “Cuthbert.” In the 1930s, prosthetics were made from wood and aluminum – and strapped around the leg and hips with leather straps and buckles. The prosthetic would routinely chafe the tender skin on the amputee’s stump causing pressure sores and a more pronounced limp.
Even though it was hollow – and had an aluminum foot, the limb still weighed in at a hefty 7 pounds. (Gralley 2017)While in America recovering, Hall was informed that she wouldn’t even be able to test for the Foreign Service again and was devastated. She was told, after many follow-up appeals, that she should be satisfied with her current career path and that she had no prospects in the Foreign Service. (Pearson 2009) Along with being devastated, Virginia was mad. She knew she wanted to be in Europe, and when Hitler was elected Fuhrer in 1934, it looked like tension would continue to escalate. Hall applied for a few different consular jobs and in December of 1934 was awarded a position with the consulate in Venice. (Polette 2012) A consular position was not really what Hall wanted to do, but with the Foreign Service test being off-limits for her, she worked in limbo for awhile.
Hall requested to take the Foreign Service exam again in 1937 and was dismayed when she received a letter stating that all Foreign Service workers must be “able bodied” and her amputation disqualified her from serving in the foreign office. Virginia stayed at the consulate in Venice until June of 1938 when she received an appointment to the Embassy in Tallinn, Estonia – which was considered a quiet and quite luxurious position. While she was in Tallinn, Virginia launched her final appeal to Assistant Secretary of State G. Howland Shaw asking for a dispensation to take the Foreign Service exam.
She was, again, turned down. Frustrated and unhappy as a consular clerk, Hall resigned in May of 1939.After resigning in Tallinn, Virginia made her way to Paris to search for something greater. She was looking for adventure, and work that fulfilled her desire to make a difference. Little did she know, in just a few short months she’d find more adventure than she ever imagined available to her, regardless of her two obstacles; being a woman, and having a prosthetic.Hitler’s invasion of France in September of 1939 provided an opportunity previously not available, and Virginia jumped at the chance to become an ambulance driver in France’s Services Sanitaires de l’Armee. Newly trained Private Virginia Hall received training and rudimentary first-aid instruction during the so-called “Phony War” which took place in France from September 1939 until May 1940.
Soon she was a fully qualified ambulance driver. The “Phony War” was so-named because really the two sides only fought small skirmishes, with no real battles being waged until May 10 when the Germans focused the full might of their military engine on France. From that day until Paris fell to the Germans on June 14, Virginia worked nearly non-stop driving her ambulance and evacuating the wounded to field hospitals & aid stations away from the front lines. (Linberry 2007)When France surrendered to Germany in late-June of 1940, Virginia found herself stuck behind enemy lines in Vichy France. Without a clear path out of the country, Virginia made her way to Spain using her American Passport – because the French soldiers and supporters were being put in POW camps. Once she reached London via Spain, her disgust for the way the Nazi party was treating Jews had her searching for a way to be even more involved in the developing war in Continental Europe. (Gralley 2017)Once she checked in at the U.
S. Embassy in London when returning from Spain, she was asked to relate her knowledge of what was going on in France and what she knew about the Germans who were occupying the country. By December of 1940 she had been hired as a clerk in the US Attache’s office – another job she wasn’t very excited about, but that kept her informed of the pulse of what was going on in Continental Europe. (Pearson 2009)Working at the Attache’s office during the Bombing of Britain and the Bombing of London by the German Luftwaffe through the summer and fall of 1940, Virginia became increasingly restless in her desire to do something more than typing and filing. She was given the chance in February 1941. She resigned from her clerking job on February 26, citing her desire to seek other employment. In truth, she had been recruited by Britain’s Special Operations Executive (SOE) – their spy division – with the expectation that she would be serving undercover in France. (Pearson 2009)From February to August of 1941, Virginia completed the rigorous SOE training camp and worked on planning her mission to France.
She arrived on French soil again on the 21st of August, 1941 taking on the undercover identity of Brigitte LeContre, a French-American journalist for the New York Post. Code named, Germaine SOE usually kept their agents undercover for just 6-month tours – but Virginia stayed undercover in Lyon for fifteen months. She planned sabotage missions, coordinated supply drops for the resistance, rescued allied troops who were stranded behind enemy lines and got them back to England.
She also engineered escapes from German and Vichy French prisons and camps for POWs, making sure they made it to England safely. (Pearson 2009)Germaine became so good at her job, that the Gestapo started to take notice. They didn’t ever quite know who she was, Virginia was good at evasion and a master of disguise. They began looking for a French Canadian woman who they nicknamed la dame qui boite – the Lady with the Limp.
(State.gov 2017) When the US and British forces invaded North Africa, the puppet government in Vichy France dissolved. Klaus Barbie – soon to be nicknamed “The Butcher of Lyon” – arrived in the area and Virginia knew her time in France was growing short. Barbie launched a nationwide hunt for The Limping Lady – codenamed “Artemis” by the Gestapo. Barbie was heard to have commented to his staff, “I would give anything to get my hands on that Canadian bitch.” It was time for Virginia to disappear. (CIA.gov, 2015)Knowing you have to leave, and actually getting out of a more strictly controlled country after the Vichy collapse, are two different things.
The routes out were limited, and Virginia set out for Spain with two companions and a guide, by walking over the Pyrenees mountains. It was December of 1942 and let’s not forget, Virginia had a prosthetic leg. As she made her way from Villefranche-de-Conflent over an 8,800ft mountain pass to San Juan de la Abadesas in Spain. During her trip, carrying her suitcase radio, she made a few contacts with her handlers in Britain. During one check-in, she indicated that, “Cuthbert was giving her trouble.” The reply message, obviously from a handler that was not familiar with Cuthbert’s inanimate status, stated, “If Cuthbert is giving you difficulties, have him eliminated.” When they reached San Juan de la Abadesas, Virginia waited to board a train to Barcelona.
Before she could board, she was arrested because she had no paperwork proving who she was or where she was from. (Gralley 2017)The US Embassy eventually gained her release after 20+ days in a Spanish jail. Upon her return to London around Christmas 1942, Hall was determined to return to France, even though Barbie continued to hunt for Artemis. The British SOE refused to send her back, saying it was too dangerous for her to step foot in the country while Barbie and the Gestapo were so focused on apprehending her. (Linberry, 2007)While waiting for orders and trying to figure out a way to return to the Continent, Hall was awarded the MBE (Member of the British Empire) in July 1943 for her work during her time in Lyon. She refused to attend a ceremony where she was to receive the award from King George because she was worried it would blow her cover.
(State.gov, 2017)In an ironic turn of events, the US Office of Strategic Services recruited Hall back from the British SOE in March of 1944. It seemed Virginia had proved her mettle and ability and the Americans wanted her working for them. As they started planning the Normandy invasion, they wanted to put Virginia back into France to support allied troops as they began landing on the beaches, and the Germans (hopefully) began to retreat. She arrived back in France in late March disguised as an old woman. She set up her base of operations in a village south of Paris called Maidou.
She used a suitcase radio to report on German troop movements, which was incredibly dangerous because the Germans had pretty sophisticated radio equipment themselves. (Lineberry 2007)The Gestapo was closing in on her location in Maidou, so Hall was forced to move her base of operations further south to Cosne. Soon it was June and she received word that the invasion was imminent. She was directed to start overseeing and coordinating the French resistance ahead of the landings at Normandy. She knew exactly what to do and started to wage a sabotage campaign on German railroads, supply depots, and communication lines. This served as a further distraction from the Beaches and another front on which the Germans had to expend energy – taking them away from their defense against the allied invasion. (Pearson, 2009)As the allies advanced, Virginia and her French Resistance troops accepted the surrender of the Germans at Le Chambon. When she radioed into her handlers, she was instructed to coordinate one last drop, where she met the French-American Lieutenant Paul Gaillot.
It was nearly love at first sight, but she had a war to win, and Lt. Gaillot joined her merry band of Resistance fighters as they made their way north, looking for Germans that hadn’t retreated or been captured. (Cia.gov, 2015) They met little resistance during their trek northward, and made it to Paris with very little resistance. When they checked in at the OSS office, they were congratulated and sent back to London with all haste.
(State.gov, 2017)Upon their return to London, it was apparent to Virginia and Paul that even though France had been liberated – the war was not over yet. They trained and planned through the Battle of the Bulge, and were eventually given a mission to infiltrate Austria in April of 1945. While they were waiting across the border in Switzerland in May, they received word of Germany’s surrender. The war in Europe was over, and Virginia Hall and Paul Gaillot were sent back to the United States to a grateful nation.Virginia became an American hero when she received the Distinguished Service Cross, the only woman to do so during World War 2, on September 23, 1945 for her work with the OSS.
President Truman wanted to present her with the medal at a public ceremony, which she declined, again afraid her “cover” would be blown. Instead, she received her medal during a private ceremony with General William J. Donovan, who had nominated her for the award. Only her mother was in attendance. She was heard to say after the ceremony, “Not bad for a girl from Baltimore.
” After being turned down, yet gain, from the U.S. Foreign Service due to budgetary cutbacks, both Virginia and Paul were recruited into the newly-formed CIA. Virginia spent much of 1947 and 1948 working throughout Europe. When she returned to the U.S., she worked for the CIA’s National Committee for Free Europe in New York City.
She lived a quiet life with her long-time love, Paul Goillot. Virginia and Paul were married in 1950, and continued to work for the CIA until retirement, Virginia in 1966. She moved to their farm in Maryland with her poodles and her memories. She never wrote a memoir, granted an interview, or told her story out loud to anyone who could record it. Much of what I found was pieced together by journalists who found fragments of information and pieced it together into a bigger picture. Overcoming handicap and hardship, an iron will and a determination to do the right thing led Virginia Hall into clandestine service for the Allies in World War II. Her bravery saved lives and helped further efforts to regain control of France leading up to the Normandy Invasion. An unassuming woman, she was fearless and had a backbone of steel.
She was determined to do good work, with no recognition, her contributions were invaluable to the war effort.BibliographyImage of French ID for Marcelle Montagne – an Alias of OSS Agent Virginia Hall. (1940). image Available at: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/c/c2/French_identification_certificate_for_Marcelle_Montagne%2C_an_alias_of_OSS_agent_Virginia_Hall.jpg Accessed 23 Oct.
2017.Sketch of Virginia Hall circulated by the German Gestapo in Occupied France. (1944). image Available at: https://www.army.
mil/e2/c/images/2014/03/17/335783/size0.jpg Accessed 23 Oct. 2017.Wikipedia (1945). Photo of Virginia Hall Receiving the Distinguished Service Cross from OSS Chief General Donovan. image Available at: https://upload.wikimedia.
org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/1/11/Virginia_Hall.jpg/440px-Virginia_Hall.jpg Accessed 23 Oct. 2017.Cia.gov. (2015). Virginia Hall: The Courage and Daring of “The Limping Lady” — Central Intelligence Agency.
online Available at: https://www.cia.gov/news-information/featured-story-archive/2015-featured-story-archive/virginia-hall-the-courage-and-daring-of-the-limping-lady.html Accessed 23 Oct. 2017.
Lineberry, C. (2007). WANTED: The Limping Lady. online Smithsonian. Available at: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/wanted-the-limping-lady-146541513/ Accessed 23 Oct. 2017.
Pearson, J. (2009). The Wolves at the Door. New York: Lyons.Polette, N. (2012).
The spy with the wooden leg. St. Paul, Minn.
: Alma Little.Gralley, Craig (2017) A Climb to Freedom: A Personal Journey in the Footsteps of Virginia Hall. Available at: https://www.cia.gov/library/center-for-the-study-of-intelligence/csi-publications/csi-studies/studies/vol-61-no-1/pdfs/virginia-halls-steps.
pdf.State.gov Staff (2017) Not Bad for A Girl From Baltimore. Available at: https://photos.state.gov/libraries/estonia/99874/History%20stories/Not-Bad-for-a-Girl-from-Baltimore.pdf