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The Woman with a Limp

Article #247 • Written by Jason Bellows

In the early 1940s, German secret police agents in Nazi-occupied France were on the lookout for a woman with a wooden leg. She was known only as "the woman with a limp," but the Gestapo's many wanted posters described her as "the most dangerous of all Allied spies," asserting that the Nazis "must find and destroy her." Her name was Virginia Hall.

She became a spy entirely by accident. She was studying abroad and working for the Ambulance Service in France when the Blitzkrieg struck, and she was suddenly in the middle of Vichy-controlled France. Despite having been turned away by the Foreign Service because of her handicap, Miss Hall was able to join the British Special Operations Executive and later the US Office of Strategic Services for her remarkable accomplishments.

Born in Maryland of 1906, Virginia Hall was the youngest daughter of a wealthy shipping tycoon. Perhaps the setting of international travel paired with the privilege of her wealth imbued her with a strong sense of adventure. Over the years she attended all of the best schools and colleges, and set her sights on a career with the Foreign Service. However, in 1932 Virginia was hunting in Turkey and accidentally shot herself in the leg. The injury was so extensive that the surgeons were unable to save the damaged limb, and they were eventually forced to amputate at the knee. At only twenty-six years old, Virginia's choice of vocation abruptly closed to her.

Over the following few years, Hall continued her travels in Europe, studying and seeking a new niche. Eventually she settled in France where she worked as a highly over-qualified file clerk. When Nazi Germany invaded in 1940, Hall was trapped in hostile territory. She found herself with no capacity to help the situation, so she soon sneaked out of France. Upon making her way to Britain she volunteered for the newly-formed Special Operations Executive (SOE), an organization launched by Winston Churchill to make war in ways other than direct military engagement. Often referred to as the "Baker Street Irregulars," these spooks were charged to "set Europe ablaze" with tools like propaganda, economics, and spies. Therein Virginia was educated in the arts of weaponry, strategy, and covert operations. In 1941 she was returned to German-occupied France under the guise of a news reporter from the US--a viable cover story in the days before the US joined the war.

Where most agents were in the field an average of three months, Hall's first tour kept her operating in France for fifteen months. Allies routinely made supply drops by parachute--providing Hall with covert signals as to where--and it was her task to aid the French in retrieving them. The Resistance, being a largely untrained lot, also looked to Hall to coordinate tandem attacks. To evade capture, she went through several identities and code-names, working out of bars and restaurants. On one occasion, she used an asylum as a base of operations.

The Germans moved to consume all of France in 1942, and Virginia was forced to flee through the Pyrenees Mountains into Spain. Her prosthetic leg, which she had nicknamed "Cuthbert", began to cause her pain during the journey, slowing her progress. She reported to her superiors via radio that Cuthbert was being problematic. Either the recipients didn't understand the message, or in a rare display of macabre humor, the response was: "If Cuthbert troublesome, eliminate him."

Once she'd returned to London, Hall joined the American intelligence office, the Office of Strategic Services. The US spy organization immediately saw Hall's skill and reputation as too valuable to be forsaken, thus despite the Gestapo's flier campaign to capture her, Virginia was sent back into France in 1944. In the guise of an elderly peasant woman, Virginia worked with members of the French resistance to destroy bridges, sabotage German trains, engage in guerrilla warfare, and sow general chaos for the Nazis.

After Normandy, it was Hall who first radioed to Allied Command that the German General Staff was moving its headquarters from Lyon to Le Puy, which led to a turning point for the fighting in France.

After war's end there was a document waiting in a safe in London making Virginia Hall a member of the Order of the British Empire, but she never received it due to efforts to keep her identity secret. She was awarded the US Distinguished Service Cross by General William Joseph Donovan--the only one awarded to a woman in World War II. The sole guest to view the ceremony was Virginia's mother.

After marrying a fellow OSS agent in 1950, Virginia worked for the CIA until she retired. She lived on a farm in Maryland until she died in 1982. Hall's niece, also from Baltimore, said of her aunt: "She never wanted any recognition. I think she believed she was just doing her job. Even when she retired, she would talk about books and animals, but not about the incredible things she had done."

Article written by Jason Bellows, published on 14 January 2007. Jason is a contributing editor for DamnInteresting.com.

Article design by Alan Bellows. Edited by Alan Bellows.
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30 Comments
Dispatch
Posted 14 January 2007 at 11:14 am

"If Cuthbert troublesome, eliminate him." Think this is english humour at its best!


SparkyTWP
Posted 14 January 2007 at 11:17 am

I'd hit it


lemon
Posted 14 January 2007 at 12:16 pm

real British war hero - and a very brave woman considering those caught faced torture and firing squad - i wonder if the Germans were aware that she had a wooden leg because if so a feature like that would be pretty easy to spot thereby making it even more difficult to evade capture...


wstngtime78
Posted 14 January 2007 at 12:18 pm

Good for her. Determination is everything


Cori
Posted 14 January 2007 at 01:23 pm

That's amazing.


EinsteinsBrain
Posted 14 January 2007 at 01:26 pm

Wow, first limp woman to receive a medal.


davida
Posted 14 January 2007 at 04:10 pm

Thanks DI for always making us aware of heroes that were true humble patriots.


junebee
Posted 14 January 2007 at 06:31 pm

What a cool chick Virginia was!


Dr. Evil
Posted 14 January 2007 at 09:19 pm

Women CAN do anything...except urinate standing up...


justjim1
Posted 14 January 2007 at 11:42 pm

Dr. Evil said: "Women CAN do anything…except urinate standing up…"

Not true! ladys just seem to get their ankles a bit more wet than I normally do. What a great post and many thanks. She was a really remarkable hero!


CaptainBooshi
Posted 15 January 2007 at 02:46 am

Nope, they don't even need to get their ankles wet. To prove my point:
http://myvag.net/pee/standing/


Josh Harding
Posted 15 January 2007 at 06:47 am

CaptainBooshi said: "Nope, they don't even need to get their ankles wet. To prove my point:

http://myvag.net/pee/standing/"

Sounds like you need to write and submit an article on this.


CanInternet
Posted 15 January 2007 at 08:23 am

davida says:

Thanks DI for always making us aware of heroes that were true STumble patriots.

(typo corrected)


Stead311
Posted 15 January 2007 at 12:10 pm

Jason good research and well written... makes that Alan fellow seem like a hack.

Great choice of topic too. Even though there are about a dozen WWII articles they are all so obscure and interesting that they make a delightful morsel every now and again. Please keep up the good work. I have an article i bet you would be interested in, expect to hear from me soon. Till then good work. Hapy Hunting.


another viewpoint
Posted 15 January 2007 at 12:48 pm

...#1 to #2: I once knew a man with a wooden leg named Smith.

...#2 to #1: Oh really, what did he call his other leg?

Thank you DI...another fine piece of historical info!

"She never wanted any recognition. I think she believed she was just doing her job. Even when she retired, she would talk about books and animals, but not about the incredible things she had done."

I wasn't at all surprised by this quote...I've known a number of people, including my father, that never talked much about their years of service during the WWII. I guess it was just a part of their life that they would rather not dwell on. Then again, based on comments posted on this website, we should learn to dwell on means to preserve life on this good (mostly) earth, instead of destroying life. But that's just an opin...


Alan Bellows
Posted 15 January 2007 at 04:06 pm

Stead311 said: "… makes that Alan fellow seem like a hack."

Ouch.


portsmouth101
Posted 15 January 2007 at 05:01 pm

Didn't you post something like this? I remember something that had to do with this.


sh0cktopus
Posted 15 January 2007 at 06:28 pm

If I remember my spy movies correctly, you should try to blend in and be an anonymous face in the crowd, or else be the handsome socialite that has ninja skills on the side. A disabled spy would be easy to spot, unless it was Kaiser Söze.

I'm amazed at the amount of damn interesting articles that World War II has spawned ... well, now that I think about it, not really. When you get millions of people involved in a situation, many a damn interesting story can be told. But only in the last 50 years or so have all these background stories of wars and such been documented to such a degree.

And Alan ... let me soothe your wounds, if I can. You're the furthest thing from a hack that I've found on the Internet. I love your site, and the legions are growing day by day. Keep it up!!


Dr. Evil
Posted 16 January 2007 at 04:22 am

CaptainBooshi said: "Nope, they don't even need to get their ankles wet. To prove my point:

http://myvag.net/pee/standing/"

why would u be visiting sites like that ??? :P


Dr. Evil
Posted 16 January 2007 at 04:24 am

Stead311 said: " that Alan fellow seem like a hack."

dont worry Alan...we all still love ya


los_jerks
Posted 16 January 2007 at 09:33 am

Dr. Evil said: "why would u be visiting sites like that ??? :P"

my guess is the offer for free porn on the right margin? ;)

Seriously, though. All these great tales of bravery from WWII are truly inspiring. There must be countless other stories that perished in the field of battle alondside the soldiers that committed them, never to be told. A real shame. Nevertheless, yet another wonderful article on a wonderful site. Keep 'em comin' !


Stead311
Posted 16 January 2007 at 01:25 pm

Alan Bellows said: "Ouch."

Oh Alan, you know it is all in good fun. Keep up the good work both of you!!!!


Fibonacci
Posted 16 January 2007 at 01:45 pm

Chicks like her show that even if you are the daughter of a shipping tycoon and you shoot yourself in the foot, causing it to be amputated, you can still lead a normal life spying for your government


leooel
Posted 17 January 2007 at 01:59 am

Fibonacci said: "Chicks like her show that even if you are the daughter of a shipping tycoon and you shoot yourself in the foot, causing it to be amputated, you can still lead a normal life spying for your government"

That is a lesson than everyone must learn at some time in their life.


zerobubble
Posted 19 January 2007 at 06:22 am

Imagine what she could have done with two legs!


Coherent
Posted 24 January 2007 at 02:15 pm

She should have written a book about it. Extraordinary people in extraordinary circumstances have a duty to tell the world about the things they have seen and done. Even if it comes after the fact.


Jeffrey93
Posted 10 March 2007 at 10:58 pm

SparkyTWP said: "I'd hit it"

Hilarious!!!


Larryant
Posted 19 November 2007 at 07:32 pm

Creepy. She looks like my math teacher.


Rachelita
Posted 12 May 2008 at 02:13 pm

That is amazing! She is now on my top list of women from history, placed close to Joan of Arc.

I do tabletop gaming with my friends weekly, I now have to play a character modeled after her. I'm a nerd, I know, and damn proud of it! xD


RoflBeard
Posted 15 January 2010 at 05:51 am

#29 Rachelita
"I do tabletop gaming with my friends weekly"

What the hell is tabletop gaming?

As always DI article!


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