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.”