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Virginia Hall

Virginia Hall is widely regarded as one of the most successful Allied secret agents of WWII. Born in Baltimore in 1906, she travelled to pre-war Europe, taking a job as a clerk in the US embassies in Poland and Turkey. Upon the commencement of hostilities, she became an ambulance driver in France, despite having a wooden leg that she had christened ‘Cuthbert’.

 

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Shortly before the fall of France, a British intelligence officer for the Special Operations Executive (SOE) had met Hall and recruited her after realising that as an American – the USA was still neutral at that point – she could move freely in occupied Europe. Posing as a reporter for the New York Post, she returned to France in 1941, making her among the first British spies to be sent into Nazi-occupied France.

Hall was sent to Lyon and operated under the nose of the infamous ‘Butcher of Lyon’, the Gestapo chief Klaus Barbie. Her work involved organising and providing intelligence to resistance fighters, including gathering information that French sex workers had garnered from their German patrons, and rescuing stranded British pilots downed in the area. She even managed to organise and execute daring jailbreaks for captured fellow agents.

The Gestapo were soon onto her, placing wanted posters around the city that read: “The Enemy’s Most Dangerous Spy — We Must Find And Destroy Her!”

The Gestapo were soon onto her, placing wanted posters around the city that read: “The Enemy’s Most Dangerous Spy — We Must Find And Destroy Her!” Hall fled across the perilous Pyrenees Mountains to Spain. She radioed her British handlers to complain about ‘Cuthbert’ giving her trouble on the journey, and reportedly received the response, ‘Have him eliminated’. Upon reaching Spain she was arrested but subsequently released, and then returned to Britain.

After a spell back in London and America’s entry into the war, Hall switched from SOE to the Office of Strategic Services (OSS). She took dramatic steps to disguise herself before returning to France, including having her teeth ground down to look more like a French milkmaid. Between 1944 and 1945 she successfully created a network of around 1,500 resisters, coordinated airdrops and organised sabotage and guerrilla operations with remarkable success.

Virginia Hall

In 1945 she was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for her actions during the war and continued to work for the CIA until her retirement in 1966. Today there is a display dedicated to her at the CIA’s secret museum In Langley, Virginia. Her remarkable bravery and effectiveness did huge amounts to change prejudiced views within the intelligence community regarding the role of women in combat roles.