Photo Of The Day

Photo: CIA People Virginia Hall of Special Operations Branch receiving the Distinguished Service Cross from General Donovan, September 1945.

Photo: CIA People
Virginia Hall of Special Operations Branch receiving the Distinguished Service Cross from General Donovan, September 1945.

WANTED

The Limping Lady

The Nazi secret police were hunting her. They had distributed “wanted” posters throughout Vichy France, posters with a sketch of a sharp-featured woman with shoulder-length hair and wide-set eyes, details provided by French double agents.

They were determined to stop her, an unknown “woman with a limp” who had established resistance networks, located drop zones for money and weapons and helped downed airmen and escaped POWs travel to safety. The Gestapo’s orders were clear and merciless: “She is the most dangerous of all Allied spies. We must find and destroy her.

Virginia Hall’s origins began in Baltimore where it soon became evident that she had no intention of heading down the road of life to housewifedom. After a year at Barnard and another at Radcliffe, she was off to Europe in 1926 to finish her education at the Sorborne in Paris and the Konsularakademie in Vienna.

Then came a series of frustrating attempts to join the Foreign Service. She did not do well in her first examination, so she decided to gain experience and try again while working for the State Department as a clerk overseas. It was while in Turkey, in December 1933, that she lost her lower leg in a hunting accident. After recovering at home, she was fitted with a wooden prosthesis that had rubber under the foot. She then returned to her clerk duties, this time in Venice, Italy, where her Foreign Service dreams ended: She was told that Department regulations prohibited hiring anyone without the necessary number of appendages.

Needing a fresh start, Hall transferred to Tallin, Estonia. But without the prospect of becoming a Foreign Service officer, she found the work infuriatingly dull and resigned in May 1939. She was in Paris, considering options, when the war started. She volunteered as an ambulance driver for the French army (private second class), serving at the front until France surrendered in May 1940. Out of a job again, she made her way to London, where she found a clerical position with the military attaché in the American embassy. A short time later, she met Vera Atkins and her life changed forever.

Within the French Section of Special Operations Executive ( SOE), Vera Atkins was a bit of a legend. The conservatively dressed, chain-smoking special assistant to the head of “F” Section, Col. Maurice Buckmaster, had no prior experience. In fact, she was not even a British subject. But she had well-placed friends, learned quickly, and was soon helping with recruitment, monitoring agent training, and looking after agent needs while behind the lines in France. F Section supported the resistance in matters of training, logistics, and sabotage.

Getting suitable agents to work with the French was a constant problem and Atkins developed a knack for finding good ones. While chatting with Hall at a dinner party and learning of her language skills—French and German, albeit with an American accent—plus her ambulance driving experiences, Atkins sensed she possessed poise under pressure. They met the next day for lunch and Atkins convinced Hall to leave the embassy and join SOE.

Since America was not yet in the war and its citizens could travel freely in unoccupied France, Hall was targeted for duty with cover as a reporter for the New York Post. Contrary to some accounts that claim Hall was sent to France without any training, she completed the standard officer courses, with the exception of the parachute portion because of her artificial leg. (which she called Cuthbert)

On 23 August 1941, she arrived in Vichy, the capital of unoccupied France, and registered with the embassy. Then she went to Lyon, to begin her work in the field. For the next 14 months, using various aliases—Bridgette LeContre, Marie, Philomène, Germaine—she worked to organize the resistance, help downed fliers escape, provide courier service for other agents, and obtain supplies for the clandestine presses and the forgers—all this while managing to write articles for the Post and avoid the Gestapo that had penetrated many of the resistance networks.

By this time, the Germans were aware that a woman they referred to as La Dame Qui Boite, the Limping Lady, was one of the key organizers of the area, and they issued orders to find and capture her.

In November 1942, when the Allies invaded North Africa and the Nazis occupied all of France, Hall had to flee—she knew too much to risk capture.

The SOE ordered the resistance organizers to clear out of Lyon when they learned the Gestapo was moving into southern France. Hall left with the group by train but the escape was dangerous and part of the it involved a 30-mile trek which had to be done on foot.  The guide who had agreed to take the resistance fighters had not been pleased when one was a woman, so Hall certainly could not mention her disability, nor could she complain during the arduous trip.

After the grueling trek, Hall arrived in Spain without entry papers. Officials immediately threw her into Figueres Prison, where she remained for six weeks. She was released only after a freed inmate smuggled a letter written by Hall to the American consul in Barcelona, alerting them to her situation.

Her first request was to return to France. SOE said no, it was too risky, especially with her likeness on a wanted poster. She settled instead for Madrid. But after nearly a year there, she found the duties unbearably boring and requested something more operational. Returning to London in January 1944, she was assigned the unexciting but not unimportant job of briefing agents and officers about to be sent behind the lines in France. She knew that, with the preparations for D-Day underway, the resistance was critically short of radio operators, so she applied and was trained in radio communications—but with no guarantees.

Until then, Hall had paid little attention to a new American organization she had heard about—the Office of Strategic Services (OSS)—that conducted resistance support operations in cooperation with SOE. Now, she made contacts there and decided to transfer if she could be sent back to France to work with the resistance.

By March 1944, she was on a motorboat crossing the English Channel headed for the coast of France. This time she was disguised as a heavy older farm woman.  She was to live with a farmer’s family and tend to the cows. She dyed her hair grey and the heavy clothing she wore coupled with her masquerading as being elderly gave better cover to her awkward gait.

In this role, she often took the farmer’s milk and cheese to market where the Germans never suspected she could understand their political discussions that she overheard in the marketplace.  As soon as she got back to the farm, she pulled out her radio and would wire in any information she obtained.

Hall organized sabotage operations, supported resistance groups as a radio operator and courier, located drop zones for the RAF, and eventually worked with a Jedburgh team to sabotage German military movements. Once again she managed to avoid capture, despite some close calls.

Virginia had so solidified herself as a bonafide spy, when the United States was staging the efforts to end the war, US General Bill Donovan ushered Virginia back to France to gather necessary information for the planned D-Day invasion. When the war ended and people were being recognized for their efforts, General Donovan personally awarded Virginia with the Distinguished Service Cross, the US Army’s highest military decoration after the Medal of Honour.

After France was freed, Hall was trained for an OSS assignment in occupied Vienna, where she had once gone to college; however, the war ended before she could get there. When OSS was abolished at the end of September 1945, Hall stayed on in Europe, working for the follow-on organization, eventually named the Central Intelligence Group (CIG).

After the war, President Truman wanted to make public the award she was to be given, but Hall refused.  She wanted to remain in her line of work so she did not want her identity revealed.  Instead, in a private ceremony at the OSS office on September 27, 1945, Virginia Hall was given the Distinguished Service Cross award, making her the only American woman and the first civilian to be awarded this honor during World War II.

Hall worked at the CIA offices until mandatory retirement at age 60.  She died at the age of 82.

Hayden B. Peake

Memorandum for the President from William J. Donovan Regarding Distinguished Service Cross (DSC) Award to Virginia Hall, 05/12/1945

Citation for Virginia Hall for the Distinguished Service Cross

Activity Report of Virginia Hall, 9/30/1944 

Virginia Hall (1906-1982), World War II Spy for the Allies


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