“I would give anything to get my hands on that limping Canadian (sic) bitch.“
Reputedly Klaus Barbie, Lyon’s Gestapo chief.
- Born: Baltimore, United States, 1906.
- SOE Rank: Second Lieutenant.
- AKA: ‘Artemis’, The Limping Lady’, ‘Marie of Lyon’, ‘Cuthbert’ (her leg’s pseudonym).
- Died: Rockville, United States, 1982.
The most highly decorated female civilian during World War II, Virginia Hall was born in 1906 to a wealthy family in Baltimore. As so often with these female SOE agents, Hall was not in any way an average person. She wanted adventure, recognising herself as a “capricious and cantankerous” personality. She once went to school wearing a bracelet made of live snakes. She also enjoyed hunting, and it was while hunting birds that she accidentally shot herself in the foot. Her left leg was amputated below the knee after gangrene set in. Hall’s resilience and determination was forged in her painful recovery and in her learning to use a wooden leg.
Hall was living in Europe when war broke out and she drove ambulances for the French until the country was overrun. She then went on to become one of the first British SOE agents sent to France in 1941. It became apparent that she was a natural at the art of spying and subterfuge. Her caution was a great asset. She declined to attend a meeting of SOE agents in Marseille, sensing some danger. The French police raided the meeting and captured a dozen agents.
“Virginia Hall, to a certain extent, was invisible… she was able to play on the chauvinism of the Gestapo at the time. None of the Germans early in the war necessarily thought that a woman was capable of being a spy… “The Germans came to realize that they were after a limping lady,” said her biographer Sonia Purnell. Hall constantly changed her appearance. “She could be four different women in the space of an afternoon, with four different code names,” said Purnell. The man in hot pursuit was none other than the Gestapo’s infamous Klaus Barbie, known as “the Butcher of Lyon” for the thousands in France tortured and killed by his forces. Barbie ordered “wanted” posters of Hall that featured a drawing of her above the words “The Enemy’s Most Dangerous Spy — We Must Find And Destroy Her!” ‘A Woman Of No Importance’ Finally Gets Her Due by Greg Myre, NPR.
As the net closed in, Virginia Hall escaped to Spain by crossing the Pyrenees which was an incredibly arduous journey for anybody (over 50 mountainous miles in the heavy snows of winter), never mind someone dragging a wooden leg. The British SOE refused to sanction a return to France, fearing it would be fatal for her, such was her reputation with the Nazis. Hall was nonetheless determined to return and instead went to the American Office of Strategic Services (OSS) for a role with them and was sent back to France. She went to extraordinary lengths to remain undetected, knowing the risks her return entailed.
“She got some makeup artist to teach her how to draw wrinkles on her face,” she said. “She also got a fierce, a rather sort of scary London dentist to grind down her lovely, white American teeth so that she looked like a French milkmaid.”
Her tour of duty in France in 1944 and 1945 was a great success in which she avoided detection and established a thriving network of up to 1,500 members of the Maquis in three battalions, one of whom, a French-American soldier, she went on to marry. After the war, she worked for the CIA but was apparently unhappy at what were effectively senior bureaucratic desk jobs. Furthermore, as a disabled woman, it is unlikely that she received the same treatment as male colleagues would have been at that time.
The US President Harry Truman was unable to get her to agree to a public ceremony to receive her US Distinguished Service Cross (DSC) honour. She was also awarded the British MBE and the French Croix de Guerre. Hall was implacably against any exposure or public recognition and slipped into obscurity after retirement. Belatedly, 40 years after her death in 1982 in Maryland, she is finally being recognised with a number of books and movies being made about her life. In 2016, a CIA field agent training facility was named the Virginia Hall Expeditionary Center.
That’s my final figure for the month of FEMbruary – an idea by Alex at Lead Balloony’s blog. You can check out other submissions for this challenge by going to the comments section of his original post and keeping an eye out for his final round up post due at the end of the challenge.
And a final reminder of my five female SOE agents…