Virginia Hall Goillot DSC, Croix de Guerre, (April 6, 1906 – July 8, 1982), code named Marie and Diane, was an American who worked with the United Kingdom's clandestine Special Operations Executive (SOE) and the American Office of Strategic Services (OSS) in France during World War II. The objective of SOE and OSS was to conduct espionage, sabotage and reconnaissance in occupied Europe against the Axis powers, especially Nazi Germany. SOE and OSS agents in France allied themselves with resistance groups and supplied them with weapons and equipment parachuted in from England. After World War II Hall worked for the Special Activities Division of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).
|Died||July 8, 1982 (aged 76)|
|Burial place||Pikesville, Maryland, US|
|Spouse(s)||Paul Gaston Goillot|
|Other work||US Department of State (1931–39)|
Hall was a pioneering agent for the SOE, arriving in Vichy France on 23 August 1941, the first female agent to take up residence in France. She created the Heckler network in Lyon. Over the next 15 months, she "became an expert at support operations – organizing resistance movements; supplying agents with money, weapons, and supplies; helping downed airmen to escape; offering safe houses and medical assistance to wounded agents and pilots." She fled France in November 1942 to avoid capture by the Germans.
She returned to France as a wireless operator for the OSS in March 1944 as a member of the Saint network. Working in territory still occupied by the German army and mostly without the assistance of other OSS agents, she supplied arms, training, and direction to French resistance groups, called Maquisards, especially in Haute-Loire where the Maquis cleared the department of German soldiers prior to the arrival of the American army in September 1944.
The Germans gave her the nickname Artemis, and the Gestapo reportedly considered her "the most dangerous of all Allied spies." Having lost part of her leg in a hunting accident, Hall used a prosthesis she named "Cuthbert." She was also known as "The Limping Lady" by the Germans and as "Marie of Lyon" by many of the SOE agents she assisted.
Virginia Hall left no memoir, granted no interviews, and spoke little about her overseas life--even with relatives. She...received our country's Distinguished Service Cross, the only civilian woman in the Second World war to do so. But she refused all but a private ceremony with OSS chief Donovan--even a presentation by President Truman.
Craig R. Gralley
She was a thirty-five-year-old journalist from Baltimore, conspicuous by reddish hair, a strong American accent, an artificial foot, and an imperturbable temper; she took risks often but intelligently.
Virginia Hall was born in Baltimore, Maryland on April 6, 1906 to Barbara Virginia Hammel and Edwin Lee Hall. She attended Roland Park Country School and then Radcliffe College and Barnard College (Columbia University), where she studied French, Italian, and German. She also attended George Washington University, where she studied French and Economics. She wanted to finish her studies in Europe, so she traveled the Continent and studied in France, Germany, and Austria, finally landing an appointment as a Consular Service clerk at the American Embassy in Warsaw, Poland in 1931.
A few months later she transferred to Smyrna, known later as Izmir, Turkey. In 1933, she tripped and accidentally shot herself in the left foot while hunting birds. Her leg was amputated below the knee and replaced with a wooden appendage which she named "Cuthbert". After losing her leg, she worked again as a consular clerk in Venice and in Tallinn, Estonia.
Hall made several attempts to become a diplomat with the United States Foreign Service, but women were rarely hired. In 1937, she was turned down by the Department of State because of an obscure rule against hiring people with disabilities as diplomats. Even an appeal for her to be hired to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, himself disabled, was unheeded. She resigned from the Department of State in March 1939, still a consular clerk.
World War IIEdit
Early in World War II in February 1940, Hall became an ambulance driver for the army of France. After the defeat of France in June 1940, she made her way to Spain where, by chance, she met a British intelligence officer named George Bellows. Bellows was impressed with her and gave her the telephone number of a "friend" who might be able to help her find employment in England. The friend was Nicolas Bodington, who worked for the newly-created Special Operations Executive (SOE).
Special Operations ExecutiveEdit
Hall joined the SOE in April 1941 and after training arrived in Vichy France, unoccupied by Germany and nominally independent at that time, on August 23, 1941. She was the second female agent to be sent to France by SOE's F (France) Section, and the first to remain there for a lengthy period of time. (SOE F section would send 41 female agents to France during World War II, of whom 26 would survive the war.) Hall's cover was as a reporter for the New York Post which gave her license to interview people, gather information and file stories filled with details useful to military planners. She based herself in Lyon. She turned away from her "chic Parisian wardrobe" to become inconspicuous and often quickly changed her appearance through make-up and disguise.
Hall was a pioneer as a World War II secret agent and had to learn on her own the "exacting tasks of being available, arranging contacts, recommending who to bribe and where to hide, soothing the jagged nerves of agents on the run and supervising the distribution of wireless sets." The network (or circuit) of SOE agents she founded was named Heckler. Among her recruits were gynecologist Jean Rousset and Germaine Guérin, the owner of a prominent brothel in Lyon. Guérin made several safehouses available to Hall and passed along tidbits of information she and her female employees heard from German officers visiting the brothel.
The official historian of the SOE, M. R. D. Foot, said that the motto of every successful secret agent was "dubito, ergo sum" ("I doubt, therefore I survive."). Hall's lengthy tenure in France without being captured illustrates her caution. In October 1941, she sensed danger and declined to attend a meeting of SOE agents in Marseille which the French police raided, capturing a dozen agents. After that debacle, Hall was one of the few SOE agents still at large in France and the only one with a means of transmitting information to London. George Whittinghill, an American diplomat in Lyon, allowed her to smuggle reports and letters to London in the diplomatic pouch.
The winter of 1941–42 was miserable for Hall. In a letter she said that if SOE would send her a piece of soap she would be "both very happy and much cleaner." In the absence of an SOE wireless operator her access to the American diplomatic pouch was the only means the few agents left at large in France had of communicating with London. She continued building contacts in southern France and she assisted in the brief missions of SOE agents Peter Churchill and Benjamin Cowburn and earned high compliments from both. She avoided contact with an SOE agent sent to Lyon named Georges Duboudin and refused to introduce him to her contacts. She regarded him as amateurish and lax in security. When SOE headquarters directed that Duboudin should supervise her, she told SOE to "lay off." She worked as little as possible with Philippe de Vomécourt, who, although an authentic French Resistance leader, was lax in security and grandiose in his ambitions. In August 1942, SOE agent Richard Heslop met with her and described her as a "girl" (she was 36) who lived in a gloomy apartment, but he relied on her to facilitate communications with other agents. When a suspicious Heslop demanded to know who "Cuthbert" was she showed him by banging her wooden foot against a table leg producing a hollow sound.
Another task Hall took on was helping British airmen, shot down or crashed over Europe, escape and return to England. Downed airmen who found their way to Lyon were told to go to the American Consulate and say they were a "friend of Olivier." "Olivier" was Hall and she, with the help of brothel-owner Guerrin and other friends, hid, fed, and helped dozens of airmen escape France to neutral Spain and hence back to England.
The French nicknamed her "la dame qui boite" and the Germans put "the limping lady" on their most wanted list.
Hall learned that the 12 agents arrested by the French police in October 1941 were incarcerated at the Mauzac prison near Bergerac. Wireless operator Georges Bégué smuggled out letters to Hall from the prison and she recruited Gaby Bloch, wife of the prisoner Jean-Pierre Bloch, as an ally to plan an escape. Bloch visited the prison frequently to bring food and other items to her husband, including tins of sardines. The tools she smuggled in and the sardine tins enabled Bégué to make a key to the door of the barracks where the prisoners were kept. Hall, too well known to visit the prison, assembled safe houses, vehicles, and helpers. A priest smuggled in a radio to Bégué, and from within the prison, he began transmitting to London.
On July 15, 1942, the prisoners escaped and, after hiding in the woods while an intense manhunt took place, all of them met up with Hall in Lyon by August 11. From there, they were smuggled to Spain and thence back to England. The official historian of SOE, M. R. D. Foot, called the escape "one of the war's most useful operations of its kind." Several of the escapees returned later to France and became leaders of SOE networks.
The Germans were furious about the escape from Mauzac prison and the laxity of the French police in allowing the escape. The Gestapo flooded Vichy France with 500 agents and the Abwehr also stepped up operations to infiltrate and destroy the fledgling French Resistance and the SOE networks. The Germans focused on Lyon, the center of the resistance. Hall had counted on contacts she had with the French police to protect her, but, under pressure from the Germans, her police contacts were no longer reliable.
In May 1942, Hall had agreed to have messages from the Gloria Network, a French-run resistance movement based in Paris, transmitted to SOE in London. In August Gloria was infiltrated by a Roman Catholic priest and Abwehr agent named Robert Alesch and its leadership was captured by the Abwehr. Alesch also made contact with Hall in August, claiming to be an agent of Gloria and offering intelligence of apparently high value. She had doubts about Alesch, especially when she learned that Gloria had been destroyed, but was persuaded of his bona fides, as was the London headquarters of SOE. Alesch was able to penetrate Hall's network of contacts, including the capture of wireless operators and the sending of false messages to London in her name.
On November 7, 1942, the American Consulate in Lyon told Hall that an allied invasion of North Africa was imminent. In response to the invasion, on November 8, the Germans moved to occupy Vichy France. Hall anticipated correctly that the suppression by the Gestapo and Abwehr would become even more severe and she fled Lyon without telling anyone, including her closest contacts. She escaped by train from Lyon to Perpignan, then, with a guide, walked over a 7,500 foot pass in the Pyrenees to Spain, covering up to 50 miles over two days in considerable discomfort.
Hall had named her artificial foot "Cuthbert", and she signaled to SOE before her escape that she hoped that "Cuthbert" would not trouble her on the way. The SOE did not understand the reference and replied, "If Cuthbert troublesome, eliminate him." After arriving in Spain, she was arrested by the Spanish authorities for illegally crossing the border, but the American Embassy eventually secured her release. She worked for SOE for a time in Madrid, then returned to London in July 1943 where she was quietly made an honorary Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE).
Office of Strategic ServicesEdit
On her return to London, SOE leaders declined to send Hall back to France as an agent despite her requests. She was compromised, they said, and too much at risk. However, she took a wireless course and contacted the American Office of Strategic Services (OSS) about a job. She was hired by the Special Operations Branch at the low rank and pay of a second lieutenant and on March 21, 1944, returned to France, arriving by motor gunboat at Beg-an-Fry east of Roscoff in Brittany. Her artificial leg prevented her from parachuting.
OSS provided her with a forged French identification card in the name of Marcelle Montagne. Her codename was Diane. The objective of the OSS teams was to arm and train the resistance groups, called Maquis, so they could support the Allied invasion of Normandy, which would take place on June 6, 1944, with sabotage and guerrilla activities.
Hall was disguised as an older woman, with gray hair and her teeth filed down to resemble that of a peasant woman. She disguised her limp with the shuffle of an old woman. Landing with her was Henri Lassot, 62 years old. Lassot was the organiser and leader of the new Saint network, it being too radical a thought that a woman could lead an SOE or OSS network of agents. She was Lassot's wireless operator. They were the fourth and fifth OSS agents to arrive in France. Lassot carried with him one million francs, equivalent to 5,000 British pounds; Hall had 500,000 francs with her. Hall quickly separated herself from Lassot whom she characterized as too talkative and a security risk, instructing her contacts not to tell him where she was. Aware that her accent would reveal that she was not French, she engaged a French woman, Madame Rabut, to accompany and speak for her.
From March to July 1944, Hall roamed around France south of Paris, posing sometimes as an elderly milkmaid (and on one occasion selling cheese she had made to a group of German soldiers). She found and organized drop zones, established several safe houses, and made and renewed contacts, notably with Philippe de Vomecourt, in the Resistance. She organized and supplied with arms several resistance groups of a hundred men each in the Cher and Cosne. She unsuccessfully attempted to organize a jailbreak to gain freedom for three men she called her nephews, captives of the Germans in Paris. Her resistance groups undertook many successful small-scale attacks on infrastructure and German soldiers.
Hall was next given the job of helping the Maquis in southern France harass the Germans in support of the Allied invasion of the south, Operation Dragoon, which would take place on August 15, 1944. In July, Hall was ordered to go to Haute-Loire department, arriving July 14, quitting her disguise, and establishing her headquarters in a barn near Le Chambon-sur-Lignon. As a woman with the rank of second lieutenant she had problems asserting her authority over the Maquis groups and the self-proclaimed colonels heading them. She complained to OSS headquarters, "you send people out ostensibly to work with me and for me, but you do not give me the necessary authority."
She told the Maquis leaders that she would finance them and give them arms on condition that they would be advised by her, but the prickly Maquis leaders continued to be a problem. The three planeloads of supplies she received in late July and the money she distributed for expenses gained their grudging acquiescence.
The three battalions of Maquisards (about 1,500 men) in her area undertook a number of successful sabotage operations. Now part of the French Forces of the Interior (FFI), they forced the German occupiers to withdraw from Le Puy-en-Velay and head north with the rest of the retreating German forces. Belatedly, a Jedburgh team, called Jeremy, of three men parachuted in on August 25 to undertake the training and supply of the battalions. Hall commented wryly, "this was after the Germans had been liquidated in the department of the Haute Loire and Le Puy liberated."
Hall and several of the British and American military officers working for her left the Haute Loire and arrived in Paris on September 22. Later, she and her OSS agent Paul Golliot journeyed to Austria to foment anti-Nazi resistance. With the collapse of the Nazis, Hall and Golliot returned to Paris in April 1945. She wrote reports and identified people who had helped her and were deserving of commendations and then resigned from OSS.
Postwar and deathEdit
After the war, Hall visited Lyon to learn the fate of the people who had worked for her there. Her closest associates, brothel-owner Germaine Guérin and gynecologist Jean Rousset, had both been captured by the Germans and sent to concentration camps, but they survived. She arranged 80,000 francs (400 British pounds) compensation from the United Kingdom for Guérin, but most of her other helpers received nothing. Many of the people she knew had not survived – including the three men she called "nephews" who had been executed at Buchenwald concentration camp. The German agent and priest, Robert Alesch, who had betrayed her network in Lyon was captured after the war and executed in Paris.
Hall joined the Central Intelligence Agency in 1947, one of the first women hired by the new agency. Her desk-bound job as an intelligence analyst was to gather information about Soviet penetration of European countries. She resigned in 1948 and then was rehired in 1950 for another desk job.
In 1951, she worked alongside Goillot as members of the Special Activities Division supporting undercover activities to prevent the spread of communism in Europe. During the 1950s, she received poor performance reports from her superiors. A colleague, E. Howard Hunt, of Watergate fame, said "No one knew what to do with her... She was a sort of embarrassment to the noncombat CIA types, by which I mean bureaucrats." In 1966, she retired, at the mandatory retirement age of 60.
While in Haute-Loire, Hall had met and fallen in love with an OSS lieutenant, Paul Goillot, who worked for her. In 1957, the couple married after living together off-and-on for years. They retired to a farm in Barnesville, Maryland, where she lived until her death on July 8, 1982. Her husband survived her by five years. She is buried in the Druid Ridge Cemetery, Pikesville, Maryland.
For Virginia Hall's efforts in France, General William Joseph Donovan personally awarded her a Distinguished Service Cross in September 1945 in recognition of her efforts in France, the only one awarded to a civilian woman in World War II. President Truman wanted a public award of the medal, but Hall demurred, stating that she was "still operational and most anxious to get busy." She was made an honorary Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE), and was awarded the Croix de Guerre with Palme by France.
Hall's refusal to talk and write about her World War II experiences resulted in her slipping into obscurity during her lifetime, but her death "triggered a new curiosity" which persisted into the 21st century. The French and British ambassadors in Washington honored her in 2006, on the 100th anniversary of her birth. In 2016, a CIA field agent training facility was named the Virginia Hall Expeditionary Center. The CIA Museum gives five operatives individual sections in its catalog. One is Virginia Hall; the other four are men who went on to head the CIA. She was inducted into the Maryland Women's Hall of Fame in 2019.
Her story has been told in several books, including:
- L'Espionne. Virginia Hall, une Américaine dans la guerre, by Vincent Nouzille (2007) Fayard (Paris), a French biography reviewed by British historian M.R.D. Foot in "Studies in Intelligence", Vol 53, N°1
- Hall of Mirrors: Virginia Hall: America's Greatest Spy of WWII, by Craig Gralley (2019) Chrysalis Books, ISBN 978-1-733541-50-3
- The Lady Is a Spy: Virginia Hall, World War II Hero of the French Resistance, by Don Mitchell (2019) Scholastic, ISBN 978-0-545936-12-5, a non-fiction book for ages 12–18
- The Spy with the Wooden Leg: The Story of Virginia Hall, by Nancy Polette (2012) Elva Resa Publishing, ISBN 978-1-934617-15-1, a non-fiction book for ages 10 and older
- The Wolves at the Door: The True Story of America's Greatest Female Spy, by Judith L. Pearson (2005) The Lyons Press, ISBN 1-59228-762-X
- A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of WWII’s Most Dangerous Spy, Virginia Hall, by Sonia Purnell (2019) Hachette UK
- Code name Badass: the true story of Virginia Hall, by Heather Demetrios (2021) Antheneum (Simon & Schuster Children's Publishing Division), ISBN 9781534431874, audience: ages 14 and up
IFC Films released A Call to Spy in October 2020, the first feature film about Virginia Hall. It had its world premiere at the Edinburgh International Film Festival in June 2019, commemorating the 75th anniversary of D-Day. Hall is portrayed by Equity's Sarah Megan Thomas, and the film is directed by Lydia Dean Pilcher. The film went on to win the Audience Choice Award in Canada. A Call to Spy had its U.S. festival premiere at the 2020 Santa Barbara International Film Festival, where it was honored with the Anti-Defamation League's "Stand Up" Award.
- Vigurs, Kate (2021). Mission France: The True History of the Women of SOE (First ed.). New Haven and London: Yale University Press. p. 42. ISBN 978-0-300-20857-3.
- Gralley, pp 2–3
- Meyer, Roger (October 2008). "World War II's Most Dangerous Spy" The American Legion Magazine p. 54
- Gralley, Craig R. (March 2017), "A Climb to Freedom: A Personal Journey in Virginia Hall's Steps," Studies in Intelligence, Vol. 61, No. 1, pp. 5, , accessed 24 Jan 2020.
- Foot, M.R.D. (1966), SOE in France, London: Her Majesty's Stationery Office, p. 170.
- Gralley, p.3
- "Not Bad for a Girl from Baltimore: the Story of Virginia Hall" (PDF). state.gov.
- Purnell, Sonia (2019), A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II, New York: Viking, pp. 12–21.
- Purnell, pp. 19–20
- Purnell, pp. 13–29
- Foot, pp. 465–469. Estimates of the number of SOE's female agents differ, depending upon who was considered an agent and who was considered a local helper. 39 is the number listed by Foot, the official historian of the SOE.
- Purnell, pp. 39–40, 46–47
- Foot, p. 171
- Gralley, p. 2
- Purnell, pp. 59–62
- Foot, p. 311
- Purnell, pp. 47, 52–53
- Purnell, pp. 69–89, 99–100.
- Heslop, Richard (2014). Xavier (First published in 1970 ed.). London: Biteback Publishing. pp. 48–49. ISBN 9781849547130.
- Purnell, p. 64
- Purnell, pp. 113–126
- Foot, pp. 203–204
- Purnell, pp. 127–137
- Purnell 144–152
- "Gabrielle Jeanine Picabia," Musee de la Resistance, , accessed 29 Jan 2020
- Gralley, pp. 3–4
- Purnell, pp. 158–159
- "Special Operations". Central Intelligence Agency. June 13, 2007. Archived from the original on June 13, 2007.
- Purnell, pp. 191–193, p. 197
- Rossiter, Margaret L. (1986), Women in the Resistance, New York: Praeger, pp. 102–193
- Purnell, pp. 197–199, 203–206, 209
- Purnell, pp 189, 207–208, 222–223.
- "Activity Report of Virginia Hall (Diane)," F-Section, Heckler, , accessed 1 Feb 2020
- Rossiter, pp. 196–197
- Hall, p. 1168
- Rossiter, pp. 195–196
- Hall, p. 1169
- Purnell, p. 267
- Escott, Beryl E. (2010). The Heroines of SOE. Stroud, Gloucestershire: The History Press. p. 38. ISBN 9780752487298.
- Purnell, pp. 281–282
- Purnell, pp. 257, 291, 294–295, 300–305
- Purnell, pp. 307, 311
- "Today's Document from the National Archives". Archives.gov. October 19, 2011. Retrieved December 6, 2016.
- "Today's Document » May 12 – Virginia Hall of the OSS". archives.gov. October 19, 2011. Archived from the original on October 19, 2011.
- Shapira, Ian (July 11, 2017). "The Nazis were closing in on a spy known as 'The Limping Lady.' She fled across mountains on a wooden leg". The Washington Post. washingtonpost.com. Retrieved March 3, 2019.
- Purnell, p. 307
- Tucker, Abigail (December 14, 2006). "A spy gets her due". The Baltimore Sun.
- Purnell, Sonia (2019). A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II. Penguin. ISBN 9780735225305.
- "Virginia Hall". Maryland Women's Hall of Fame. Retrieved March 28, 2019.
- "L'espionne: Virginia Hall, une Americaine dans la guerre". Cia.gov. April 21, 2009. Retrieved December 6, 2016.
- "She was a legendary spy. He worked for three CIA directors. Now he's writing a novel in her voice". The Washington Post. Retrieved May 18, 2018.
- "The Lady is a Spy". Scholastic Publishing. Retrieved July 3, 2019.
- "The Spy with the Wooden Leg – Elva Resa Publishing". Elva Resa Publishing. Retrieved May 18, 2018.
- AJ Willingham. "CIA spy Virginia Hall is about to become everyone's next favorite historical hero". CNN.
- "Liberté: A Call to Spy". Edinburgh International Film Festival.
- "LIBERTÉ: A CALL TO SPY – World Premiere at Edinburgh Film Festival". www.reviewsphere.org.
- ""Liberte: A Call To Spy" Will Debut At Edinburgh International Film Festival". May 30, 2019.
- "WFF19 Wraps". Whistler Film Festival. December 10, 2019.
- "Film 'Liberté: A Call to Spy' Wins Anti-Defamation League Stand Up Award". www.noozhawk.com.
- "A Woman Of No Importance". IMDb.com. Retrieved July 3, 2019.
- Myre, Greg (April 18, 2019). "'A Woman Of No Importance' Finally Gets Her Due". NPR.org. Retrieved April 18, 2019.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Virginia Hall.|
- Special Operations Executive: Personnel Files (HS 9/647/4) – Virginia Hall
- "Ambassadors to honor female WW2 spy" by Ben Nuckols, Associated Press, 10 December 2006.
- Special Operations article and Featured story about Virginia Hall on the CIA web site
- Times Online Article (subscription required)
- Article by MRD Foot in Studies in Intelligence vol 53 N°1 L’espionne: Virginia Hall, une Americaine dans la guerre — Central Intelligence Agency
- Virginia Hall at Find a Grave