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Virginia Hall, the one-legged World War II super spy

Virginia Hall had a tough choice to make. Ahead of her was a snowy pass through the Pyrenees, the mountainous terrain separating France and Spain. Behind her was Nazi-occupied France, another wrong turn in the unpredictable landscape of World War II.

50 miles of dangerous hiking on foot would be arduous in the extreme. But if she stayed, she would almost certainly be captured by the Nazis, who now considered her their most feared allied spy. They had posted wanted posters all over the country hoping to capture her, kill her or worse. Some spies, Hall knew, had been hung on butcher’s hooks.

Hall looked at his longtime companion, Cuthbert. Rather than lend her moral support, the clumsy Cuthbert would do nothing but slow her down and make the journey through the Pyrenees even more treacherous.

Even so, what decision was there, really? Uncertainty was better than certain death or torture. And there was still a war to be won. Hall picked up his backpack and started stomping through the snow towards Spain, Cuthbert matching his stride for stride.

Cuthbert was what Hall had called his peg leg. The journey was going to be long.

The lame lady

Although it would be decades before the world knew the full extent of Hall’s efforts during the war, it was clear from an early age that she seemed destined for an exceptional life. Born on April 6, 1906, in Baltimore, Maryland, to parents Edwin and Barbara Hall, Virginia enjoyed a comfortable upbringing and could have easily settled into a sedentary existence.

But that was not Hall’s nature. Spending her summers on the family farm, she excelled at hunting and shooting, learning skills for self-sufficiency that would later come in handy. At school, she learned several languages ​​and was disinterested in conforming to societal expectations of the time. She happily accepted roles in plays aimed at boys and enjoyed being mildly provocative, once shocking her classmates by showing up at school with a “bracelet” made of live snakes around her wrist.

After attending college in the United States and Europe, Hall sought a position with the U.S. State Department, hoping to be assigned to overseas projects as a diplomat. But women were rarely granted this role, and she instead settled for a desk job at the US consulate in Turkey.

This is where Hall would have a fateful accident. [PDF]. During a bird-hunting expedition in 1933, she discharged her firearm into her foot while climbing over a fence. The explosion from the 12-gauge shotgun caused severe injuries, and the resulting gangrene forced doctors to amputate half of his left leg below the knee. Hall was fitted for a 7-pound prosthetic leg she wryly named Cuthbert – and became more determined than ever to pursue a life of adventure.

Spy Games

Hall made repeated attempts to enter the U.S. Foreign Service, but after a third application, he was told the service could only accept “able-bodied” applicants. Appalled at being rejected in her home country, she traveled to France in search of opportunities in 1939. This led to a position as a volunteer paramedic, where she quickly entered into dialogue. [PDF] with a contact in the British Special Operations Executive (SOE). There, a woman named Vera Atkins—assistant to SOE Colonel Maurice Buckmaster—noted Hall’s ability to speak multiple languages ​​as well as his composure under the stress of driving an ambulance.

Maybe, thought Atkins, Hall would make a good agent. The SOE trained her in espionage before sending her to Vichy in France in August 1941. Her first cover posed as “Brigitte LeContre”, a journalist for The New York Post. Hall’s greatest disguise, however, was achieved by taking advantage of jingoism. Few men thought women could be effective spies, especially one with a peg leg.

Hall quickly proved them wrong. She connected to a brothel in the city of Lyon, France, where she was able to gather intelligence from prostitutes who had encountered German troops. She also organized assistance to French resistance fighters, offering them shelter. His contributions became so important that the Gestapo began searching in France the limping ladyor “the limping lady”.

By 1942, it was becoming increasingly difficult for Hall to avoid detection. The Germans had taken control of France and other members of its espionage and resistance network had been located and killed. It was then that Hall decided she had to do the 50-mile trek through the Pyrenees to cross into Spain, pushing the snow away with her good foot and dragging Cuthbert behind her.

At one point Hall managed to find a hut for shelter and contacted London by radio, complaining that “Cuthbert is boring, but I can cope.” His superiors, not understanding that Cuthbert was his prosthetic leg, told him, “If Cuthbert is boring, have him eliminated.”

When Hall arrived in Spain, she was quickly arrested for not having a passport. It was better than facing a horde of angry Nazis.

She was imprisoned for six weeks, only being released after another prisoner (and released) delivered a letter written by Hall to the American consul in Barcelona. The SOE assigned her to work in Madrid, but Hall was becoming restless. The work was too mundane.

“I thought I could help in Spain, but I’m not doing any work,” Hall wrote. “I live pleasantly and waste time. It’s not worth it and after all, my neck belongs to me. If I’m willing to put it on, I think it’s my prerogative.”

Hall was eager to return to France, but his British superiors deemed it too dangerous. She returned to the United States and joined the Office of Strategic Services, or OSS, the precursor to the CIA. Despite her reputation in Nazi-occupied France, she insisted on returning, adding gray to her hair, drawing wrinkles in her face and even grinding her teeth to alter her appearance, according to author Sonia Purnell, who wrote a book about Hall titled A woman of no importance.

By March 1944, Hall was back in France, posing as a milkmaid in a village south of Paris, smiling as she sold cheese to German troops. Unsuspecting Germans felt no need to be wary of someone they did not see as a threat. Hall, in turn, radioed their movements to his superiors using equipment made from an automobile generator and bicycle parts. She also dispatched French resistance fighters to select targets. Using tactics such as bombing bridges and commandeering trains, they were able to take control of Axis villages and weaken German forces. In total, Hall’s team destroyed four bridges and killed 150 Germans.

By constantly moving around, changing her name, job, and face, Hall was able to avoid being captured. She remained in France until the end of the war, returning both with Cuthbert and another companion – Paul Goillot, a French resistance fighter and, later, her husband.

Back home

Like many veterans, Hall struggled to discuss his experiences or accept recognition for them. When then-President Harry Truman asked her to appear at a public ceremony to accept the Distinguished Service Cross – the only civilian woman to receive this honor for World War II – she refused, asking that this rather be a private matter. Hall’s mother, Barbara, was the only other civilian present.

Hall again applied to the US Foreign Service, and again she was turned down, this time due to alleged budget cuts. But she got a job offer at the newly installed CIA, where she worked for 15 years until retiring at age 60 in 1966. She died on July 8, 1982, never speaking of her service. But the countries she supported often spoke for her. The CIA later named a training facility, the Virginia Hall Expeditionary Center, after her; the French awarded him the Croix de Guerre with palm, a military honour; King George of England made it a member of the British Empire. Hall was so evasive that in 1943, when the King made the decision, no one in Britain could find it.

Due to the expected secrecy of the intelligence field, Virginia Hall’s efforts on behalf of Allied forces during World War II remained largely ignored for decades. As historians began to dig deeper into her past, her ingenuity, courage, and courage in the face of physical hardship made her a cultural legend, though she never celebrated herself.

One of Hall’s few surviving citations came after receiving the Distinguished Service Cross. “Not bad for a Baltimore girl,” she said.