Many women worked undercover during the world wars, but we know the names of only a few. Like men in the secret intelligence services, many went to their graves never revealing their roles. This blog series highlights a few that inspired me while writing At the Table of Wolves.
Painting of Virginia Hall at work as a spy. It’s displayed at the CIA in their fine art collection.
The Gestapo badly wanted to apprehend this American spy, sending out an order saying, “She is the most dangerous of all Allied spies. We must find and destroy her.”
Virginia Hall was infamous as “The woman with the limp,” as she had a wooden leg, the result of a hunting accident. She was one of the most heroic women in World War II, saving countless Allied lives. She worked for both the US and Great Britain and was England’s first female operative sent into occupied France.
Hall had a privileged upbringing in the US and wanted to enter the diplomatic service, but that dream faded after she lost her leg. After being recruited in 1940 by a member of England’s SOE (Special Operations Executive) she spent two years in Lyon, France helping the Resistance. Her cover was that of a reporter for the New York Post.
When the US entered the war, she had to go underground. The Gestapo relentlessly sought her, and she eluded them in France for another year and a half. Finally she was forced to flee, managing to walk across the frozen Pyrenees to Spain, despite the wooden leg. In Spain she was thrown into prison; the US embassy eventually managed her release. Unwilling to quit, she undertook training as a radio operator and returned to France, to coordinate parachute supplies of arms and supplies. As the Nazis frantically attempted to follow her radio signals, she employed an array of clever disguises to remain undetected.
England awarded her the MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire) and the US bestowed the Distinguished Service Cross. Virginia Hall was the only civilian woman in World War II to receive such an honor. After the war she worked for the CIA until 1966 and died in Maryland in 1982.