“Those of us who had the chance of meeting her ‘in action’… could never forget this very remarkable figure of the Resistance army.” ~ Count Arnaud de Vogue (Colonel Colomb)
When we take the time to reflect upon our lives a realisation emerges: it becomes apparent that the most pivotal, life-changing moments often arise from the most prosaic ones.
Whether we realise it at the time or not, momentous meetings, ideas or realisations can occur during mundane activities; leading us to explore our potential and tread the path leading towards our destiny…
Certainly with Virginia this was the case. On a searing day in late August 1940, whilst travelling through Spain, (also a fascist state headed up by General Franco), but supposedly neutral, Virginia came into contact with George Bellows at Irun Station. She was arranging a rail ticket to Portugal from where she intended to sail to Britain. She did not know that he was an undercover British Agent, and after George approached her they struck up a guarded conversation.
Bellows learned of her daring ambulance driving, and the deteriorating conditions in the south, the so-called Unoccupied Zone under Pétain and his collaborating Vichy government.
Irun station early in the 20th century – an unlikely place for an important brief encounter.
Bellows did not give away his true identity, but was impressed by Virginia’s courage and powers of observation and was probably the first person to appreciate her potential. He passed her a card with a contact in London who he said might be able to help her with work.
The contact was none other than Nicolas Bodington, a senior officer in the newly created F Section of a controversial British secret service, SOE (Special Operations Executive).
Recruitment into SOE
The Special Operations Executive had been formed by Churchill on the same day that Hitler made a triumphant speech at the Reichstag in Berlin, tasking them with subvertion, sabotage and spying. He wanted SOE to fan the flames of resistance and pioneer a new type of revolutionary warfare that would enable the French to rise above their Nazi oppressors, ready for the day British and allied troops would once again land on French soil.
And so Virginia Hall’s date with destiny had arrived – she was in the right place at the right time – SOE were struggling to find and train recruits that were willing to be secretly infiltrated into France with no plan B if things went south.
On arrival in London Virginia had an uncharacteristic change of heart, not wanting to put her mother through any more worry and doubting she could be of any help to the British (which was hardly surprising given the amount of rejection she had already faced from the State Department).
She reported to the American Embassy seeking a temporary job whilst her repatriation was organised.
Virginia wrote them a detailed report of her recent experience, about the curfew and food shortages. She served as a secretary to the military attaché and, probably like most of the population, spent sleepless nights as London faced the blitz. She tried to get home for Christmas but was no longer eligible for an official ticket as it had been a year since she resigned from the State Department.
Now marooned in London, Virginia dug up the number George Bellows had handed to her in Irun. Nicolas Bodington invited her to dinner at his a house in Mayfair where he and his American wife put on a welcoming meal for her. She was unaware of his secret war-time role and his increasing frustration at SOE’s lack of success in infiltrating a single agent after six months of trying.
Virginia regaled him with her desire to return to France, now that her attempts to return home had been thwarted. She outlined how she planned to pressure her old contact in the State Department to arrange her visa, and how she would travel via Barcelona to reach the Riviera where she intended to help the Quaker refugee efforts and also report back to newspapers at home.
Her host was informed that as a neutral American she could travel quite freely around France…
The next morning Bodington hurried to the SOE office at 64 Baker Street and dictated the following memo to F Section: “It strikes me that this lady, a native of Baltimore might well be used for a mission and that we might facilitate her voyage there and back, and stand her expenses on her trip in exchange for what service she could render us.”
He became more convinced that her American nationality would prove beneficial and arranged her cover as a journalist with the help of the New York Post.
Virginia was duly recruited and trained, then travelled by boat across the channel at night back into France. Nobody could have guessed just how effective she would be. Over several months she became their most valuable agent in the Free Zone. Her cover as journalist meant that she could encode intelligence in her published reports.
French Occupation Zones
During her first post in Vichy she won over Suzanne Bertillon, chief sensor of the foreign press in Vichy’s Ministry of Information. The two became friends.
Not only did Suzanne not censor any of Virginia’s articles, she actively curated a network of 90 contacts (military, farming and industrial), enabling the collection of information on fuel depots, troop movements, and even knowledge of the construction of a secret Nazi submarine base at Marseille, which was subsequently destroyed by allied bombs before it could be completed.
After a month in Vichy Virginia decided her efforts would be better served by moving to Lyon, seventy miles to the south-east. Lyon’s geography and confusing layout was perfect for establishing an underground movement. Here she would be out from under the nose of the American Ambassador to Vichy, Admiral William Leahy, who had forbidden his staff to get involved in clandestine activities, preferring a strictly diplomatic route.
The traboules (a labyrinth like network of interconnecting passages through and between buildings), would become invaluable to the resistance. Due to massive overcrowding when she arrived, Virginia was offered shelter by the nuns of the Sainte Elisabeth convent. It would be one of SOE’s best safe houses in the city.
A Traboule courtyard and staircase in Lyon.
Her first Post de Commande was the Grand Nouvel Hotel in the centre of town, where she registered under the false name of Brigitte Lecontre, using the false papers issued to her by SOE.
Virginia became used to changing her appearance, re-styling her hair, wearing glasses or a hat, and as the trousers that she loved to wear from her time in Paris were frowned upon by Pétainists, she dressed to avoid arousing suspicion.
The American Vice-consul in Lyon, George Whittinghill, shared her fervour for freedom and was recruited to her cause. With his help she was able to smuggle her intelligence reports to the American Embassy in Berne via the diplomatic pouch, where Colonel Barnwell Legge sent them back to SOE in London. He also forwarded on replies and money from London.
Reading Sonia Purnell’s A Woman of no Importance gave me a real sense of the daily danger and fear that she faced and the relentless loneliness agents experienced. The slam of a door or the sound of footsteps could indicate imminent betrayal or discovery. Informants were well paid. Dropping her guard for even a minute could prove fatal.
Virginia regularly took SOE supplied Benzedrine pills to keep awake and alert when operations required her to be up all night, or for days at a time. Under such physical and mental exhaustion the likelihood of mistakes was raised. It’s hard to comprehend how intense it must have been. Towards the end of the war Virginia found insomnia was one of the unwelcome side effects from years of regular Benzedrine consumption.
Another ‘supply’ was potassium cyanide pills, as Virginia had a licence to kill. They could be swallowed whole and pass through the body with no harm done, but if they were bitten into and the outer shell destroyed, death would follow within 45 seconds. They were a last resort for agents who, once captured, could not bear torture.
“There are endless nightmares of uncertainty. The tensions, the nerve strain and fatigue, the all-demanding alertness of living a lie, these are (the agent’s) to meet, accept and control. They are never, really, conquered.” ~ An SOE agent comment featured in A Woman of no Importance by Sonia Purnell.
Virginia suffered in the cold winters with little food under the noses of the Vichy regime, and risked running out of the special medical socks that kept her stump protected when she undertook lengthy train journeys.
Virginia went far beyond her initial brief of collecting information and intelligence by establishing a comprehensive network (hers was named Heckler), making Lyon the hub of underground resistance activity in the Free Zone.
According to SOE, Virginia had become the ‘universal aunt to all our people in trouble and anyone in difficulties immediately called upon her’.
One such SOE agent was Ben Cowburn (an engineer from Lancashire), who Virginia ably assisted whenever he was parachuted into the area on strategic sabotage operations. Hugo Bleicher of the Abwehr (furnished with information from the abbé Robert Alesch), began to close in on her network, and after a spate of arrests, Ben urged her to get out of France, horrified at the risks she continued to take. She had always put others first, even when her own life was in danger.
Having read of the torture methods Klaus Barbie employed on female prisoners makes her courage all the more astounding. She had told SOE that ‘it was her neck, and she was prepared to put a crook in it’.
Their respect and friendship was mutual, as both Virginia Hall and Ben Cowburn regarded each other as the greatest SOE agent in France.
The Resistance was still operating in small, separate pockets, with no clear overriding strategy, so were not effective at this stage of the war. Indeed, the assassination of a German colonel in Nantes had sparked brutal reprisals, including the execution of 48 innocent citizens.
Virginia was able to exploit the growing hatred of the population towards the Vichy regime and its German masters, giving rise to the possibility of establishing a national resistance movement that would be coordinated and strategic, working with the Allies rather than undertaking their own separate sabotage missions.
Mousetrap in Marseille
Despite her ‘diplomatic’ line of conversation with London, it proved necessary to have instant communication with SOE to arrange parachute drops of new agents and supplies.
At the time there were only two operational radio operators in France: Georges Bégué (working with another agent 200 miles away) and Gilbert Turck, who was captured by Vichy police after he was rendered unconscious from his parachute landing. He was given the code name Cristophe, but was later released on the orders of Vichy high command.
During September 1941 multiple agents and wireless operators were parachuted into France by SOE’s F Section; among them Jean-Philippe Le Harviel, who was to travel to Lyon to undertake the role of wireless operator for Virginia, and another agent, George Douboudin, Alain.
The SOE safe-house that all these new agents were directed to was the Villa des Bois, a gated residence in Marseille. Upon his release by the Vichy authorities, Cristophe had been holed up there. Unfortunately another agent who had landed four miles off course had also been picked up by Vichy police, who found a piece of paper in his pocket with a map showing the location of the Villa des Bois. From that moment on they were all unknowingly compromised.
Vichy’s Sûreté was more feared than the Gestapo for their ability and skill in laying traps and infiltrating the Resistance.
In the meantime, Georges Bégué (working for five fledgling circuits in the Free Zone) contacted the only other wireless operator, Cristophe, who proceeded to contravene security rules and invited all the known agents in Southern France to meet with him at the Villa des Bois.
Disaster awaited them. One by one, as they were lured to the Villa des Bois they were captured by the Sûreté, facing the prospect of imprisonment, torture and a firing squad.
Virginia, although feeling lonely in Lyon, had decided not to join her SOE colleagues at the Villa des Bois. Her independent streak urged her to decline, preferring to continue establishing her Heckler network in Lyon. And if her work wasn’t challenging enough, her new radio operator (Le Harviel), had been one of the men arrested at the Villa des Bois.
SOE’s radio operator’s (known as pianists), were particularly vulnerable to capture, either from the constant patrol of the Abwehr’s ominous black radio detection vans or through informants or betrayal, yet they were invaluable to Allied intelligence.
The ‘Mousetrap in Marseille’ that had captured two dozen newly trained and infiltrated agents had meant that SOE was left without a single radio operator at liberty in the whole of France.
Luckily for them Virginia Hall remained in the field, although she was not a wireless operator she was still recruiting helpers and resistance members and supplying vital intelligence back to Baker Street via Berne.
At that precarious time the success or failure of Allied intelligence rested on the shoulders of a disabled woman who had been overlooked and rejected for most of her adult life.
Masterminding and organising the Mauzac prison break
The twelve men (half British, half French) captured at the Villa des Bois, referred to as Clan Cameron by SOE, were imprisoned in ‘degrading and humiliating’ conditions at Perigueux Prison while awaiting trial.
Gaby Bloch, the wife of former French deputy Jean Pierre-Bloch, (who had been captured together) was subsequently released. She had spent much of January visiting her husband and struggling to win support for his cause. Jean knew of Virginia through the resistance grapevine and instructed Gaby to meet with her in Lyon.
Virginia must have recognised a kindred spirit in Gaby Bloch, and after hearing about the tough conditions her colleagues were subjected to she created a plan of action to get them out.
On a communication with SOE over the matter Virginia reported: “if they cannot come out officially, they will come out unofficially.”
Virginia then travelled to Vichy to meet with Admiral Leahy and used all her skills of persuasion to see if he could pull any strings. On the 14th March came the nugget of hope she had been waiting for – a telegram announcing that the Camerons were being moved from Perigueux to the Vichy run internment camp at Mauzac.
Her initial plan to free them during the transfer was aborted after she learned of their weakened state – there was no way they could run, plus they would be chained and their guards under orders to shoot any escapees.
Fortunately the conditions at Mauzac were much better. The Camerons, now growing stronger from an improved diet got to work on the inside, with Michael Trotobas giving them physical training drills every morning.
Also, their innocent games of boules allowed them to throw balls in certain directions and ascertain the time needed to cross between the barracks and the fencing, noting any blind spots from the watchtowers and which patches of land would best hide their tracks and getting to know the times of patrols.
Mauzac Prison during WWII
Virginia could not show her face near the camp so she drilled Gaby in how to recruit some of the guards as messengers and identify potential helpers. It was fraught with risk.
Supplied with funds from Virginia, Gaby travelled 35 miles three times a week to visit Jean and made herself known in the local hotel bar where many guards drank. She would drop hints about an Allied victory and the potential rewards for those that could help speed up the end of the war.
The first few guards who showed an interest did not work out, but the last guard she befriended, Jose Sevilla, proved true to his word. His only request was to be taken back to London to join de Gaulle’s followers.
One of Sevilla’s first contributions was to persuade the camp commandant that Watchtower 5 (closest to the Camerons) should not be manned at night, claiming it swayed in the wind making the ladder to the platform unsafe in the dark.
In order to smuggle vital messages in Virginia endowed Gaby with clean clothes, books and large amounts of food and black-market groceries for her visits, and her apparent largesse often meant she was searched. They did not find the tiny file concealed in one of the jars of jam, or a pair of wire cutters hidden in some fresh laundry, or the small screwdriver and hammer or tins of sardines for their quality reusable metal that were placed inside hollowed out books.
Virginia’s ingenuity teamed with Gaby’s extraordinary bravery meant that Georges Bégué was able to collate all he needed to make a key for the door of the barracks, using bread from the prison canteen to take a mould of the lock. Their choir group would sing heartily in the evening to drown out their filing and hammering.
Virginia drafted in a useful contact she had used many times on the escape line to find safe houses for the Camerons and to organise their eventual passage over the Pyrenees. She recruited a getaway driver, arranged for twelve sets of false papers, ration cards and train tickets.
In a brilliant move they located a hideaway relatively close to the camp for those first few nail biting hours and days of freedom, when the danger of recapture was at its highest. Virginia’s field skills and organising abilities were being put to the test.
Virginia then had a bold and brilliant idea to help them finalise the plans and communicate with the prisoners – in the form of a jovial 70 year old French priest, a veteran of World War 1 who had lost his legs in action and was confined to a wheel chair.
His pastoral visits to the Camerons raised no questions, but on one such visit he asked to be lifted out of his wheelchair into their hut. Once inside with sentry’s posted at the windows and door he beckoned the men to peek under his cassock, only to reveal a transmitter.
Apparently Georges Bégué exclaimed, “Great Scott! It’s a Piano!” To which the priest responded, “Yes, I was given to understand that you can get plenty of music out of it. It has been nicely tuned… Hide it and, of course, forget how it got here.”
Bégué became adept at transmitting with London from inside Mauzac. Their escape had been planned to take place at new moon between 8th and 15th July. However, the newly made key did not turn the lock and they had to rapidly refashion the key.
Virginia and Gaby also smuggled messages to the Camerons within tubes of aspirin which were brought in by another ‘friendly’ guard. The men would communicate with them by throwing the tube back over the fence to a warder on their inside team, who would pass on the messages to a colleague he knew to be in contact with Gaby on her visits. He would slip the messages into the coat pocket of the friendly guard left hanging in the mess.
However, the message pertaining to the key problem he mistakenly placed into the mess sergeant’s jacket. On arrival Gaby was summoned to the mess sergeant’s office, where, in terror, she was confronted with their imminent escape plan.
However, to Gaby’s relief the mess sergeant changed tack and offered to help them in return for 50,000 francs. Virginia was able to avert this disaster by swiftly supplying the funds to him.
Meanwhile, the men had timed their movements to the second, as they would need to run to the fence in two stages and then work their way through several yards of barbed wire in the dark in under a minute.
Gaby visited Jean on Bastille Day with their children, highly anxious as she knew their escape would take place the following night. Shortly after 4 pm on 15th July Virginia signalled to the men that the escape was on.
Sevilla had arranged for the guard manning watchtower 7 to light a cigarette which would be the all-clear signal for the men to move. However, he did not appear, perhaps fearful of the consequences of assisting an escape; and the men waited anxiously. At 3 am Sevilla, who had been monitoring the situation, managed to slip away from his inebriated chief and clamber up the tower himself, lighting a pipe.
This time the key turned in the lock and the men ran to fence, where they used string from behind the wire: one tug meant all-clear, and three short tugs signalled danger. Another friendly guard on patrol chided them to be quieter before turning a blind eye to the twelve men wriggling under the wire.
In a total of 12 minutes 12 men had escaped: Trotobas, Bégué, Langelaan, Jumeau, Pierre-Bloch, Garel, JB Hayes, Le Harviel, Liewer, Robert Lyon, Roche and Sevilla.
They were met outside by the mess sergeant and made their way in twos and threes cross country to a leafy hollow a couple of miles away, where their getaway driver, a Corsican named Albert Rigoulet, was waiting for them. He whisked them off into the night unseen and unheard.
The guards only discovered their absence at daybreak, when a manhunt was launched.
It seems Virginia had thought of everything – she advised Gaby Bloch to create a cast-iron alibi for the day and night of the escape, and made sure she was in meetings in Vichy. She was arrested but then released as she was able to produce witnesses as to her whereabouts.
Virginia even got her local contacts to gossip about the escape, alluding to the fact that the escapees had been flown out by RAF bombers, thus spreading the idea that the men were no longer on French soil.
In fact the Camerons had hunkered down in a well stocked safe house arranged by Virginia, waiting for the fuss to die down. After a fortnight her informants passed on information that the police believed they were back in England and the search had been called-off.
They carefully made their way to Lyon by truck and train, where they were separated into different safe houses to avoid drawing attention to a group. Plans were then made for their international travel.
All 12 men eventually made it back to London, with some spending time in a Spanish prison.
Virginia and Gaby Bloch, along with other helpers, had pulled off a spectacular prison break that would become the stuff of legend in SOE. The official SOE historian, M.R.D. Foot described the Mauzac prison break as ‘one of the war’s most useful operations of the kind’.
In recognition of Gaby Bloch’s valour SOE arranged for her and her children to be transported to London to rejoin her husband. Both went on to serve the French security services in London and were recipients of the Legion d’honneur, with Gaby being recommended for the King’s Medal for Courage in the Cause of Freedom.
Virginia continued her hard work in the wake of the Mauzac escape; that August she had worked with 25 SOE trained organisers and 6 pianists in the Free Zone, and 8 different circuits across the whole of France. She helped them with sabotage, parachute drops, intelligence-gathering and received two thousand pounds of supplies delivered by sea.
Escape over the Pyrenees
Virginia’s own escape from the Abwehr and Gestapo had been only slightly less dramatic. By October she suspected Robert Alesch of being a German agent, but by then the damage had already been done, and soon her network would unravel. Alesch swaggered around Paris, now a wealthy dandy from Abwehr cash payments, gifts of looted art and stolen SOE funds from captured agents.
Virginia realised that the recent liquidation of MI6’s WOL network and the impending arrival of German troops into the Free Zone meant it was time to get out of France. She did not want to leave her faithful informants but was unaware at that point of the extent of information the Abwher had on her and her network.
A captured agent of hers, Brian Stonehouse, (Celestin), who had been a fashion illustrator for Vogue in civilian life, refused to reveal Virginia’s name or whereabouts under the most horrific torture. His incredible bravery bought her a few more days.
That November, with the German military arrival in Lyon imminent, Virginia packed up some clothes and supplies and walked two miles to the station. She made the last train out of Lyon at eleven o’clock, by the skin of her teeth. She had told no one of her departure and the fact that she was travelling to Perpignan, 300 miles away.
The journey required a nerve wracking change of train in Marseille, under the watchful eyes of Gestapo officers. It is reasonable to assume that she knew the Gestapo were on to her and had assumed a disguise.
Once in Perpignan, close to the Pyrenees, she checked in to a hotel owned by SOE sympathisers and waited for her contact to arrive. She was known as Germaine to Gilbert, who arrange a guide (passeur) to escort her and two other agents (Leon Guttman and Jean Alibert) over a dangerous mountain pass eight thousand feet high. It was well known as a treacherous and difficult path even in summer, let alone in winter, and there were stories of passeurs shooting stragglers or leaving them to the wolves if they couldn’t keep up.
Virginia now had an unbearable trek ahead of her with her wooden leg, Cuthbert. Carrying her luggage, with a steep ravine on one side, they began their gruelling climb.
She must have combated the pain in her stump by sheer willpower, which was bleeding with the effort of keeping up with the men in heavy snow. Not even the hardships of war would come close to the agony she had to endure during her escape.
Cuthbert was not built for mountaineering and was beginning to crumble, the rivets slowing working loose under the strain of the climb. Descending the other side proved even more tricky as she had to lean forward to combat the lack of flexibility in her false left ankle.
But she made it, and an official report at the end of the war described Virginia’s escape as ‘a record all by itself’.
As the three of them reached San Juan early in the morning, exhausted but hopeful, they were spotted by a Civil Guard patrol and questioned. Virginia used her Spanish to explain she was an American and that they had been enjoying the mountains. But, being close to collapse they must have looked terrible, and were arrested as ‘undocumented and destitute refugees’.
She had come within an hour of safety, but now found herself behind bars; weak, gaunt and suffering with a rash across her back. Virginia spent the long hours of incarceration trying to figure out how she could escape. She could barely walk now that Cuthbert was in tatters.
Virginia befriend a fellow prisoner, a prostitute from Barcelona, who was soon to be released. She smuggled out a coded letter from Virginia and passed it to the American consulate upon her release. American diplomats intervened, (likely with the aid of a financial incentive) for the Spanish authorities, and Virginia was released on parole a week later.
She gave herself two days to recover in the Barcelona consulate before cabling the New York Post for funds in order to help the people she had left behind in Lyon. She also pressured London to aid with the relsease of Guttman and Ailbert from the camp at Miranda de Edbro, as she wanted to work with them in the future.
In 2017 Craig R. Gralley retraced Virginia’s escape over the Pyrenees and recorded his journey in his document – Virginia Hall’s Steps.
Virginia had been SOE’s longest surviving agent in the field, where she had successfully cultivated vast networks, rescued various agents and laid the foundations of the resistance that would prove vital in the battles to come. She was already a legend within SOE.
Now that the wehrmacht had taken over the Free Zone a brutal and bloody crackdown had begun against the resistance. Prior to Virginia’s narrow escape, SOE agent Francis Cammaerts had warned London of the ‘reign of terror’ that would ensue, and indeed the central area of France was subjected to burning farms, shootings and hangings.
Back in the French field with the OSS
In the wake of the Gestapo discovering Virginia’s identity along with the scope of her Heckler network, the chief of SOE’s F Section, Maurice Buckmaster had ruled out her returning to France on a mission for them.
It was madness in his view, to subject her to such danger after she had been well and truly brûlée (burnt).
Virginia undertook an assignment in Madrid, assisting SOE in what she considered a boring clerical role, and on return to London convinced SOE to train her in wireless transmissions.
Still thwarted in her attempt to be sent back into occupied France, and wanting to help those in her network who had been left behind or captured, Virginia requested a transfer to the American equivalent of SOE, the newly formed American Office of Special Services, (OSS).
Both organisations had agreed to operate from the joint Special Forces Headquarters (SFHQ) in London, with the goal of forming groups of maquisards, who after training would be capable of supporting the Allied D-Day operation by performing strategic sabotage missions as well as hit and run attacks on German convoys.
Virginia now had a successful track record in the field, and was one of the few officers to cross over from SOE to OSS.
Sixteen months after she had escaped the clutches of Klaus Barbie, (who was now based at the Hôtel Terminus in Lyon), her pursuers were still as keen as ever to locate the limping lady.
Hôtel Terminus Lyon – now Mercure
Virginia had refused plastic surgery to alter her features, opting for a Hollywood make-up artist’s makeover into an old lady. Her hair was dyed grey and her face made to appear suitably haggard. She would wear long, full skirts and shuffle along to hide her limp. A brave move considering she was still a hunted woman.
Under her new OSS code name Diana, Virginia returned to France with another male agent (Aramis), disguised as a peasant woman named Marcelle Montagne. It soon became apparent to her that Aramis was unsuitable spy material and was more of a liability than a useful partner.
They had to casually pass Gestapo officers at Paris’s Gare Montparnasse, Virginia carrying her wireless transmitter in her suitcase, doing her best to resemble a harmless old woman.
After a brief stint with her contact in Paris, Madame Long, Virginia headed to La Creuse with the hapless Aramis in tow. Her local contacts put her in touch with a sympathetic farmer, Eugene Lopinat, who hid her in a one room ramshackle hut with no electricity or running water.
Her priority was to recruit, train and bring in much needed weapons by air from Britain to form an effective guerrilla unit. Time was running out, she knew that D-Day was not far off, and all agents needed to prepare the resistance for when it arrived.
Part of Virginia’s routine was delivering milk to the locals on her daily rounds, where she enlisted the help of the mayor’s secretary and the postman. Farmers and farm hands were particularly helpful.
Virginia at Box Horn Farm – her childhood experience with animals came in handy during her clandestine work.
“I cooked for the farmer, his old mother and the hired hand over an open fire as there was no stove in the house. I drove his cows to pasture, and in the process found several good fields for parachute drops.” ~ From a report by Virginia Hall to SFHQ in London.
In order to get a picture of German troop movements in the area she would amble along the roadside with cattle and sell cheeses to them. Nobody suspected the elderly Madame Marcelle, who in the course of her work listened in on their conversations, being fluent enough in German to understand and later radio the intelligence back to London.
A close call!
Having narrowly escaped the Gestapo with her epic journey across the Pyrenees, Virginia had another close call after re-entering France for the OSS. One day, shortly after she had completed a radio transmission to London at Eugene Lopinat’s farmhouse in Maidou-sur-Crozant, she heard an engine and hastily stored her radio case under some crates in the loft.
Still in her peasant woman disguise, Madame Marcelle answered the officer leading a group of German soldiers standing before her as to why she was in the farmhouse alone. With the most authentic raspy voice as she could manage, Virginia explained that she cooked and tended cows for the farmer. The officer was not entirely convinced and ordered his men to search the premises.
At this point most people might actually lose it and give themselves away, but Virginia remained calm on the exterior, hoping she had hidden the radio well enough. Its discovery would have preceded capture, discovery of her true identity and certain death. A wanted poster from her time in Lyon had been distributed throughout the army who were still on the lookout for Artemis.
She could hear the place being ransacked and was ready to use her excuse that as an old woman she could not climb the ladder to the loft.
One of the soldiers presented an item to the officer and he approached her. Virginia’s heart must have been ready to explode as she prayed her fake wrinkles would fool him close up, and miraculously, he seemed to recognise her as the old cheese lady they had met out the road before. He held up a block of her cheese, proclaiming it to be good produce and helped himself to more, before scattering a few coins at her feet as they departed.
Shortly after, London agreed to a change of base. Two other agents she had been working with in the area brought her a smaller, lighter radio in a ‘biscuit box’. One of these agents was subsequently captured, and Virginia, now fully rattled, headed back to Paris to stay with a Madame Long to figure out her next move.
Battling machismo as well as Nazism in the Haute-Loire
Virginia’s final active posting of the war was in the Haute-Loire region, training a guerilla unit (known as the Diane Irregulars), that had been bolstered by two Allied agents that were parachuted in. One of them was Paul Golliot. They became lovers and were married after the war.
Painting by Jeff Bass of Virginia Hall transmitting from Lea Lebrat’s farm in the Haute-Loire in 1944, with Edmond Lebrat providing the power with an adapted bicycle. The original lives in the CIA Fine Arts Collection.
She was much loved as La Madone in this region, being able to supply sorely needed finances, weapons and supplies to the local groups that she was in charge of. But she had to work hard to win the trust and respect of certain egotistical Frenchmen. A local Maquis commander, Pierre Fayol, who willingly accepted her cash and weapons proved less than amenable to taking orders from a woman.
He must have felt threatened by this charismatic and strong woman, and his enmity towards her made her job more difficult. He cruelly referred to her as ‘the ginger witch’.
Despite Fayol’s hostile behaviour and attitude Virginia continued to work with him, as well as various other FFl leaders in the area. Their combined efforts severely hampered German reinforcements prior to and in the aftermath of D-Day, speeding up the end of the war.
In the wake of the Allied victory Pierre Fayol felt remorse and recognised the error of his ways, realising just how pivotal her role had been. He subsequently became one of Virginia’s most devoted admirers, fiercely championing her achievements for decades.
“Diane’s intervention made the proper arming of our men possible, and consequently the rapid liberation of the department…well in advance of the Allied columns… All of us…esteemed the complete devotion to duty and the exceptional courage which Diane showed.” ~ Pierre Fayol
In the wake of Virginia’s success in Lyon and her leading role in organising and overseeing the Mauzac prison break, SOE put her forward for a CBE (Commander of the Order of the British Empire), Britain’s highest civilian honour.
“She has devoted herself whole-heartedly to our work without regard to the dangerous position in which her activities would place her if they were realised by the Vichy authorities. She has been indefatigable in her constant support and assistance for our agents, combining a high degree of organising ability with a clear-sighted appreciation of our needs… Her services for us cannot be too highly praised.”
~ SOE Citation for Virginia Hall’s CBE
Unbelievably she was turned down. SOE’s citation did not do her justice and could not include operational details for security reasons, but an internal F Section memo dated 21st November 1944 recorded her true valour: …many of our men owe their liberty and even their lives’ to Virginia Hall.
She had not been granted a CBE, but the following year, (in July 1943) she was duly awarded an MBE (Order of the British Empire), but as she was still active in the field so there was no public announcement.
Virginia receiving her Distinguished Service Cross from General Donovan, Sep 1945
The British weren’t the only ones who recognised Virginia’s bravery and effectiveness in covert operations and espionage – she was also awarded the Croix de Guerre for her unwavering service to France, and was the only civilian woman to be awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for extraordinary heroism against the enemy by the OSS, which was presented to her in a low key ceremony on 27th September 1945 by ‘Wild Bill’ Donovan (head of the OSS) in Washington DC.
Virginia proved herself stoic in the face of unimaginable hardships, brave to the point of self-sacrifice and smarter than many men in the field who thought her less capable. She sought opportunities to serve, without the need to boast of her contribution to the course of the war.
“We know perfectly well just how much we owe her. Virginia’s spirit soared above the plateau, and for those who knew her from those days she was forever ‘La Madone’.”
~ Pierre Fayol (from his 1990 book Le Chambon-sur-Lignon sous l’Occupation)