Remarkable Women: The Life and Times of Virginia Hall (Part 1)

“Her amazing personality, integrity and enthusiasm was an example and inspiration for us all.” ~ Gerry Morel (Senior F Section Agent who Virginia helped escape occupied France)

My youngest daughter came home from school yesterday with a new reading book that she had chosen herself, duly presenting it to me with a flourish of anticipation. I could not believe my eyes when she pulled out a children’s book about World War 2 spy, Virginia Hall!

She did not know that I had been recently learning about Virginia’s life with a view to writing about her on my blog. I think she chose the book in part because we have the same christian name, but it was a wonderful, serendipitous moment! In fact Virginia was born only three days before me in the same month, (albeit sixty four years earlier),  and my maiden name of Haley means we also had the same initials.

I have been blown away by the sheer determination, will power, mind boggling courage and service to others that Virginia Hall embodied. Her example certainly puts everyday challenges into perspective, and I feel a desire and a duty to do her justice.

Virginia received such little recognition during her life; not that she desired it, her only aim was to restore freedom and justice, and in doing so she paved the way for not just women in the traditional male environment of espionage, but for anyone with a disability.

As Sonia Purnell so eloquently stated:

“The fact that a young woman who had lost her leg broke through the tightest of restrictions and overcame prejudice and even hostility to help the Allies win the Second World War is astonishing. The fact that a female guerrilla leader of her stature remains so little known is incredible.”

Virginia Hall went by various code names, sobriquets and noms de guerre given by both the Allies and the Nazis during her time in France. Her affectionate family nickname was ‘Dindy’, but her first code name for SOE was Marie Monin. She also went by Diana (the Roman goddess of the hunt) later in the war.

No matter the name, to me she is a total heroine…

The freedom fighters of the Resistance in the Haute-Loire affectionately called her the ‘Madonna of the Mountains’, (La Madone) suggesting she worked miracles, which she did!

The ‘Butcher of Lyon’, the brutal and much feared Klaus Barbie, was desperate to get his torturing hands on ‘the limping lady’, whom the Gestapo thought to be Canadian, and gave her the code name Artemis.

Through her time in hardship and silent competence in occupied France, the Gestapo regarded Virginia Hall as the most dangerous allied spy of World War 2.

Many of her methods of clandestine operation have been adopted as the foundation of modern espionage.

Virginia Hall’s remarkable life was lived out of the limelight, the antithesis of our celebrity obsessed culture, with her achievements little known about until now. Sonia Purnell’s thoroughly researched and brilliantly written book, A Woman of no Importance, casts a luminous glow of erudition and appreciation into the shadows of that ignorance.

Sonia refers to Virginia as an enigma – the very skills that made her so successful as a spy obscured the way to finding out about her wartime deeds and building up a picture of her character. Time and record keeping also added their inherent problems.

The author spent three years researching Virginia; investigations that took her in search of the scattered extant documents at the National Archives in London, the Resistance files in Lyon, the judicial dossiers of Paris, to the parachute drop zones in the Haute-Loire and even the marble corridors of the CIA in Langley.

As the first female member of the CIA Virginia had many obstacles placed in her path by prejudiced and inexperienced bureaucrats, but after her death her heroic efforts during the Second World War were finally recognised and celebrated.

In 2016 the CIA named a building used to train new recruits after her: The Virginia Hall Expeditionary Center.

The current (and first female) Director of the CIA, Gina Haspel, pays tribute to her female forebears, of which Virginia Hall is mentioned at 3.46 mins:

In order to complete Virginia’s biography Sonia passed through nine levels of security clearance, recovering lost files in the process.

Still some documents remain classified for another generation. The devastating fire at the French Archives in the 1970s meant more official files relating to Virginia Hall and her jaw-dropping exploits had gone up in flames.

But the account Sonia Purnell has written is not at all sketchy, it is both comprehensive and compelling – it reads like a thriller, making it even more jaw-dropping to know it actually happened!

A film of Virginia’s life is being made, based on Sonia’s book. I believe Daisy Ridley is set to portray Virginia.

Childhood and education

Virginia Hall was born on 6th April 1906 to a wealthy Baltimore family – and was especially close to her father, Edwin Lee Hall (aka Ned). Growing up she was athletic, independent, free spirited and took pleasure in flouting convention. What we might now call a tomboy. Virginia spent many idyllic childhood summers with her older brother on Box Horn Farm in Maryland.

She loved animals and outdoor pursuits, and was not interested in settling down as a dutiful wife, much to her mother’s chagrin. Barbara had high hopes of a society marriage for her only daughter.

In 1920 women were given the vote in America, and Virginia’s generation took a more active role in politics and enjoyed dancing and socialising, bridling against the restrictions placed on them by marriage.

She had a close call with an engagement to a local wealthy man, but he turned out to be a serial cheater and she broke off with him.

Virginia set the tone of her life to come when she wrote in her school leaver’s book in 1924: “I must have liberty, with as large a charter as I please.”

Her father allowed her to study for the next seven years at five prestigious universities.

In 1926 she travelled to Paris, which drew many fashionable, cultured, well-heeled and freedom loving young ladies from across the Atlantic. Virginia enrolled at the École Libre des Sciences Politiques on the Rive Gauche.

Here she found liberation in the bohemian atmosphere of art, music, literature and liberty that pervaded Paris, a far cry from Prohibition, rigid constraints on women and the racial segregation that was rife in her home country. Virginia was able to let her hair down in the cafes of Saint-Germain and the jazz clubs of Montmarte; mingling and meeting with actresses, singers, racing drivers, intellectuals and ambitious politicians.

This was the scene that had drawn writers such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein and the legendary dancer Josephine Baker, who wowed audiences at the Folies Bergère with her Charleston performances and who later became involved with the Resistance.

Her time in Paris had instilled a deep love for France and the freedoms its society had offered her, and became what Virginia called her ‘second country’. In Paris she was able to be herself, revelling in the atmosphere of liberté, égalité and fraternité.

This vintage film gives a rare glimpse into what Paris was like at the time Virginia first lived there:

Virginia continued her ‘European’ lifestyle in Austria, when she moved to Vienna in the autumn of 1927 to attend the Konsular Akademie University, where she studied languages, economics and the press.

Being tall, slender, striking and sophisticated, she caught the attention of a young Polish officer called Emil, who took her for romantic walks along the Danube.

Ned must have been fearful for his Dindy and forbid her to marry Emil, and despite her fervent belief in women’s emancipation, Virginia obeyed her father’s wishes and ended the relationship. (It is thought that Emil was executed in cold blood by the Russian Secret Police in the spring of 1940).

By now Virginia had a working knowledge of French, Spanish, German, Italian and Russian, and a grasp of European culture, geography and politics.

During her time in Vienna Virginia sometimes encountered  fascist groups on the rampage, and on trips across the border she even saw Adolf Hitler’s National Socialist party rise in popularity on the heels of his pledge to ‘put Germany first’ and his rallies in Nuremberg displaying Nazi political power. In Italy democracy was all but demolished; Mussolini had already built up a police state.

Virginia had witnessed first-hand the gathering dark clouds of Nationalism that would tear Europe apart just over a decade later.

Early career

Virginia arrived back home at Box Horn Farm in July 1929, not long before her family’s fortune was wiped out in the Wall Street Crash and the Depression that followed.

Virginia wanted more than anything else at that time to apply to the State Department to pursue a post as a professional diplomat, a career that was not normally open to a young American woman of that era. Only six out of fifteen hundred Foreign Service officers were women, and despite her extensive education and ambition she was summarily rejected.

This was undoubtedly a tough time for Virginia, as shortly afterwards her father Ned died at the tender age of fifty-nine from a massive heart attack in January 1931.

After some months at home Virginia left for Warsaw, where she had a job as a clerk in the American Embassy where she would earn two thousand dollars a year. Poland was precariously sandwiched between the military powers of Germany and Russia, and Virginia had great sympathy for the Poles, remembering her love affair with Emil. It was here that she received her first training in coding and a glimpse into the shadowy world of Intelligence.

However, Virginia felt that her extensive studies were being wasted in administrative work. She obtained permission from her vice-consul, Elbridge Durbrow to re-take the diplomatic corps entrance exam. Sadly she was thwarted again by the higher echelons of male colleagues, and mysteriously her oral papers never turned up (she had scored 100% the first time around) and so she missed the deadline for the application.

Frustrated but still determined, Virginia applied for a post in Smyrna (now Izmir) in Turkey, where she began work in April 1933.

Tragedy strikes

It was while she was stationed in Turkey that a terrible accident in the marshes, (where the Gediz River flows into the Aegean Sea), would change her life forever. Virginia had always been keen on hunting from her youth, and was using the 12-bore shotgun gifted by her late father, as her group set off to shoot Snipe.

Gediz River

Sonia Purnell speculates that maybe Virginia’s competitive nature and keenness to bag one of the ‘famously well-camouflaged’ birds may have distracted her and so she forgot to apply the safety catch that fateful day…

As Virginia traversed the reeds of the wetlands she clambered over a wire fence and tripped. Her gun slipped off her shoulder and got caught in her long coat. In trying to reach it she fumbled and accidentally fired the shotgun at point blank range into her left foot.

Her friends quickly tied a tourniquet, as a full load of spherical lead pellets had been blasted into her flesh and blood was oozing into the muddy, soggy delta around them. They rushed her to hospital, where doctors in Smyrna did their best. Virginia seemed to recover over the next three weeks, but a virulent infection had taken hold in her wound and her foot soon swelled up and turned black.

The head doctor from the American Hospital in Istanbul travelled to Smyrna to diagnose the worst possible outcome: gangrene.

Antibiotics were not yet available, leaving only one course of action to save her life. On Christmas Day in 1933, the doctors removed her left leg just below the knee. Virginia was twenty seven years old, and the amputation that saved her life was also the cause of her ensuing despair.

One can only imagine her misery at being in such physical and mental pain at that age, confined to a bed for weeks, recriminating and tormenting herself over her carelessness.

Naturally her mother was devastated upon receiving the news. Just when it was thought Virginia was out of danger and recovering from the amputation a new danger in the form of sepsis emerged.

The doctors worked heroically, changing poison soaked bandages and injecting her knee with special serums, a necessary agony for the patient who was often delirious with fever and pain.

The chances of surviving such a set-back today are not much better than they were back then. On one such night Virginia described having a vision of her late father at her bedside, instructing her not to give up. Ned told her that ‘it was her duty to survive’, but if she could genuinely not bear her suffering he would ‘come back for her’.

Even though Virginia was not religious it was a powerful vision which affected her actions throughout her life: the belief that she had been saved for a purpose greater than she could have known at the time.

She battled alone to survive, save for her father’s ghost and pulled through, now with a sense of resilience that she could handle whatever life threw at her. Her early convalescence progressed in Istanbul, but soon she was shipped back to the states where she underwent a series of repair operations and was fitted with a new prosthesis.

Modern for the 1930s, it was attached by leather straps that went round her waist, which chafed her skin in the hot weather. The pain must have been immense when her stump blistered and bled.

She undertook months of rehabilitation on the farm, learning to walk again whilst fighting off infections under the ever present dark cloud of depression. With true grit Virginia was working again by November 1934, posted this time in Venice, a walking city of 400 hump-backed bridges! It could not have been more challenging to her situation.

Aerial shot of Venice by @canmandawe on Unsplash

Her creative input on the dilemma soon devised a solution in the form of her own gondola. She won over a local man named Angelo, who would help her row and steady her when the sea was rough. Her natural charm was already working its magic as others seemed happy to go out of their way for her.

From her balcony she had a sweeping view of the Grand Canal, and settled into work at the American Consulate. Virginia impressed her bosses and undertook tasks normally reserved for diplomats rather than clerks. She rarely took a day off and never allowed her disability to interfere with her work.

She felt the need to prove herself even more so now she had a wooden leg – who she affectionately named Cuthbert.

Virginia was surrounded by a tide of fascism; Hitler was now Chancellor of Germany, she was working in a one party fascist state, and in Russia, Stalin ruled with a ruthless iron grip. Extremism on the left and the right had taken over through propaganda, sloganeering and unprincipled media manipulation.

As democracy was dying in Europe, she found herself a natural supporter of Franklin D Roosevelt, having been taught at Barnard by one of his chief advisers, Professor Raymond Moley. To her frustration America was still wary of getting involved in Europe’s troubles.

Virginia sailed home in January 1937 with the blessing of her boss in Venice so she could apply for a third time to be a diplomat. Her application was brutally rejected on the basis of an obscure rule that barred amputees from diplomacy.

Virginia returned to Venice dejected but determined to fight the decision. With the help of a powerful family friend who lobbied President Roosevelt on her behalf, he summoned the Secretary of State, Cordell Hull, who, most likely offended at having been side lined, insisted that Virginia was only capable of a clerical position.

FDR had overcome semi-paralysis from polio himself, to reach the highest office in the land, so it was ironic that he did not ultimately override the decision. It must have been painful for her at the time, but had he done so she surely would not have played such a pivotal role in the development of the French Resistance and the outcome of the war.

Soon after, in a humiliating demotion, Virginia was sent to Tallinn in the Baltic state of Estonia. En-route Virginia decided to stop over in Paris and spend some time with her old friends and have repairs on Cuthbert. No-one there knew that she was wearing special hosiery to disguise her wooden leg and cushion the stump.

The outbreak of war

When she finally arrived in Tallinn her salary was the same as it had been throughout her seven years of service. She noticed that Estonia had been overtaken by nationalist fever also, and the press was heavily censored.

Bored by her menial work, stereotyped as a disabled woman with all hopes of promotion dashed, and fearful of the future of Europe, Virginia resigned from the State Department in March 1939.

She was still living in Tallinn when Hitler invaded Poland on 1st September 1939 and so she caught a last minute ship to London, where she volunteered form the Auxiliary Territorial Service, the women’s branch of the British Army. Again she was rejected, this time on the grounds that she was foreign.

Not one to be deterred Virginia went back to Paris where she signed up in February 1940 to drive ambulances for the Service de Santé des Armées. She held a driving licence and was given a course in first aid. By May she was on duty near Metz when  Nazi forces broke through the undefended Belgian woodlands of the Ardennes.

When the Germans stormed unchallenged into Paris on 14th June Virginia was on her way to the Loire Valley to assist a retired French Colonel who was collecting the wounded and driving them 200 hundred miles for treatment in the capital.

The searing, stifling French heatwave of May 1940 was the backdrop to the largest refugee exodus of all time.

French refugees massacred by German troops in May 1940 – the sort of gruesome scene Virginia would have witnessed during her ambulance driving.

Private Virginia Hall had driven through carnage on the roads; past burned out cars, on miles of cratered tarmac strewn with dead bodies, animals and families seeking cover in ditches being attacked from above. She had endured enemy fire in the course of her duty, and looked on with scorn at French army deserters. For her, it was all-out war against the Third Reich.

By then the new far-right leader, Marshal Philippe Pétain had seized control and signed an armistice with Hitler on 22nd June in Compiègne – an action that signalled complete capitulation to the Nazis.

Virginia wanted more than anything to see France and her people regain their freedom and set off for London, where she was to find her true role in the battle for truth over tyranny.

Part 2 will focus on Virginia’s wartime activities!

“It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped.  Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centersof energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls…”
~ Robert F. Kennedy (from his speech at the University of Cape Town, 6th June 1966).

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