Remarkable Women: The Life and Times of Virginia Hall (Part 2)

“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

Honours

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)

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).