Virginia Hall, MBE was an American spy with the British Special Operations Executive during World War II and later with the American Office of Strategic Services and the Special Activities Division of the Central Intelligence Agency. She was “the most dangerous of all Allied spies”.
Hall was born in Baltimore, Maryland in 1906. She attended Roland Park Country School before continuing her education at Radcliffe College and Barnard College (Columbia University), where she studied French, Italian and German. She finished her studies in France, Germany and Austria and, intending to pursue a career in foreign affairs she stayed on in Europe.
Hall began working as a a Consular Service clerk at the American Embassy in Warsaw, Poland in 1931. In 1932 Hall’s gun discharged unexpectedly and a bullet went through her left foot. By the time she reached a hospital, her lower left leg had to be amputated from the knee down to save her life. Hall returned to the U.S where she practised using her wooden prosthetic leg, which she referred to as ‘Cuthbert’. Hall’s injury meant that she became ineligible for the Foreign Service and in 1939 she resigned from the Department of State.
In 1940, when the war broke out Hall volunteered as an ambulance driver until the French surrender. Finding herself in Vichy-controlled territory she moved on to London, where she worked a clerical job in the American Embassy. Hall was appalled at what the Nazis were doing to the Jewish people in Poland and knew that she had to do something to help. She joined the British Resistance, an organisation known as the British Special Operations Executive (SOE). The SOE were recruiting agents to work with the French resistance in training, logistics, and sabotage. Hall was sent back to Vichy in August 1941 and spent 15 months there. While posing as a correspondent for the New York Post, she helped to coordinate the activities of the French Underground in Vichy and the occupied zone of France. The French nicknamed her “la dame qui boite” and the Germans put “the limping lady” on their most wanted list. Her likeness was published on wanted posters.
When the Germans seized France in November, 1942 Hall escaped to Spain. She walked across the snow-covered Pyrenees to get there and spent the next year working for SOE in Madrid because the British believed it was too risky for her to return to France. In July 1943 Hall returned to London and was made an honourary Member of the Order of the British Empire.
In 1944, Hall joined the U.S. Office of Strategic Services (OSS) Special Operations Branch and returned to occupied France. She was given a forged French identification certificate for Marcelle Montagne and codenamed “Diane”. Hall was disguised as a heavy older farm worker, her clothing and the fact she was pretending to be old managed to disguse her limp. Hall lived with a farmer’s family and tended to the cows as her cover. She also took the farmer’s milk and cheese to market where she was able to overhear the Germans political discussions which she wired back to the OSS. Hall contacted the French Resistance in central France and mapped drop zones for supplies and commandos from England, found safe houses, and linked up with a Jedburgh team after the Allied Forces landed at Normandy. She helped to train three battalions of Resistance forces to wage guerrilla warfare against the Germans. In Hall’s final report back she stated that her her team had destroyed four bridges, derailed freight trains, severed a key rail line in multiple places and downed telephone lines. They were also credited with killing some 150 Germans and capturing 500 more.
In 1951, Hall joined the CIA working as an intelligence analyst on French parliamentary affairs. She worked alongside her husband, OSS agent Paul Goillot, as part of the Special Activities Division. Hall was one of the CIA’s first female operations officers. In 1966 Hall retired to a farm in Barnesville, Maryland. She died in 1982.
Hall was personally awarded a Distinguished Service Cross by OSS chief General William Donovan for her work in France. She was the only civilian woman awarded the medal during World War II and refused to be awarded the medal publicly as she was “still operational and most anxious to get busy.” The medal is currently on display in the CIA Museum’s OSS Gallery. The International Spy Museum in Washington, DC houses a permanent exhibit on Hall. It includes the suitcase radio she used to send messages to London in Morse code, her British Empire medal and some of her identification papers.