It has been 75 years since World War II ended, but there are still new incredible stories being uncovered all the time. Part of the reason is because of the internet and how readily people can share information, and part of the reason is because classified documents are finally being made public after all these years. Even after the war ended, it was dangerous to release the names of spies who may still be involved in operations, or potentially make people targets for retaliation.
But now that it is safe to declassify information about the war, we are learning of some incredible tales of bravery and dazzling heroics at long last. A lot of those incredible World War II stories involve spies. Everyone loves a dramatic tale of espionage and danger! And there is one spy whose story stands out from all the others: Virginia Hall. Though her name may not sound familiar to most people, Hall is regarded as America’s greatest female spy.
Hall was born in Baltimore, Maryland in 1906. A bright, inquisitive child and student, she went on to attend Radcliffe College, Barnard College, and George Washington University, before finishing her schooling in Europe. In school in the United States, she had studied she studied French, Italian, and German, and she continued her studies in France, Germany, and Austria, before being appointed a Consular Service clerk at the American Embassy in Warsaw, Poland, and then Venice and Estonia.
During her time in Europe, Hall had a hunting accident, which resulted in the amputation of her lower left leg. Her attempts to become a diplomat with the United States Foreign Service were repeatedly denied because women were not permitted to be employees at the time, and she was also rejected because of a rule against hiring people with disabilities. So in 1939, she left her post as a consular clerk.
Determined to do more than work as a clerk, but with limited options as a woman, Hall took a job as an ambulance driver for the army of France in 1940, at the start of World War II. She then moved to Spain, where she met a British Intelligence officer, who became her connection for her dream job in England. Hall was hired by the newly-created Special Operations Executive and became its second-ever female agent.
Hall worked as a spy in France, garnering information about the Germans. The fact that she was a woman-led people to underestimate her, and she could also easily change her appearance to fit in, which worked in her favor. These things, combined with her brilliant mind, helped make Hall an excellent spy and attributed to her lengthy work in France without capture.
Hall’s many amazing, historically important adventures have been captured in a few recent excellent books. The Wolves at the Door: The True Story of America’s Greatest Female Spy by Judith Pearsondetails how Hall worked for the SEO, locating drop zones, recruiting helpers and securing safe houses for agents, and helping prisoners of war flee to England, all while wanted posters bearing her image were circulated around France and her eventual flight from France the only way possible: on foot through the frozen Pyrénées Mountains.
As we see in A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II by Sonia Purnell, the fear of capture didn’t keep Hall away from France for very long. She then joined the American espionage organization, the Office of Special Services, and returned to France disguised as a peasant woman. And Hall of Mirrors: Virginia Hall: America’s Greatest Spy of WWII by Craig Gralley also covers Hall’s fascinating story and how she became the Nazi’s most sought-after enemy, whom they called “The Lady Who Limps.”
It is a shame to think how long Hall’s tales of bravery have been languishing in the dark. She is a shining example of a woman who fought sexism and adversity, who blazed a trail for the women spies who came after her, and whose valiant efforts were an incalculable asset to the Allied Forces. It is believed that Hall was responsible for killing 150 German soldiers and capturing 500 others, and in her lifetime, she was awarded a Distinguished Service Cross, the only one awarded to a civilian woman in World War II, as well as the Croix de Guerre with Palme by France. And she was made an honorary member of the Order of the British Empire.
True to the nature of her profession, Hall refused to discuss or write about her work as a spy, which is in part the reason that her important story has faded into obscurity. But her’s was a life lived so large that we are very fortunate it has spawned several excellent recent books to help us learn about the invaluable legacy she left for women—and spies.
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Liberty Hardy is a Book Riot senior contributing editor, co-host of All the Books, and above all else, a ravenous reader. She resides in Maine with her cats, Millay, Farrokh, and Zevon, who hate to read.