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Virginia Hall: America’s Most Feared WWII Spy

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Who was Virginia Hall? She is one of the most important (and least well-known) American spies of the Second World War. Read on to learn about her life and achievements.

Who was Virginia Hall? She is one of the most important (and least well-known) American spies of the Second World War. Read on to learn about her life and achievements.

Who Was Virginia Hall?

The purpose of the United Kingdom’s Special Operations Executives (SOE) during World War II was to engage in sabotage and reconnaissance in countries occupied by Axis powers during World War II. The agents of the SOE supplied French resistance groups with weapons and more. They often parachuted into France from England.

Virginia Hall was a member of the SOE and the first female agent to live in occupied France. She worked for 15 months there and became an expert in special operations. Hall was admired for her ability to organize resistance movements. She would provide agents with money, supplies, and weapons.

Hall assisted downed airmen to freedom by providing them with medical assistance and safe houses. In 1942, she left France to avoid being caught by the Nazis. The Germans gave Hall the nickname Artemis. The Gestapo considered her to be the most dangerous of all Allied spies.

Early Years

Virginia Hall Goillot was born in Baltimore, Maryland, on April 6, 1906. She attended Barnard College and Radcliffe College. As a student, she studied German, French, and Italian. Hall also attended George Washington University and studied French and Economics.

She traveled in Europe and was a student in Austria, France, and Germany. In 1931, Hall got a job as a Consular Service clerk at the American Embassy in Warsaw, Poland. She was then transferred to Turkey.

Loss of Leg

It was 1932, and Hall was out hunting birds. She tripped, and her gun discharged. Hall accidentally shot herself in the leg. The leg of Virginia Hall was amputated below the knee. She was then fitted with a wooden appendage. She gave it the nickname “Cuthbert.” After learning how to function with her wooden leg, Hall worked as a consular clerk in Estonia and Italy.

Becoming a Spy

Hall was an ambulance driver for the French army in February 1940. After France was defeated, she traveled to Spain. While there, she met George Bellows, a British intelligence officer. He was impressed with Hall and gave her the phone number of someone who could provide her with a job in England. It was a person who was part of the newly created SOE.

Joining the SOE

In April 1941, Hall joined the SOE. She went to an area of France that the Germans did not occupy. She told everyone she was a reporter from the New York Post as her cover. This made it possible for her to interview people and get information important to military planners. During this time, she would quickly change her appearance with clothing and make-up to create an effective disguise.

Jail Escape

In October 1941, Hall was notified that 12 British agents had been arrested in France. A wife of one of the agents worked with the SOE. She brought food and other items to her husband in the prison. The prisoner’s wife would smuggle tools into the prison inside of sardine tins. This made it possible for them to make a key to the door of the prison barracks where they were staying. The prisoners escaped and hid in the woods during an intense manhunt. Hall met with the hiding prisoners. She helped them to get to Spain and then back to England.

Avoiding Capture

Hall correctly anticipated the move of the German Gestapo into where she was staying in France. She fled without telling even her closest contacts. Hall took a train from Lyon, France, to Perpignan. She hiked the 7,500-foot Pyrenees pass with a guide and made it to Spain in two days.

Spanish authorities initially arrested her for an illegal border crossing. The American Embassy was able to get her released. She returned to London in 1943. Hall was then made an Honorary Member of the Order of the British Empire.

Illustration of Virginia Hall working at safe house in France

Illustration of Virginia Hall working at safe house in France

Return to France

Hall returned to France in March 1944 in a motor gunboat. She was unable to parachute into the area because of her artificial leg. Hall was given forged French identification cards. Her name would now be Marcelle Montagne. She was given the code name Diane.

Hall's job was to train and arm French resistance groups. Their mission would then be to conduct guerrilla activities and sabotage areas occupied by Germans. Their goal was to support the allied invasion of France, which was set to take place in June 1944.

Older Woman Disguise

Hall disguised herself as an older woman. She had her teeth filed down to look like a peasant woman. Hall also had made her hair gray. She had the shuffle of an old woman that disguised her limp. From March 1944 until July 1944, Hall wandered around the south of Paris. She sometimes appeared to be an elderly milkmaid.

During this time, Hall was busy finding and organizing drop zones. She established many safe houses. Hall also organized and supplied weapons to various French resistance groups. These groups successfully conducted small-scale attacks on Germans in the area.

Giving Up Her Disguise

In July 1944, Hall gave up her disguise. Her job was now to develop a headquarters in a barn near Le Chambon-sur-Lignon. Hall grew frustrated over the group of higher-ranking officers ignoring her input on how to handle things.

At the end of July, she was able to get three planeloads of supplies to land near the headquarters she had established. The other officers then gave Hall more respect as she distributed money to cover expenses and supplies. The three battalions of men she supported were very successful at sabotage operations. Their efforts led to Germans retreating from various areas of France.

Late in August 1944, Hall was able to tell her superiors that Germans had been liquidated in the part of France where she was operating. She left the area in September 1944. Her participation in the war was over.

Virginia Hall on her farm in Maryland

Virginia Hall on her farm in Maryland

Post War

During her time in France, Hall fell in Love with Paul Goillot. He was six inches shorter than her and eight years younger. The two of them got married in 1957. They had been living together off and on for years before they got married.

In 1947, Hall joined the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). She retired in 1966 at the mandatory retirement age of 60. Hall and her husband then moved to a farm in Maryland.

Death

Virginia Hall passed away on July 8, 1982, in Barnesville, Maryland. She was 76 years old. Hall was buried in Pikesville, Maryland at the Druid Ridge Cemetery.

Virginia Hall receiving the Distinguished Service Cross in 1945

Virginia Hall receiving the Distinguished Service Cross in 1945

Awards

During her life, Virginia Hall was given some of the most impressive honors in the world. She was made an honorary member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE). Hall was also the only female during World War II to be given the Distinguished Service Cross from the American government. The government of France also awarded her the Croix de Guerre, a medal awarded to individuals who performed acts of heroism involving combat with an enemy.

Book about Virginia Hall

Book about Virginia Hall

Important Books About Virginia Hall

  • Code Name Badass: The True Story of Virginia Hall by Heather Demetrios
  • The Spy, Virginia Hall, an American in the War By Vincent Nouzille
  • Hall of Mirrors: Virginia Hall: America's Greatest Spy of WWII by Craig R. Gralley
  • The Lady is a Spy: Virginia Hall, World War II Hero of the French Resistance by Don Mitchell
  • The Spy with the Wooden Leg: The Story of Virginia Hall by Nancy Polette
  • The Wolves at the Door: The True Story of America's Greatest Female Spy by Judith Pearson
  • A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II by Sonia Purnell

Movies About Virginia Hall

  • A movie titled A Woman of No Importance based on Sonia Purnell's book about Virginia Hall was released in March 2018.
  • A film about Virginia Hall called A Call to Spy was released in October 2020.

Virginia Hall: The Most Feared Allied Spy of WWII

Sources and Further Reading

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

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