"The woman who limps is one of the most dangerous Allied agents in France. We must find and destroy her." – Orders of the Geheime Staatspolizei (Secret State Police, the Gestapo) in Nazi-occupied France.
The "woman who limps" was Virginia Hall, an agent of the Office of Strategic Services. Her sharp-featured face with shoulder-length hair and wide-set eyes, details provided by French double agents, appeared on Gestapo wanted posters throughout Vichy France. The Nazis were determined to stop this woman who had established French Resistance networks, located drop zones for money and weapons, and helped downed airmen and escaped prisoners of war travel to safety.
Hall, the daughter of a wealthy family from Baltimore, had wanted to become a Foreign Service Officer in the years just before the outbreak of World War II but was turned down by the State Department despite her being fluent in French, German, and Italian. Women could be clerks but not officers. Besides, she was missing her left leg below the knee, the result of a hunting accident in Turkey years earlier, which to the State Department further disqualified her. (She had nicknamed her wooden prosthesis Cuthbert.)
Unwanted by the U.S. government after the outbreak of World War II, Hall went to work for the British Special Operations Executive. In joining, she became the SOE's first female operative sent into France. For two years she spied in Lyon, part of the Nazi-allied Vichy government of France, under the guise of a New York Post reporter. After the United States entered the war in late 1941, she was forced to escape to Spain by foot across the Pyrenees Mountains in the middle of winter. At one point during the journey she transmitted a message to SOE headquarters in London saying that Cuthbert was giving her difficulty. The reply from an unknowing SOE officer: "If Cuthbert is giving you difficulty, have him eliminated."
Hall eventually made it back to London, where the SOE trained her as a wireless radio operator. While there she learned of the newly formed Office of Strategic Services. She quickly joined, and, at her request, the OSS sent her back into occupied France, an incredibly dangerous mission given that she was already well-known to the Germans as a supposed newspaper reporter. Though only in her thirties with a tall, athletic build, she disguised herself as an elderly peasant, dying her soft brown hair a graying black, shuffling her feet to hide her limp, and wearing full skirts and bulky sweaters to add weight to her frame. Her forged French identity papers said she was Marcelle Montagne, daughter of a commercial agent named Clement Montagne of Vichy. Her code name was Diane.
Infiltrating France in March 1944, she initially acted as an observer and radio operator in the Haute-Loire, a mountainous region of Central France. While undercover, she coordinated parachute drops of arms and supplies for Resistance groups and reported German troop movements to London as well as organized escape routes for downed Allied airmen and escaped prisoners of war. By staying on the move she was able to avoid the Germans, who were trying to track her from her radio transmissions. Her chief pursuer was no less than Gestapo chief Nikolaus "Klaus" Barbie, who had well earned his nickname: "The Butcher of Lyon." The Nazis believed Hall was Canadian, and Barbie once reportedly told his underlings, "I'd give anything to lay my hands on that Canadian b—."
In mid-August 1944, Hall was reinforced by the arrival of a three-man Jedburgh team. Together they armed and trained three battalions of French Resistance fighters for sabotage missions against the retreating Germans. In her final report to headquarters, Hall stated that 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.
For her work with the SOE, Hall was presented the Order of the British Empire by King George VI. After the war, she was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross—the only one awarded to a civilian woman during World War II. It was pinned on by OSS head U.S. Army Maj. Gen. William J. "Wild Bill" Donovan himself. She went to work for the National Committee for a Free Europe, a CIA front organization associated with Radio Free Europe. She used her covert action expertise in a wide range of agency activities, chiefly in support of resistance groups in Iron Curtain countries until she retired in 1966.
Virginia Hall died on July 8, 1982, aged 76. In honor of her courage and trailblazing exploits, in 2017 the CIA named a training facility after her: "The Virginia Hall Expeditionary Center."
Poster By - U.S. Army MSG Timothy Lawn