One of the Allies’ most heroic spies was an amputee turned down by the State Department because of her leg amputation who served with both the British Special Operations Executive and the American Office of Strategic Services, coordinating resistance attacks and other operations in Nazi-occupied Europe.
Virginia Hall lost her left leg in a hunting accident while serving in the American embassy in Turkey. She ordered a wooden a prosthetic that she named “Cuthbert.” and practiced with it to ensure she could do nearly everything with it that she had done with two legs.
Despite her efforts, the State Department turned Hall down when she requested to take the oral exam needed for her to become a diplomat.
She then returned to France and, when Germany invaded Poland, joined the French Army as an ambulance driver and learned how the Nazis were treating Jewish people in Poland. When France fell to the Nazis in 1940, she escaped to London and was quickly recruited into the SOE.
The SOE sent her to France as its first female operative in the country. Hall worked from the city of Lyon as a spy posing as a writer for an American newspaper. While in Southern France, she helped establish safe drop zones for the insertion of British agents and supplies for resistance fighters.
The Gestapo began focusing on the region and had orders to hunt “La Dame Qui Boite,” the “Limping Lady.” Hall and her co-conspirators fled in 1942 over the Pyrenees Mountains into Spain. When she reported to the SOE that “Cuthbert” was giving her trouble in the mountains, headquarters told her, “If Cuthbert is giving you difficulty, have him eliminated.”
What was she supposed to do? Shoot her leg again?
Hall was arrested in Spain because she lacked papers, but a letter smuggled to the American consul there got her released six weeks later. She continued working for the SOE in Madrid but thought she was being coddled in such a safe mission.
She wrote to the headquarters, “I am living pleasantly and wasting time. It isn’t worthwhile and after all, my neck is my own. If I am willing to get a crick in it, I think that’s my prerogative.”
After returning to London, Hall attended training as a radio operator with the SOE and was awarded the Order of the British Empire. Her OBE medal was granted by King George VI in 1943.
But in early 1944, Hall learned that America had stood up its own spy agency, the Office of Strategic Services. She immediately volunteered for OSS service in occupied France.
The Americans got her a ride into France on a British torpedo boat and she went undercover as an elderly milkmaid. She was probably the only elderly milkmaid in the country who coordinated parachute drops, reported German troop movements, and snuck across the country while transmitting Nazi military secrets via a suitcase radio.
Using supplies inserted into the drop zones she had selected, Hall trained and armed three battalions of French resistance fighters and prepared them for D-Day. When the Allies launched Operation Overlord and came across the channel, her forces launched a series of attacks to disrupt the Germans and help the liberators.
Fighters operating under Hall’s direction derailed trains, sabotaged bridges, destroyed rail and telephone lines, and killed and captured hundreds of Germans.
In one particularly impressive move, Hall and her fighters blew up a bridge and ambushed the German convoy attempting to use it, killing 150 and capturing 500 of them.
As the war in Europe wound to a close, Gen. Bill Donovan, head of the OSS approved the award of a Distinguished Service Cross to Hall and suggested to President Harry Truman that he pin it on her personally. Instead, Hall requested that the ceremony be kept private so that she could continue work in the clandestine service.
The administration agreed and Gen. Bill Donovan, head of the OSS, pinned the medal on her in September 1945. She was the first civilian and only American woman to receive the award in World War II.
Hall continued to serve in the OSS and then the Central Intelligence Agency until her mandatory retirement at the age of 60 in 1966.