The Limping Lady: Virginia Hall's Extraordinary Journey as a WWII Spy

To hear more about Virginia Hall, listen to True Spies, The Limping Lady


Virginia Hall had her heart set on a job with the US Foreign Service while studying in France and Vienna, earning her diploma in economics and international law and becoming fluent in French, German, and Italian. Tragically, before Virginia could take the Foreign Service exams, a 1933 hunting accident resulted in the amputation of her left leg below the knee. 

“The State Department had strict rules against employees with disabilities joining the diplomatic corps, and Hall was furious when she was barred from testing,” Craig R. Gralley writes in Studies in Intelligence.

Virginia was in her 20s and determined to ensure her physical limitations would not define her. Returning to the family farm in Maryland, Hall learned to walk with the clunky wooden prosthetic limb, which she nicknamed “Cuthbert”. Her wooden leg had an aluminum foot, weighed more than seven pounds, and created pressure sores, but Hall was not deterred. She retired from her job as a clerk in the State Department in 1939 and set out on her next adventure.

Virginia Hall's many passports

The Limping Lady: Virginia Hall's Extraordinary Journey as a WWII Spy

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To hear more about Virginia Hall, listen to True Spies, The Limping Lady


Virginia Hall had her heart set on a job with the US Foreign Service while studying in France and Vienna, earning her diploma in economics and international law and becoming fluent in French, German, and Italian. Tragically, before Virginia could take the Foreign Service exams, a 1933 hunting accident resulted in the amputation of her left leg below the knee. 

“The State Department had strict rules against employees with disabilities joining the diplomatic corps, and Hall was furious when she was barred from testing,” Craig R. Gralley writes in Studies in Intelligence.

Virginia was in her 20s and determined to ensure her physical limitations would not define her. Returning to the family farm in Maryland, Hall learned to walk with the clunky wooden prosthetic limb, which she nicknamed “Cuthbert”. Her wooden leg had an aluminum foot, weighed more than seven pounds, and created pressure sores, but Hall was not deterred. She retired from her job as a clerk in the State Department in 1939 and set out on her next adventure.

Virginia Hall's many passports

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Virginia Hall: Into the Fire

Hall's wartime exploits began in France, where she worked as an ambulance driver for the French Army Medical Corps during the early years of WWII. Her fluency in French and knowledge of the France's countryside made her an asset but with the fall of France in 1940, Hall faced a new challenge as the Nazis tightened their grip on the country.

She fled to London and caught the attention of Winston Churchill’s Special Operations Executive (SOE), the underground army tasked with setting Europe ablaze to fight the Nazis. She’d learned the basics of encoding and decoding, how to detect surveillance, and how to pick a lock. The SOE subjected her to realistic simulations of a Gestapo interrogation, including water torture. 

Despite her gender and the prevalent biases of the time, Hall was recruited as a British intelligence agent and sent back to France to work with resistance groups. Using forged documents and working undercover as a reporter for the New York Post, Hall’s mission - code-named Geologist-5 - was to provide SOE with information on Vichy France’s political developments, economic conditions, and the resistance movement.

A Call to Spy explores the life of Virginia Hall, played by actress Sarah Megan Thomas


Virginia Hall: America’s WWII Female Spy

Virginia perfected her craft as she went. She developed four distinct IDs - Virginia, Brigitte, Marie, and Germaine - one persona for the police, the others for the various Resistance cells. One of Virginia’s agents, Suzanne Bertillon, established a network of 90 spies in southern France who provided intelligence on ammunition, fuel depots, and a German submarine base being built in Marseilles that would be destroyed by Allied bombs.

Born in Baltimore in 1906, Virginia Hall soon became a linchpin of the French resistance. Money, clothes, supplies, and access to escape routes could all be found at her various doorsteps. But the world was crumbling around her. Pearl Harbor brought the US into a global war in December 1941.

August 1942 was the beginning of the end for Virginia Hall’s “Heckler” circuit. Three agents were arrested at a cafe in Limoges, nearly 200 miles from Lyon. There were no serious charges against them but they were imprisoned. A year into her time in France, Virginia was aware of her growing notoriety. It made her a target and it appeared she was deceived by Abbé Alesch - a priest no less. The net was closing in on Virginia, the woman the Gestapo dubbed "the Limping Lady".

Gen. Donovan awarded Hall a Distinguished Service Cross

From the SEO to the OSS

In September 1942, she sent a message to London: “My address has been given to Vichy… I may be watched… my time is about up.”

Virginia Hall was spotted and jailed by Spanish authorities for illegally crossing the border. The US Embassy secured her release, but the British refused her request to return to France fearing her cover was blown. 

Instead, Hall joined the American OSS (the US equivalent to Britain’s SOE) in March 1944 and landed in Brittany as ‘Diane’ aboard a British PT boat (her artificial leg stopped her from parachuting in). She soon contacted the French Resistance, mapped drop zones for supplies and commandos from England, and linked up with a Jedburgh team once the Allies landed at Normandy. Hall helped train three battalions of Resistance forces to wage guerrilla warfare against the Germans.

She organized several thousand Maquis, blew up bridges, and conducted other sabotage operations to support the Allies’ D-Day invasion. US General ‘Wild’ Bill Donovan personally awarded Hall a Distinguished Service Cross in 1945, the only one awarded to a civilian woman in WWII.

To hear more about Virginia Hall, listen to True Spies, The Limping Lady


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