True Spies Episode 24: The Limping Lady
NARRATOR: Welcome to True Spies. Week by week, mission by mission, you’ll hear the true stories behind the world’s greatest espionage operations. You’ll meet the people who navigate this secret world. What do they know? What are their skills? And what would you do in their position?
This is True Spies Episode 24: The Limping Lady.
VIRGINIA HALL: He said that he was cut adrift now and at a loose end. He asked for instructions and advice. He insisted that he be put in touch with someone else as well as myself, in case I disappeared overnight...
NARRATOR: He could very well have been the downfall of this week’s True Spy - Virginia Hall. There’s a very good chance that you’ve never heard of Virginia, one of the Allies’ bravest wartime heroines. And no one would blame you. You see, she never gave interviews. Never wrote a memoir. For reasons that will become all too clear, she actively avoided the limelight. And make no mistake - she’s made no exception for us. In fact, she died in 1982. But her life was so exceptional that in this episode, we’ve used a collection of her own declassified reports from behind enemy lines - voiced by an actor - to bring one, decisive chapter of her incredible story to life. Between the summer of 1941 and the winter of 1942, Virginia Hall had been a linchpin of the French resistance. Under orders from British intelligence, she’d acted as a liaison between the UK government and the various groups who sought to undermine the Nazi war machine. Money, clothes, supplies, escape routes. All could be found at her various doorsteps. Now, the world she had painstakingly built was crumbling around her.
VIRGINIA HALL: On Sunday morning, after learning the news of the invasion, I saw one of the French Secret Service [officials]. He heartily advised my immediate departure.
NARRATOR: In November of 1942, Virginia was forced to flee France, over the Pyrenees Mountains into neutral Spain. Days later, battered and bloodied by the trail, Virginia and her guide took refuge in a shepherd’s hut on the Mantet Pass, high up in the mountains. Finally, Virginia had the opportunity to contact London. London’s decisive reply came quickly. ‘If Cuthbert is tiresome, have him eliminated.’ Brutal. But if only it were that simple. Virginia glanced down at her left leg. From the knee down, her woolen sock was soaked in blood. Cuthbert had entered Virginia’s life in 1933, after a hunting accident in Smyrna, Turkey. She had been working as a clerk at the US Embassy there and enjoyed shooting birds in the marshlands around the city. On one of these expeditions, she slipped, discharging a 12-gauge shotgun into her left foot. Before long, gangrene had set in. Goodbye, foot. Hello, Cuthbert. The accident had been a grisly highlight in an otherwise unremarkable career up until that point. Despite her obvious intellect, she had never been allowed to progress past the clerical grades within her various European postings with the US State Department. And once she’d acquired Cuthbert, her chances at career satisfaction were cut even finer. An obscure law prevented amputees from becoming fully-fledged diplomats. Throughout her career, she had lived in the looming shadow of fascism. When war broke out in 1939, she could easily have returned to the relative safety of her native Maryland. But that would never be Virginia. Virginia decided to act.
VIRGINIA HALL: My neck is my own. I was willing to get a crick in it.
NARRATOR: She resigned from the US State Department, and made her way to France. Eager to be close to the action, she volunteered to drive ambulances for the French Army on the Northeastern border with Germany. In the end, it had taken the Nazis less than two months to raise swastikas in Paris. Now, Britain stood alone against Hitler. At the time, America had no interest in repeating the enormous losses it had suffered in entering the last war in Europe. If Virginia was going to make a difference, it would have to be alongside the British. And in the sweltering summer of 1940, Virginia made a fascinating new acquaintance who would help her do just that.
VIRGINIA HALL: We met quite by chance, at a train station on the border between France and Spain. He heard my accent and decided to strike up a conversation.
NARRATOR: His name was George Bellows - an undercover British agent based in the Spanish border town of Irun. Bellows found his new friend incredibly compelling. She had just crossed the border from France and was on her way to Britain. He listened intently as she described the deteriorating conditions she’d witnessed on her travels.
VIRGINIA HALL: Different things lacked in different places... People preferred to keep the foods they’d worked for then sell them for money, which didn’t buy them much anyhow.
NARRATOR: In occupied France, food was already scarce. Much of what was grown was exported back to its German occupiers.
VIRGINIA HALL: And speaking of the great exportation of wine and the severe rationing of the rest; a Frenchman I met complained ‘and they don’t even drink it’. It really was the final insult!
NARRATOR: When he heard about her time driving ambulances, often under heavy fire, he was mightily impressed.
VIRGINIA HALL: He gave me a phone number. Apparently, Mr Bellows had a friend who might be able to find me something interesting to do when I came ashore at Dover.
NARRATOR: Months passed. Virginia reached London, just in time for the Blitz. As the bombs fell night after night, she considered returning to America. Well, wouldn’t you? In any case, it was too late. Trans-Atlantic tickets were all but impossible to come by, and her resignation from the State Department had made her ineligible for official passage home. By now, it was January 1941. Stranded in London, she rifled through her papers until she came across the phone number she’d been gifted in Spain. Across the city, a telephone rang. Nicolas Bodington, general staff officer for the Special Operations Executive, picked up the receiver. Once he’d been assured of her bona fides, he invited her to his Mayfair townhouse for dinner. Now, bear in mind, Virginia had no idea who this man really was, or who he worked for. Over the course of her meal, she chatted openly about her plans. If she couldn’t get back to the USA, she was intent on returning to France. As a citizen of a neutral country - this was before Pearl Harbour - she was sure she could strike at the Nazi occupiers in ways that would have been unthinkable for a British or French agent.
The next morning, Bodington rushed to the office of the Special Operations Executive at Baker Street. The organization - nicknamed ‘the Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare’ - had been formed by Winston Churchill just six months previously. Its purpose? To help organize the disparate French Resistance into a unified force. To sabotage the Nazis by any means necessary. But the fledgling agency had, so far, struggled to recruit many suitable operatives. And, to be fair, the idea of dropping into Nazi territory with little more than a revolver, a bulky suitcase radio and a list of French Resistance contacts - who may or may not already be dead, imprisoned, or secretly working for the Germans - was a hard sell.
Virginia didn’t need much convincing. She had seen first hand what was at stake. She would enter Vichy France - a so-called ‘Unoccupied zone’ with its own puppet government - as a journalist, ostensibly working for the New York Post. Her neutral nationality, and the simple fact that she was a woman, would allow her to travel far more freely than other agents. In the summer of 1941, a brief and brutal period of training began. Yes, she learned the basics of encoding and decoding, how to detect surveillance, how to pick a lock. But she was also subjected to realistic simulations of a Gestapo interrogation, complete with water torture.
VIRGINIA HALL: Most importantly, we were taught to look natural and ordinary while doing unnatural and extraordinary things.
NARRATOR: But how do you build a network of guerrilla fighters across a quarter of a million square miles of enemy territory? How do you earn trust, without giving too much of yourself away? No one knew, because no one had ever tried until now. Her final briefing took place in an SOE safehouse in the center of London. It was here that the full weight of her mission was made clear.
VIRGINIA HALL: The conducting officer told us that in desperate circumstances, we might be expected to kill. He said that the first kill would be the hardest.
NARRATOR: To this day, we don’t know if she ever found out for herself. On the 3rd of September, 1941, Virginia checked into the Hotel De La Paix in the town of Vichy - the heart of ‘Free France’. She registered with the local police using her real name and soon set to work. As far as anyone knew, she was just another member of the press pack. Virginia made friends easily. She soon won over a number of high-ranking French officials and even made a friend in the Censors Office, who ensured that her ‘articles’ - which were, in reality, intelligence reports - were able to reach her paymasters intact. Here’s an example: Repression against communism continued energetically during the past week, with 61 arrests, to say nothing of around 120 Jews arrested in Paris.
NARRATOR: Even so, Virginia was not long for Vichy. The town was crawling with Gestapo, and capture would lead to torture or worse. For many, it already had. She dyed her hair, abandoned the stylish clothes that marked her out as a metropolitan woman in a newly conservative country, and traveled south to Lyon. The city had always had a rebellious reputation, and word had reached Virginia of a few brave Lyonnais who had begun to sow the seeds of dissent in its little bars and bistros. Hearsay alone wasn’t reason enough to risk blowing her cover. Lyon’s proximity to the Swiss border presented an opportunity to smuggle her reports into neutral territory, without risking the lives of her friends in Vichy. But when she arrived, there was quite literally no room at the inn.
VIRGINIA HALL: Lyon was so crowded with refugees that it was almost impossible to find a place to live. A couple hundred thousand extra in a town of some 575,000 adds a proper congestion to the housing problem.
NARRATOR: Virginia was desperate. To return to Vichy - the heart of the Gestapo’s operations in the Unoccupied Zone - would be dangerous. Exhausted from her travels, with a dull ache pulsing thanks to her wooden stump, she was almost out of options. There was one last place she could try.
VIRGINIA HALL: There was an order of nursing sisters in Lyons who used to wear a very quaint headdress, a sort of white dutch cap with wings. The bonnet and chin gear made a charming frame for the face, but war condemned this distinctive headgear. The sisters couldn’t get their gas masks on!
NARRATOR: Up on a hillside stood the Sainte Elisabeth convent - a cloistered order of nuns who had little experience in the hospitality trade. Fortunately, they took pity on the limping lady.
VIRGINIA HALL: So, the hotels having turned me down for lack of rooms, the sisters kindly took me in and gave me a tiny room in a square tower at one end of the convent up on the hill. I had a most magnificent view over the city and up the river - and the undivided attention of a strong north wind…
NARRATOR: As you can probably imagine, for a free-thinking American, convent life took some adapting to.
VIRGINIA HALL: We lunched at 10 am, supped at 5 pm, and the gates closed at 6.30 pm - it was certainly a change to my pre-war existence in France...
NARRATOR: Virginia settled into life in Lyon, perfecting her craft as she went. Drawing on her childhood love of drama, she developed four distinct identities - Virginia, Brigitte, Marie, and Germaine. Each persona would be known to a different group of people - one for the police, others for the various Resistance cells she encountered. She placed small rubber inserts in her cheeks to alter her face and voice. A huge pair of spectacles, a few well-placed hairclips and some judiciously applied makeup, and she could switch between them in minutes. With this extra dimension of security, she was able to start building some tentative friendships.
VIRGINIA HALL: I made such a lot of friends - doctors, businessmen, a few newspaper people, refugees, professors. One nice red-headed doctor had a chasse nearby, so I could go shooting again - making sure to keep Cuthbert well out of the way.
NARRATOR: The American vice-consul in Lyon, George Whittinghill, knew her by her real name. Despite his supposed neutrality, he was a quick convert to Virginia’s cause. With his help, she was able to achieve her goal of sending coded dispatches over the border into Switzerland in a diplomatic pouch. From there, they could be safely forwarded to London. From Virginia’s letters, as well as reports from the tiny outfit of radio operators who had been dropped into the country in the intervening months, the Special Operations Executive finally had a working picture of the situation on the ground. Meanwhile, she continued building her network, codenamed Heckler. In the time she’d been in Lyon, she’d made some very useful friends. First among them was a gynecologist, Dr Jean Rousset. Once Virginia had been introduced, he wasted no time in helping her.
VIRGINIA HALL: Dr Rousset was my most valuable assistant and served me as a letterbox for the Special Operations Executive. He also took care of any of our people here who had been ill. The doctor furnished me with certain information and verified other information for me. He was most devoted to the good cause, and quite willing to do anything for us. He richly deserves a very large medal.
NARRATOR: His surgery became one of Virginia’s favorite safehouses - after all, her presence there could always be explained by a nasty rash. With the doctor acting as a trusted lieutenant, Virginia was able to expand her network as far as Paris. As her influence grew, so did her reputation in France - so did the risk. After a punishing winter, her life of stress and isolation was beginning to take its toll.
VIRGINIA HALL: As usual, all things came in a series of three: a cold in the head; an ache in the thorax; and snow, rain, and slush out of doors. The dark days were fairly abysmal and a short English word described one’s mood. The word, you know, is written with four letters: s***. Purest Anglo-Saxon. Everything revolved around first: stomach, second: inability to purchase shoes.
NARRATOR: August 1942 was the beginning of the end for Virginia’s Heckler circuit. Three agents were arrested at a cafe in Limoges, nearly 200 miles from Lyon. They had planned to meet in a casual, public setting, but two of the men were running late. The most punctual among them, codenamed Justin, was already known to the police and the Gestapo. Almost out of his mind with anxiety, and sweating in the summer heat, he waited alone in the cafe - a sitting duck.
VIRGINIA HALL: Justin was left alone in a cafe and looked so obviously nervous that an inspector of police felt he had better question him.
NARRATOR: The inspector searched the agent, finding an enormous 65,000 francs on his person - approximately $15,000 in today’s money.
VIRGINIA HALL: He asked him where he came from and what his business was. Justin said that he was a shirt maker in Lyon. Asked how much he earned, he said 8,000 francs a month, and added: "Mais c'est pas énorme, vous savez." (But it’s not enormous, you know.)
NARRATOR: Shirt makers in Lyon did not make 8,000 francs a month - hardly anyone did.
VIRGINIA HALL: The good inspector positively jumped at that and decided he was an agent of some sort. He had a look at the contents of his pockets and the money he had was nice and new, not pinned and all in serie, so of course he must have come from England or Germany.
NARRATOR: The money that had been supplied to the agent by the SOE had clearly been delivered in a lump sum - the serial numbers on the notes were all in order. It was a careless move on London’s part and it wasn’t their only blunder.
VIRGINIA HALL: The inspector waited for the other two and picked them up as well. They were also well-supplied with money. Furthermore, they had identity cards from different towns, but all made out in the same handwriting. It really wasn’t good enough.
NARRATOR: The men were escorted to the police station. Luckily for them, Virginia had friends in high places.
VIRGINIA HALL: Fortunately, someone was decent enough to let them burn their notes and papers. They confiscated an automatic pistol, and the radio box, and put them in a safe place so that they don’t appear in their official records. The result was that all three were held, but there was no serious charge against them.
NARRATOR: Nonetheless, all three were imprisoned. At the time, it was crime enough to be English. The loss of three good men was a blow. But it was lower down Virginia’s list of worries than you might expect. While she attempted to organize their release, it had come to her attention that her studiously maintained anonymity was under threat.
VIRGINIA HALL: Somebody had been a dope and given my name and address away. I was getting astounding personages at the safehouse in Lyon who wanted to go to England. I remember one Monsieur Vieville, sent by a Monsieur Lanlo of Nice. But I didn’t know Monsieur Lanlo! Vieville presented himself with the words: “I come to bring you 10 eggs and I can bring you four more if you want.’ Can you believe it?
NARRATOR: Many of those who found Virginia were, like Monsieur Vieville, simply desperate people with tenuous connections to the Resistance. But the allegiance of desperate people is easily won. And no one knew that better than the Gestapo. The German secret police had begun recruiting informants in Lyon, with the generous offer of 20,000 francs a month, plus bonuses. Many took up their offer. Their orders were simple. Firstly, they were to report any anti-German sentiment they read or overheard as they went about their day. Secondly, they were to look out for a few individuals in particular - including a limping lady. A year into her time in France, Virginia was aware of her growing notoriety. Trust was at a premium, and one wrong move could bring everything tumbling down. Or, as it turned out, one priest.
VIRGINIA HALL: I couldn’t believe that he was a phony, because his note from WOL contained things that only WOL and I could possibly have known.
NARRATOR: WOL - believed to stand for War Office Liaison - was one of the most active Resistance circuits in Paris. The French capital had become a nightmarish shadow of its former self. The chatter of bon vivants and libertines in the city’s salons had faded to a whisper. The hot breath of the Gestapo emanated from its every nook and cranny. It was from this nest of vipers that Abbé Robert Alesch, a priest in the suburbs of the French capital, came knocking on the door of Dr Jean Rousset in Lyon. It was August 1942, and Alesch was acting as a courier for the WOL circuit, transporting valuable intelligence between Paris and the SOE circuits in the south. He was there to deliver a bundle of microfilms, and collect money and documents to take back to WOL.
VIRGINIA HALL: The courier came and deposited his package with the doctor, but as I had not deposited mine - 150 grand - and he was in a hurry, he went back to Paris without anything from me.
NARRATOR: Dr Rousset noted that the nervy courier had asked to see Virginia - going by the name Marie, at the time - in person. This wasn’t unusual. After all, you could never be sure quite who a contact was working for. The priest promised to return in a week. Three weeks later, he finally reappeared.
VIRGINIA HALL: As the Doctor had certain qualms about keeping such a large sum of money about his house, and the courier had specifically asked to see me, I took the money over to him as soon as Dr. Rousset advised me of his arrival.
NARRATOR: At Dr Rousset’s surgery, Virginia took stock of Abbé Alesch. A youthful 30-something with piercing blue eyes, he was dressed in the traditional black cassock of his profession. But something was wrong. When he asked to confirm Virginia's identity, he seemed nervous, almost queasy. Worse still, he had a German accent.
VIRGINIA HALL: He had no documents and excused his delay in returning by saying that one of his most important aides had been arrested, and he was afraid that he had a document on him with some names, so the Abbé had stayed for a while to see what happened.
NARRATOR: The accent could be explained away - Alesch was from Alsace, he said - a border region between Germany and France. What happened next was harder to gloss over.
VIRGINIA HALL: I gave the Abbé a packet of money and wished him Godspeed. He was to return the following Tuesday. On Saturday, a courier I had sent to Marseilles came back with the news, received from another former WOL courier, that three WOL agents had been arrested on the 15th and 16th of August.
NARRATOR: Three members of the Abbé’s circuit had been arrested a week before he had met Virginia in Lyon. He hadn’t breathed a word about it.
VIRGINIA HALL: I was uneasy in my mind about the Abbé.
NARRATOR: During her time in France, Virginia had honed a sixth sense for danger. This time, she chose to ignore it. Reports of arrests were coming in from all over the country, and fatigue was setting in. To continue her mission, she chose to rely on what was in front of her.
VIRGINIA HALL: Only WOL knew Dr Rousset’s address, and that envelopes left there for ‘Marie’ came to me.
NARRATOR : On the 2nd of September, the Abbé returned. When pressed about the arrests, he claimed that he had not been in contact with WOL since the first half of August, and that he only dealt directly with two agents in Paris - one of whom was the recipient of the SOE’s money. Smelling a rat, Virginia asked him to describe the WOL agent who collected his packages. Nervously, he described her as tall and blonde. He couldn’t have been further off. Virginia knew that she was a short brunette. What would you do? Demand to see his papers? Or perhaps you’d seek a more permanent salve to your suspicions.
Remember, Virginia was licensed to kill - a little bottle of cyanide tablets were always on her person. It wouldn’t be hard to ‘offer the Abbé a drink’ if it became clear that he was acting against the SOE. As it happened, she didn’t move against Alesch. Perhaps she was simply too tired or decided that the information coming through the Abbé was too valuable to discard. Another factor could have been the Abbé’s somewhat pathetic demeanor. Virginia felt a huge amount of responsibility to the men in her care - a clever operator could capitalize on that.
VIRGINIA HALL: He said that he was cut adrift now and at a loose end. He asked for instructions and advice.
NARRATOR: Some of the instructions that Alesch requested did raise an eyebrow, however.
VIRGINIA HALL: He insisted that he be put in touch with someone else as well as myself, in case I disappeared overnight...
NARRATOR: Later, Virginia would remember those words. Later, they would keep her up at night. Robert Alesch was his real name. He was a priest. After the war, Virginia would learn that those two facts were the only true things she’d ever known about him. In his sermons, the charismatic young preacher railed against the Nazi occupier. He took confession with scared young men who confided in him about their work with the resistance. Then, those young men would vanish. Driven by personal greed, he had approached German military intelligence - the Abwehr - and offered his services as a spy in late 1941. His reputation as a staunch anti-Nazi allowed him access to the WOL circuit. Soon, he was intercepting their intelligence and delivering them to his German bosses. It was Alesch who had lured the captured WOL agents to their arrest at the hands of the Gestapo. In time, he would engineer the capture of 60 more members of the group.
Operating in the heart of occupied France, it had been one of the most precious sources of information to the British. Now it lay in tatters, and Robert Alesch was a very rich man indeed. The money that Virginia and the SOE had entrusted him with had never reached its intended recipients. The net was closing in on Virginia. By October of 1942, the Abwehr was able to use confiscated equipment to decode the SOE’s messages to the WOL, and seed false information in turn. Virginia had no idea of what was unfolding in Paris. But as the Abwehr bided their time, the Gestapo struck a fatal blow against the Heckler circuit. One of their radio detection vans had picked up a British wireless operator. The Gestapo stormed the building and dragged him back to their office in Lyon for interrogation. The SOE agent had tried his best to dispose of any incriminating evidence as the jackboots had thudded up the stairs to his apartment, but he had forgotten one thing. A note in his pocket. It contained a name that, for the Germans, had only existed in whispers and half-truths from their informants in the city. ‘Marie’ - aka Virginia Hall.
There were other names, too. Names which snowballed into more names as field agents for the SOE were captured and tortured into giving up what they knew. But Virginia was determined to do her duty. Remember the men who were captured at the cafe in Limoges? Including one with a tenuous grasp of a shirt maker's salary? Even as her circuit crumbled, she was engineering an elaborate plan to boost them from their jail. Then, as Autumn crept in, rumors began to swirl about America’s involvement in Europe. If the USA stepped on Hitler’s toes, her ‘neutral journalist’ cover would not save her from the Gestapo.
VIRGINIA HALL: On Saturday, I was informed by the American consulate that we might expect an invasion of North Africa at any day and that I had better make plans to leave if I did not want to stay in forced residence for the duration... I had just returned from Limoges, where the final plans had been made for the break-out. I immediately began liquidating my affairs. I destroyed all the records that I had at the house and the office, gave all the seals, blank documents, and money that I had on hand to my replacement, and asked him to look after those who remained. I told them that if there was an occupation I would have to leave immediately, so they should not be surprised if I left abruptly.
NARRATOR: In November of 1942, America joined the war in Europe. Operation Torch was an amphibious assault by Allied troops on three North African territories.
VIRGINIA HALL: On Sunday morning, after learning the news of the invasion, I saw one of the French Secret Service. He heartily advised my immediate departure. When word of the Operation reached Berlin, an enraged Hitler would send the full might of the Wehrmacht pouring into Vichy France. Yet another front of the war had opened. The pretense of French self-government was now too costly a ruse to maintain. Her position had become untenable. She would be no use to anyone dead.
VIRGINIA HALL: The Germans were expected in Lyon sometime between midnight and morning. I packed my bag and left for Perpignan on the 11 pm train.
NARRATOR: With just an hour to spare, Virginia rushed to the station at Lyon. Squeezing her tall frame onto the crowded carriage, she turned her face away from the windows. She had made it out - but only just. And so many hadn’t. The next day, the doors of the Hotel De La Cloche swung out gingerly onto the streets of Perpignan. It was the 10th of November, 1942. A tall figure began to limp her way along the cobbles, braced against the wind. Even here, where the warm south coast of France lay under the shelter of the Pyrenees, there was no respite from the harsh onset of winter. In the town square, a man named Gilbert was waiting. Not for anybody in particular - he spent an hour there each day, rain or shine. His presence was something that could always be relied upon by any British agent who found themselves in Perpignan. He saw her standing in the shadow of the trees. He knew her only as Germaine, an American. They had worked together before. Gilbert stood and beckoned his visitor into a side street, somewhere a little more private. He listened as she spoke, in accented, drawling French. She needed passage across the Pyrenees to Spain. And it needed to happen quickly.
VIRGINIA HALL: My address had been given to Vichy. Not my name. But it wouldn’t be hard to guess.
NARRATOR: Meanwhile in London, Winston Churchill was giving a triumphant address following the success of Operation Torch. Now is not the end, now is not even the beginning of the end, but it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning. Looking back, his words rang as true for Virginia’s story as they did for the war at large. But they would have been little comfort as she crossed the Pyrenees on foot, Cuthbert straining at his metal bolts. But with the benefit of hindsight, we know that this was not the end for Virginia. She was, truly, a force to be reckoned with. The total collapse of her mission had only put fire in her belly. Almost as soon as she had reached London, she was determined to get back out to France.
VIRGINIA HALL: I wanted to go back as soon as possible if the SOE could just change my appearance a bit. Ordinarily, it would take six weeks to get back out. I wanted that sped up.
NARRATOR: Instead, she was redeployed to Spain in 1943. It was too far from the action for her liking. While there, she had reconnected with some agents from her days in Lyon who had also managed to flee across the Pyrenees. The idea of getting the team back together was an appealing one. She made her case to the head of the SOE.
VIRGINIA HALL: I had given Madrid a good four-months try and come to the conclusion that it really was a waste of time and money. Anyhow, I always did want to go back to France, and now I’d had the luck to find two more of my very own boys here. They wanted me to go back with them because we worked together before, and our teamwork was good. I suggested that I go back as their radio, or else as an aider and abettor, as I had done before. I could’ve learned the radio quickly enough. When I came out here, I thought that I would be able to help people, but I didn’t and I couldn’t. I was not doing a job. I was simply living pleasantly and wasting time.
NARRATOR: She’d made a strong case - her burning desire to see the Nazis defeated was impossible to ignore. But the SOE had other concerns. Shortly after her hasty departure from Lyon the year before, the Gestapo had plastered the region with wanted posters. They featured a realistic drawing of her, emblazoned with the words: THE ENEMY’S MOST DANGEROUS SPY: WE MUST FIND AND DESTROY HER. The Limping Lady was famous. Famous people make bad spies. But by now, we know Virginia. She wouldn’t let that stop her. If the SOE wouldn’t send her to France, then she would leave the SOE.
In her pre-war career as a State Department clerk, the USA had treated her poorly. As a woman, and a disabled one at that, she had never been allowed to fulfill her potential. By 1944, she had proved her worth 1,000 times over. And as D-Day approached, America needed experienced people on the ground. She joined the OSS - the forerunner of the CIA - who granted her wish to return to France. Her role was much the same as it had been for the British - to organize and supply local guerrilla fighters with arms and intel. Pick up a history book; we know how that turned out. Her operations in Normandy helped to clear the way for the Allied invasion of France - a pivotal moment in the Second World War. After the war was over, she became one of the first female members of the newly-founded CIA. To her dying day, she never spoke publicly about her work. We’ve trawled through a trove of declassified archive material to bring you the few snippets of her writings that haven’t been lost to history. But make no mistake - without Virginia Hall, the world would be a very different place.
I’m Vanessa Kirby. Virginia Hall was voiced by Sarah Megan Thomas, who stars as Virginia in the movie A Call To Spy, which is available to stream and screening in US theatres now. You can see it in the UK from the 23rd of October, 2020. Join us next week for another encounter with True Spies. We all have valuable spy skills, and our experts are here to help you discover yours. Get an authentic assessment of your spy skills, created by a former Head of Training at British Intelligence, now at SPYSCAPE.com.
Virginia Hall Goillot, code named Marie and Diane, was born in Baltimore, Maryland but she worked with the UK’s clandestine Special Operations Executive (SOE) and the American Office of Strategic Services (OSS) in France during World War II. She arrived in France in August 1941, the first female agent to take up residence in the country, and created the Heckler network in Lyon. She fled France in November 1942 to avoid capture by the Germans.