What does it take to set up a spy ring made up of normal civilians in the middle of an occupation by the most determined and evil military force to ever march the earth? Ingenuity, diligence, and courage. Luckily, Virginia Hall possessed these qualities in abundance.
Well read, a natural conversationalist, and a powerful personality, Virginia was a natural recruiter. From the minute she arrived in France under an assumed identity she began to make allies. Wherever she went she grew her team of contacts, messengers, and agents. From friendly Parisian police who resented the Nazis, to barkeeps and shop owners, Virginia gathered the useful and brave and rallied them into an effective espionage outfit. All of this under the watchful eye of the Gestapo. She possessed a gift for both identifying people who may be sympathetic and useful to the Allied cause and for sniffing out danger and enemy infiltrators.
Virginia was picky about who she would work with. As the SOE sent more agents into different parts of France and homegrown resistance cells took shape, she did not just blindly make contact with these new allies as one might be tempted to in such a hostile situation. Instead, she would watch and evaluate them to see how careful they were, what kind of risks they took, how their ambitions matched their ability and if they were worth meeting. Some measured up to her standards while others didn’t. It was an excellent survival instinct that would serve her well as she watched several resistance networks compromised and broken while her tightly managed ring always managed to stay one step ahead of the Nazis and their French collaborators.
She set up complicated clandestine communication routes. A false brick in a certain building on a certain night might be used to dead drop a message to another agent. Walk into a friendly café and if you know the right people a little note might be taped to the bottom of your glass. Using her cover as a Post reporter, Hall would send stories and articles home that were peppered with secret code phrases for the SOE to interpret.
As time passed, she became more and more hands on. She dispersed radio equipment to different cells and organized acts of sabotage. During her time in Lyon, she helped conceal Jewish families and prepare routes for them out of the country, literally saving their lives. She was a veritable one-woman intelligence department inside the SOE.
Perhaps most impressively, Virginia orchestrated a massive jailbreak that saved 12 agents from the firing squad. From having lockpicking and escape tools smuggled into the jail in sardine cans, to arranging a series of safehouses and supply drops to shelter the escapees, she masterminded the entire operation. On July 15, 1942, 12 men slipped their bonds and fled Mauzac prison into the dark surrounding woods. They separated according to plan and made their way to their contacts using the instructions given to them. While the Nazis scoured the woods and turned over every rock they could, Virginia saw them all safely accounted for and on a path out of the country by August 11th, a tremendous success.
The German’s were furious, the prison break was a massive embarrassment. They knew there were covert networks subverting their efforts in France, but none were as effective as the one operated by the "limping lady.” The Gestapo turned up the heat trying to find her, and by the time wanted posters for "a lady with a prosthetic leg” hit the streets of Lyon, Virginia knew it was only a matter of time before she would be found.
So, she made her escape. But remember, this is occupied France and she was one of the top enemies of the German state, she couldn’t exactly head down to the harbor and catch the first boat back to Britain. All the ships and trains were watched and trying to drive a long distance to cross a border in a car was just asking to be stopped by a German patrol or Gestapo run check point. No, Virginia made her escape the only way she could – step by agonizing step.
Crossing the Pyrenees mountains is a monumental journey. Spanning over 340km across and rising higher than 3,400 meters in some spots, it is not a trip a normal person is typically able to do. Especially not a person making the journey in winter weather and dragging a seven-pound wooden leg, But, that was exactly what Virginia did. To the amazement of her superiors, she made it through those icy mountains on foot and into Spain where she was promptly arrested for illegally crossing the border. But safe in a Spanish jail, arrangements were quickly made to secure her release and bring her home.
But Virginia wasn’t done, she wanted to go back to France and told her superiors so. The SOE flatly refused. To them she was a burned asset, one lucky to have gotten away with her life. Sending her back would be serving her up to the Germans. Virginia didn’t care, she had made deep friendships and connections in France and wasn’t about to sit on the sidelines while their lives were at risk. While the SOE said no, the new American Office of Strategic Services (OSS) finally realized what an agent they had on their hands and said yes.
She was re-inserted back into France under another cover identity, this time posing as an elderly lady. She disguised her wooden leg as an old woman’s shuffling gait and got right back to work. She made her way posing as a milk lady (sometimes even selling cheese to the Germans) as she re-established communication lines and made contact with resistance fighters.
With OSS backing, Virginia helped arm and organize several resistance cells. Her efforts to outfit and coordinate different groups led to a massive sabotage campaign. Among their other successes, Virginia’s team was responsible for derailing multiple freight trains, blowing up four bridges, and undertaking operations that resulted in the deaths of over 150 Nazis and capture of 500 more.
The impact these operations had could not be overstated. While the Allies were gearing up to launch the invasion of D-day, Virginia was making sure the German forces were depleted, frustrated, and unable to quickly resupply or reposition troops. It is impossible to calculate the number of lives saved by her role in paving the way for the successful invasion effort.
After the war Virginia continued to work in espionage the rest of her life and never breathed a word about her experiences to anyone. She quietly buried this portion of her life, seeking neither praise nor accolades for her actions. Even many of her family members did not know her whole life story when she passed at the age of 76 in 1982.
Virginia Hall was a true hero. A person who put herself in incredible danger for the sake of others. Yes, she may have spoke several languages, yes, she may have been a calculating strategist, but her greatest asset was her sense of right and wrong. Virginia knew when it was important to stand up and make a difference and never let anything from a disability to sexism in the Foreign Service to the full might of the Gestapo stop her from doing it.