The Female Spy Who Helped Win World War II

As a woman with a wooden leg, Virginia Hall was an unlikely spy. That’s what made her so good.

Sonia Purnell
GEN
Published in
11 min readMar 28, 2019

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“Les Marguerites Fleuriront ce Soir” by Jeffrey W. Bass. A painting of Virginia Hall. Image via The Central Intelligence Agency.

In June 1940, England was afraid. France had capitulated to the Nazis after just six weeks of fighting, and nothing separated the island nation from its foe any longer but the turbulent waters of the English Channel. In order to fight for its very survival, England would need to infiltrate secret agents behind enemy lines to report back on the brutal German occupiers in France and fan the flames of armed Resistance against them. In his darkest hour, Prime Minister Winston Churchill set up a new intelligence service, the Special Operations Executive (SOE), with orders to “set Europe ablaze.” The mission was virtually suicidal, the training peremptory. But before long, an unlikely star emerged: Virginia Hall.

At a glance, Virginia would seem to have three strikes against her: She was an American, she was a woman, and she had a disability, having lost her left leg in a hunting accident before the war. Her career had been roadblocked for some years by the U.S. State Department, but Virginia was someone who never gave up. When, through a chance encounter, she was offered the chance to play her part in the fight against the Nazis with the SOE, she cunningly turned her supposed setbacks to her…

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Sonia Purnell
GEN
Writer for

Sonia is an acclaimed biographer and journalist. Her latest book is A Woman of No Importance, the true life story of an incredible American spy, Virginia Hall