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.
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 advantage.
Since the U.S. was still officially neutral in September 1941, Virginia entered Vichy France posing as an American journalist, diligently filing articles on wartime conditions to the New York Post. At last, London finally had a line into the heart of enemy territory, for hidden within Virginia’s journalistic prose were a series of coded messages to her SOE controllers. Furthermore, the Post (whose valiant American publisher was cooperating with the SOE) sent on some of her more sensitive intelligence direct to London to help keep them informed. This was a communications lifeline when England was struggling to infiltrate radio operators — and the two who had initially made it into France had soon been captured and tortured.
Virginia’s work —which including gathering vital information on German troops movements, industrial production, and military bases — was both pioneering and perilous. (She later directed sabotage missions and…