A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II by Sonia Purnell
Reading histories of World War II, one could assume that the resistance movement in France was populated entirely by men. Not so, as two recent biographies of heroic women illustrate.
Last year, I reviewed Madame Fourcade’s Secret War by Lynne Olson. Madam Fourcade, code name “Hedgehog,” was the only woman to serve as the head of a major spy network in occupied France during World War II.
A Woman of No Importance profiles Virginia Hall, an American who worked for Britain’s Special Operations Executive (SOE) and recruited and led resistance teams in France as well.
The spy world was a patriarchal one, and women’s work was often underappreciated and underreported. These books acknowledge the contributions made by two brave patriots who just happen to be women.
Mrs. Edwin Lee Hall of Baltimore had high hopes for her only daughter Virginia, born April 6, 1906. That her ambitions for her child were limited solely to making a “good” marriage was only to be expected.
In accordance with her mother’s wishes, Virginia dutifully accepted a proposal of marriage at nineteen, but called it off in exchange for a life of service and adventure. Mrs. Hall never got over it.
Unlike her mother, Virginia was thinking beyond Baltimore. With her indulgent father’s approval, she cycled through five universities, Radcliffe, Barnard College, the École Libre des Sciences Politiques in Paris, the Konsular Akademie in Vienna, and finally George Washington University in Washington, D.C.
Virginia’s goal was to become a professional diplomat, but women were not offered senior positions in the corp. In 1931, after some persistence, she was accepted as a clerk at the American Embassy in Warsaw. For the next seven years, she served in various overseas posts (without a single pay raise) –Warsaw, Smyrna (Turkey), Venice, and Tallinn (Estonia). Periodically she applied for a more senior position, only to be rejected.
It was during her time in Turkey, however, that a life-changing incident occurred. A keen hunter, Virginia frequently organized snipe-shooting expeditions in the salt marches of the Gediz Delta. On one such occasion, while climbing over a fence, Virginia fell, and her gun fired into her left foot. The safety catch was off.
In an era before antibiotics, the wound was extremely serious. Her left leg was amputated below the knee. Back in the States, a temporary prosthesis was replaced with a painted wooden leg with an aluminum foot. It weighed eight pounds; she called it Cuthbert. Virginia never spoke of her disability or asked for any accommodations. In fact, many of her acquaintances in her clandestine work were unaware of it.
With war on the horizon and frustrated with clerical work in Estonia, Virginia searched for a way to make a difference.
BEHIND ENEMY LINES
In 1940, she volunteered for the French 9th Artillery Regiment to drive ambulances before joining the newly formed, unconventional SOE, The Special Operations Executive, the British home of an “ungentlemanly” brand of warfare and a pet project of Winston Churchill’s. With virtually no training, she was sent to France to coordinate the work of local resistance leaders and future SOE agents. Her cover was that of an American journalist.
Virginia had a gift for clandestine operations. Her courage, charisma, keen organizational skills, and a fine tuned instinct for spotting trouble made her an ideal operative. However, the early days of the SOE in occupied France, specifically Lyon, were disastrous as many of the recruits (male), lacking Virginia’s native caution, were arrested.
Gradually the recruitment and training improved. Virginia supervised parachute drops of guns, wireless operators, and medicine into occupied territory, armed thousands of fighters, and recruited local agents from all walks of life. Her teams were fiercely loyal to her and advocated for greater recognition of her work even after her death. A French lieutenant said she directed many successful “guerilla activities with the assurance and good humor of a Sunday School teacher arranging a picnic.”
Eventually the Germans became aware of Virginia’s shadowy presence, but she managed to stay a few (short) steps ahead of them, which is remarkable as her height, accent, and limp were hard to disguise.
In 1944, the newly formed American Office of Strategic Services (OSS), who desperately needed experienced operatives, recruited Virginia. She continued her important work in France.
Virginia’s story reads like a Boy’s Own adventure magazine, but the reality was hard, dangerous, and lonely. Many of Virginia’s comrades were arrested, tortured, and sent to concentration camps. Few survived.
After the war, Virginia returned to the States with her boyfriend (later husband), Lt. Paul Goillot, eight years younger and six inches shorter, who had been one of her American operatives in France.
Virginia took a desk job at the CIA, which had absorbed the OSS, for which she was over qualified and underutilized. CIA culture respected the field operative over the desk jockey, and Virginia’s days as a field operative were behind her. Furthermore, the CIA was essentially a boys club. In a CIA secret report on Virginia’s career, the CIA admitted that some of her male colleagues were intimidated by her vast experience and heroic war record. As one CIA officer noted, “her experience and abilities were never properly utilized.” It was not an ideal post, but Virginia worked for the CIA until her retirement at age sixty.
Belatedly, the French, British, and Americans acknowledged Virginia’s contribution to the war effort. In 2006, France and Britain honored her as an “American Friend “ of France and a “true hero of the French Resistance” at a ceremony at the French ambassador’s residence in Washington, D.C.
In 2016, the CIA, in an about-face, named a building after her, the Virginia Hall Expeditionary Center.
An inspiring and rousing tale!
What Other Reviewers Say
The New York Times: “If Virginia Hall remains something of an enigma-a testament, perhaps, to the skills that allowed her to live in the shadows for so long-the extraordinary facts of her life are brought onto the page here with a well-judged balance of empathy and detail. This book is as riveting as any thriller, and as hard to put down.”
Who Wrote It
Sonia Purnell is a British biographer and journalist who has worked for The Daily Telegraph, Daily Mail, and The Sunday Times. Her book Clementine: The Life of Mrs. Winston Churchill was chosen as a book of the year by The Daily Telegraph and The Independent, and was a finalist for the Plutarch Award.