Faces of Defense Intelligence: Virginia Hall - The “Limping Lady”

By Greg Elder | October 27, 2016

WASHINGTON -- The Faces of Defense Intelligence series highlights the accomplishments of former military and civilian intelligence personnel who exemplified DIA’s creed: excellence in defense of the nation. DIA would like to thank the Military Intelligence Corps Hall of Fame for their support in providing materials for this article.

President Harry Truman received a memorandum offering the opportunity to present the Distinguished Service Cross (DSC) to Virginia Hall, May 12, 1945. She was the first civilian woman to win the award. Ten days earlier Hall was preparing to enter Austria to recruit partisans to fight against the Germans – as she had successfully done for four years in France on behalf of the British Special Operations Executive (SOE) and the U.S. Office of Strategic Services (OSS). During a two-month period in mid-1944, Hall sent 37 intelligence reports, oversaw 27 parachute drops of material for the French resistance, coordinated the efforts of 1,500 resistance fighters, oversaw innumerable attacks resulting in more than 170 Germans killed and 800 captured, managed dozens of acts of sabotage that disrupted German logistics and reinforcements, and integrated a joint SOE-OSS operational team into her area of operations. At one point in the war, regional Gestapo Chief Klaus Barbie (the “Butcher of Lyon”) identified her as the most dangerous of Allied spies, noting “we must find her and destroy her.”

In May 1945, Hall chose to receive the DSC with only her mother and OSS Chief MG William Donovan present in order to protect her cover for future clandestine work. In addition to the DSC, Hall was made an honorary Member of the Order of the British Empire in 1943, awarded the French Croix de Guerre avec Palme, and was inducted into the innaugural class of the Military Intelligence Corps Hall of Fame in 1988. She allowed nothing, including discrimination and the loss of a leg, to inhibit her goal of defeating the Nazi’s.

Hall, born in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1906, demonstrated her intelligence and boldness at an early age. She attended Radcliffe (Harvard University's college for women), Barnard (Columbia University's college for women), and graduate school at the American University in Washington, D.C., where she specialized in French, Italian and German languages. Breaking gender norms of the time, she travelled to Europe and studied in France (Ecole des Sciences Politiques in Paris), Austria (Konsularakademie in Vienna) and Germany. Following graduate studies, she accepted a clerk position at the U.S. Embassy in Warsaw, and then transferred to Izmir, Turkey. While in Turkey, Hall lost her left leg below the knee in a hunting accident. She was fitted with a prosthetic leg she lovingly named "Cuthbert." Although the loss of her leg didn’t dampen her sprits, it did play a profound role in her future. She wanted a position as a Foreign Service officer, of which only six of the 1,500 were women. However, her amputation eliminated the possibility. Her rejection note highlighted that applicants must be “able-bodied.” After a stint in Estonia, Hall quit her position in May 1939 and went to Paris. Four months later, France and Germany were at war.

With a German invasion seemingly imminent, Hall joined the French ambulance corps and aided the French until their defeat. Seeking to continue the struggle, she fled France to England. A travel companion on the train recognized her value and provided contacts in London to Section D, the Irregular Warfare Office of the British Army. Section D transitioned to SOE, known as the “Baker Street Irregulars” in July 1940. The qualities that kept Hall from the Foreign Service – being a woman with a disability – were considered assetts to the British. Women could move more freely and draw less attention in wartime Europe than a man; as an American, Hall also had the immediate advantage of citizenship from a non-combatant nation and the corresponding freedom of movement. Upon her recruitement, she was re-inserted into France to collect intelligence on German operations, and organize and arm the French resistance.

Hall learned clandestine tradecraft, morse code, hand-to-hand combat, explosives, map reading, canoeing, bomber signalling, weapons and operational planning. Over the course of several stages of training, all but one other woman failed, and she was the only female graduate of her class. She became the first British female agent inserted into France, codenamed Germaine.

Hall entered France in August 1941 under the auspices of a New York Post reporter from Lyon to the Vichy government. By November, she published three articles, recruited a network of loyal French citizens (codenamed HECKLER), assisted in the escape of several downed British pilots and introduced several new SOE operatives into France. Quickly moving into the German counterintelligence radar, Germany’s declaration of war on the U.S. forced Hall to end her role as a reporter. In early 1942, she became involved in resistance operations in Marseille and was intimately involved in planning the successful escape of several SOE operatives (codenamed CORSICA) from prison. She offered her apartment as a safehouse for downed RAF pilots, resistance operatives, and SOE agents, and she also provided routine intelligence reports to London. As risk grew, so did her consideration of operational security, changing her nom de guerre to Maria Monn (codename Philomene). However, in August 1942, the regional German Gestapo attempted to insert an operative – Abbe Ackuin (codenamed Bishop) – into her network. Although she denied Abbe access, he was able to insert himself into a SOE network nearby, where he obtained radio codenames for Hall and members of HECKLER. The Gestapo began a concerted focus on Lyon, where they noted a spike in escaped prisoners, sabotage efforts, and disappearrances of downed pilots, much associated with the “Limping Lady.” The Gestapo was closing in on her, desparately seeking a “Canadian” woman fitting Hall’s description. Barbie captured many of the HECKLER operatives in the ensuing months, Hall escaped the country in the knick of time. Many HECKLER agents in Lyon were among the estimated 14,000 people killed by Barbie during the war, while others were tortured and sent to camps in Germany.

SOE, which limited operatives to six-months in place before calling them back to Britain, requested Hall to return to London; she was in her 13th month of continuous operations in France. She deferred despite the risk to her safety. However, Nov. 7, the U.S. conulate notified her of the imminent U.S. invasion of North Africa, and their estimate that German forces would occupy Vichy France in large numbers. She began her trek through the Pyrenees Mountains to Spain with a guide Nov. 11. Just when she thought she was safe, Hall was arrested at a train station in Spain for illegal immigration and detained in the Miranda del Elbro Prison for 20 days before her release to the U.S. consulate. By late December, Hall was in London and pressing for a return to France, but SOE considered her cover blown. For a time she was sent to Spain undercover as a journalist for the Chicago Times, but all her plans were scrutinized and vetoed by the SOE Iberian section chief. She returned to London after several unrewarding months. For many, the reward awaiting Virginia in London would be the peak of a career – she was notified that she was being awarded the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire and would have an audience with the King. Instead, Hall, who believed she joined SOE to participate in operations and not gain accolades, turned down the audience and sought to get back the field. However, SOE wasn’t prepared to risk her life and continued to limit her to training for potential operations.

In March, 1944, Hall found relief. With the U.S. fully engaged in the war, OSS – a military organization under the authorities of the Joint Staff – sought skilled operatives to lay the groundwork for the eventual invasion. SOE endorsed Hall to the OSS and provided background on her activities. She transferred March 10 and boarded Motor Gunboat 502 at Devonshire Royal Navy Base for insertion into France 10 days later. Hall disguised herself as a plump, elderly woman with a limp, changed her walk to a shuffle, and had the fillings of her teeth re-done to match French dentistry.

Hall took up the persona of Mlle Marcelle Montagne, a farmhand in a the small village of Crozant in central France where she tended cows, made cheese and assisted the farm owner. While appearing to be a local peasant, she collected vital intelligence about German troop movements, established contacts with the resistance and radioed London. She also sold cheese to soldiers as a cover for collection. Despite her operational security and solid cover, she was interrogated and several local farmers were killed—their heads splaced on spikes as a demonstration of what would happen if they were found collaborating with the enemy. Seeing the increased risk of being discovered, Hall radioed London that “the wolves are at the door,” and fled to the town of Cosne, near Paris. Once there, she realized Cosne was a valuable operating base leading up to and after D-Day and set to work immediately.

In the weeks preceding D-Day, Hall established the Cosne resistance, overcoming their reluctance to work for a woman. Breaking the organization into four groups of 25 men, she tasked each toward specific acts of sabotage and plots against local German units. Overseeing the coordination of airdrops that provided explosives, weapons, and other forms of support equipment, the resistence set about destroying railroad lines, bridges and disrupting communications. This escalated after D-Day, June 4, 1944, when Hall’s force grew to more than 1,500 men. Hall reported almost daily to London on the state of operations and German troop movments, and identified locations for attacks. She also planned ambushes and directed sabotage efforts, which are just some of the acts OSS highlighted in her nomination for the DSC.

When the defeated Germans retreated out of the Cosne area of operations, Hall and her men realized they were no longer in a position to provide a viable contribution to the fight. Searching for the next mission, Hall transferred to the Central Section of OSS and deployed to Italy in December 1944. Her fluency in Italian and German proved useful, as was her experience in establishing resistance networks. OSS tasked her to establish contact with the Austrian underground in the Innsbruck region and act as a radio operator, codename Camille, for transferring intelligence. However, by the time she was prepared to make the trip through enemy lines at the beginning of May, OSS cancelled the mission as an unnecessary risk. The war in Europe ended May 7.

Hall returned to Lyon, France, to see the members of the original HECKLER network, only to find that many were tortured, killed, or sent to concentration camps in late 1941. She then sought new assignments in OSS, but many of the biases and discriminatory practices resurfaced in the post-war environment; she wasn’t permitted to deploy in an overseas operational capacity. Although Hall received a job with CIA when it formed, she was relegated to office and analytic work for the remainder of her career. She retired from CIA in 1966. Despite these setbacks, Hall was never bitter about the fact that her career hadn’t begun or ended as she would have liked.

Hall died at the age of 77 in July 1982. She committed to the cause, placed the mission above accolades, practiced sound operational security and effectively used the resources available. Hall routinely overcame hurdles, often in the face of life threatening circumstances.