A spy should never stand out–so how did a woman with one leg become one of the best there ever was?
By Ellen Sheehy
During World War Two, Great Britain sent 39 female spies into France. Thirteen of them never came home–one in three–Sonia Purnell pointed out in her biography of Virginia Hall, A Woman of No Importance. And of the many ordinary women who volunteered themselves as couriers for spies, or opened their homes to the French Resistance, one in five was executed. Many more were sent to concentration camps or thrown in jail. Women were treated worse than men by the Gestapo; they subjected them to the worst kinds of torture that their twisted minds could conceive of. That’s not to say that men didn’t receive horrible treatment also; one in four male spies sent to France by the British Special Operations Executive (SOE) lost their lives.
The people sending the spies were partly to blame for the high casualty rate. At the start of WWII, the SOE’s only source of maps was an old Michelin holiday guide, taken from a London travel agency, and they had no idea how to train their spies because they didn’t know what they would encounter. The leader of the France section in the SOE, 41-year-old Maurice Buckmaster, worked 18-hour days–riding his bicycle home in the middle of the night–but he had no idea what was happening to his agents in France because there were few radio operators there. Many agents (or downed Air Force or RAF pilots) were caught because of little mistakes, like looking the wrong way when they crossed the street, or carrying bundles of francs with consecutive serial numbers, or eating differently than the French (Purnell 135, 74).
Not surprisingly, many SOE recruits decided to pursue a different career before they completed their training. In fact, the SOE had to create something they called a “cooler”–a house in remote Scotland where quitters were “forcibly contained” (Purnell 34) until everything they knew about the SOE was useless to the Axis powers. By July 1941, there were only ten spies-in-training willing to be sent to France (Purnell 34).
The Danger of Spying
It has always been dangerous to be a spy. Admittedly, during the Civil War, neither the Union nor the Confederacy had much experience catching spies, so espionage was rather easy to carry out (Janeczko 42). Elizabeth Van Lew, a wealthy Union supporter living in Richmond, Virginia, ran a successful spy ring for the duration of the war, and none of her spies were discovered (Edwards). But ease doesn’t mean safety. As the Civil War progressed, many other spies were caught and executed. Spying is deadly today as well; Serge Skripal, a Russian spy-turned double agent for the British, was poisoned by the Russians in 2018 while living in England. Six months after the incident, Vladimir Putin announced, “[Skripal] is a scumbag. That’s all there is to it” (“Putin Calls”). In an age of technology, spies are still murdered.
Yet every nation has found volunteers for espionage when it needed them. “The fear of capture and death did little to deter the intrepid spy” (Janeczko 42). Virginia Hall was one such intrepid spy. Recruited by Great Britain when she was 35 years old, she was the first female SOE agent sent into France. In many ways, Virginia was perfect for the job. She was tough, determined, and calm in the face of danger (Purnell 233). Spying was changing: the traditional British MI6 officers were “scarcely a match for the ruthless barbarism of the Third Reich,” because they were chosen based on “breeding over intellect” (Purnell 32). In 1941, Britain had no armies in France. The only people fighting against the Nazis were the members of the French Resistance, which was almost nonexistent at the time. Knowing information about the Axis was not enough. The SOE wanted its agents to gather intelligence, but also to act on it—to be the traditional spies and the army, not gentlemen. One agent put it this way: if an MI6 officer saw an enemy army crossing a bridge, they would hide in the bushes, guess how many soldiers there were, and alert their superiors; but if an SOE agent were in that situation, they would merely blow up the bridge. MI6 officers called the SOE “bogus,” but they couldn’t prevent its creation (Purnell 32).
The Limping Lady
The SOE was desperate to find agents that would do this new kind of spying and offered Virginia a job even before they finished her background check. That they sent her to France showed just how desperate they were, because she was a conspicuous figure. She had red hair (Purnell 39), and was often referred to as “the Madonna” because of her “striking good looks” (Purnell 233). Even more obvious than these was her left leg, which was made of aluminum. She had shot herself in the foot while hunting snipe in Turkey and contracted gangrene. There were no antibiotics to combat her infection, so doctors amputated her leg below the knee. Miraculously, she didn’t die, and spent the rest of the summer teaching herself how to walk again–with a false limb weighing eight pounds (Purnell 17). Her limp made her easy to recognize, even though she changed her gait–taking long strides–in an attempt to hide it. Before she had been in France a year, Virginia was known to the Nazis as “the limping lady” (Purnell 198).
Virginia moved to France in August 1941 (Purnell 38). Everyone in the SOE agreed that she had less than a fifty percent chance of surviving; Purnell points out, “dispatching a one-legged thirty-five-year-old desk clerk on a blind mission into wartime France was on paper an almost insane gamble” (39). But Virginia survived her first few weeks and before long had established a reliable method of communication with London via the American diplomatic pouch. She would pass her messages to the American vice consul, who would have them placed in the pouch. Once it reached Bern (the capital of Switzerland), a military attaché would send it to the SOE and forward their reply back to Virginia (Purnell 47). This method was painfully slow, but it was much better than the carrier pigeons that the French armies were using to communicate when the Nazis first bore down on them with indestructible tanks, flamethrowers, and lightning bomber raids (Purnell 23). The carrier-pigeon method would have been more appropriate during the American Revolution, when spies mostly depended on letters written with invisible ink (the recipe of which has been lost) or a number code (Janeczko 13, 36).
In the Revolutionary War, George Washington had two main spies in New York City—Abraham Woodhull (Samuel Culper Sr.), and Robert Townsend (Samuel Culper Jr.), after whom the Culper spy ring was named. Woodhull mostly stayed on Long Island, and Townsend was a young merchant and reporter for the Royal Gazette who lived toward the center of the city. It was useful to be a reporter; Townsend could ask questions without being suspected, and British soldiers often spoke freely to him in exchange for a “few good words about themselves in the Gazette” (Janeczko 10). Virginia Hall, too, was undercover as an American journalist for the New York Post (Purnell 38). In order for the Culpers to get their information to George Washington, one of Townsend’s customers would take a message and bury it in the back corner of a cow pasture he rented from Woodhull. Later in the day, Woodhull would go for a walk and retrieve the message. Once he was back home, Woodhull would look out his window at his neighbor’s clothesline. If there was one black petticoat hanging in the breeze, it meant that the semi-pirate Caleb Brewster was ready in his whaleboat to carry the message to Washington. Next to the petticoat would be a certain number of handkerchiefs that told Woodhull which hidden cove Brewster was in (Janeczko 12-13).
Between the American Revolution and the Civil War, most methods of gathering intelligence stayed the same (Janeczko 43). The telegraph was the biggest change. Its speed worked wonders—often 4,500 encrypted messages, some containing a thousand words, were sent between the War Department and Union commanders every day—but it was unreliable, as the lines could be cut and infiltrated very easily (Janeczko 60). Elizabeth Van Lew, in Richmond, used five different couriers to send messages from her house to the Union general Ulysses Grant (Edwards). Mary Stark writes, “During the 1864-65 siege of Petersburg, Van Lew communicated so regularly with General Grant that General Lee complained the enemy received his directives before they reached his own lieutenants.” Today, cell phones are often used for communication, and while they aren’t as easily hacked as telegraph lines, it can be done. During the Iraq war the National Security Agency (NSA) planted malicious software on jihadist websites, and so broke into their devices. The NSA was able to listen to jihadists’ conversations, read all their messages, send them fake text messages that led them into traps, and track the phones even when they were shut off (Gross). According to Shane Harris, “The NSA . . . had basically hacked into the entire network infrastructure of Iraq” (qtd. in Gross). And whatever information the NSA gleaned was handed to the American soldiers. The Iraq intelligence operation led to the capture or death or at least 4,000 Iraq fighters (Gross). Harris also points out, “we aren’t the only country with these capabilities . . . the governments of Russia, of China, [of] Israel, [have] really sophisticated cyber capabilities.” The United States military worries about “conventional war with another country . . . [because] they would be trying to hack in our systems, too. They would be trying to manipulate our communications . . . [and] disable our infrastructure” (qtd. in Gross). They could do the same to us as we did to the jihadists.
Virginia Hall quickly adapted to life as an intelligence agent, as predicted–it was generally accepted in the SOE that agents would “learn fast or die” (Purnell 37). She wore dark colored, simple clothes, dyed her hair brown, and learned to swiftly alter how she looked. She could be Brigitte, Virginia, Marie, and Germaine in one afternoon by changing her hairstyle, wearing a wide-brimmed hat or glasses, putting on a little makeup, or slipping pieces of rubber inside her cheeks to puff them up (Purnell 47).
Soon after her arrival in France, Virginia moved to Lyon because she thought it would be a better place for a spy ring. There was only one issue: 200,000 refugees had just moved there as well, so housing was hard to come by. In the end, Virginia was taken in by some nuns. She had to be inside the convent by six thirty in the evening, and she wrote that her room had the “undivided attention of a strong north wind” (qtd. in Purnell 45), but there was a roof over her head. The nuns also consented to become part of Virginia’s spy ring, and the convent was often used as a safe house (Purnell 46).
The other large group of women that Virginia recruited in Lyon were the prostitutes. Vladimir Putin has said, “everybody knows that espionage, like prostitution, is one of the most important professions in the world” (“Putin Calls”). His statement is twisted, but in Lyon during WWII the prostitutes were valuable spies. They gleaned information from the Nazi soldiers (who were encourraged to visit brothels), made them drunk, and sometimes even got them addicted to heroin (which was smuggled to them through the American diplomatic pouch). Virginia often referred to these allies as her “tart friends” (Purnell 59-62). They put their lives on the line for the Allies every day and were rarely suspected.
Many nation’s assumptions about others based on gender, race, or profession led to their downfall–for example, most Southerners during the Civil War believed black men and women were not intelligent enough to spy on them (Stark). Mary Chestnut wrote, “People talk before [slaves] as if they were chairs and tables. They make no sign. Are they stolidly stupid? Or wiser than we are; silent and strong, biding their time?” (qtd. in Stark). “The secessionists were victims of their own bias,” Janeczko writes (51). Elizabeth Van Lew destroyed all her records (Stark), but it is likely that a black woman named Mary Bowser was a spy in Jefferson Davis’s house. She worked as a nanny and waitress for his family for two years, and memorized all the documents and newspapers she saw and all the conversions she heard. Then she would tell what she had discovered to Van Lew. Davis never found out (Edwards), even though Bowser reportedly tried to burn down his house when she ran away in 1865 (Soodalter).
The Brutality of Spying
Virginia’s ring became very large very soon, with members who were hairstylists, doctors, shop owners, engravers (who supplied forged documents), and even the Gestapo (Purnell 65, 135). Elsewhere in history, there have been spies in high places–one of Elizabeth Van Lew’s spies was almost elected as Mayor of Richmond (Edwards). But despite her influence, Virginia still struggled, because the SOE refused to give her authority to lead the ring she had set up (Purnell 64). Most people treated her as a leader anyway, but a few fellow British agents caused her trouble. Her health was not the best either–she often had rashes, colds, and aches in the winter, and food was hard to find (Purnell 83). In January of 1942 she wrote, “I resent this dearth of mail, and this barren desert in which I exist. Gosh, and gosh durn I do! . . . I hate war and politics and frontiers. . . . In fact, I am feeling very sour.” However, she finished her letter by saying that she would “get over it” (qtd. in Purnell 83). It was not strange that it was hard for Virginia. Spying has always been a very difficult profession. Abraham Woodhull of the Culper spy ring confessed, “I live in daily fear of death and destruction . . . This added to my unusual anxiety hath almost unmanned me” (qtd. in Janeczko, 9). A WWII agent explained, “There are endless nightmares of uncertainty. The tensions, the nerve strain and fatigue, the all-demanding alertness of living a lie, these are [the agent’s] to meet, accept, and control. They are never, really, conquered” (qtd. in Purnell 133). Few spies could handle the stress without drinking excessively or sleeping around (Purnell 133). Virginia was one of those few, but her time in France turned her into a “battle-hardened assassin” (Purnell 140).
By 1943, Virginia was the Allies’ “eyes and ears” in most of France (Purnell 92), and she was a very wanted woman. It hadn’t taken long for the Gestapo to realize someone very skilled was leading the Lyon spy ring, and they needed her dead. The Gestapo printed thousands of posters with a realistic drawing of Virginia and the inscription, “The enemy’s most dangerous spy: we must find and destroy her!” (qtd. in Purnell 162). Amusingly, nobody knew Virginia’s nationality–Klaus Barbie (known as the Butcher of Lyon because of his cruelty) once exclaimed, “I’d give anything to get my hands on that limping Canadian!” (qtd. in Purnell 162). Later he demanded that some captured spies tell him about the “Englishwoman” (qtd. in Purnell 175).
Escape from France
By November 1943, it was clear that Virginia had to leave France. The SOE had ordered her back to London several times, and she had tactfully refused; now she had no choice, so she hiked over an 8,000 foot pass through the Pyrenees to Spain. It was cold–sometimes as cold as negative four degrees fahrenheit–and windy, and in some places the snow was nine feet deep. Virginia couldn’t tell her guide or the two men traveling with her about her fake leg (which she had code named Cuthbert) because if she did, they might not have let her go. Instead, she endured the pain from her stump–which was rubbed raw and bled for most of her journey–in silence. It is believed that during this crossing, she radioed to the SOE that “Cuthbert is tiresome, but I can cope.” The officer on duty (who didn’t know that Cuthbert was her aluminum leg) replied, “If Cuthbert is tiresome, have him eliminated” (qtd. in Purnell 166). Virginia made it to Spain–though Cuthbert barely did, almost breaking during Virginia’s long descent from the mountains–but shortly after her arrival she was spotted by police and thrown into a dank 18th century prison under suspicion of being a refugee. After a few weeks, she managed to smuggle a message out, and American diplomats arranged her release (Purnell 166).
The SOE informed Virginia that she would never be able to return to France, because her face was known. Surprisingly, Virginia was disappointed and began looking for ways to circumvent their decision. She enrolled in wireless school, knowing that radio operators were valuable in the field, and got herself hired by the new American Office of Strategic Services (OSS) (Purnell 195). The OSS, like the SOE at the beginning of the war, had good connections but few seasoned agents–leading to the joke that its acronym actually stood for “Oh So Social” (Purnell 194)–and to them Virginia was priceless. In March 1944 they sent her back into France, as a radio operator. She disguised herself as an old woman because she refused to have facial reconstruction surgery (Purnell 197).
Life as a Radio Operator
Being a radio operator was the most dangerous thing a person could do. Radio operators were only supposed to spend 20 minutes a day transmitting and limit their messages to five minutes, but sometimes messages had to be resent because the British couldn’t decode them, or there were simply more things that the SOE had to be informed of. When a message was sent, it was written down by women at one of the four receiving stations in Britain, then taken to a cipher clerk who would (hopefully) decode it, and passed to the SOE who read the message and wrote a reply. Then the reply had to go back through all those stages. At best, radio operators had to wait more than 70 minutes for an answer to their messages, straining their ears for sounds of the Gestapo, with a poison capsule in their mouth and pistols in their hands because the forty-five pound radios were hard to hide quickly. The Nazis had radio detector vans that could pinpoint a radio signal within 200 yards of its source (Purnell 105-106). Only once did a radio operator not worry about being caught, and that was because he was sending messages from inside a French internment camp. Virginia smuggled a radio to him and his eleven companions, who then strung 70 feet of aerial in the eves of their hut and passed along information from a talkative guard. All the houses nearby were searched, but the Gestapo never suspected that the signal was coming from inside the camp (Purnell 120).
Radio operators traditionally worked for other spies who were in charge of circuits. Virginia was no different, but her superior, code named Aramis, drove her crazy because he grumbled and complained and refused to pick up anything heavy after injuring his knee when they were landing in France. Characteristically, Virginia decided to strike out on her own (Purnell 205). In April 1944, she was given a lighter radio–weighing only fourteen pounds–and recruited Aramis’s landlady to be her companion, as she was falling under suspicion due to her imperfect French accent. The OSS gave her new instructions: to “assist the Resistance and plan acts of sabotage” (qtd. in Purnell 209).
Virginia the Guerilla Leader
Virginia soon organized several guerilla bands, and just after D-Day in June 1944 moved to the Vivarais Plateau, where many Resistance members were hiding (Purnell 228). She became the radio operator for several different groups, asked for supplies from the OSS and SOE, organized drops from planes, built and inspected Resistance groups, and sent the Allies priceless information about German troop movements (Purnell 222). This required her to travel extensively, and she biked hundreds of miles across French countryside (Purnell 219). With Virginia getting them supplies, the Resistance set to work sabotaging the Nazis. They used many methods, including cutting telephone wires, blowing up roads and railways and bridges, and replacing signposts so they directed German troops over cliffs instead of to Normandy. The favorite pastime of many Resistance members was to place explosives that looked like horse dung on the road and then watch Nazi vehicles being thrown into the air. Purnell writes, “soon entire German convoys screeched to a halt every time they saw droppings–genuine or not–until they had been investigated, causing hours of delays” (219).
Spying has changed in countless ways as the technology available to humans has changed, but it is not any less dangerous, or any less valuable. Robert F. Kennedy said,
It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a man stands up for an idea, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls (qtd. in Purnell).
Virginia After WWII
Virginia survived the war, and left a hero in the eyes of the men and women she worked with, many of whom said that she was the most successful female Allied spy of the time (Purnell 285). She had sacrificed much for the Allies. Her niece, Lorna, remembered that at her homecoming “she looked dreadful, and so much older” (qtd. in Purnell 287). President Truman dissolved the OSS shortly after WWII ended, and Virginia was hired by the CIA. But despite being “the most qualified person . . . I have ever interviewed,” as one senior officer said (qtd. in Purnell 293), the CIA refused to use her skills, giving her a lowly desk job instead (Purnell 294). She was promoted, but slowly, until she retired at age sixty (Purnell 305), probably because, E. Howard Hunt suggested, “no one knew what to do with her. . . . she was sort of an embarrassment to the noncombat CIA types, by which I mean bureaucrats” (qtd. in Purnell 304). Virginia also drank heavily, most likely to fight memories from her years in France (Purnell 303). She died at age seventy-two, unhappy, cantankerous, and in bad health (Purnell 307). Purnell sums up Virginia’s post-war life with this sentence: “Valor rarely reaps the dividends it should” (305).
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