Secretary, Milk Maid, Spinster, Spy: Virgina Hall

Virginia Hall Receiving the Distinguished Service Cross from General Donovan

Virginia Hall Receiving the Distinguished Service Cross from General Donovan
Virginia Hall Receiving the Distinguished Service Cross from General Donovan | Source

Milking Cows, Sabotaging Trains

Secretary, Milk Maid, Spinster, Spy: Virginia Hall

This wasn’t the way Virginia’s life was supposed to go; born into a privileged and wealthy Baltimore MD family in 1906, Virginia Hall could have had a cushy life. But Virginia wasn’t one to just loaf around; intelligent and able to speak French, Italian and German fluently, Virginia got a job with the U.S. Embassy first in Warsaw in 1931, then in Tallinn (Estonia), Vienna, and Izmir in Turkey.

An avid sportswoman, Virginia regularly went on hunting trips with the ambassadors and their staff, until one horrifying day when she was accidentally shot in the leg. Unable to save her leg below the knee, doctors were forced to amputate the limb. They provided her with an artificial leg, which Virginia dubbed, “Cuthbert.” She learned to walk again, though she suffered from a pronounced limp.

Due to a rule forbidding amputees from working in the U.S. State Department, Virginia was forced to resign. She moved to Paris, and shortly thereafter the war broke out between the French and the Hitler-led German army in September 1939. Not wanting to be on the sidelines, Virginia worked as an ambulance driver, bringing wounded French soldiers to hospitals. After France fell, Virginia escaped via Spain to England, where she obtained a job as a code clerk in the U.S. Embassy.

By the end of that year, she had joined the Special Operations Executive (SOE), and for her first spy assignment was sent to Vichy France in 1941 and operated under her own name as an accredited journalist. Three months later on December 11, 1941, Hitler declared war on the United States and Virginia was now an enemy alien. By then, Virginia had moved her center of operations to Lyons, 75 miles away from Vichy, and she began her work in earnest. She contacted the French Underground, recruited French citizens, set up safe houses for incoming agents and established an escape route back to England for Allied POWs on the run.

The Allied invasion of North Africa in November 1942 prompted more German troops to move into Vichy, and Virginia was ordered to evacuate. Before departing, Virginia signaled to HQ that she hoped Cuthbert wouldn’t slow her down. Forgetting who “Cuthbert” was, her liaison signaled back, “If Cuthbert troublesome, eliminate him.” She escaped over the Pyrenees Mountains with two French men, a Belgian officer, and a Spanish guide, but they were caught on the Spanish frontier and taken to Figueras prison. There, Virginia convinced her cellmate to smuggle a letter to the U.S. Consul in Barcelona. After six weeks, Virginia was freed.

Not long after her release, Virginia was assigned to Madrid to work in the SOE’s escape and evasion department while pretending to be a journalist from the Chicago Times. Madrid was riddled with spies but nothing turned up any useable intelligence. She returned to England in 1943 to receive training in wireless telegraphing and was transferred to the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) and was awarded the rank of second lieutenant.

Now codenamed “Diane,” Virginia returned to France in a motorized torpedo boat in March, 1944, landing in Brittany. Her new mission was to work as a wireless operator for the OSS network, “Heckler.” Accompanied by Peter Harratt, a.k.a “Aramis,” they established Heckler in the Haute-Loire region of central France. By now she was well known to the Nazi intelligence, so Virginia called herself, “Marcelle Montaigne,” pretending to be an older lady and social worker. Having learned how to milk cows as a child, Virginia could convincingly disguise herself as an old milk maid, but she never stayed in one place for long; the Germans considered her to be one of the most dangerous of the Allied spies, stating, “We must find and destroy her.”

Virginia formed a group with thirty men who not only provided her with security, they would mark drop areas and retrieve materials that Allied planes delivered, and a three man unit known as “Jedburgh” trained three battalions of local militias. Virginia, her agents and the French Resistance harassed the retreating German army with sabotage, disrupting their communication lines, blowing up bridges and derailing trains on top of collecting intel to be sent back to London. Between mid-July to mid August, Virginia sent 37 messages to London detailing German troop movements after the Normandy landing. For all of her efforts, on September 27, 1945, General “Wild Bill” Donovan presented Virginia with the Distinguished Service Cross.

At last the war ended, and Virginia joined the newly established Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in 1951 as an analyst of French politics. In 1952 she became one of the first female operations officers in the Office of the Deputy Director of Plans preparing political action projects, interviewing exiles from behind the Iron Curtain, and planned stay-behind resistance and sabotage networks to be activated in case of Soviet Union invasion.

Virginia Hall finally retired in 1966 at the mandatory age of 60, living a peaceful life on a farm in Maryland, passing away in 1982. In 2006, her niece Lorna Catling was presented with a certificate from King George VI that should have gone with the MBE medal that was presented to Virginia. Somehow they had misplaced it for 63 years.

Virginia Hall works referenced:

Warrior Women, Robin Cross & Rosalind Miles

Les Marguerites Fleuriront ce Soir by Jeffrey W. Bass

Virginia Hall sending a coded message
Virginia Hall sending a coded message

Books You Should Be Reading: Women's History in WW2

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