In March 1944, a frail-looking old woman and man, carrying battered suitcases and wearing wooden sabots, walked along the rocky Brittany seaboard towards the city of Morlaix. The woman, Virginia Hall, was an accomplished spy for the British Special Operations Executive (SOE) and was returning to France disguised as an elderly French peasant woman. Her companion was Henry Laussucq, an American agent of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS).
Virginia Hall was born in Baltimore in 1906, and despite her disability, she excelled in school and was an accomplished athlete. She attended Radcliffe College and graduated with a degree in French and Italian. She pursued a career in the United States Foreign Service, but her application was rejected due to her disability. Undeterred, she traveled to Europe and studied in Austria, Germany, and France.
In 1939, Hall was working for the US Embassy in Poland when the Germans invaded. She escaped to France and was determined to help in the war effort. She joined the British Special Operations Executive (SOE) and was sent to Lyon, France, where she worked as a spy, gathering intelligence and coordinating the Resistance effort.
In 1942, Hall narrowly escaped arrest by the Gestapo and fled to Spain, where she was able to make contact with the American Office of Strategic Services (OSS). She was recruited by the OSS and trained as an agent, specializing in sabotage and guerrilla warfare.
In March 1944, Hall returned to France disguised as an elderly French peasant woman with the American OSS agent, Henry Laussucq. They were tasked with assisting the newly formed French Forces of the Interior in coordinating Resistance efforts. Hall’s work involved transmitting messages to the London OSS office, giving coordinates of large fields she had located during the day while moving cows to and from pasture. The fields were to serve as parachute drops for agents and supplies in support of the French Resistance.
Hall’s work was risky, and she had to be vigilant of Nazi direction finders, instruments used to zero in on radio transmissions. Her limp caused by her artificial left leg could not be eliminated, but her disguise was complete with a frayed babushka, large woolen blouses, peplums, and full skirts to give her a look of stoutness.
Though there is no evidence for this I’ve always been intrigued by the juxtaposition of here work against the notorious Klaus Barbie. It is possible that Virginia Hall’s life intersected with Klaus Barbie, the notorious Nazi war criminal who was known as the “Butcher of Lyon.” Barbie was the head of the Gestapo in Lyon, France, during the war, and was responsible for the deaths of thousands of people, including members of the French Resistance.
Virginia Hall was working as a spy in France during the same time that Barbie was operating in Lyon. Although there is no evidence that they ever crossed paths, it is possible that Hall’s work in the Resistance may have impacted Barbie’s operations in some way. It is also possible that Barbie may have been aware of Hall’s activities, and may have been one of the Gestapo agents trying to track her down.
Hall’s work continued despite the danger, and she was known for her courage, resourcefulness, and determination. She helped organize the Resistance in central France and was instrumental in the liberation of several cities. She was awarded numerous honors, including the Distinguished Service Cross, the Croix de Guerre, and the Order of the British Empire.
After the war, Hall continued her work in intelligence and security, serving with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the National Security Agency. She was a trailblazer for women in the intelligence community, breaking down barriers and proving that women could excel in a male-dominated field.
Virginia Hall was a remarkable woman who overcame many obstacles to make a significant impact on the Allied effort during World War II and beyond. Her bravery and determination inspired many and her legacy continues to be celebrated today.