The 'Limping Lady' Was World War II Most Underrated Hero
The story of Virginia Hall sounds like a blockbuster premise. A one-legged spy who spent the entirety of World War II dodging capture from the Nazis through a series of aliases. She even earned a nickname, the Limping Lady.
Born in 1906 to a wealthy family in Baltimore, Virginia Hall had no interest in the life of an heiress. Instead, she sought adventure, and her ultimate goal was to become a U.S. diplomat, a career that would take advantage of her love of traveling and fluency in other languages. Women made up almost no percentage of the State Department, though, and she found herself in a clerk job in Turkey at an American consulate.
This unspectacular start to her story worsened in 1933 when she accidentally shot herself in the leg during a hunting trip. The leg had to be amputated below the knee, and Hall received an uncomfortable wooden prosthetic humorously named "Cuthbert." However, rather than letting Cuthbert hinder her, she adapted, and she began to find her true calling when the Nazis invaded France.
Before the country fell to the Blitzkrieg, Virginia Hall drove ambulances for the French army. When it came time to flee, she went to Britain, where she came in contact with the Special Operations Executive, or SOE, a new secret service organization during World War II. The SOE sought out spies to infiltrate Nazi-occupied France. She was not initially accepted, but Hall persisted, and, as a spy for the SOE, Hall was finally able to demonstrate her potential and tremendous skill.
She was one of the first spies to successfully get into occupied France, and her abilities to coordinate the Resistance, gather information, and keep her own identity safe were unmatched. The Gestapo knew of an infamous "Limping Lady," but they were unable to track her down. Hall maintained dozens of code names, and her disguises were convincing enough to offset the limp that would have given her away. She is most famous for her "Marie" name, shown here:
She made herself into an old milkmaid for one disguise, and some reports say that she even had her teeth filed down to make the appearance more convincing.
Hall also knew ways to build networks that could provide and transfer valuable intel without being too obvious. One of her most brilliant moves was turning a brothel owner into an asset for spy activities. Workers at the brothel received information from the German troops that sought their services, and the brothel as a location became a safe house for other agents and groups like escaping Jews.
When the United States entered the war in late 1941, Virginia Hall transferred to the American Office of Strategic Service (OSS). She continued to serve as an agent throughout the remainder of the war and was never captured by the Gestapo. Following the war, she remained in intelligence with a 15-year career at the CIA. However, considering her experience, this position took her a strangely long time to receive, and she seemed mostly used for desk work, away from her natural gifts in the field.
For someone whose story was essentially a Hollywood production come to life, why was Virginia Hall so unknown? Well, part of that was due to the thing that kept her from advancing at every stage of her career: she was a woman. But, just as significant in Hall's story is that she didn't want to be recognized. The same dedication to secrecy that kept her beyond the Gestapo's reach during the war ensured that she was never hunted down in the decades after it. At one point, she even declined an invitation from President Truman for a White House celebration in her honor. It would have drawn unwanted attention to her.
She did receive awards for her work, though, but these were given behind the scenes. Hall was the only civilian woman to receive the Distinguished Service Cross in World War II. Of course, she always received these awards in private ceremonies.
Virginia Hall died in 1982, and while her story is still not quite mainstream history, it has grown in popularity. She lives on as a cult hero, and she would probably not want you to talk about her too much.
Top Image: CIA People/Wiki Commons