Virginia Hall was a real life James Bond, but better- she managed to fly under the radar of the enemy despite some distinctive physical features- red hair, artificial leg, tall for a woman- and she was never captured. Born to a wealthy family outside of Baltimore, she was a tomboy as a child and had a real thirst for adventure. After she graduated from college in the 1930’s, she took a job with the State Department in Europe, gaining language skills and diplomacy experience.
When the Germans invaded France, she convinced the British to send her into ‘free France’ to gather information. Using the cover of an American journalist (the US was still officially neutral), she used her charm and intuition to build networks of French citizens who were committed to fighting the Nazis. Initially the goal was intelligence gathering and laying the groundwork so that the French could rise up and rescue themselves when the moment came. The work was grueling and dangerous- not enough to eat, never enough sleep and the risk of being arrested and tortured first by the Vichy goons and later, once Germany surged in to occupy all of France, the Gestapo and the Aberweht. During her time in France (initially based largely out of Lyon), she shuttled money, weapons and food into the country and downed pilots, agents and information out (to Switzerland via a diplomatic channel).
Virginia was an unlikely success story- the British took her up on her eager offer because they had very few other options; they kept her in the field because so many of her fellow agents found themselves trapped, tortured and killed. Things eventually got so hot for her in Lyon that she had to escape. Klaus Barbie, the ‘Butcher of Lyon’ (or Gestapo torturer in chief), had made the ‘limping lady’ his number one target. She did so by hiking over the Pyrennees in the depths of winter, on her wooden leg, with very few supplies. Then, SHE WENT BACK IN to occupied France! You could not imagine this kind of story, even if you were Ian Fleming. Before going back in she became a wireless operator (always in short supply and critical in getting information in and out) and learned the art of disguise. She then went on to do more of the same, but in even more dangerous conditions (the Germans were ratcheting up their crackdowns as they felt increasingly threatened) and with more dangerous activities (wireless operators were easier to track with the Germans’ improved technology).
The later chapters follow Virginia’s unsatisfying years with the CIA (with WWII over, gender roles and expectations reared their heads, and Virginia was passed over time and time again, as well as denied credit, dismissed without merit, etc.- all the usual infuriating gender discrimination you would expect in the 50s and 60s). She did, however, find love with an American soldier that had joined one of her last French missions, so they lived what appeared to be a full post-war life together, albeit one likely filled with lingering health (including mental health) issues caused by the war.
What a terrifying and inspiring life! I am awed and thankful and proud and at the same time cannot imagine how she did it. I feel like I should swallow all of the work complaining that I do, warm and secure and with two good legs and no Nazis lurking around corners to catch me out. I cannot stop thinking about those satiric German pandemic commercials with senior citizens talking about their sacrifices for the country and then the reveal that their sacrifice was to stay at home for two months. Perspective, the gift of Remembrance Day (Canadian equivalent of Veterans Day).