In June 1940, England was afraid. France had capitulated to the Nazis after just six weeks of fighting, and nothing separated the island nation from its foe any longer but the turbulent waters of the English Channel. In order to fight for its very survival, England would need to infiltrate secret agents behind enemy lines to report back on the brutal German occupiers in France and fan the flames of armed Resistance against them. In his darkest hour, Prime Minister Winston Churchill set up a new intelligence service, the Special Operations Executive (SOE), with orders to “set Europe ablaze.” The mission was virtually suicidal, the training peremptory. But before long, an unlikely star emerged: Virginia Hall.
At a glance, Virginia would seem to have three strikes against her: She was an American, she was a woman, and she had a disability, having lost her left leg in a hunting accident before the war. Her career had been roadblocked for some years by the U.S. State Department, but Virginia was someone who never gave up. When, through a chance encounter, she was offered the chance to play her part in the fight against the Nazis with the SOE, she cunningly turned her supposed setbacks to her advantage.
Since the U.S. was still officially neutral in September 1941, Virginia entered Vichy France posing as an American journalist, diligently filing articles on wartime conditions to the New York Post. At last, London finally had a line into the heart of enemy territory, for hidden within Virginia’s journalistic prose were a series of coded messages to her SOE controllers. Furthermore, the Post (whose valiant American publisher was cooperating with the SOE) sent on some of her more sensitive intelligence direct to London to help keep them informed. This was a communications lifeline when England was struggling to infiltrate radio operators — and the two who had initially made it into France had soon been captured and tortured.
Virginia’s work —which including gathering vital information on German troops movements, industrial production, and military bases — was both pioneering and perilous. (She later directed sabotage missions and commanded ambushes of enemy convoys.) But at a time when Allied women were ostensibly barred from combat roles, her gender and disability helped her to maintain her cover and avoid suspicion in the early months at least. And the loss of her leg, while devastating, had only redoubled her self-sufficiency and courage.
Virginia was based in Lyon, which she quickly established as the crucible of the entire French Resistance. As liaison officer, her job ostensibly was to coordinate (rather than lead) different circuits of agents and helpers, but the SOE’s desperation for progress combined with her ability to inspire and unite many French from all sorts of backgrounds saw her going way beyond her original brief. Through an uncanny sixth sense and astute judgment of people, Virginia quickly learned how to identify and recruit potential allies. By giving a tiny bit away of her own feelings about the war and her burning desire for a free France, she found a way of making people open up to her. Only once did her antennae let her down, with disastrous results.
Every day was a duel of wits against the Germans and their puppets in the French authorities. Lyon was watched closely by the Gestapo and the Abwehr (Germany’s military intelligence service), and the Vichy collaborators in city hall took their lead from the Nazis in Paris. Everyone feared their neighbors — there were more than 1,500 denunciations every day — and most were frightened to open their mouths or break the law for fear of arrest. The dissidents who were bold enough to rebel were often reckless; to Virginia’s continual horror, they met in public, talked loudly and proudly, did not check out new recruits, used their own names, and fought with rival groups.
As a mere liaison officer, Virginia had no control over the actions of other groups. But when it came to recruiting her own people, she sought to create a more secure and disciplined system of small, discrete cells of handpicked members prepared to follow orders.
Within weeks of Virginia’s arrival in France, British airmen were being advised that if they were shot down they should head for the American consulate in Lyon and seek her help.
Virginia struck it lucky when she was introduced to one of Lyon’s most feted residents and résistantes, Germaine Guérin. The 37-year-old part-owner of one of Lyon’s most successful brothels welcomed German officers, French police, Vichy officials, and industrialists. Her clients never thought to doubt her motives let alone search the premises. They took pleasure in supplying her with otherwise unobtainable gasoline (never suspecting she would use her car to transport agents and escapees) and coal (an almost impossible luxury that winter of 1941).
Having been signed up by Virginia as one of her key lieutenants, Germaine agreed to make parts of her brothel and three other flats available as safe houses for many SOE agents coming through Lyon as well as Jews fleeing the Occupied Zone, Poles on their way to fight, and escapees making their way south to Spain. She supplied them with food, clothes, and false papers and sent them on their way to freedom.
With their madam’s encouragement, Germaine’s “girls” spiked their clients’ drinks to loosen their tongues and rifled their pockets for interesting papers to photograph when they slept. Some went even further, using heroin smuggled over from London in the American diplomatic bag. Drunken German clients would be lured in with the offer of “just a little sniff” of the drug “to see what happens.” If all went according to plan, the men would soon become hooked and rendered mysteriously incapable of work; some of the pilots found their eyesight had been affected and were grounded from their planes.
Germaine introduced Virginia to another vital figure, Dr. Jean Rousset, a gynecologist who treated her girls. His “many a devilish idea for the discomfiture of the German clients” appear to have included infecting as many as possible with syphilis or gonorrhea. He doled out special white cards denoting a girl to be free of infection when she was nothing of the sort. One or two appear to have spread their condition to a dozen or so of the enemy — Germans were actively encouraged to visit brothels in the belief it would increase their motivation to fight — before quickly seeking treatment for themselves. Others put itching powder in their clients’ clothes to maximize their distress.
Impressed by Virginia, Rousset invited her to use his clinic (which also specialized in dermatology) as her poste de commande. It was a convenient location; she could attribute her visits to seeking medical advice for a genuine rash. Here Rousset looked after injured or ill agents, received messages, introduced Virginia to other dozens of other useful contacts, and set up a fake lunatic asylum on an upper floor as a further safe house. Germans were unlikely to come looking because they were taught to fear mental illness and sought to avoid anywhere likely to involve straitjackets or shrieks and howls.
Germaine also connected Virginia with one of her favorite clients — an engineer whose much-prized pass to cross the militarized demarcation line helped her pass messages to and from underground groups in Paris. Crucially, his brother-in-law, the local police chief, was quickly persuaded not to look too closely into what Virginia was doing and to tip her off when his officers were about to mount a raid or make an arrest.
Virginia recruited the owner of an underwear shop to store weapons under piles of lacy bras. She found several hairdressers to help résistants disguise their looks. A laundress took in messages from different Resistance leaders, signaling she had something to collect if she placed two mended stockings close together in the window of her premises. Friends from Virginia’s college days in Boston, now factory owners in Le Puy, hid escapees in the mountains of the Haute-Loire, and lent money to Virginia when none had come through from London. She also recruited a highly respectable engraver who became expert at forging official papers for Virginia that fooled even the most eagle-eyed inspectors. All of these supporters knew that the likely price of capture was death.
Within weeks of Virginia’s arrival in France, British airmen were being advised that if they were shot down, they should head for the American consulate in Lyon and seek the help of Marie Monin, Virginia’s nom de guerre. With her network, she was able to hide and feed scores of them and then organize their escape out of France. Word began circulating far and wide of the miracle-working Marie of Lyon.
Such fame merely increased the danger. Virginia knew that trivial errors could cost agents their lives — and hers. One agent, for instance, was captured by a keen-eyed Gestapo officer after walking out in front of a car, having forgotten for a moment that the French drove on the other side of the road from the British. So Virginia became adept at training her colleagues and her escapees to blend in immediately on arrival. She reminded them to eat like Frenchmen — gustily using bread to wipe up their gravy, not leaving a speck of food on the plate, and certainly not neatly aligning their cutlery at half past six at the end of a meal like a well-brought-up Brit. And as they were no longer in England, they should desist in always carrying a raincoat. Virginia tried to think of everything and solve every problem as it arose — whether creating fake official papers, setting up safe houses, or organizing spectacular prison breaks for captured agents.
Every journey presented a mortal danger — and her wooden leg precluded the last-ditch option open to others of throwing herself off the train and running for cover.
Through her ever-growing network of contacts and helpers, Virginia gradually chipped away at the foundations of the Vichy government and undermined the whole edifice of French acquiescence to Nazi rule. She had recruited more people in better places than anyone else; from nowhere, she now had her finger in virtually every significant French pie. Glamorous but also authoritative and decisive, she could not have been a better ambassador for the British cause or champion for the Resistance. Immediately after the evacuation at Dunkirk, the British had lost virtually all their agents across France and were fighting blind. Now, thanks to an espionage novice from Baltimore, the Allied presence in France had been transformed.
Such was her own “almost embarrassing success” (as one London controller put it) that Marie Monin was now a legend. Her network had become so large and successful that she was no longer able to select every member herself as she had liked to do at the beginning. Being so good at her job had made her, in the SOE’s eyes, the “universal aunt to all our people in trouble and anyone in difficulties immediately called upon her.” Solving the problems of so many others was, however, inevitably drawing attention to her. As her notoriety grew, so did the risk of German forces closing in and arresting her. And as a secret agent, her punishment would have been far worse than other prisoners of war — captured SOE agents faced torture, rape, and execution. As the Germans began to realize the huge role played by female agents (and particularly Virginia), so they came to reserve the worst treatment of all for women.
Virginia’s perennial roaming to make these connections — which later would form the nucleus of a vast Resistance army — was inevitably risky. Trains were subject to snap police controls, sometimes backed up by Gestapo, particularly the rapide down to Marseille. Virginia observed that the security police took more interest in the cheapest seats, so she made sure to book in first class. She memorized the address of where she was going rather than writing it down and always had a plausible reason for going there worked out and rehearsed. Even so, every journey presented a mortal danger — and her wooden leg precluded the last-ditch option open to others of throwing herself off the train and running for cover.
Despite Virginia’s friendly relations with the local police, her unusual gait caused by her rudimentary prosthetic leg made the “Limping Lady,” or la dame qui boite as some called her, a conspicuous figure. Virginia knew all too well that dropping her guard, even with other agents or helpers over a meal or a drink, could be fatal. Everyone experienced loneliness and an urge to share thoughts and fears, but survival depended on holding back. For Virginia, though, since losing her leg, hiding her emotions and rigid self-reliance had become second nature. And all the terror and turmoil was better than feeling unneeded. She was doing a vital job and doing it well.
Even her cover as a journalist was scant protection, however, particularly after the U.S. joined the war following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941. On a mission in Marseille shortly afterwards, Virginia was meeting with another agent code-named Olive at a café when dozens of armed policemen ran in and ordered the customers to line up against the wall. They had fallen into a dangerous trap. The police were rounding up innocent people to be deported to Germany to satisfy the monstrous Nazi appetite for slave labor in their factories.
Vichy had previously agreed to send thousands of volunteers to the Fatherland, promising good food, good pay, concerts, and free holidays. But few had been taken in, and the numbers had fallen far short of Nazi demands. Now Vichy had secretly agreed to resort to forced expatriations and ordered roundups of random people (no matter their nationality) in several target cities.
Virginia was frantically trying to think of a way out when Olive linked his arm with hers, which she thought was a welcome gesture of comfort but which was actually a quick-thinking signal that they were together. The inspector surveying the group pointed to Olive and Virginia, tersely ordering his men to lock them into a back room, where he would deal with them “privately.”
Virginia and Olive heard the door lock behind them and thought their fate was sealed. But to their joy, they realized the room contained a small window that opened onto an alleyway at the back. As their fellow customers were shoved screaming into trucks at the front of the café, they silently climbed up and squeezed one after the other through the narrow opening. Virginia looped her good leg over the ledge and just managed to pull her prosthetic leg through before easing herself down on the other side.
As Olive then explained, before the war he had been friends with the police inspector, who had recognized him and deliberately given them the chance to escape.
It had been a close call. And they had to hide out in a safe house overnight to avoid further round-ups over the next few hours. It was still more than two years before the Allies would return to France on D-Day and over three years until Germany would finally be defeated in Europe in May 1945. There would be many more close calls until then for Virginia, whose war had really only just begun.