Virginia Hall, 1906-1982

  • Virginia-Hall-WWP

Woman Category: Army & Security ForcesWoman Tags: Spy

  • HerStory

    The most successful American female spy of World War II and one of the first agents of the CIA.

    Virginia Hall was born in Baltimore, Maryland, to a wealthy family. From a young age, she loved to hunt and always looked for new adventures. She went to Radcliffe College and Barnard College, studying French, German, and Italian, and then French and Economics at George Washington University. She took off to Europe to continue her education. After traveling around, she began to work as a Consular Service clerk at the American Embassy in Warsaw, Poland, and a few months later, she was transferred to Izmir, Turkey. There, at the age of 27, Hall accidentally shot herself in the foot while hunting birds. The leg was amputated, and she used a wooden prosthesis. She continued to work as a clerk in several more American embassies in Europe while applying to become a diplomat. She got rejected over and over, first because of her gender and then because of her disability.
    In 1940, when Nazi Germany invaded France, Hall became an ambulance driver for the France army. After France was defeated, she met a British spy, who recognized her potential and connected her with the British Special Operations Executive (SOE). In 1941, after only six months of training, Hall arrived in Vichy France – the second SOE female agent to be sent to France. She settled in Lyon and posed as a reporter for the New York Post. This allowed her to interview people and gather information. Hall began to arrange contacts, persuade nuns to help her, and befriend a brothel owner who gave her information gathered from the prostitutes of the German soldiers. Soon, she founded an SOE agent network, organized French resistance fighters, and helped downed British pilots to escape to safety. In October 1941, she engineered a successful jailbreak of several SOE agents who were captured. At this point, the Germans considered her one of the most dangerous of Allied spies, and they were after her. Hall managed to escape to Spain on a three-day journey in which she walked with her wooden leg more than 7,500 feet over the snowy Pyrenees Mountains. When she arrived in Spain, she was arrested by the local authorities for trespassing the border and was jailed for six weeks.
    Hall continued to work for the SOE in Madrid, and in the summer of 1943, she returned to London. She wanted to return to France, but her superiors denied her request because it was too dangerous. She took a wireless course that enabled her to work for the American Office of Strategic Services (OSS). Despite her experience and achievements, she was hired by the Special Operations Branch of the OSS as a low-rank second lieutenant. In March 1944, she returned to France as an assistant and wireless operator to an older male officer. She thought of him as talkative, and as such, he was a security risk, so she branched out on her own. Hall disguised herself as an old milkmaid, unrecognized with gray hair and bad teeth. Her mission was to arm and train groups to support the Allied invasion of Normandy. She organized drop zones, established safe houses, and supplied arms for infrastructure attacks and sabotage operations against the Germans. During that time, she met Paul Goillot, an OSS lieutenant who worked for her. He later became her husband.
    In 1974, at the age of 41, Hall was hired by the newly formed Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) – one of the first women to join the agency. She worked as an intelligence analyst, gathering intelligence on Soviet operations in Europe.
    When she was 60 years old, Hall retired from the CIA and moved with her husband to a farm in Barnesville, Maryland, where she lived until her death at age 76.

    “My neck is my own. If I am willing to get a crick in it, I think that’s my prerogative.”

    “My neck is my own. If I am willing to get a crick in it, I think that’s my prerogative.”


    More Interesting Anecdotes:

    • In her senior yearbook, she was called “most original of our class.”
    • She named her wooden leg “Cuthbert.”
    • The French nicknamed her “la dame qui boite” – the lady who limps.
    • She had various codenames, including Marie, Diane, Monin, Germaine, and Philomene.
    • Her husband, Paul Goillot, was eight years younger and six inches shorter than her.
    • President Harry Truman wanted to honor her at a public White House ceremony, but she declined, saying she wanted to remain undercover.
    • She was the most highly decorated female civilian during World War II.
    • Her story has been detailed in numerous books, including Hall of Mirrors: Virginia Hall: America’s Greatest Spy of WWII, by Craig Gralley, The Wolves at the Door: The True Story of America’s Greatest Female Spy, by Judith L. Pearson, and The Spy with the Wooden Leg: The Story of Virginia Hall, by Nancy Polette.
    • Sarah Megan Thomas portrayed her in the feature film “A Call to Spy” which follows her experience as a spy during WW 2.
    • She is one of four and the only woman to have an individual section in the CIA Museum catalog.
    • The Virginia Hall Expeditionary Center of the CIA is named in her honor (2016).
  • More About Her Legacy

    * Member of the Order of the British Empire
    * Distinguished Service Cross - the only civilian woman to be awarded in WW2 (1945)
    * The Croix de Guerre
    * Inducted into the innaugural class of the Military Intelligence Corps Hall of Fame (1988)
    * Inducted into the Maryland Women's Hall of Fame (2019)

  • Watch and Learn More

  • One of Her Landmarks

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  • Woman Tags: Spy

    Virginia Hall's critical role as an American spy

    Virginia Hall's upbringing in Baltimore helped shape her future as a spy. The Central Intelligence Agency is the nation's clearinghouse for foreign intelligence. The seeds for its current, coordinated mission were planted during World War II, and a Subscribe to WBAL on YouTube now for more:

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  • Hall in 1945. Receiving the Distinguished Service Cross from General Donovan. Photo credit - Wikipedia

  • Citations and Additional References:
    CIA website.
    Wikipedia page.
    An article on Time website.