Virginia Hall

The untold story of a World War II spy

Created date

August 21st, 2019
In a photo taken at a ceremony in Sept 27, 1945, Virginia Hall receives a medal for her service.

Virginia Hall was the only civilian woman in the Second World War to be awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for extraordinary heroism against the enemy. She received the medal in a low-key ceremony on September 27, 1945. 

To many, the name Virginia Hall is unfamiliar. But it shouldn’t be, given her magnificent contributions during World War II.

A spy for both the British and the Americans throughout the conflict, Hall helped pioneer modern espionage and facilitated a war effort that liberated Europe from the clutches of Nazi Germany. Her work even prompted Hitler’s Gestapo to label her one of the most wanted Allied agents operating in occupied territory.

Finally, her story has been told in full in A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II (Viking, 2019). Recently, the Tribune spoke with the book’s author, Sonia Purnell.

Tribune: Virginia Hall is one of the greatest spies in American history; however, her story has never been told to such an extent as it has in your book. What attracted you to the subject?

Purnell: The Second World War is a period of history that has always drawn me in, perhaps because my late father fought in the war and so—unusually for someone of my age—I have a direct personal connection to the subject. He was always reluctant to speak of what he did—although his heroism is mentioned in books and various accounts—but I knew from my mother and his old comrades that only a tiny part of his story was ever told beyond the small group of soldiers who witnessed it.

This seems to be a constant theme with those who really did make a difference, and so when I stumbled across Virginia, I had a feeling that here, too, there was more than met the eye.

Here was a young American woman who, in a time when women were often relegated to the sidelines, managed to go behind enemy lines in occupied France and help lead the Allied resistance. 

Tribune: By design, the work of spies is not always documented or shared publicly, for their own safety and for the success of their missions. Was the book’s research process a challenging one?

Purnell: Tracking Virginia’s story required a lot of detective work over three years with barely a day off—so many files, papers, and documents have been lost, destroyed, or misfiled. She operated under so many different code names that people hadn’t pulled together all the strands of her operations before.

There is no shortcut. Dates and places and people have to be matched up until you have the full picture. This is laborious but also constantly enticing as you piece together the jigsaw puzzle.

My great good fortune is that one of Virginia’s comrades in the resistance, Pierre Fayol, had done a huge amount of research on her in the decades after the war when people were still alive, memories were fresh, and documents that have since been lost were still available.

Tribune: Like many women, Virginia was often overlooked or underestimated because of her gender. How do you think that affected her personality and her career trajectory, which ultimately led to her role in America’s CIA?

Purnell: Virginia showed an astonished male establishment—on both sides of the Atlantic—just what women could do in warfare. The topic of women in combat is still controversial today, but nearly 80 years ago, she was commanding men behind enemy lines with daring and aplomb. 

She almost single-handedly kept Allied intelligence alive in France when most of her colleagues had been captured, and helped to form the nucleus of the secret armies that later went on to help liberate France.

Virginia directed, trained, and armed guerrilla units who, without professional military help, freed whole swaths of France. And the CIA now publicly acknowledges her heroism.

Gina Haspel, the new (and first) female director of the CIA, has spoken about how her promotion to the top job was possible only by the breaking down of barriers by pioneering women of the OSS and CIA. This includes Virginia.

Tribune: One of several things that made Hall unique was the fact that she was missing a leg. What happened?

Purnell: One of the first things I learned about her was her disability. When she was 27, she tragically lost her left leg after a hunting accident in Turkey—but she didn’t let this setback stop her from going on to change history. 

In fact, as a spy, she used her false limb to conceal documents.

Tribune: What was her entrée into espionage?

Purnell: She was highly intelligent, very well educated, and fluent in several foreign languages. She started working for the British and eventually, the Americans, too, began engaging in espionage.

In this time, she proved highly effective in keeping intelligence gathering alive in occupied France. A brilliant career as a spy had emerged.

But at the heart of it all was the simple fact she wanted to serve her country; and her willingness to face danger, along with her education, made her a desirable recruit. 

Tribune: You write that Virginia “operated in the shadows, and that was where she was happiest.” What were the challenges of unveiling a life of someone like hers? How would she feel about having a book written about her?

Purnell: There’s a story in the book that I think exemplifies Virginia’s attitude toward receiving acclaim for her work. She was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross by General “Wild Bill” Donovan and was the only civilian woman to receive this distinction in World War II.

President Truman wanted a public ceremony in the Oval Office, but Virginia objected, saying she was “still operational and most anxious to get busy.” This is typical Virginia: not interested in wasting time on what she saw as mere baubles when there was more work to be done.

But women have been too reticent for too long about their contributions to world events. So though it was difficult to uncover the details of Virginia’s life and of her missions, it was worth it to tell her amazing story.