Cloaks, daggers … and petticoats

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Cloaks, daggers … and petticoats
Virginia Hall transmitting messages from occupied France. (Photo/Central Intelligence Agency)
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How American women spies “gave the slip” to the enemy (part III)

By Gayle Converse and Pat Miller

Just as American female spies had done during the American Revolution and Civil War, women of the French Resistance during World War II created special messages by hanging laundry in coded displays: mended stockings hung in windows had communique meanings. Guns and grenades were hidden in French lingerie shops under piles of lacy intimate apparel.

The American celebrated as the most successful Allied Resistance leader – whom the Gestapo considered “the most dangerous of all Allied spies” – was from the DMV.

The American was a woman.

A woman with one leg.

Born in Baltimore, Maryland in 1906, Virginia Hall grew up to be an athlete and accomplished markswoman. In the early 1930s, with threats of war increasing in Europe, she wanted to utilize her language, leadership and analytical skills by doing diplomatic work.

In a 1930s male-dominated United States State Department, women were still considered fragile and incapable of high-level diplomacy. Although Hall was highly qualified and hired for several European locations, she was assigned only secretarial jobs because she was a woman. On one such assignment in Turkey in 1933, Hall lost her left leg in a hunting accident. She was 27 years old.

Fitted with a prosthetic leg and eager for field work, Hall accepted a post with Britain’s new secret service agency Special Operations Executive in early 1940, where she was assigned to France. Hall became the first Allied woman to be deployed behind enemy lines.

Hall’s mission was to go undercover to create an Allied Resistance by collecting and passing on intelligence. In May 1940, the Germans invaded the country. Her duties soon included sabotaging the Nazis and Vichy regime. Hall eventually accumulated more than 1,500 resistance fighters, most of whom were men. Women represented 11% to 20% of the total number of Resistance fighters within France. Women also represented 15% of deportations to Nazi concentration camps.

When she wasn’t blowing up bridges, railroad trestles and roads – imitation horse dung was a popular explosive used to trick German troop convoys – Hall was training Resistance fighters, organizing secret parachute drops, plotting successful prison breaks, setting up safehouses, transmitting coded radio messages, transporting weapons, money and supplies and crossing mountains in three-foot snow while limping and carrying a 40-pound wireless transmitter.

Hall used a variety of code names and was a mistress of disguise. In 1944, she asked a British dentist to grind down her teeth to enhance her cover as a French peasant. In order to infiltrate villages, Hall disguised herself as an aging milkmaid – drawing on her childhood experience tending to animals on her family’s Maryland estate.

Among her other clandestine accomplishments while in France, Hall was instrumental in transmitting German troop movements in advance of D-Day.

In 1944, she moved from working for the Brits in SOE to working for her native Americans in the newly created Office of Strategic Services – the American version of SOE and a precursor to the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. The battle-scarred veteran was once again forced to fight a gender battle.

Although she tried to shun honors, Hall received the Member of the British Empire award for her courageous work for the SOE. In 1945, for her heroic work within OSS, she was presented with the U.S. Distinguished Service Cross – the U.S. Army’s second highest military decoration. She was the only civilian woman in WWII to receive the U.S. honor.

In the years following WWII, Hall married and joined the CIA – where, despite her exemplary record, her male supervisors limited her to “womens’ desk work.” In 1966, at the age of 60, Hall retired. She died in Maryland in 1982.

Despite her office mistreatment during her CIA years, Hall is well remembered. Her portrait graces CIA Headquarters in Langley, Virginia. In December 2016, the CIA named a building after her.

Along with Virginia Hall, WWII generated other famous women spies, including jazz artist Josephine Baker, who worked for the French Resistance and Chef Julia Child, who, like Hall, worked for the OSS. Their stories are those of ongoing struggles against fear, discrimination and adversity, and demonstrate the perseverance and courage of women.

To read Parts I and II of our spy series, which appeared in the May 26 and June 30, 2022 editions of the Alexandria Times, visit alexandria celebrates women archives – Alexandria Times (alextimes.com).

The writers are founders of Alexandria Celebrates Women, a nonprofit that highlights influential women throughout the city’s history. Contact them at AlexandriaCelebrates Women@gmail.com.

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