VIRGINIA HALL GOILLOT DSC, Croiz de Guerre, MBE (d: 1982), code named Marie and Diane, was an American who worked with the United Kingdom’s clandestine Sprecial Operations Executive (SOE) and later with the American Office of Strategic Services (OSS). The purpose of SOE and OSS was to conduct espionage, sabotage and reconnaissance in occupied Europe against the Axis powers. SOE and OSS agents allied themselves with French Resistance groups and supplied them with weapons and equipment parachuted in from England. After World War II Hall worked for the Special Activities Division of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). She was pioneering agent for the SOE, arriving in France in August 1941, the first female agent to take up residence in France. She created the Heckler network in Lyon. Over the next 15 months, she “became an expert at support operations — organizing resistance movements; supplying agents with money, weapons, and supplies; helping downed airmen to escape; offering safe houses and medical assistance to wounded agents and pilots.” She fled France in November 1942 to avoid capture by the Germans.
She returned to France as a wireless operator for the OSS in March 1944 and a member of the Saint network. Working in territory still occupied by the German army and mostly without the assistance of other OSS agents, she supplied arms, training, and direction to French resistance groups, called maquis, especially in Haute-Loire where the maquis cleared the department of German soldiers prior to the arrival of the American army in September 1944.
The Germans gave her the nickname Artemis, and the Gestapo reportedly considered her “the most dangerous of all Allied spies.” Hall had an artificial foot she named “Cuthbert.” She was also known as “the limping lady.”
I have and offer no certain proof that she was a lesbian, but her biographer, Sonia Purnell, in the recent book A Woman of No Importance notes that Hall was the headstrong daughter of a Baltimore banker and his socialite wife. When the family’s finances began to fail, Barbara Hall wanted her daughter to make an advantageous marriage, elevating both the family’s monetary and social positions. Virginia was having none of it. Purnell also referred to her as “a tomboy.” Given her dashing wartime bravery, it’s not hard to imagine that she had Sapphic tendencies, despite her purported liaisons with men. She did marry. And pretty much any time the term “headstrong” is used in reference to a young woman, you really have to go there.
She studied in Paris, where she fell in love with France — and a young man whom her family deemed unsuitable and forbid her to marry. She began working with the U.S. State Department and was posted to Turkey. During a hunting expedition, she stumbled and suffered a gunshot wound in her left foot. Her leg had to be amputated just below the knee. At the age of 27, she acquired the prosthesis — she named it “Cuthbert” — that she would have for the rest of her life.
For years in Lyon, she avoided capture by the Nazis while setting up vast networks, rescuing officers, supplying valuable intelligence to England, and setting the stage for guerrilla warfare that was to hugely benefit the Allies toward the end of the war.
When “the limping lady of Lyon” finally became so notorious that the Gestapo was close on her trail, Hall escaped and hiked over the Pyrenees into Spain — a grueling and horrifically painful journey, given her prosthesis. Later, in the mountainous region of the Haute-Loire in France, she established a group of guerrilla fighters and supplied vital intelligence in advance of the Allies’ D-Day invasion.
Hall spoke five languages, went by many code names, and could switch her appearance multiple times in an afternoon. She cultivated contacts, planned a daring and successful prison escape for her fellow agents, and later on during the war – with the Nazis hot on her heels – recruited and led guerrilla groups whose sabotage missions of blowing up bridges and cutting off communications helped the Allied effort after D-Day.
More than a few of her fellow SOE officers refused to acknowledge the competence and leadership of a female spy. Such discrimination — and Hall’s desire to avoid commendation — certainly contributed to how little-known she is today, Purnell writes. She was one of the actual British operative who was granted “a license to kill.” And she did.
Many of the Allied victories of World War II might have been greatly delayed or never have been achieved. Purnell describes Hall’s life as a “Homeric tale of adventure, action, and seemingly unfathomable courage.”