Move over James Bond. Step aside, Ethan Hunt. There’s a new super spy in town. Virginia Hall was the real-world spy whose daring adventures behind enemy lines during WWII helped guarantee an Allied victory. She gathered valuable information, rescued downed airmen, and staged daring prison escapes. And on top of that? She did it all with only one good leg.
1. She Was Unassuming
Virginia Hall was born in Baltimore, Maryland in 1906. At first, there was no indication that little Virginia would go on to lead one of the most adventurous lives of the 20th century. Her own mother expected her to become a dutiful wife and raise multiple children. But beneath her unassuming exterior were all the makings of a daring master spy.
2. She Was Dangerous
The adventurous Virginia Hall would go on to become a thorn in the side of the Axis Forces. In fact, at the height of WWII, the German forces of the Third Reich considered Hall to be “the most dangerous of all Allied spies” and hunted her down relentlessly. Hall would need a whole of gumption and a little bit of luck to escape with her life.
3. She Was Fluent In Intelligence
After graduating from high school, Virginia studied languages at Columbia University. She became fluent in French, German, and Italian—it’s almost like she knew what lay ahead. Hall got a small taste of adventure when she took up a post as a clerk at the American Embassy in Warsaw, Poland. She had no idea how perfectly positioned she was for the coming storm.
4. She Had A Bad Trip
Ironically, Hall’s first brush with actual danger came well before the onset of WWII. In 1933, she went on a hunting trip to Izmir, Turkey, where she suffered an accident that would shape the rest of her life. Hall tripped while hunting birds and accidentally shot her own left foot. She took it all in “stride” though.
5. She Had A Prosthesis
Hall’s injury from her hunting accident was bad enough that doctors had to amputate her left leg from just below the knee. She wasn’t the kind of gal to let something like a stump leg keep her spirits down, though. After all, she had more adventures to embark upon. Hall named her trusted prosthetic leg “Cuthbert” and, together, they would conquer France.
6. She Faced Discrimination
Virginia Hall learned early on in her career that she was going to face obstacles, even from people she considered to be friends. While working at the embassy, Hall sought promotions to become a diplomat, but her superiors turned her down repeatedly. They weren’t about to let a woman, far less an amputee woman, represent the United States.
7. She Found Adventure
Seeing that she wouldn’t get anywhere in the diplomatic service, Hall quit the embassy. Then, in 1939, adventure came a ‘knocking with the outbreak of WWII. While she would have been happy to serve on the frontlines, she knew that the French would not let women serve in active combat. Especially not a woman with a wooden leg. But Hall found another way to get into the fight.
8. She Was A First Responder
Virginia Hall wanted in on the action against the evil Third Reich. And there was plenty of excitement that didn’t include manning the trenches. She enlisted with the French to become an ambulance driver, ferrying injured soldiers to safety. Hall drove through minefields and mortar shells, all with the aid of her prosthetic leg, Cuthbert.
9. She Met Her Destiny On The Train To Spain
Following France’s defeat at the onset of WWII, Hall headed back into civilian life. She spent a little time in Paris but quickly bristled at the suffocating nature of the occupying forces of the Third Reich. The freedom-loving Hall had to get out, so she came up with a plan. She boarded a train to Spain—the only way out of occupied France—and had a chance encounter.
10. She Was Impressive
By chance alone, Hall encountered a man named George Bellows on the train to Spain. Hall impressed Bellows with her intellect and knowledge of the situation in occupied France. Bellows gave Hall the contact information for a “friend” in England who he said could help her find employment. Hall had no idea that Bellows was a spy.
11. She Broke The Glass Ceiling
The contact that Bellows had given Hall was for a man named Nicolas Bodington, an officer with the new spy outfit, Special Operations Executives (SOE). Over dinner, Hall impressed Bodington. There were concerns—i.e., misogynistic gripes—about hiring a woman into the new spy agency but Bodington recruited Hall anyway, making her one of the first female spies.
12. She Became A Master Spy
Hall’s spy training began immediately. The SOE taught Hall how to spot targets, shake a tail, handle various arms and quietly pick a lock. The most valuable skills the SOE taught her, however, was how to encrypt messages and create a disguise. With her training all done, Hall was ready to go behind enemy lines. But no amount of preparation could have prepared her for what lay ahead.
13. She Was Covered
The SOE placed Hall behind enemy lines in Vichy France. Her American nationality made it perfect for her to pose as a journalist for The New York Post. She could ask pressing questions and move around in suspicious places without garnering too much attention from the occupying forces. And once she established herself in France, she got to work.
14. She Was A Pioneer
While in Vichy France, Hall became the first-ever “liaison officer,” coordinating efforts between British intelligence and the underground French resistance. She became an expert in pioneering espionage tactics. She founded covert methods for arranging contacts, bribing officials, and managing agents in the field. It wasn’t long before she was running things in Vichy.
15. She Got A Ring
Within a matter of months, Hall established a well-run and ever-expanding network of informants and fellow agents. She aptly named her spy ring “Heckler” for all of the trouble they were going to give the occupying forces. The Third Reich had no idea that the tall but unassuming “journalist” was actually a British spy—yet.
16. She Had Strange Friends
Virginia Hall got most of her information from some of the unlikeliest sources. One of her closest friends was a gynecologist—not sure what she learned from him. But one of her best informants was, Germaine Guérin, the owner and operator of a comfort house in Lyon frequented by the soldiers of the Third Reich. But while she was there, Hall was making just as many enemies as friends.
17. She Was Paranoid
Hall’s training and natural disposition as a woman in a man’s world encouraged her to always keep her guard up. Hall adopted the SOE’s motto for success—which, in spy terms, means survival. She lived by the ethos “dubito, ergo sum” or “I doubt, therefore I survive". Hall’s constant vigilance saved her from a terrible trap.
18. She Was Almost Totally Alone
When a fellow SOE agent called for a meeting in Marseilles of all active Allied spies in France, Virginia Hall had a terrible feeling about it. She was right to trust her instincts. The meeting was a trap. French authorities raided the meeting and apprehended all of those who couldn’t get away. The sting operation left Hall nearly completely alone behind enemy lines.
19. She Dropped The Soap
Things only got tougher for Virginia Hall after the sting operation. Life in occupied France was no cakewalk, especially for a spy. And even more especially for a spy whose friends had almost all been captured by enemy forces. Hall wrote back to SOE asking for a bar of soap, saying that it would make her, “both very happy and much cleaner". Cleanliness would be the least of her worries.
20. She Had It Under Control
Despite all of the challenges in her way and the failure of many of her fellow spies, Virginia Hall was making headway in Vichy France. And she certainly didn’t need anyone stepping on her prosthetic toes. The SOE instructed another agent to supervise Hall but she considered him to be lax and amateurish. Hall wrote back to her SOE superiors telling them to “lay off".
21. Her Own Allies Doubted Her
Hall had been behind enemy lines in Vichy France longer than any other of her fellow spies. But she still faced rampant discrimination. A fellow SOE agent who described Hall as a “girl” became suspicious of her. He had heard rumors that she had been working with someone by the code name “Cuthbert". Hall's response to her fellow agent was hilarious.
22. She Had A Solid Sense Of Humor
Hall’s fellow SOE agent confronted her about her dealings with the unknown operative going by the code name, “Cuthbert". In response to her fellow spy’s suspicions, Hall coolly banged her prosthetic leg against the wooden table creating a hollow sound. She didn’t take the criticism or discrimination to heart—she had people to save.
23. She Rescued Airmen
Allied command instructed airmen downed behind enemy lines to find their way to the American Embassy in Lyon. Once there, they were supposed to ask for “Olivier". Of course, “Olivier” didn’t exist. It was, in fact, a code name for Hall who, with the help of Heckler, hid, fed, and clothed the airmen before securing safe passage to neutral Spain.
24. She Was A Prison Reformer
Rescuing downed airmen was probably the least impressive of Hall’s espionage accomplishments in Vichy, France. When she wasn’t gathering information or ferrying combatants to safety, she occupied her time planning and carrying out the most daring prison outbreaks in all of WWII. And for Hall, the prison outbreaks were personal.
25. She Was An Expert Smuggler
Hall was paranoid—and for good reason. She had managed to evade capture by staying away from the SOE meeting in Marseilles but many of her friends had not been so lucky—or clever. Using her Heckler network, Hall managed to stage one of the biggest prison outbreaks during WWII. She used her network to smuggle materials into the prison. She even got a radio in there, and a key.
26. She Staged A Daring Getaway
Hall’s friends and fellow spies managed to escape from the prison using the key that she had snuck in for them. But the danger wasn’t over yet. Hall then had to help the prison escapees elude a massive manhunt by having them hide out in the woods. Many of the spies that Hall helped escape went on to great careers in the SOE.
27. She Refused To End Her Mission
Following Hall’s massive prison break, the Third Reich ramped up their efforts to shut down French resistance and their Allied supporters. For Hall, time was running out and the walls were closing in. The SOE recalled Hall—and her reaction was absolutely legendary. Hall refused to return and staged even more prison breaks. But vigilant as she was, she had no idea there was a double agent in her midst.
28. She Had A Big Mole
Heckler, Hall’s elaborate spy network, had a mole. Robert Alesch, a double agent working for the Third Reich had managed gain Hall’s trust and infiltrate her operation. He rendered her contacts ineffective and even transmitted false communications to London under her name. It was painfully clear to Hall; it was time to get the heck out of Dodge.
29. She Had A Limp
Even with all of her daring prison breaks, Hall’s number of allies continued to shrink. It didn’t matter how many people she saved; the Third Reich would capture a hundred more. Eventually, the spies they captured were going to talk. For the time being, Hall was safe. Her fellow spies didn’t actually know her real identity and she was a master of disguise.
But slowly, under pressure from their captors, they all began to crack and talk about “la dame qui boite". It wasn’t long before the full might of the Third Reich descended on the “limping lady".
30. She Became Infamous
Even with the Third Reich closing in on all sides, Virginia Hall refused to leave Vichy France. If she could still help, she would. But in Lyon, the Third Reich had Hall surrounded—the enemy was everywhere. They began plastering up photos of her and descriptions of her appearance as described by the mole in her operation. Thankfully, she was a master of disguise.
But she would need more than wigs and makeup to make it out alive. She would need her trusted friend, Cuthbert.
31. She Caught The Last Train
When Hall did finally decide to get out of occupied territory, she was almost out of time. In a mad rush—with her careful disguise slipping from her face—she managed to catch the last train to Perpignan, the southernmost town in France at the foot of the Pyrenees. Hall had eluded capture—for now—but there was still more danger ahead.
32. She Was Trapped
Hall had managed to ditch the heat in Lyon but she was still technically in occupied France. The Third Reich had control of the docks and airports so the only way out was by foot, across the Pyrenees to neutral Spain. With a snow-capped mountain range in front of her and the Third Reich behind her, Hall seemed trapped.
33. She Took The Hard Way Out
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Hall chose to traverse the Pyrenees rather than face whatever terrible fate the Third Reich had in store for her. But she knew it wouldn’t be an easy journey, especially not given her prosthetic leg. Before making her daring escape across the Pyrenees, Hall communicated to SOE that she hoped that “Cuthbert” wouldn’t trouble her.
The SOE wrote back, “If Cuthbert troublesome, eliminate him". They had no idea she was talking about her prosthesis.
34. She Was A Mountaineer
Hall arrived in Perpignan in November of 1942. Not only did she have to cross a mountain range, but she would also have to do so in the blustery cold of winter. Hall mustered her courage and hired a guide to take her across a treacherous mountain pass through the Pyrenees and into safety in neutral Spain. The trip would not be easy.
35. She Made It To Safety
The mountain path that Hall traversed had claimed the lives of young, healthy, able-bodied men. She had to trek through knee-deep snow with her prosthetic leg chaffing against her stump, all the while dodging lethally sharp falling icicles. Somehow, despite all of the odds, Hall emerged on the other side of the Pyrenees—alive.
36. Her Weakness Was Spaniards
Hall managed to evade the Third Reich and survive the Pyrenees—but her ordeal wasn’t over yet. The Spanish guards were another thing altogether. While waiting in a train station in Barcelona, Spanish guards questioned Hall’s appearance. She tried to explain that she and her companions had gone for a hike but the Spaniards weren’t buying it.
They apprehended her for crossing the border without a permit.
37. She Staged Her Own Breakout
Hall was no stranger to prisons. Or, rather, she was no stranger to prison breaks. This time she had to stage her own getaway. While behind bars in Spain, Hall befriended her cellmate. Hall convinced her cellmate upon her release to deliver a coded message to the American Embassy. Once the Americans decoded it, they immediately ordered Hall’s release.
But WWII was still raging, and she had more adventures to embark upon.
38. She Was Benched
When Hall returned to London, she learned what had happened to the rest of her spy ring—and it was absolutely chilling. The Third Reich had captured most of what was left of her spy network and shipped them off to concentration camps. Hall was understandably devasted and determined to get even. However, the SOE couldn’t risk putting their best spy back behind enemy lines. They turned down her request to return to France.
39. She Changed Sides
Hall’s friends within the SOE wouldn’t let her get back into the action. So she changed sides—kind of. In 1944, Hall began working for the American Office of Strategic Services (OSS). Hall’s fellow American’s allowed her to return to France to prepare the resistance for the invasion of Normandy. Hall picked up right where she had left off in 1942.
40. She Deserved An Oscar
Hall was happy to be back in France but the Third Reich still wanted to capture the “limping lady”—and they knew what she looked like. So, Hall employed her best espionage tactics and went undercover. Behind enemy lines in France, Hall posed as an elderly French woman. And the level of dedication she had to cover role; Hall might have made an excellent method actress.
41. She Was A Master Of Disguise
In order to pull of her disguise and conceal her true identity from the Third Reich, Hall went to extreme lengths. She had grey hair to resemble that of an elderly woman and teeth filed down to resemble the appearance of a peasant. Her disguise was a stroke of genius, but it still took a lot of nerve to pull it off under pressure.
42. She Was A Nice Little Old Lady
Hall’s disguises were so good that they held up even under the closest scrutiny. And Hall seemed to have had some fun with her disguise. In a stunning display of bravery, she made cheese and sold it to a group of soldiers for the Third Reich. Either her cheese was really good, or they knew nothing about the “limping lady,” because they didn’t recognize her at all.
43. She Delivered The Goods
By this point, Hall was a bona fide super-spy but she continued to face discrimination. Even the French resistance fighters she was trying to help thought her gender was a weakness. She wrote to the OSS, saying, “You send people out ostensibly to work with me and for me, but you do not give me the necessary authority". Their opinions of her changed when she delivered planeloads of supplies and money.
44. She Paid The Price
Hall’s efforts in France—both in 1942 and 1944—were integral to the Allied victory in 1945. But the victories that she had to helped to attain came at a brutally high cost. The Third Reich had captured and mistreated many of her friends from her original spy network, Heckler. Many didn’t make it to the end of WWII. But she did get some retribution.
45. She Won Spy Vs. Spy
Robert Alesch, the double agent who had betrayed Hall’s spy ring, couldn’t elude the Allies the way Hall had eluded the Axis Forces. British authorities captured Alesch following the conclusion of WWII. The British tried the double agent and executed him for his offenses. It was sore comfort for Hall, but she would find peace elsewhere.
46. She Settled Down…Kinda
After the most adventurous period in her life, Hall finally decided to plant some roots and settle down. Following WWII, she married a fellow spy, Paul Goillot. He was younger and shorter than she was but she was happy. Compared to the excitement of her WWII days, Hall’s married life was quiet. Extremely quiet. Far too quiet.
47. She Was The Original G-Woman
Hall continued to make history and shape the intelligence community long after WWII ended. In 1947, she became the first woman to work for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Nevertheless, discrimination against her gender and her disability—if you can call it that—persisted, and her superiors kept her desk-bound. It’s like they had no idea who she was.
48. Her Bosses Sucked
Virginia Hall received criticism for her performance from her male superiors at the CIA. But their disapproval was likely the result of jealousy. Fellow sleuth, E. Howard Hunt said, “No one knew what to do with her... She was a sort of embarrassment to the noncombat CIA types, by which I mean bureaucrats". I don’t see any bureaucrats staging prison escapes.
49. She Became A Recluse
Not everyone shunned Hall’s tremendous accomplishments. President Truman wanted to honor her with a public awards ceremony. Hall accepted the award but turned down the ceremony and presidential presentation. She only allowed her mother to attend. According to Hall, she was “still operational and most anxious to get busy".
Hall gave no interviews, wrote no memoir, and barely spoke a word of her adventures in France to her family.
50. She Was An Unsung Hero
Virginia Hall had earned a peaceful passing after her thrilling adventures during and after WWII. The unassuming Baltimore girl turned super spy passed on quietly in Barnesville, Maryland in 1982 as one of WWII’s greatest unsung heroes. We might never know the full extent of her contributions—they probably have the designation “Top Secret".