Better than Fletch

Posthumous honors for a pioneering female spy.


Rebecca Traister
December 12, 2006 7:05PM (UTC)

The New York Times yesterday ran a great Associated Press piece about the posthumous recognition accorded Virginia Hall, a native of Baltimore and a World War II spy for the Allies.

Hall died in 1982 at the age of 78, but today she will be honored in a ceremony hosted by the French ambassador in Washington. British ambassador David Manning will present Hall's niece with a certificate signed by King George VI that Hall was originally supposed to have received in 1943 when she was made a member of the Order of the British Empire.

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The AP details a bit of Hall's story, though it also refers to a book about her, "The Wolves at the Door: The True Story of America's Greatest Female Spy" by Judith L. Pearson, that sounds like it's worth a read. She first wanted to work in the U.S. Foreign Service, but was turned away on account of her artifical left leg (the limb had been amputated after a hunting accident). Instead, Hall, who had moved from Paris to London in 1940, became the first female field operative of the Special Operations Executive, the secret British paramilitary outfit. She was sent to Vichy, where for 15 months she coordinated the activity of the French underground resistance.

Hall was such a successful spy that the Gestapo finally offered a reward for her arrest, referring to her on posters as "the woman with a limp" and "the most dangerous of all Allied spies," whom "we must find and destroy." She fled France for Spain, and the AP story contains an amazing anecdote about a message she sent along the way about trouble she was having with her artifical leg, which she referred to as "Cuthbert." Her confused commanders reportedly missed the reference and replied, "If Cuthbert troublesome eliminate him."

Hall then joined the American Office of Strategic Services and returned to France in 1944 disguised as an elderly peasant. There, the AP reports, Hall "located parachute drop zones where money and weapons could be passed to Resistance fighters and later coordinated guerrilla warfare. Her teams destroyed bridges, derailed freight trains and killed scores of German soldiers."

Hall received a Distinguished Service Cross in 1945, the only one awarded to a civilian woman in WWII, and joined the CIA, where she worked from 1951 to 1966 as one of the organization's first female operations officers. The reason she never received the certificate that is scheduled to be presented to her niece today is that after her work for the British government was done, it was completely unable to locate her. Which is awesome.


Rebecca Traister

Rebecca Traister writes for Salon. She is the author of "Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women" (Free Press). Follow @rtraister on Twitter.

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