America’s first and greatest spy of the Second World War was a middle-aged woman from Baltimore with an artificial leg named Virginia Hall.
Her remarkable story of courage, set against the backdrop of Nazi cruelty in World War II France, is largely unknown.
Virginia Hall quit the US State Department after being denied advancement because of her disability, escaped to London as the Nazis invaded Paris, and promptly was recruited by British Intelligence to become the Allies’ first secret agent to live behind enemy lines.
In Vichy France, Virginia developed an extensive network of spies and saboteurs but ultimately was betrayed by one of her agents. As the Klaus Barbie, the Gestapo’s “Butcher of Lyon” closed in, her only avenue of escape was by foot across the snow-capped Pyrenees.
Virginia and her prosthetic limb she nicknamed “Cuthbert,” survived this harrowing ordeal but when Virginia demanded to return to France, London refused, claiming it would be a suicide mission. Undaunted, she did go back, this time with America’s new espionage organization, the OSS, on the eve of the D-Day invasion.
My discovery of Virginia Hall’s escape route over the Pyrenees the winter of 1942 is recounted in my Studies in Intelligence article, A Climb to Freedom—a finalist for the Sherman Kent Award, given “for the most significant contribution to the literature of intelligence.”