Virginia Hall may have had just one leg, but no other covert operative tormented the Nazis quite like the "Limping Lady."
No less an authority than the Nazi Gestapo described her as “the most dangerous of all Allied spies.” “We must find and destroy her,” they said. The Nazis plastered warnings like this on hundreds of posters that offered a reward for any information about this devastating threat to the Third Reich.
Her name was Virginia Hall and her exploits as an American spy during World War II more than justified the Nazis’ fearful response to her.
In fact, the Nazis assigned their entire stable of double agents to gather any information on this mysterious woman and to eliminate her if she was found. But the Gestapo and its senior officer in charge of hunting Virginia Hall, Klaus Barbie (“the Butcher of Lyon”), never managed to uncover her true nationality or her real name.
And this so infuriated Barbie that he once cried out in outrage, “I would give anything to get my hands on that limping Canadian bitch.”
Of course, Virginia Hall wasn’t even Canadian. And there were plenty of other things the Nazis never knew about this daring spy.
Virginia Hall’s Early Life
Virginia Hall was born in Baltimore on April 6, 1906 to a wealthy family with a quiet, pastoral farm. An exceptional student, she was elected class president at Roland Park Country School, where she was also editor-in-chief of the school newspaper and captain of the field hockey team. Her peers remembered her as the “most original of our class.”
After impressing her classmates, she went on to study at both Barnard and Radcliffe, two of the nation’s most prestigious liberal arts colleges. Hall then decided to continue her education in European cities like Paris and Vienna. While abroad, she earned a diploma in economics and international law, and became fluent in French, Italian, and German.
After completing her studies, Hall accepted a clerk position at the U.S. embassy in Warsaw, Poland in 1931 before being transferred to Izmir, Turkey. It was there, in 1932, that she accidentally shot herself in the leg while hunting. When gangrene set in, her left leg was amputated below the knee.
This tragic misfortune dashed any hopes of Hall entering the diplomatic corps, as she’d so longed to do, because the State Department had strict rules against hiring anyone with a disability.
Despite her letter of appeal on the matter, Secretary of State Cordell Hall callously replied that, “Hall could become a fine career girl in the Consular Service.” Her future was forever changed.
But Virginia Hall didn’t give up. Instead, she learned to walk again with a prosthetic leg (which she named “Cuthbert”) and resigned from her clerical position in 1939 in search of a better future.
She then returned to Paris on the eve of the German invasion in May 1940. Deciding to contribute to the war effort, Hall worked as a driver for the French ambulance service. However, she quickly had to flee to London when Paris fell to the Germans.
While in London, she volunteered to serve with the Special Operations Executive (SOE) and received training in weapons and resistance activities. Soon, Virginia Hall began to put these skills to use and make a name for herself as one of World War II’s most legendary spies.
Upon joining the SOE, Virginia Hall (codename “Germaine,” among many others) was sent to France to collect intelligence on German operations there and to help organize and arm the French resistance.
She clandestinely entered France posing as a New York Post reporter in August of 1941. By November, Hall had established a secret network of loyal French citizens, codenamed HECKLER.
HECKLER was an incredible success, as it assisted in the escape to safety of several British pilots downed by the Germans, provided information to the Allies, and introduced several new SOE operatives into France. But Hall had to abandon post and flee to Spain after Germany seized the remaining bits of France it hadn’t already seized in November 1942.
However, a few months before that point, the Nazi Gestapo had already begun to hunt for the “Limping Lady.” Barbie was able to capture many HECKLER agents, but not Virginia Hall.
Soon, she was safely in Spain, but not before enduring the harsh, winter journey out of France through the Pyrenees mountains — prosthetic leg and all.
She soldiered her way through the falling snow by dragging her prosthetic leg while using her working leg to trudge through the snow. At one point during the perilous journey, Hall was able to transmit a message to her superiors in London, jokingly informing them that Cuthbert was giving her a bit of trouble. They replied: “If Cuthbert is giving you difficulty, have him eliminated.”
Hall had just safely entered Spain when she was abruptly arrested at a train station for crossing into the country illegally. She was held in jail for six weeks before an inmate who’d been serving with her but was then released was able to get word to American officials in Barcelona who secured her release.
She then joined the Americans’ espionage outfit, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS). In May 1944, she was sent back into France with the cover identity of Marcelle Montagne, a farmhand in a rural village.
To avoid suspicion, Hall dyed her hair grey, shuffled her feet to hide her limp, and even had her teeth fillings re-done to match those used in French dentistry. Her assignment was to act as a radio operator and covertly coordinate supply drops for anti-German forces while also reporting on German troop movements.
But even more than that, Virginia Hall took offensive action against the Germans. According to Smithsonian:
“In her final report to headquarters, Hall stated that her team had destroyed four bridges, derailed freight trains, severed a key rail line in multiple places and downed telephone lines. They were also credited with killing some 150 Germans and capturing 500 more.”
That final report came circa September 1944, when headquarters put an end to Hall’s posting as Allied troops (having since landed at Normandy) began to move through the area and take it out of Germany’s hands. So ended Virginia Hall’s extraordinary days as a wartime spy.
After the end of the war, the French government awarded her the Croix de Guerre avec Palme. The British made her a Member of the Order of the British Empire. And U.S. General William Donovan presented her with the Distinguished Service Cross.
President Truman wanted to give Hall the award himself in a public ceremony, but she refused, believing that it would reveal too much about her identity to any enemies she still had out there.
Ever the spy, Virginia Hall continued to work for the CIA as an analyst until her retirement at the age of 60 in 1966. She lived out the rest of her days in her home state of Maryland before dying in 1982 at age 76.