Observances of the 75th anniversary of D-Day were properly focusing on the troops and the architect of Operation Overlord, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, who freed Europe from Hitler and his Nazi hordes.
One person — a woman — has not received the credit she deserves for her efforts with the French Resistance. Without her daring and heroism, the war would most assuredly have been prolonged and many more lives would have been lost.
Her name was Virginia Hall and her story is told in a new book by Sonia Purnell titled “A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II.” The title does not exaggerate Virginia’s contributions to the Allied victory.
Saying that one can’t put down a book has become a cliche, but Purnell’s work, pieced together from meticulous research and bridging lost or destroyed records, exceeds in drama any spy novel you have ever read.
Virginia was from a family of Baltimore socialites. Her mother expected her to do what most women in that class did in the ‘20s and ‘30s — get married, have children and attend parties. Encouraged by her father, who discovered she had other goals, Virginia talked her way into the Special Operations Executive, the British spy organization Prime Minister Winston Churchill called the “Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare.”
She became the first Allied woman deployed behind enemy lines and this with a prosthetic leg she was forced to wear after a hunting accident. She had her gender (sexism was rife in intelligence services and the military in those days), as well as her “handicap” working against her and yet she helped ignite the French Resistance and revolutionized modern secret warfare.
Through incredible trials, which included the Gestapo’s unrelenting pursuit, her use of disguises, proficiency in French, recruitment of assets — and betrayal by some of them — and the deprivation of virtually every physical comfort one can imagine, Virginia pursued her goal of liberating France, a country with which she had fallen in love.
As Purnell notes in the final chapter, “Valor rarely reaps the dividends it should.” It was not until after her death in 1982 that the CIA (the successor of OSS) recognized her contributions to the war. Purnell writes: “Today Virginia is officially recognized by the CIA as an unqualified heroine of the war, whose career at the agency was held back by ‘frustrations with superiors who did not use her talents well.’” That’s an understatement.
A brief summary of her work is contained on the book jacket, but the book must be read in its entirety to appreciate what she accomplished by bravery and sheer force of will: “Virginia established vast spy networks throughout France, called weapons and explosives down from the skies and became a linchpin for the Resistance. Even as her face covered wanted posters and a bounty was placed on her head, Virginia refused order after order to evacuate. She finally escaped through a death-defying hike over the Pyrenees into Spain, her cover blown. But she plunged back in, adamant that she had more lives to save, and led a victorious guerrilla campaign, liberating swathes of France from the Nazis after D-Day.”
Never have I read anything like it. Every page is compelling and demands not just to be read, but absorbed. Every act reflects incredible bravery. This is what heroism looks like. Virginia’s actions, along with the men who gave their lives for the freedoms that France, the rest of Europe and America enjoy today, should never be forgotten.
Sonia Purnell has ensured Virginia Hall’s place in that great pantheon.