A Woman of No Importance

Appropriate for Memorial Day and the reflection it deserves. A Woman of No Importance by Sonia Purnell tells the story of SOE, OSS and CIA agent Virginia Hall, winner of the Distinguished Service Cross, the French Croix de Guerre, and the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (man does that sound British) for her awe-inspiring work in France during WW2. While she survived the war (and actually continued to serve well into the Cold War), she very clearly carried the physical and mental after-effects of a time where so many of her colleagues and charges did not come home.

That she survived at all is amazing. Initially inserted into Lyon in Vichy France by the SOE, she recruited, trained, armed and led independent resistance cells on both sides of the demarcation line. She coordinated safe houses and safe passage for agents and downed pilots. She set up radio operators with secure locations, moving them constantly as Milice and Gestapo mobile vans triangulated the signals. She was so central that in 1942 the Gestapo called her “the most dangerous of all allied spies” and none other than Klaus Barbie was focused on tracking her down.

After Operation Torch in Northern Africa, Hitler gave up the fiction of Vichy independence and came rolling south. Hall had to escape by trekking more than twenty miles of snowy Pyrenees passes into Spain. On foot. WITH A FAKE LEG. No joke — she lost her lower leg in a hunting accident, and accomplished all of this with a 1940s-era prosthetic strapped on with leather and buckles.

And then she went back. Now as an OSS agent and disguised as an old lady to elude the still-active Nazi campaign to find her, she set up shop in the south-central high plains of Haute-Loire, quickly taking control of and unifying resistance cells there. When the time came, the Diane Irregulars liberated their department on their own, even before uniformed Allied troops showed up.

Of course through it all, this incredible woman was treated largely like crap by the fragile male egos of the developing security services. Again and again she was made to report to less qualified agents. Back in the States after the war she was given administrative and low-level positions that made no sense. And in her performance reviews you see the same code words we see for women even today: “too direct” … “overly independent” … you get the idea. So dumb.

I’m glad to have stumbled upon her story, and that at last Virginia Hall is getting at least some of the credit she deserves. She was part of an amazing generation that did amazing things to defeat a terrible evil in the world. I’m grateful, and hope that our and future generations prove worthy of their sacrifices. Memorial Day indeed.