An Unlikely Spy

A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II
By Sonia Purnell
Viking, 2019, 352 pp.

Just about everybody loves a good spy story, right? What can be more dangerous and nerve-racking than someone going “incognito” behind enemy lines to obtain intelligence and/or wreak havoc? This book recounts the exploits of Virginia Hall, one of the most improbably effective Allied spies of World War II.

In 1931, at the age of twenty-five, Parkton, Maryland native, Virginia Hall, entered into service at the State Department, holding various lower-level positions, but desiring a post in the diplomatic corps. She lost a lower-leg from complications due to a hunting accident while on assignment in Turkey. When Nazi Germany invaded France in 1940, Virginia desired to assist in the war effort and volunteered with the United Kingdom’s Special Operations Executive (SOE), the clandestine organization created to gather intelligence and to assist and direct resistance groups within France and other occupied territories

In 1941, Virginia was assigned to the city of Lyons in the unoccupied Vichy zone, where she developed an effective resistance network. Virginia encountered much push-back from French resistance operatives because of her gender, but she overcame misgivings through her intelligence and steely resolve. With Virginia’s help, the Lyons-area underground constantly harassed the Vichy quislings and German forces. At one point, Virginia even orchestrated the bold escape of twelve Maquis/resistance fighters from a Vichy prison.

As a defensive response to the Allied invasion of Northern Africa in November, 1942, the German military forces flooded into previously-unoccupied Vichy, and the Gestapo and Abwehr (German military intelligence) were on the hunt for the female they were convinced coordinated the resistance forces in the region. Gestapo officer, Klaus Barbie, the infamous “Butcher of Lyons,” was hot on Virginia’s trail. She barely escaped by walking 50 miles on her artificial lower-leg prosthesis, dubbed “Cuthbert,” through the Pyrenees Mountains to “neutral” Spain.

Because the Germans had come so close to apprehending Virginia, the Brits were reluctant to send her back to France, despite her pleas, so she signed up with the newly-formed U.S. Office of Strategic Services (OSS). Her most notable assignment was in the mountainous Haute-Loire region in south-central France where she coordinated resistance/espionage efforts in 1944.

Following the war, Virginia joined the Central Intelligence Agency in 1947, but was largely relegated to mid-level desk jobs despite her impressive war-time resumé. She retired in 1966 and died in 1982. Virginia’s outstanding service was recognized posthumously by France, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

Where the tire meets the road: The spy game is highly romanticized in fictional books and films (e.g., James Bond, Agent 007), but the author reveals that Virginia and other agents battled the overwhelming and unrelenting anxiety involved with their duties with the regular use of sedatives and alcohol.

Postscript: In reading this book, I was struck by the dedication and sacrifice of Virginia Hall and others of that era to the cause of temporal political liberty. Are we believers as dedicated to the cause of Jesus Christ and His eternal Kingdom?

41 thoughts on “An Unlikely Spy

  1. Thank you for reviewing this real-life spy book, Tom! Indeed, there are real dedicated spies out there who risk their lives to make this a little bit peaceful world, among others. Virginia’s story probably has inspired many spy women stories, including fictional ones like Peggy Carter and Natasha Romanoff.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Kent. This book was quite enlightening regarding the practical aspects of life as a spy (and coordinator of resistance/espionage efforts) behind enemy lines. I know many people really enjoy the spy thriller genre.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes, you are right, Tom! Some even dreamed of/romanticizing it without knowing the risk, cost, and effect to one’s life and family. Knowing a lot of classified information has its risk. But nothing beats a good and well-written spy movie. GOD bless you and Corinne!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Yes, the life of a spy requires constant, uncompromising vigilance, not for the weak-hearted, as this book reveals. Thank you and God bless you and yours as well!

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you regarding our dog! Hopefully it doesn’t turn into a major stomach problem like it did a year ago.

      This was such a good book. Highly recommended. Your Typology book is on-deck and I’m looking forward to it. I’ve got 100 pages left on a (very dry) book on ecumenism. I made big progress today while parked in multiple parking lots.

      So glad you guys enjoyed the grape pie! Oh, and thank you for the very nice Christmas card! We appreciate you thinking of us!

      Thank you also for your prayers for my job situation because [drumroll] the company I interviewed with the past two weeks offered me a position and I accepted! Starting date is January 11th!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. What amazing news! Praise God! This is SO great!!! I am SO happy for you and Corinne!! Yea God!

        I have said some prayers for y’all and your dog. Do y’all have any other animals? This is my puppy’s first snow and as such I am crusading and yes I mean crusading against my puppy and the snow, wielding my shovel like a banshee. I am losing like the West lost Constantinople, arg! Seriously, snow is a result of the Fall. I look forward to the day when their is NO more snow and ice!!!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Thank you! 🙏🏻☝🏻🙌

        And thank you for your additional prayers! Nope, we just have Gracie the labradoodle. It’s fun to watch puppies navigate the snow for the first time. The snow and cold is definitely a challenge. Today, Corinne asked what I thought about eventually moving down South, that coming from a person who has always criticized relatives for doing that very thing. We’re not getting as much snow as you guys, but tomorrow I have to drive 60 miles one way for a blood test for the new job. The company couldn’t have contracted a lab here in Rochester??????

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Yeah, seeing as the company is located in Rochester!

        We try to take a long walk every day throughout the winter to help stay acclimated. Mice try to come inside and nest in the winter so I bait traps with peanut butter in the basement.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I saw this book on my library listings and was thinking about reading this next year! Sounds intriguing and your review really makes me want to read this even more. Wow she worked for both SOE and OSS! Good application towards the end; we have a spiritual warfare before us for people’s lives and soul. Eternal freedom is greater than temporal freedom

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Great courage, dedication, and sacrifice. Just the few pages describing her escape from the Gestapo by walking 50 miles on her blood drenched prosthesis through the Pyrenees mountains is something I’ll always remember.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. While reading your review I was hoping she didn’t get captured . What an amazing woman. Very appropriate question at the end Tom. Are we so dedicated to the cause of our Lord and Saviour ?
    Thank you for this great review .
    Hope your dog is doing well and fully recovered.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Crissy. Yes, sometimes the dedication and sacrifice of unbelievers for some temporal cause puts us to shame.

      RE: Dog
      Sincere thanks! Gracie is resting comfortably on the couch. Hopefully the medication she was prescribed helps.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Agreed. There’s also those who work as undercover police. I don’t know how people do it. In addition to those who see it as their duty, maybe there are some who are drawn by the constant “thrill”/adrenaline rush.

      Liked by 1 person

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