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?