Estimated reading time: 6 minutes
Popular fiction abounds with superheroes. But it’s not often at all that you’ll come across a true-to-life story of a person who comes even close to the sort of over-the-top heroism that so many popular writers favor. However, the story of WWII American woman spy Virginia Hall (1906-82) fits that bill. In A Woman of No Importance, Sonia Purnell relates the woman’s experience in World War II in compelling and often jaw-dropping detail. It’s the best study I’ve ever read about the British Special Operations Executive (SOE), the American Office of Strategic Services (OSS), and the French Resistance. I found it nearly impossible to put the book down.
“An unqualified heroine of the war”
“Today Virginia is officially recognized by the CIA as an unqualified heroine of the war,” Purnell notes in an Epilogue. And in 2016 the CIA named its training center the Virginia Hall Expeditionary Center. But during the six years she worked for the SOE and the OSS during the war, and during her fifteen-year postwar career in the CIA, she was confronted again and again by misogyny. Incompetent and jealous men were placed in command of her work. Male agents and partisans often refused to accept orders from her even when confirmed by her superiors in London. She was denied promotions, even nickel-and-dimed about pay. And she was refused decorations for her heroism that had been supported by nearly all those who worked with her.
A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II by Sonia Purnell (2019) 368 pages ★★★★★
This WWII American woman spy almost single-handedly kept the Resistance alive
During the nearly four years when she operated massive special operations forces behind Nazi lines in France, Virginia Hall was never awarded an equivalent rank higher than that of lieutenant. Yet the extraordinary skill and bravery with which she recruited, trained, and supplied thousands of guerrilla fighters in the French Resistance surely merited a rank of at least major general. For a time early in the war, she almost single-handedly kept the Resistance alive when the Gestapo was rounding up other networks of spies and partisans. In Western armies, a major general typically commands a division of 10-20,000 soldiers; the forces she amassed were ultimately even larger. It was only in the CIA long after the war that she was promoted to any meaningful extent, finally receiving the equivalent rank of lieutenant colonel shortly before her retirement.
“A Homeric tale of adventure, action, and seemingly unfathomable courage”
Purnell describes her book as “a Homeric tale of adventure, action, and seemingly unfathomable courage.” And that is not hyperbole. Virginia Hall, child of a prosperous Baltimore banking family, showed leadership early in life. In high school, she became “class president, editor in chief, captain of sports, and even ‘Class Prophet.'” She often dressed and acted like a tomboy but lost a leg in a hunting accident at age 26. That tragedy might have sidelined her, but it did nothing of the sort. She lived for the rest of her life with a wooden prosthetic leg, somehow managing feats of endurance that confounded fully-abled young men.
Misogyny and a disability held her back
As a young woman, Hall was determined to join the Foreign Service. She spoke five languages as well as English. (Her French was “atrocious,” as one person said, but she made herself fully understood nonetheless.) But misogyny and her disability prevented her receiving the appointments she sought in the 1930s—even with the personal support of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, at one point. She was never able to secure a Foreign Service job except as a secretary. “Virginia’s shoddy treatment was later cited within the CIA itself as a textbook case of discrimination.”
“No one gave her more than a fifty-fifty chance of surviving”
When at last early in the war Hall was recruited to the fledgling SOE and sent behind the lines in France, “no one in London gave [her] more than a fifty-fifty chance of surviving even the first few days. For all Virginia’s qualities, dispatching a one-legged thirty-five-year-old desk clerk on a blind mission into wartime France was on paper an almost insane gamble. Yet Hall operated successfully behind German lines in France for more than three years for the SOE (and many months more for the OSS) without ever being caught by the Abwehr and the Gestapo.
She was the Nazis’s #1 most wanted Allied agent
Hall even became the number one target of the notorious SS war criminal Klaus Barbie for more than a year. “The Limping Lady of Lyon was becoming the Nazis’ most wanted Allied agent in the whole of France,” Purnell reports. “[B]y the end of 1943, . . . Virginia’s name, description, and role were universally known across German intelligence and beyond.” Yet she continued to direct operations for a huge and growing army of spies and saboteurs for months, and to travel, often by foot, all across the land to refuge in neutral Spain without detection.
She engineered a spectacular prison break
Perhaps the most spectacular episode in A Woman of No Importance is the astonishing prison break Hall engineered under the noses of the Nazis in 1942. Working with a courageous Frenchwoman whose husband was one of twelve prisoners held in a Vichy French prison, she arranged to smuggle in tools, food, and other supplies and manage the safe houses and exit strategy to get the man safely to London. There is no film, even The Great Escape (1963), that recounts a story any more dramatic than Hall’s exfiltration of a dozen Allied agents from the Nazis’s collaborators. Several books have been written about this amazing WWII American woman spy, but this must be the best.
For related reading
Earlier, I reviewed several other nonfiction books about the SOE and the French Resistance:
- Code Name: Lise: The True Story of the Woman Who Became World War II’s Most Highly Decorated Spy by Larry Loftis (A woman was World War II’s most highly decorated spy);
- Madame Fourcade’s Secret War: The Daring Young Woman Who Led France’s Largest Spy Network Against Hitler by Lynne Olson (The truth about the French Resistance, dug out of old records);
- D-Day Girls: The Spies Who Armed the Resistance, Sabotaged the Nazis, and Helped Win World War II by Sarah Rose (The women who parachuted behind German lines and helped secure the Normandy landing); and
- Rogue Heroes: The History of the SAS, Britain’s Secret Special Forces Unit that Sabotaged the Nazis and Changed the Nature of War by Ben MacIntyre (The story of the original special forces).
I’ve also read and reviewed three excellent novels about the French Resistance:
- The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah (A deeply affecting novel of the French Resistance);
- Red Gold (Night Soldiers #5) by Alan Furst (A brilliant novel of the French Resistance);
- A Hero of France (Night Soldiers #16) by Alan Furst (Vive la Resistance!); and
- in fact, you’ll also find a longer list of Good books about the French Resistance.
You might also be interested in 10 top nonfiction books about World War II.
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