Virginia Hall left her Baltimore home in 1931 to enter the Foreign Service and went to work for the British Special Operations Executive (SOE) when Hitler was building toward the peak of his power in Europe. She was assigned to France, where she was the architect of the Resistance, helping escaped prisoners of war and American Allied paratroopers get to safety.
By 1942 she was known by the Gestapo who considered her so dangerous, they put a price on her head, forcing her to escape over the Pyrenees mountains—on an artificial leg, no less.
Upon arriving in England, she was sent back to France at her request, this time by the American Office of Strategic Services (OSS.) Disguised as an old peasant woman, she and her team captured 500 German soldiers and killed more than 150, as well as sabotaging Nazi communication and transportation lines. Hitler’s forces were hot on her trail, however, and her daring intelligence activities and indomitable spirit defied the expectations of even the Allies until the very end of the war.
To the Germans, she was “the lady with a limp.” To the Allies, she was a savior. This is her true story.
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The old woman bent her gray head against the frigid wind blowing in from the English Channel as she struggled along the rocky Brittany seaboard. The French province had 750 miles of coastline, all of it inclement during the month of March. And on this particular March day in 1944, the wind seemed set on toppling her over. She was determined to stay her course, however, and shuffled on.
The old man traveling with her also struggled. He appeared less steady than she was and occasionally took her arm to regain his footing. It was obvious from his gait, even to the most casual observer, that his left leg was painful. To make matters worse, the wooden sabots they wore were not suitable walking shoes for hiking along such a rutted road.
Each carrying a battered suitcase, they struggled against the cold wind for a little more than five miles before finally arriving at their destination: the port city of Brest. There the elderly couple made their way to the railroad station and purchased two second-class tickets for Paris. When the time came to depart, they sat in adjoining seats, her bulky woolen skirts taking up a great deal of room on both sides. The train ride took nearly six hours, and it was late when they arrived at the Montparnasse station on the southwestern edge of the city.
Paris looked nothing like it had when the old woman had been there on a previous visit. It had been the spring of 1940; national spirit ran high and the tri-color flew proudly from many buildings. Even the spring sun made an effort at encouragement, shining resolutely through the smoke of burning structures and exploding shells. The French army was fighting furiously to repel the better trained advancing Nazi forces. Under the leadership of 72-year-old General Maxime Weygand, the French had hastily prepared defenses. The old woman had done her part for the war effort – she had transported wounded French soldiers as an ambulance driver. But the Germans had no intention of being deterred and just before they dealt their sledgehammer blow on June 5, the old woman left the city. The French line soon crumbled and by June 14, Paris had been declared an “open city,” a request to the enemy to cease fire upon it. On the 21st, Hitler himself was at Compiègne, located a dozen miles outside the capital, and the precise spot where the Germans had been forced to surrender to the French at the close of WW I. The Führer had malevolently chosen the same location to dictate his harsh terms for this surrender.
Now, nearly four years later, blackout curtains kept the “city of lights” in the dark. Signs of war were everywhere: burned out buildings, abandoned military vehicles, shops whose contents had been looted. Even the sun was absent on this day, obliterated by steely clouds. But nowhere was the war more apparent than on the faces of the occasional passersby the old couple encountered on the streets. Fear and mistrust, borne out of the hell of brutal control under the Nazis, was common among French citizens.
The old woman did not feel fear. Rather, she was repulsed by the ravages of war that had destroyed the city. The further she and the old man trudged, the more that repulsion festered into anger and determination. She drew her shabby valise closer in an unconscious effort to guard its precious contents.
Despite their appearances, the feeble, elderly couple’s true identities couldn’t have been further removed from their current personae. He was Peter Harratt, code named “Aramis,” a thirtyish American agent of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS). She was Virginia Hall, code named “Marcelle,” the accomplished, thirty-eight year old spy who had built a reputation among colleagues and enemies alike while working with the British Special Operations Executive (SOE). Now also a member of the OSS, Hall was returning to France despite a price on her head and a Nazi pledge to “find and destroy her.” Together with other OSS agents, they were to assist the newly formed French Forces of Interior in coordinating resistance efforts.
The couple’s elaborate disguises had been created out of a necessity to camouflage Hall’s more recognizable features. Her soft brown hair had been dyed a shade of dirty gray and was pulled into a tight bun, giving her young face a severe appearance. Her slender figure was disguised under peplums and full skirts, topped with large woolen blouses and a shabby oversized sweater, to give her a look of stoutness. However, Hall’s most identifiable feature, the limp caused by her artificial left leg, couldn’t be eliminated. But it could be altered. An accomplished actress, Hall taught herself to walk with a shuffle, a gait suitable for a woman of her assumed age.
The couple spent the night at a safe house, resting and enjoying a fairly substantial meal, considering the scarcity of food in Paris. The next morning, they made their way to the St. Lazare train station, passing numerous Nazi soldiers who paid them little, if any, attention. What, after all, would be the purpose of harassing an impoverished, elderly French couple? Still, Hall’s heart fluttered slightly at each encounter; a combination of trepidation, knowing the fate awaiting her should she be caught, and exhilaration, knowing the damage her work would wreak on the Nazi war machine.
Their train journey northward to the city of Amiens took a little over two hours. After walking the three miles to a nearby village, Hall located a farmhouse belonging to Eugene Lopinat. Monsieur Lopinat was not a declared member of the growing French Resistance, but neither was he a Nazi sympathizer. He had been chosen by the Resistance for his reputation of being short on conversation and had been asked to find the old woman lodging. He had chosen a one-room cottage he owned at the opposite end of the village from his farmhouse, a shack with no running water or electricity.
Harratt had orders to install himself similarly further down the road and departed soon after Hall settled into her cottage. She was glad to be free of him. She thought he talked too much and was somewhat indiscreet, two qualities that could bring a quick and painful end to an OSS agent.
In exchange for rent, Hall was to work at Lopinat’s farmhouse cooking meals for the farmer’s family, taking their cows to pasture in the morning and retrieving them each evening. It was then that Hall’s real work began. The suitcase she had carried since landing in Brittany contained a Mark TR3 radio set. Hall used the set to transmit messages to the London OSS office, giving coordinates of large fields she had located during the day while moving Lopinat’s cows to and from pasture. The fields were to serve as parachute drops of agents and materiel in support of the French Resistance. The work carried high risks: Hall had to be vigilant of Nazi direction finders, instruments used to zero in on radio transmissions. She would need to relocate quickly if it became apparent that the Gestapo was moving in.
During the day, Hall kept the worn suitcase and its valuable contents hidden in the woodbin next to the fireplace of her cottage. Its location was imperceptible to a casual observer, although she had no visitors. Trained Gestapo agents, however, would tear the cottage apart for even the slightest suspicion of collaboration with the Resistance. Each time Hall returned from her day with the Lopinats and their cows, she carefully surveyed all sides of the cottage from a distance to make certain she would not be walking into a trap. For several weeks, all seemed secure.
Hall’s feeling of security came to an abrupt end. Making her way to the Lopinat farmhouse one morning, she saw a small crowd gathered. Curious, she shuffled toward them until an appalling tableau came into view. Three men and a woman, all dead, hung from iron fence posts, spiked through the neck. The Nazi soldiers who stood guard over the grisly scene held the villagers at bay with their rifles, insisting that the bodies remain as a reminder to all who dared resist the Führer.
That night, Hall sent her last message to London from the little cottage. Its meaning would be understood by the few with a need to know: “The wolves are at the door.”