Virginia Hall Goillot was an American spy with the British Special Operations Executive during World War II. She was known by many aliases, including, Marie Monin, Germaine, Diane, Marie of Lyon, Camille and Nicolas. The German Gestapo reportedly considered her the most dangerous of all Allied spies. Following the war she worked in various elements of the CIA until she retired. And she did all of this with a prosthetic leg, which she named Cuthbert. Welcome to today’s episode of The Infographics Show: The Limping Lady – Virginia Hall.
It is said that Hall was a legendary intelligence officer. She organized agent networks, recruited French men and women to run safe houses, and assisted escaped prisoners of war. She excelled in her role as a World War II spy, and The Gestapo desperately wanted to apprehend The Limping Lady. So how did a simple girl from Baltimore, Maryland end up climbing the ranks of the British Special Operations? Hall attended Roland Park Country School and then the prestigious Radcliffe College and Barnard College, where she studied French, Italian and German.
But she was drawn to Europe, and so travelled the Continent, studying in France, Germany, and Austria, before landing a job as a Consular Service clerk at the American Embassy in Warsaw, Poland in 1931. Hall was an adventurous outdoors type and in 1932, she accidentally shot herself in the left leg while on a hunting trip in Turkey. Her leg was later amputated from the knee down, and replaced with a wooden appendage, which as we said, she named Cuthbert. Hall headed back to the US where she attended graduate school at American University in Washington, DC. For most people, losing a leg might be enough to send them running home to take a job in the local bakery or florist. But not for Hall; she had greater ambitions.
In 1940, she joined the Ambulance Service in Paris, France, and then in 1941, she made her way to London and volunteered for Britain’s newly formed Special Operations Executive. She spent the next 15 months helping to coordinate the activities of the French Underground in Vichy, an occupied zone in France. Hall was great at her job, which was good for the allied forces, but it meant she also started to make waves with the enemy, and in November 1942, when operating in Lyon, France, Hall knew she had to flee. The German Gestapo posted a notice all over France: “The woman who limps is one of the most dangerous Allied agents in France. We must destroy her.”
She was being stalked by an equal adversary who had been tasked with removing Hall from rising the ranks as a British spy. Gestapo chief, Nikolaus Klaus Barbie, who was also known as, The Butcher of Lyon, was on her tail. The Nazis believed Hall to be Canadian, and Barbie once reportedly told his colleagues “I’d give anything to lay my hands on that Canadian bitch.” Hall had certainly gotten under the skins of these Gestapo agents. She made the decision to escape France by crossing the border into Spain. But how could she trek through the mountains with Cuthbert, her wooden left leg? Well, she had no choice, as Barbie was sure to hunt her down and arrest, torture and likely kill her.
So Hall linked up with some other resistance members, and vanished into the Pyrenees Mountains that separate France and Spain. This courageous lady carried a rucksack and hiked up the snow by dragging her prosthetic leg, using her good right leg as a snowplow, according to Judith Pearson’s 2005 biography of Hall, “The Wolves at the Door.”At one point during the journey, she was able to send a message to her liaisons in London, telling them that Cuthbert was giving her trouble; they replied, “If Cuthbert is giving you difficulty, have him eliminated.” Hard working Hall eventually made it to Spain.
After the war, 40-year-old Hall was eager to remain in the intelligence business. She spoke Italian fluently, and headed to Venice. For several years, she was responsible for collecting and transmitting financial, economic, and political intelligence in her role monitoring the development of Communism. She eventually joined the CIA on December 3, 1951, a natural footstep on Halls career-path, and for the next 15 years, she used her covert action expertise in a wide range of Agency activities, chiefly in support of resistance groups in Iron Curtain countries. She eventually retired at the age of 60 in 1966.
During her career, Hall served a number of nations and they all acknowledged her courage. The French government awarded her the Croix de Guerre avec Palme. Britain’s King George gave her the honor of Member of the British Empire. And General William Donovan, the legendary head of the Office of Strategic Services, presented her with the Distinguished Service Cross. President Truman wanted to present Hall with the award himself in a public ceremony, but she turned down the offer, as she was concerned it would reveal too much to the enemy. After she died on July 8, 1982, newspapers wrote up her obituaries in the back pages.
The Washington Post and the New York Times used brief Associated Press obituaries that were several paragraphs in length and The Baltimore Sun, the newspaper from her hometown, wrote up a more thorough account of her life with around 14 paragraphs. Later, in 2006, the CIA hung an oil painting of Hall that shows her inside a barn in southern France in 1944, using a suitcase radio powered by an automobile generator and bike parts to transmit messages to London. And the agency also named a training facility after her called, “The Virginia Hall Expeditionary Center.” It could be argued that Virginia Hall is one of America’s greatest heroes, yet very few people have even heard of this amazing woman.
Maybe that’s about to change though, as in 2017 the Hollywood press reported that Paramount Pictures is considering making a movie about Virginia Hall. The studio acquired the rights to another soon-to-be-published book about her life, “A Woman of No Importance,” by the journalist Sonia Purnell. According to the film website IMDB, the studio has attached Star Wars’ Daisy Ridley to play Hall. Whether the film will be made, we are yet to find out.
So, what do you think of this intrepid heroine? Could you have hiked the pyrenees mountains with only one leg? Let us know in the comments! Also, be sure to check out our other video called What Would Happen If You Only Ate Meat and Nothing Else? Thanks for watching, and, as always, don’t forget to like, share, and subscribe. See you next time!