Ambassadors to honor female WWII spy

This undated photo provided by artist Jeff Bass shows a section of his painting of World War II spy Virginia Hall. Hall, a Baltimore native, worked for British intelligence. On Tuesday, French and British ambassadors plan to honor Hall, who died in 1982 at age 78.AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

In 1942, the Gestapo circulated posters offering a reward for the capture of "the woman with a limp. She is the most dangerous of all Allied spies and we must find and destroy her."

The dangerous woman was Virginia Hall, a Baltimore native working in France for British intelligence, and the limp was the result of an artificial leg. Her left leg had been amputated below the knee about a decade earlier after she stumbled and blasted her foot with a shotgun while hunting in Turkey.

The injury derailed Hall's dream of becoming a Foreign Service officer because the State Department wouldn't hire amputees, but it didn't prevent her from becoming one of the most celebrated spies of World War II.

On Tuesday, the French and British ambassadors plan to honor Hall, who died in 1982 at age 78, at a ceremony at the home of French Ambassador Jean-David Levitte in Washington.

British Ambassador Sir David Manning plans to present a certificate signed by King George VI to Hall's niece, Lorna Catling. Hall should have received the document in 1943, when she was made a member of the Order of the British Empire.

"I think it was ironic that the State Department turned her down because she was an amputee, and here she went on and did all this other stuff," said Catling, who lives in Baltimore. Catling said she didn't learn many of the details of her aunt's espionage career until after her death.

Hall, who was fluent in French, was living in Paris when the Nazis invaded in 1940, and she decamped for London, where she was recruited by the secret British paramilitary service, the Special Operations Executive, becoming its first female field operative.

Hall was sent to Lyon, becoming "the heartbeat" of the local French Resistance, said Judith L. Pearson, whose biography of Hall, "Wolves at the Door: The True Story of America's First Female Spy," was published last year.

"Any agent from London came through her flat. She coordinated them with Resistance members," Pearson said. "Most agents only stayed about three months in the field. She stayed 15 months."

Travels with Cuthbert
After the Gestapo wanted posters made her situation untenable, she fled through the Pyrenees mountains into Spain. During the journey, she sent a radio message to London, reporting that "Cuthbert" — her nickname for her prosthetic leg — was giving her trouble.

Her commanders didn't understand the reference, and their reply suggested the gravity of Hall's circumstances and her value to the Allied cause: "If Cuthbert troublesome eliminate him."

Back in London, she joined the American Office of Strategic Services — the precursor to the CIA — and returned to France in 1944, disguised as an elderly peasant. She located parachute drop zones where money and weapons could be passed to Resistance fighters and later coordinated guerrilla warfare. Her teams destroyed bridges, derailed freight trains and killed scores of German soldiers.

"I would certainly put her name in the pantheon of people who distinguished themselves in intelligence," said Peter Earnest, executive director of the International Spy Museum in Washington, which has an exhibit devoted to Hall.

Kept her counsel after the war
Hall maintained her cloak of secrecy after the war. The certificate that went with her British OBE medal sat in a vault for more than 50 years because the British government was unable to track her down.

In the meantime, OSS chief William Donovan had presented Hall with a Distinguished Service Medal in September 1945 during a private ceremony in his office that was witnessed only by Hall's mother. She was the only civilian woman to win the medal for service in World War II.

In 1950 she married French-born OSS agent Paul Goillot. She took a job with the CIA in 1951 and retired in 1966, living out her days with her husband on a farm in Barnesville.

"She would talk about books and she was very into animals and things like that. But work, no. There was a big wall about anything like that," Catling said. "She always seemed kind of glamorous and mysterious."

On the rare occasions that Hall told war stories, they weren't particularly harrowing.

"One time she said she and Paul found a deserted chateau, and they discovered a whole wine cellar," Catling said. "They had a wonderful evening enjoying that."