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Book Reviews

A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II.

Posted by friendsofthenewarkfreelibrary on September 19, 2019 at 2:00 PM

By: Sonia Purnell

Reviewed by Bob Taggart


Virginia Hall (1906-1982) is a name few Americans know, which is partly rectified by this account of a terrifically effective American woman spy in Vichy France during World War II. Virginia came from a wealthy Baltimore family and attended Radcliffe and Barnard, where she studied French, Italian and German. After refusing several marriage proposals, the adventurous Virginia travelled the Continent, then worked in the consular office of the American Embassy in Warsaw by 1931. Unfortunately, she shot herself in her leg the next year in a hunting accident, causing the amputation of one leg below the knee, which ended her diplomatic career. Retaining her sense of humor, she later named her wooden leg "Cuthbert"!


Seeking adventure, she served as an ambulance driver in France when the Germans invaded in 1940. Virginia fled to southern France and moved on to London where she joined the new SOE ( Special Operation Executive) to be trained for British intelligence operations. She was quickly sent to Toulouse and Lyon to set up underground contacts with Resistance fighters. For 15 months, using such aliases as Germaine, Camille and Diane, Virginia achieved more than any other British operative in an incredibly perilous situation. She had to make and expand contacts, guarding against double-agents, while organizing numerous cells. She gathered money and armaments through couriers from Switzerland, and directed air drops of munitions and supplies in numerous operations. Virginia was so successful, the Gestapo called her the " most dangerous of all Allied spies." The Germans never captured her as she used various disguises and frequent moves to stay free, unlike many of her less careful British colleagues.


This account is at times nerve-wracking to read because one becomes convinced she will be caught by German and Vichy cars, airplanes and counter-intelligence agents, especially when she helped with radio transmissions.


By late 1942, the Germans took over all of France, and Virginia had to escape. Despite her wooden leg, she walked 50 miles in two days over the Pyrenees into Spain where she was captured by Franco's police but freed due to U.S. Embassy intervention. She returned to a desk job in the London SOE office but was so valuable she was sent back to Lyon to direct larger clandestine operations, training three battalions of Resistance fighters. She had great success despite local chauvinists who did not like Americans or women bosses. Virginia continued her career in the SOE, the American OSS, and in the CIA until 1966.


Virginia was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross and the Croix de Guerre MBE, but was often shamelessly ignored in the CIA. The CIA eventually recognized her work by naming a building after her at Headquarters, but that was years later. Still, she is now recognized for her superlative work by the British, French and American intelligence community. I think you will agree with them after reading about this amazing and courageous woman. If you liked this book, you might also like the author's recent work, Clementine, The Life of Mrs. Winston Churchill.


Categories: Nonfiction, Biography

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