A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II, by Sonia Purnell (368 p.)
This book is the true-life story of Virginia Hall. As the daughter of a socialite and Baltimore banker, the most someone in her position in the 1920s could hope for was a good marriage. But, Virginia had higher dreams of a life in the diplomatic corps, hopefully as an ambassador.
The country was not ready for that yet, but her service in lower-level diplomatic positions overseas as well as the force of her will served her well. She continued on even after she lost half her leg in an accident. Hall served as an ambulance driver in her beloved France as it fell to the Germans in 1940. On the way to Britain, she was recruited into their new secret service.
Hall established a vast spy network in France, escaped on her fake leg (nicknamed “Cuthbert”) over the mountains to Spain, and later returned. To help the Americans this time, both as a wireless operator and guerilla organizer. But, many of her “team” did not survive.
After the war, she served over fifteen years in the CIA. Largely unknown, Hall and other women involved in essential secret operations now have obtained their rightful recognition.
This book is not a military account of the battle of France, nor an analysis of the shifting shape of espionage or the evolving role of Special Forces, although, of course, they weave a rich and dramatic background to Virginia’s tale. This book is rather an attempt to reveal how one woman really did help turn the tide of history.Sonia Purnell
This quote provides a basic summary of the book. It tells a specific tale about a woman spy though we also learn something about the life and times of those she experiences in her life.
Should I Read It?
Those who wish to find out about the real-life of Virginia Hall* should read this book. It is an extended look at her life filled with epic adventures. People who are interested in women’s history, military and spy stories, and World War II accounts all will find something to enjoy.
The book is carefully documented, including the author obtaining access to documents others have now and the subject’s niece. The book is also well written, often feeling like an adventure story. It fits together a lot of research without robbing us of a compelling narrative.
Some might wish certain material of interest was added. For instance, a bunch of spies is captured, and it seems like “Christophe” was an informer. An endnote briefs says he was cleared of wrongdoing but says nothing else about him. You can obtain an in-depth summary elsewhere. Other books also flesh out other details, including other women radio operators.
I personally was somewhat overwhelmed by some of the details provided of the ongoing events. At times, it was somewhat hard to keep track of things. The best chapters for me were her early life, settling in as an intelligence operative, and her service with the Americans.
Those who want to learn that more about her final years in the CIA might be disappointed by one brief chapter covering fifteen years. Some might want to check out the other books written about her. Overall, this is a good book to read along with others who like this genre.
* A Call to Spy is a movie based on Virginia Hall and other women involved in the secret war during WWII. I liked it. Some details were changed. A few of the other characters pop up briefly in this book. A film version of this book is reportedly forthcoming.
The book opens up with a map of France and a helpful list of code names of various characters in the book. Virginia Hall had a series of code names, including “Marie” and “Diane.”
A summary of the major characters would have been helpful.
The book starts with the disorder of France falling to the Germans in May 1940.
Private Virginia Hall is a courageous thirty-four year old ambulance driver. But, this was just the beginning of Hall’s service, bravery, and calmness during World War II.
She would soon become an important secret agent, dealing with not only a disability but continual opposition as a woman and foreigner. And, do so in ways that gained her wide admiration and gratitude. This is her story, including all her flaws, fears, and complexities.
Chapter One: The Dream
Virginia Hall was born to an ambitious young secretary, who married her successful Baltimore banker boss, in 1906. Barbara Hall had hopes that Virginia Hall would have it easier than her, marry well, and in the process improve the downward economic situation of the family.
Virginia, nicknamed “Dindy,” had a different path in mind. She wanted a career in the foreign service, after education abroad. The sexist sentiments of the era allowed Hall only to obtain various support staff roles, though she did have multiple positions overseas. At age 27, during one such rotation, she was in a hunting accident. Her left leg had to be cut off below the knee.
Chapter Two: Cometh the Hour
Virginia eventually quit her U.S. diplomatic service in disgust, stopping on the way back home to serve as an ambulance driver in her beloved France as it fell to the Germans in 1940.
While traveling to England, an undercover British agent met Hall, seeing in the “glamorous American” a useful potential spy for the British. Her adventures as an ambulance driver, knowledge of the French, and general assurance all impressed him. He would not be the last.
The British Special Operations Executive, the new “sabotage, subversion, and spying” agency, was in need of some good agents. It was just starting out, everyone with limited experience, and knowledge of how to run things. Hall was quickly trained and sent to France [September 1941] to be one of their first agents there. She had a cover as an American journalist.
Chapter Three My Tart Friends
Shortly after she arrived, multiple agents fell into a trap, while for whatever reason (perhaps an early example of her “sixth sense” about such things), Hall did not.
[The book cites the belief that the agents were victims of a double agent though briefly notes the person was cleared after the war. We never hear about him again in the book, but I found this obituary that provides some more useful details.]
The disaster made Virginia Hall’s role that much more important. “Vichy” France now was split into two zones, one at least officially “German free,” if clearly not truly independent. Also, as an American, she was from a neutral nation. This gave her more freedom of movement.
But, ultimately, it was her personality and organizational ability that led to her success. Hall obtained a wide range of allies, including prostitutes (“my tart friends”), diplomats, French officials, and a range of French people in general. She eventually used Lyon, France as her base.
Chapter Four: Good-bye to Dindy
The U.S. declared war against Japan and Germany in December 1941.
Over time, Virginia toughened up into her new role (“Dindy” representing her old more vulnerable self). She always was very sure of herself and her abilities. This was necessary to be a good leader and to survive the constant threats in an enemy territory.
Hall regularly clashed with other agents she felt were not doing a good job, including the agent code named “Alain” who saw himself as the person who should be in control of all operations. Hall in particular was upset at what she saw as his unprofessional and risky behaviors.
Chapter Five: Twelve Minutes, Twelve Men
The U.S. entry of the war and growing Vichy French/German counteroffensive against spies made Hall’s continuing presence in France more dangerous. But, she resisted an attempt to bring her back to Britain. Her help was essential in the escape of twelve agents.
[A Call to Spy portrays Hall as herself directly involved in breaking out agents from prison. The book does not. Hall was however very important in the mechanics of the whole operation.]
Chapter Six: Honeycomb of Spies
The escape led to a brutal crackdown in France against the growing power of the Resistance.
Early on, the resistance movement was quite limited and unorganized. Things looked hopeless and many supported the World War I hero, Marshall Pėtain, the German collaborator leader of Vichy France. But, over time, a more organized and active resistance arose.
Virginia Hall made a fatal misstep by accepting the claims of a supposed priest. Robert Alesch was in fact a double agent and would help the brutal effort to destroy much of Hall’s “circuit” (spy territory) though she herself escaped France. The brutal results are covered in detail.
Chapter Seven: Cruel Mountain
Virginia realized her situation was desperate in particular because Germany planned soon to take control of the “Free Zone,” making things much riskier for her. Her way out was an often deadly mountain crossing – with a wooden prosthetic (which she nicknamed “Cuthbert”) – into Spain. Before she and her two companions were able to make their final escape, they were captured by Spanish authorities. The two men were sent to a detention camp.
Chapter Eight: Agent Most Wanted
Virginia Hall was basically “France’s most wanted” at this point.
And, with help of the notorious “priest” and other skillful counterintelligence efforts by Vichy French and German agents, they knew much about her and what she looked like. Including her leg. Hall escaped, but many of her allies were captured and treated brutally.
Hall used her connections to get out of a Spanish jail. She returned to Britain in January 1943, chopping at the bit to go back to France as soon as possible.
But, she was “burned,” and was not allowed. Hall trained to be a wireless operator and was able to get a spot on the United States secret service (Office of Strategic Services or OSS).
Chapter Nine: Scores to Settle
Virginia Hall, her appearance somewhat changed (including her teeth being drilled down to look more French), returned to France in March 1944. She was disguised as an old peasant woman.
She soon was acting independently of her less experienced, if older, “senior” officer. Hall now had home bases in a series of farms, her time on a farm while growing up helping her cover.
Hall not only was a radio operator but helped to recruit a guerilla force. The force would help cause trouble for the Germans as an Allied invasion was planned and took place (D-Day, June 6th). Just one of these roles was often a hard job, but she did both.
Chapter Ten: Madonna of the Mountains
In the summer of 1944, Virginia Hall helped a guerilla effort around Le Chambon-sur-Lignon in Southern France. She helped with the parachute drops and other organizational details.
She had some opposition from the often factional guerilla (“Maquis”) groups, including because they did not trust a woman. But, most was very impressed at her abilities, which as before, helped build up the resistance movement in a range of ways.
A 1988 United States Army report found her reports were key to aerial reconnaissance and she helped cost the Nazis up to one hundred thousand men killed or captured in the months after D-Day. Hall helped the French themselves play a key role in Allied forces capturing Paris.
Chapter Eleven: From the Skies Above
Paris was liberated in August 1944, but the war was far from over.
Two U.S. training officers, including the former French Paul Goillot, dropped in September 1944. Paul and Virginia would soon be a couple, staying together until her death years later.
Virginia was ready for a new mission, but the summer guerilla offensive would be her last active involvement in OSS. She first was tasked to lead a small guerilla force to help stop German forces in France. It was not needed. Plans to use her to stop an alleged secret army in Austria also petered out. Hall ended her time in OSS with glowing reviews.
The evil “priest,” meanwhile, was arrested (and eventually executed). Hall herself checked her old stalking grounds, meeting up with some survivors of her team who were captured.
Chapter Twelve: The CIA Years
Hall returned to the United States in September 1945, which she had left in 1931, only returning for a short period after her accident. The war took a physical toll on her.
Virginia joined the army reserves, but rejected the idea of joining the army itself, the State Department, and was not really qualified to “really” be a member of the press. She refused to write a book about her experiences and never did talk about it much at all.
The new struggles with communism and the Soviet Union led to the creation of the Central Intelligence Agency. Hall joined in 1947, staying on until the mandatory retirement age of sixty in 1966. She mainly had a series of desk jobs, though had limited overseas service. Her time there was often unhappy, Hall feeling her skills were not properly used.
Her mother did not approve of her lower-class boyfriend, but Paul (who went into the restaurant business) and Virginia eventually married. They lived in mostly happy retirement until she died in 1982. Many in France mourned her; Hall is still a legend to some there today.
Virginia Hall is today accepted as a top CIA asset, having her own section in the CIA Museum (only four others, all directors of the CIA, have that honor), and named a building after her. For instance, the CIA “Jawbreaker team” sent in Afghanistan after 9/11 was a direct descendant of her secret operations for the French Resistance during WWII.
Points to Ponder
Virginia Hall had to make a range of life and death judgment calls. The book highlights one particular deadly misstep. What sort of person and mindset is required here? Do you think other judgment calls Hall made were questionable? How about other figures in the book?
The spy game involves the use of some questionable tactics, including the help of people who leave something to be desired. The book notes the use of prostitutes, including even the passage of venereal disease to the enemy. Nasty? How about the use of Nazi war criminals by the CIA after the war, including Klaus Barbie? Where is the right line here? Is there one?
About the Author
Sonia Purnell is a British journalist and biographer. She has worked as a journalist at various British publications. She has also written a screenplay for a pending film about Virginia Hall.
Purnell has also written:
Just Boris: A Tale of Blonde Ambition [about Boris Johnson]
Clementine: The Life of Mrs. Winston Churchill [published as First Lady in the U.K.]
Is A Woman Of No Importance a Reliable Source?
The author is a respected biography and journalist.
She “shows her work” here with detailed endnotes. Purnell notes that there is conflicting information about various subjects, so she had to make certain judgment calls. Her judgment appears reliable though in an interview for this book she predicted Boris Johnson would not be the future prime minister of Britain!
It should be noted that the exact details of spy stories will often be impossible to confirm. Purnell had access to a lot of previously classified material, but not all, and she notes some records were lost. Any one incident should therefore be taken with a grain of salt.
The book’s material, including about Virginia Hall herself, has been covered by others. Those who wish to get a full sense of agreed-upon information should not just rely on any one source, including this one. This is usually a good idea, but more so with such sensitive material.