Virginia Hall, of Baltimore, became our country's first and arguably greatest spy of the Second World War. During the course of her astounding career, and despite a significant physical disability, she served as an intelligence officer for the British Special Operations Executive, the U.S. Office of Strategic Services, and the Central Intelligence Agency.
Born in Baltimore on April 6, 1906, Virginia spent her formative years on the family's "Boxhorn Farm" in Parkton, MD. She attended Roland Park School outside of Baltimore; studied languages, economics, and history at Radcliff and Barnard; and graduated from the Consular Academy in Vienna, Austria.
Virginia started her career as a clerk for the U.S. State department in Warsaw, Poland, but had larger ambitions to join the Foreign Service. (Of the several thousand Foreign Service Officers at the time, only six were women; none were ambassadors.)
She persevered and studied to take the Foreign Service exam. Then in Smyrna, Turkey disaster struck-she was injured in a hunting accident and lost a portion of her left leg, and her dreams vanished. The State Department had strict rules forbidding people with amputated limbs from joining the Foreign Service.
Virginia quit the State Department and when World War II broke out, she took a job as an ambulance driver in France. When the Nazi's overran Paris, she escaped to London. The United States was not yet in the war but Virginia caught the eye of British Intelligence and was recruited to be its first spy-man or woman-to live behind enemy lines in Vichy France.
There she stayed, recruiting agents, organizing resistance fighters, reporting on the German military, until she was betrayed. The Nazis called her "La Dame Qui Boite," the lady who limps. Hunted by Gestapo Chief, Klaus Barbie ("The Butcher of Lyon"), Virginia had to make a harrowing last-minute escape over the snow-capped Pyrenees, dragging her prosthetic limb, "Cuthbert" behind her.
Despite the ordeal, Virginia Hall demanded to return to France but her British spymasters refused. It would be a suicide mission, they said. She was too well known. The Gestapo was still hunting her. But she did return, this time with the American Office of Strategic Services, where she led several thousand French resistance fighters on the eve of the D-Day invasion.
After the war, Virginia joined the CIA and became one of the Agency's first Operations Officers.
For her courage and bravery, Virginia was awarded the U. S. Military's Distinguished Service Cross (the only woman so honored in WWII); she was made a Member of the British Empire (MBE); and was nominated for the French Croix de Guerre.
In retirement and for the last 16 years of her life, Virginia lived in Barnesville, Maryland. She died at Adventist Hospital in Rockville July 1982.
"My neck is my own… and I'm willing to get a crick in it because there's a war (going on)…"
Biography courtesy of the Maryland Commission for Women, 2019.