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She was a Post columnist — and a heroic WWII spy.

In 1941, Virginia Hall was a 35-year-old American living in London when she sent a cable to an old friend who worked at the New York Post. Europe was in the throes of war, and Paris had just surrendered to the Nazis. Would the paper be interested in her dispatches on life in Vichy France?...
Time: 20:51     Date: 13.01.2018
US Living News: She was a Post columnist — and a heroic WWII spy. NY Post 24 - US News

Publisher George Backer answered immediately. He would love to run her reports, but was she sure she wanted to embark on such a dangerous assignment?

Hall had to laugh. After all, Backer didn’t know that he was dealing with one of the Allied Forces’ cleverest spies.

Getty Images

There’s a saying that the actress Ginger Rogers did everything her on-screen dance partner Fred Astaire did except backwards and in heels. Well, Virginia Hall — alias Brigitte LeContre, code-named “Germaine” — did everything that the fictional James Bond would do, except in real life and with one leg.

In her three years working in France for the British and US governments, Hall recruited resistance fighters, supplied fellow agents with weapons, helped downed Allied pilots, organized jailbreaks and even blew up a few bridges. She could speak five languages, lie through her teeth and slash an enemy in the throat with a knife. The Gestapo nicknamed her the “limping lady” on account of her wooden leg, which Hall named Cuthbert. She was branded “the most dangerous of all Allied spies.”

“She was [Britain’s] first resident agent in the field, the longest-lasting and certainly the most influential,” said Sonia Purnell, who has penned a biography of Hall called “A Woman of No Importance,” coming soon.

Yet, despite her accomplishments, Hall has been largely forgotten.

“For whatever reason, she has not really been known outside the intelligence community,” said Shelby Prichard, chief of staff of Manhattan’s new Spyscape museum.

Even Hall’s niece Lorna Catling, told The Post that she had no idea of the extent of “Aunt Dindy’s” heroic deeds.

“We figured she was getting into something secret, but I didn’t know exactly what,” said Catling, who is now in her 80s. “I knew she was a spy, but she never talked about it.”

That’s all about to change. On Feb. 9, Spyscape will open in Hell’s Kitchen with an inaugural exhibit about Hall’s World War II exploits. Paramount has announced that Daisy Ridley will play the “limping lady” in a movie based on Purnell’s book next year. And a novel based on Hall’s life — by former CIA operative Craig R. Gralley — is in the works, too.

“I think people are more interested now in women’s stories, where in the past they would have been discounted,” Gralley told The Post. “And [Hall’s] is a tremendous story: It’s a story about disability, it’s a story about women, it’s a story about espionage overseas — it has all of the elements of a really inspiring story that can be an example for women and men all over.”

Some of the passports issued to Virginia Hall during her OSS career.CIA

Hall was born in 1906, to a well-off Baltimore family. Her grandfather was a shipping magnate, and her dad was an entrepreneur. Growing up, Hall and her younger brother, John, spent summers on the family’s 110-acre Maryland farm and holidays in Europe. Young Virginia spoke fluent French, collected pet snakes and could shoot a gun.

Unlike her classmates, however, Virginia — slender, 5-foot-7, with wavy brown hair and sculpted cheekbones — had no interest in settling down.

“The only way for a woman to get ahead in the world is to get an education,” she said at her high-school graduation. Her classmates voted her “most original.”

“She was a woman very much ahead of her time,” said Judith Pearson, author of “The Wolves at the Door,” about Hall’s World War II activities.

Hall dreamed of becoming a diplomat and, after studying at Radcliffe, Barnard and the Sorbonne, landed a clerkship at the US Embassy in Warsaw, Poland. But her hopes were dashed when she got into a horrific hunting accident while on assignment in Turkey, which led to her losing her left leg.

“Her life was just a series of obstacles,” said Prichard, noting that the US didn’t allow people with disabilities to enter the foreign service. “But had she become a diplomat, she may have never become a spy.”

After recovering, Hall high-tailed it to Paris just as World War II began. She joined the French Ambulance Service Unit, dodging bullets and rushing wounded civilians to get care while hobbling on her new 7-pound wooden leg. When France fell to Germany in 1940, she escaped to Great Britain.

‘She had a lot of courage. She had a lot of native ability… She also knew how — and this was something very important — to create a spontaneous lie and how to keep her mouth shut.’

The US had not joined the war, but Hall was desperate to do something to help the Allies. Fortunately, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill had just launched the Special Operations Executive to spy on the Germans, and the organization desperately needed recruits.

“The Brits’ knowledge of Germany and France at that time was very paltry,” said Gralley. “The SOE were relying on Michelin Guides to get around, so that tells you the level of knowledge they had about their adversary.”

The Brits noticed Hall’s passion, moxie and command of both French and German. She would make the perfect spy.

In August 1941, Hall landed in Lyon, France, with forged papers and about 1 million francs worth of counterfeit currency, which would come in handy while bribing sources. Her cover also happened to be true: She was a French-speaking American reporter for the New York Post.

Hall’s mission was similar to what she would be doing as a journalist. She was to inform the SOE about life in Vichy France, including political developments, economic conditions and people’s willingness to rebel. But Hall did much more — she was soon recruiting spies, supplying agents with weapons, organizing parachute drops, offering safe houses for resistance members and even organizing jailbreaks.

Virginia Hall rides a gondola, standing with her prosthetic legCIA

“Part of being a good spy is being invisible, and a lot of people at that time discounted women, particularly a disabled or differently abled woman,” Gralley said. “She had a lot of courage. She had a lot of native ability . . . She also knew how — and this was something very important — to create a spontaneous lie and how to keep her mouth shut.”

She stayed in Lyon until November 1942, but then her cover was blown. Gestapo agent Klaus Barbie, known as the “Butcher of Lyon” due to his torturing and murdering captives, had circulated wanted posters and placed a bounty on her head. When the US declared war on Germany that year, Hall’s position as an American journalist able to move about the country was precarious. Her only way out was through the Pyrenees, a treacherous two-day trek that would lead her to neutral Spain — which she did in the dead of winter, with a prosthetic leg.

“Believe me, it was difficult,” said biographer Purnell. “It really hurt. Her prosthetic was incredibly primitive. It was very heavy. And she overcame that.”

When Hall arrived back in London, she begged her SOE contact to return her to France. But while Britain said it was much too dangerous, the American Office of Strategic Services (OSS) was happy to have such a seasoned operative working for them. But she would need a much more radical disguise.

In the spring of 1944, the US sent Hall by boat to Paris — they couldn’t parachute her in on account of her leg. During her passage, she dyed her hair gray and practiced transforming her limping walk into an elderly shuffle. She padded out her svelte figure with peplums, two woolen skirts and layers of baggy sweaters. She even had her teeth filed down to resemble the kinds of fillings that French dentists used.

A painting by Jeffrey W. Bass, which hangs in CIA headquarters, depicts Hall using a bicycle-powered radio to send communiques.CIA

During the day, Hall would do housework and cook for a farmer and his mother. She made cheese and sold it at markets — where she could eavesdrop on German soldiers’ conversations — and during her walks, she would look for spots where Allied planes could parachute weapons, supplies and other agents.

When she wasn’t busy with her domestic duties, Hall coordinated acts of sabotage and guerilla and psychological warfare. One night, she and two of her comrades snuck away to lay down explosives on a train track that the Nazis used to deliver weapons, when they were nearly caught by two drunken Germans stumbling along the railway. Although the scheme was successful, after that, London told her she could plan attacks but not execute them: She was too valuable.

According to Pearson, between July 14 and Aug. 14 that year, Hall transmitted 37 messages to London, organized and received 22 parachute drops and coordinated “innumerable” acts of sabotage. Her group was responsible for killing 170 Germans and capturing 800 more.

She received awards from the British, French and US governments — but she shied away from public ceremony. She didn’t want to be recognized.

“Her plan was to continue in some form of espionage after the war,” Pearson said.

In 1947, Hall was hired as a field representative for the newly formed Central Intelligence Group (later, the CIA), and she traveled to Italy, Switzerland and France collecting intelligence on postwar Europe, particularly about growing Communist movements.

Yet, by 1948, Hall was back in the US, and while she continued working for the CIA, she — like many of her fellow female operatives — found herself blocked from the clandestine groundwork that she craved.

“It was the late ’40s, and this was an extremely misogynistic world and country,” said Pearson. “She was 40, so they figured she was too old. They relegated her to a desk job.

“She could have done very well as an undercover agent, but even the analysts at the time were men. They just didn’t want to use her.”

Catling said that she was a little “intimidated” by her aunt, who smoked and drank and swore like a sailor, and who had a mysterious past.

“She was very nice, if not exactly the warm and fuzzy type,” Catling recalled with a laugh. “She took my brother and I to the theater; she introduced us to squid and different foods. I always liked her, and I was very proud of her. I used to brag to my friends that my aunt was a spy.”

After decades in the dark, Hall’s deeds are finally surfacing. The CIA unveiled the Virginia Hall Expeditionary Center, a training facility in Langley, Va., last year, and declassified her files about 10 years ago. Now the British government is releasing documents about her past. After being so far ahead of her time, it seems that society has finally caught up with this most unconventional heroine.

“She altered the way that women were seen in intelligence circles forever,” said Purnell. “She was a pioneer.”

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