Biography of Virginia Hall, WWII's Most Wanted Spy

The American woman who was on the Nazis' most-wanted list

Virginia Hall receiving the Distinguished Service Cross
Virginia Hall receiving the Distinguished Service Cross in 1945.

CIA People / Wikimedia Commons

Virginia Hall Goillot (born Virginia Hall, April 6, 1906 – July 8, 1982) was an American spy who worked with the British Special Operations Executive during World War II. Her effectiveness as a spy earned her the “honor” of being considered the most dangerous Allied spy by the Nazi German regime.

Fast Facts: Virginia Hall

  • Known For: Renowned spy who assisted the French Resistance during World War II, working for both British and American intelligence and becoming one of the Nazis' most-wanted enemies.
  • Born: April 6, 1906 in Baltimore, Maryland
  • Died: July 8, 1982 in Rockville, Maryland
  • Spouse: Paul Gaston Goillot (m. 1950)
  • Honors: Member of the Order of the British Empire (1943), Distinguished Service Cross (1945), Croix de Guerre avec Palme

Early Life and Education

Virginia Hall was born in Baltimore, Maryland, to Barbara and Edwin Hall. Her name, Virginia, was her mother’s middle name. As a young girl, she attended the all-girls preparatory school Roland Park Country School. She eventually attended Radcliffe College and then Barnard, the prestigious women’s college, studying foreign language including French, German, and Italian. With her parents’ support, Hall went to Europe to finish off her studies. She traveled extensively on the Continent, studying in Austria, France, and Germany in the late 1920s, with the goal of working in the diplomatic corps.

In 1931, she began working at the American embassy in Warsaw, Poland, as a clerk for the Consular Service; this was intended to be a stepping stone for a full-fledged career in the Foreign Service. However, in 1932, Hall had a hunting accident that resulted in the partial amputation of her leg. Forced to adapt to life with a wooden leg she nicknamed “Cuthbert,” her traditional diplomatic career was over before it began. Hall resigned from the Department of State in 1939 and returned to Washington, D.C., where she attended graduate school at American University.

Special Operations Executive

In 1940, as World War II spread across Europe, Hall was in Paris. She had joined the Ambulance Service to help in the war effort in France, but she wound up in Vichy territory when France fell to the invading Nazis. Hall was able to leave France and get to London, where she volunteered for the Special Operations Executive, the British espionage organization.

Using the cover of a reporter for the New York Post, Hall spent over a year in Vichy France, working to coordinate the activities of the French Resistance. In 1942, she worked alongside noted SOE operative Peter Churchill on a couple of missions, involving the delivery of money and agents to the French spy networks. Hall worked primarily in and around Toulouse and Lyon.

Hall’s work was discreet, but she quickly got on the radar of the occupying Germans. Nicknamed “the limping lady,” she was deemed one of the regime’s most wanted. In 1942, Germany seized all of France, and Hall needed to escape quickly. She narrowly escaped Lyon by train, then hiked through the Pyrenees to make it to Spain. Throughout the ordeal, her sense of humor remained intact—she transmitted to her SOE handlers that she hoped “Cuthbert” wouldn’t give her trouble during her escape. She was briefly arrested for crossing into Spain illegally, but was released with the help of the American embassy. For about a year, she worked with the SOE based out of Madrid, then returned to London, where she was recognized with an honorary Member of the Order of the British Empire.

Continuing Intelligence Career

After completing her work with the SOE, Hall’s spy career wasn’t over. She joined the equivalent American organization, the Office of Strategic Services, Special Operations Branch, and requested a chance to return to France, still under Nazi occupation. Granting her request, the OSS sent her to Brittany, France, with a false identity and a code name.

Over the course of the next year, Hall mapped out safe zones for supply drops and safe houses, worked with the major Operation Jedburgh, personally helped train Resistance fighters in guerilla warfare, and sent a constant stream of reporting back to Allied intelligence. Her work continued up until the very end of the war; Hall only ceased reporting once Allied forces caught up to her and her team in September 1945.

Upon returning to the United State, Hall married Paul Goillot, a former OSS operative himself. The pair both transitioned into work at the Central Intelligence Agency, where Hall became an intelligence analyst, specializing in French parliamentary affairs. Both Hall and Goillot were assigned to the Special Activities Divison: the CIA division focused on covert operations.

Retirement, Death, and Recognition

After fifteen years at the CIA, Hall retired in 1966, moving with her husband to a Barnesville, Maryland, farm. She died sixteen years later at the age of 76 in Rockville, Maryland, and is buried nearby.

During her life, Hall was awarded some of the most prestigious honors in the world. Not only was she made an honorary MBE, but she also received a Distinguished Service Cross, the only such award given to a woman in World War II, from the American government. The French, meanwhile, awarded her a Croix de Guerre to honor her work in occupied France. After her death, the honors continued: she was commemorated in 2006, on what would have been her 100th birthday, by the French and British ambassadors to the United States, and she was inducted into the Maryland Women’s Hall of Fame in 2019. She remains one of the most effective and honored spies in American history.

Sources

  • Pearson, Judith L. The Wolves at the Door: The True Story of America's Greatest Female Spy. Guilford, CT: The Lyons Press, 2005.
  • Purnell, Sonia. A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of WWII’s Most Dangerous Spy, Virginia Hall. Hachette UK, 2019.
  • “Virginia Hall: The Courage and Daring of ‘The Limping Lady’.” Central Intelligence Agency, 8 October 2015, https://www.cia.gov/news-information/featured-story-archive/2015-featured-story-archive/virginia-hall-the-courage-and-daring-of-the-limping-lady.html.